This next year, 2011, will be a year of taking God out of the Machine. Deus ex machina, a concept spoken of with disdain by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is perhaps the dominant view of God in the world today. It is misguided, it does not reflect the God of Christian scripture, tradition, or reason, and yet it is a God that has been popularized over the last one hundred fifty years or so. In short, God in the machine views God as one who comes from on high and rescues us from our mess, imposing Godself to solve problems on our behalf and then departing. This is the God of fundamentalism, the God of popular pseudo religion such as the likes of Joel Osteen preaches. This is a God who will get you that promotion at work, removes obstacles in your personal life, and essentially step in where you find you can’t quite handle things yourself. It is a God with no regard for personal boundaries, and a God who is at the disposal of people – a God almost forced to respond to our perceived needs and our personal perspectives. To many people that all sounds pretty good, I suppose, except that it is a gigantic fiction produced by small and large time hucksters and those not willing to really engage life.
The truth is, as anyone who has engaged life for a couple of decades or more can tell you, sometimes life just sucks. We get sick, accidents happen, loved ones leave us, we fall prey to email scams and lose our savings, we fall prey to politicians and lose our economy, people we love die – all manner of uncomfortable situations come up over the course of an engaged life. By engaged life I mean a life engaged with reality as opposed to a life spent in an imaginary world of one sort or another. Nobody especially likes dealing with these things, and yet deal with them we must if we are to live authentically.
Some escape by postulating a God who, if I ask in just the right way, will remove from me the natural consequences of life. Those who are honest about their experience with such a God will admit that God never seems to deliver for them, and for a very good reason – that God is a fiction. There is no God who will rescue you if you just have enough faith, if you just send my ministry enough money (although sending my ministry money can never hurt ), light enough candles, or pray enough. The real God, the God of Christian tradition, is a God who suffers with us and never abandons us – and is evidenced most clearly in Christ Jesus.
What good is that?
First, let’s recall that being rescued from our mess isn’t an option. We are here to live our lives, good and bad, orderliness and mess included. The good of the real God is that we never have to do so alone because God is always present. The inconvenient truth of my last statement is that if you want to be able to see our God who is always present, you cannot start looking for God when you are knee deep in dung. What is true of humans is often true of God, given that we are created in God’s image. Why in the world would you expect to be able to locate God in an emergency, in a time of stress, if you have never looked for God when all was well? Would you set out looking for a friend when you were in crisis, or do you build friendships along the way in the hopes that they will be there for you when the chips are down?
Those who spend time developing a spiritual life when all is well are the people who have learned to access God – and when they find themselves suffering, they find God there as well – not because God is there as some kind of a reward, but because they recognize God from their time spent with God in meditation and contemplation. If I sent you to look for a poodle but you had no idea what a poodle looked like, your odds of finding one would not be very good. Why then do we suppose that, having never spent a moment in search of God, we will recognize God when we are in crisis? The beauty, of course, is that God is always there whether we recognize God or not. Some of us even manage to find God for the first time in our crisis, and that is beautiful indeed. If, however, you think God is going to rescue you, riding in on a big white horse to pick you up and carry you off to safety, you will never find God because you have no idea what God looks like.
I suppose all of this isn’t very convenient. It’s not the kind of light weight tripe that sells books in popular Christian bookstores. It is, however, truth.
Many years ago Baptism was thought to be a kind of “get out of jail free” card. As a result, many people waited until they were on their death bed to be baptised because they believed doing so would allow them to do whatever they wanted to during life and still go to heaven. They thought they could trick God at God’s own business. While I don’t believe in the traditional view of either heaven or hell, this “God as rescuer” theology is little more than another “get out of jail free” card. I don’t have to make good choices, I don’t have to meet my responsibilities, I don’t have to prepare adequately for life’s challenges, all I need to do when I get into a jam is ask God to fix it and God will be compelled to do so.
It’s never worked that way, and it never will. Let’s spend 2011 coming to understand how it does work, and in doing so come to live authentic lives! We can know that we are never alone, and if we spend some time learning to see, we will even see the evidence.