Sunday, November 11, 2007

The angry God of my childhood community

It occurs to me that I haven't spent much time unpacking my theological roots, at least not in any systematic manner, at least not lately since I've moved in such a radically different direction over the past several years.

For sure, I have spent many hours dislodging many specifics of the legalistic heritage I inherited from my West Texas farm family.

The strange, almost exotic emphasis on things like how to sing in church, the frequency of the Eucharistic celebration, the mode and meaning of baptism, the organizational details and glossary of the local church, the danger of being too cooperative with other congregations, the hard sell of a denomination that claimed it was non-denominational are all part of the list that goes on and on.

And, when you stop to think it through, it includes some other really important matters...things like how to view to treat members of other races, ethnic groups and nations...the politics of war and peace, social justice and the poor--big ticket issues at home and around the world.

The truth is, I may have spent too much time on these issues in an attempt, both to make peace with my rather bizarre religious heritage and, at the same time, to reform it in some meaningful manner.

Most likely, I could have avoided wasting so much time had I stepped back earlier for a longer, more comprehensive view of the theological system passed along to me from childhood. I also realize that to some extent, everyone could find such an exercise profitable. And, I expect almost everyone will find some aspects of their "theological inheritance" wanting.

But, I have mine with which to deal.

I grew up in a church that was basically kind, welcoming and friendly--at least, that is how it seemed to me as a child. I later realized that this warmth was not necessarily shared automatically outside the church family. I also came to understand that, for the most part, the members of the church of my childhood were incredibly conservative socially and politically. In fact, many were extreme in their political and social worldview. If you are interested, I have stories!

In reflecting on my positive feelings about the warmth of the church, I have come to realize that this was likely true because of the gracious soul of one minister in particular who shaped the spirit of the congregation for over a generation, even though he served for a relatively short tenure.

Back to the longer theological is clear to me now that the community of faith of my childhood envisioned God to be fundamentally an angry deity. A God of judgment, punishment and severe actions was the God we attempted to satisfy on Sundays--morning and night, and then again at mid-week prayers and Bible study.

Our concern for the details of salvation, church polity, worship style and religious exercises could all be traced back to this notion that God was a God who was defined and best understood as a deity seated on a throne of harsh judgment. Everything had to be just right or the God we served was bound to make it right at our eternal expense.

From an early age I read, studied and memorized the details of the mighty acts of this avenging God. In an interesting twist of theological gymnastics, we spent a great deal of time reading the judgments and punishments of this God as revealed in the Hebrew Bible. At times, his judgments wiped out whole nations. At other times, his wrath focused on individuals or small groups who were somehow out of step with his law...the rules that could not be violated without great personal loss. Then, when we turned to deciding how to measure our faithfulness and acceptability as a church, we focused solely on the New Testament, with an emphasis on Acts of the Apostles as we searched for a "safe pattern" for our community. Ironically, we spent very little time focused on Jesus.

We knew all about hell and eternal damnation. . .down to the sounds, smells and feelings. At one time or another, we all felt as if we were bound for the fire, only to be snatched out of the pit of suffering by completing a series of steps on our way to salvation. . .sort of.

We learned quickly that salvation also involved "being faithful unto death"--a feat no one seemed sure how to accomplish. As a result, we threw ourselves into religious observances lined out by a clear pattern that had to be followed if we expected to reach the realms of eternal life.

Our religion was defined almost completely by judgment...its single most important organizing paradigm.

Actually, this turned out to be very convenient for us. As most of us moved up into the middle class, we found that our religious system allowed us to escape the hard realities of the real world. We found it easy to ignore the American Civil Rights Movement, the War in Vietnam, poverty, injustice, racism and countless other matters of here-and-now social importance. After all, we were faithful to the precise pattern we had learned in church and we were on the road to heaven, away from hell. We even sang with gusto that "this world is not my home, I'm just a passing through!"

The paradigm of judgment insured our complete irrelevance as a people in and to our community.

It is this perspective defined by judgment that I have spent the last 30 years or more casting aside.

At some point, I'll attempt a reflection on our view of the Bible and on the nature of scripture itself. Enough for now.

Sorry, but this helps me process!



Anonymous said...

I also feel the need to do a spiritual autopsy of sorts, to look into this tradition and figure out where it all went wrong for me. Granted, I love the people. I really do. It's the main reason why I stick around, but I often feel tired expending energy trying to think of reasons why I should stay. In many respects these models of God (i.e., angry, capricious, interested in modes of worship, etc.) fail to do justice to my intuitive sense of what God is like, especially when examined under the scope of the person of Jesus. To me, as the norm which norms all other norms, Jesus stands in judgment of all forms of idolatry, including that of bibliolatry.

We seem more concerned with drawing lines in the sand than in appreciating the sandbox. While we often like to think we've "found" grace at last, our tradition still struggles to be truly hospitable to the least of these and their advocates. It is a weird thing to feel like a stranger in one's own country, but it's helpful to know that there are other wanderers along the way whose journeys lead them to question that which has been passed down from generation to generation. It is precisely this absolutization of values and theology that creates and sustains such views as the "frozen chosen" and "holy remnant" theology that buoys the continuation of escapist, separatist forms of religious life, neither of which is helpful in realizing the communal, temporal vision of the commonwealth of God.

Anonymous said...

These are beautiful reflections -- eloquent and honest. Thanks to Larry and krister for taking time to share them.

Anonymous said...

I remember being offended when a professor at a public college where I was taking a comparative religions course one summer referred to the "myth of the first century church." He was referring rather directly to the bedrock of the tradition in which I was raised. Over the years, I found this phrase very helpful in coming to terms with the church of my childhood. I came ot see it was indeed based on a "myth" about exactly what the early church was like and an assumption that it should be emulated. Reflecting on this phrase over the years helped me to sift through what I could profitably take away from what I had been taught and what was best left behind.

Anonymous said...

I was raised in the same tradition Larry was (the same congregation even -- although I was a few years younger). I've struggled for years with what I was taught as the TRUTH when I was growing up. For years I went to the extreme other direction (Agnosticism) but I couldn't stand that either. Now I think I've found a way to be close to God and live in a way that glorifies Him. And I do that by sticking with what Jesus taught rather than how any group here on earth interprets that.
Larry is my hero!

Anonymous said...

Thanks again, Larry, for putting so eloquently in words that I have wondered about for years. I still remember some of your teachings at RE about faith and grace and how we are children of a loving God, not a judgemental one. I am thankful that my children were not raised under the same paradigm that we were brought up under.

Indie Pereira said...

I totally recognize what you are writing about. I grew up the same way and had to get out of it.

Adam Gonnerman said...

I was not raised in the Stone-Campbell movement of churches, but came to it while in college. I've been around that sort of extreme conservativism and fell into type of restorationist fundamentalism myself. It turned out to be toxic.

I'm still with this movement, though, and find that though the form of my faith (worship, baptism, Lord's Supper, etc) continues much as it was, the content of my faith is far different. Richer...stronger I would say.

Thanks for sharing your experience. It makes me think.