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10 September 2015

We’re wrong about God, y’know.

The quest for knowledge always begins by knowing we don’t know—and wrong about what we think we know.

One of my favorite Peanuts strips goes a little something like this. I like it so much I included it in the banner. (We’ll see how long it takes before I get yet another cease-and-desist letter.)

Peanuts, 9 August 1976. Peanuts Worldwide

Theology is the study of God. ’Cause if we’re gonna follow God we gotta study him. Gotta find out what he wants, what he expects of us—heck, if he’s even a “he,” and we’re not using the wrong pronoun. (Fastest way to yank the chain of certain Christians: Use a different one. But let up after you’ve freaked them out a few minutes. Be nice.)

Square One of theology is humility, the recognition of who we truly are. And who are we? Well, the usual Christian response to that question is “Um… nobody really.”

Which isn’t entirely true. That’s the answer we give ’cause our fellow Christians are expecting it of us. But it’s false humility—the all-too-common human practice of pretending we’re not all that (or we know we’re not) when deep down we don’t have that low an opinion of ourselves. ’Cause if we’re gonna study God, we can’t think ourselves totally unworthy of him. Otherwise we’d never bother. (In fact for some Christians, it’s their excuse for why they never bother.) So let’s put aside the hypocrisy and the runaround, and get honest: We think we can know God. Or at least know him better.

And that’s good! God wants us to know him better. It’s why he sent us Jesus. It directly relates to that question, “Who are we?” Well, through Jesus, we’re daughters and sons of God. Jn 1.12 That ain’t nothing. We’re just the sort of people who should be studying God. Theology is the birthright of every Christian, and any Christian who doesn’t bother to investigate the Father is destined to have a really sucky, substandard, dysfunctional relationship with him. Which surely isn’t what he wants.

So yeah, we need to practice theology, and study God. All of us. You included.

Right standing versus right knowledge.

Here’s the problem: Too many of us Christians assume we already do know God.

No, not comprehensively. God is huge. God is significantly different than we are. God is spirit instead of physical, so forget about sitting him down in a lab and taking his blood pressure: He’s impossible to study through the physical sciences. Absolutely everything we know about God, he’s had to tell us through Jesus and his prophets. And considering how massive and mighty he’s revealed himself to be… well, we may know a whole lot, but in proportion to the hugeness of our almighty Subject, we know next to nothing.

Even so, way too many of us think we have his number. We know God. We know how he’d think on nearly every subject. He’s easy to deduce and predict, and many a Christian will presume to speak for him: “God hates that.” “God would never allow that.” “God is gonna punish people for that.” “God prefers this.” “God’s will is for you to do this.” “God’s best is this.” “God is like this.”

How do these people know what God wants and doesn’t want? Well, some of ’em actually practice theology: They do their due diligence and find out God’s will. The rest of them don’t know. But they sure look like they do, don’t they? Comes from years of winging it, and nobody ever calling them out for doing so.

Those who are winging it, who make “educated” guesses about God and usually get away with it, are usually following the Christianist crowd: They repeat what they’ve heard, and liked, from other Christians. Whether it’s true or not is a whole other deal: They like it. It suits them. It fits within their worldview. It appeals to their personal desires. It sounds true.

If they’re lucky, it might actually be true. Loads of us stumble into truth because the Holy Spirit graciously keeps Christians from going too far afield. But following your gut, by definition, means you’re not following Jesus.

Why do these people nonetheless think they’re on the right path? Partly because the Spirit keeps ’em on a short leash, so they haven’t stumbled into the sort of catastrophes their sloppy thinking ought to produce. And partly because they justify it to themselves: “Once I turned to Jesus, he made me right with God. So I’m right. God made me right.”

Yeah, they’re using that word wrong. “Right with God” means we don’t have anything blocking us from a relationship with God. “Right” means correct. Two different things. I could have a fantastic relationship with my wife, yet be totally wrong about the way she takes her coffee. (“I thought it was cream and two sugars. Since when did you start drinking it half whiskey?”) Just because God forgives all, it doesn’t mean he automatically reprogrammed us with the infallible knowledge of his will. (And if it did, explain all these preachers who claim they have it—but their flocks don’t.)

Back to Square One. Who are we? Daughters and sons of God. But do we know God? Not really. Not enough. Gotta fix that.

Who does know God? Well, there’s only one person who does. That’d be his one and only Son, who came from the Father. Jn 1.18 He knows God. Where we’re wrong, he’s right.

So that’s the first principle of Christian theology: We’re wrong. Jesus is right. Follow Jesus.

Total depravity.

Various Christians have objected to my saying “We’re wrong.” They’ll concede we were wrong—but Jesus straightened us out. No, they’re not mixing up their right standing with God, with right thinking: They figure they now have right thinking. Isn’t the Holy Spirit correcting us, fixing us, getting the error out of us? Aren’t we getting better? Aren’t we becoming more right?

Sure. But there’s still a buttload of wrongness to overcome.

Y’see, when God originally created humans, we were good. Ge 1.31 Sin undid this. It corrupted us so thoroughly, warping both us and the world we live on, that instead of being naturally good, we’re naturally self-centered. The self-preservation instinct, which is supposed to simply keep us from giving up and dying, now focuses only on what makes us feel good, all the time—and whatever it takes to get there, even if it means lying, stealing, defrauding, murdering, destroying. True, some of us are gonna balk before going all the way towards sin; we gotta justify it to ourselves first. But all of us do. Hence all of us sin.

Christians call this corruption total depravity. Since “depravity” nowadays means “perverted,” people get the wrong idea—“You think every human is, deep down, a pervert?” No; every human is, deep down, selfish. We all look out for number one. Since some of us generously look out for others too—it makes us feel good, which technically also looks out for number one, y’know—we don’t always recognize the self-centeredness which drives just about all of humanity. Most religions do. And some philosophies not only recognize it, they embrace it. Ayn Rand taught that selfishness is good, and many a libertarian has used her thinking to defend their self-worship. Survival of the fittest, you know. It’s the law of nature.

It’s called total depravity because it’s total: It’s everywhere. Humans aren’t just partially depraved—selfish in some places, selfless in others. Nor did Jesus magically cure us of selfishness when he saved us, much as we might wish he did. On the contrary: He has to command us to love one another. The Holy Spirit has to grow love and compassion and self-control in us. We humans are so bent, the only thing which can unbend us is God.

Provided we truly follow him. Problem is, people don’t bother.

Depraved theology.

So when we first turned to God, we already had some idea of what he’s like. We didn’t come to God with a blank slate: We had our biases and prejudices. “God works like this, not that.” You know.

A lot of these biases aren’t based on God. Not in the slightest. They’re based on God as we wish he was. They’re based on the sort of God we’d like to follow. He likes what we like. He hates what we hate. Really, he’s like the perfect and almighty version of us. But that’s not the real God. It’s imaginary.

And when we buckle down and study the real God, we’re still looking out for number one. We always prefer an interpretation of God which pays off for us. God tends to still like and hate what we do. If we’re politically conservative, how about that: So’s God! If we’re politically liberal, it just so happens God is too. If we hate the rich, if we don’t approve of homosexuality, if we believe women need to know their place, if we think the needy are victims of society, if we’re furious at sin and lawlessness, or if we wouldn’t want to see anyone go to hell—conveniently enough for each and every Christian, our God, and our churches, think and teach precisely the same things. What good followers we must be!

Hogwash, of course. But to be fair, there are people who go to the opposite extreme: They choose to believe God’s their exact opposite. If their knee-jerk reaction is to ignore a panhandler, they figure, “That must be my total depravity. God wants me to be generous to everyone.” So they give to everyone, even though they don’t wanna. And they feel righteous, because they think resisting their flesh is how to automatically deduce God’s will. Thing is, sometimes those impulses aren’t wrong. Yeah, they may be done with wrong motives, or (if we’re lucky) we actually were raised to do the right thing instead of the wrong one. So following God as if every day were Opposite Day is no guarantee we’re following him correctly either.

Okay, so where does that leave us?

Remember, we’re wrong.

Back to the first principle: “We’re wrong. Jesus is right. Follow Jesus.” Personalize it: “I’m wrong. Jesus is right.”

The reason there are a thousand different denominations of Christianity is because we don’t think this way. Instead we fight one another. It’s why Christians believe so many very different things about Jesus. It’s why we find Christians in every political party, who figure every “so-called Christian” in the opposition party isn’t really Christian. It’s why we don’t get along, and aren’t unified like Jesus wants. It’s why we don’t follow Jesus to the degree we should. We’re not right. Jesus is right, but we are very, very wrong.

So the first step in the right direction is to admit this. We’re wrong. Make it your mantra: “I’m wrong. Jesus is right.” We aren’t experts on Jesus. If anyone had a valid claim to be an expert on Jesus, it’d be Jesus’s mother, and she didn’t understand what he was up to half the time. Next would come the guys who followed him up and down Israel, taking notes—and they blew it too. His family didn’t get him either. And these folks lived 20 centuries ago. Yet loads of Christians, 20 centuries (and 10 or 11 cultures) removed from these people, who follow him two hours a week instead of all 168 hours, actually have the arrogance to claim we get him. Yeesh.

It’s possible to understand Jesus as well as his first followers eventually did. But this requires two things of us. Humility, of course—knowing we’re wrong—and infinitely more important, the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit is God. Not a part of God, or a lackey of God, or a force of God, but God. The Spirit is as God as God gets. Once we became Christians, the Holy Spirit sealed himself to us, and he’s trying to guide us, comfort us, encourage us, and fix us. We’re wrong, but the Holy Spirit is working to make us right. We just have to stop assuming we already are right, stop fighting the Spirit, and work with him instead of against him.

So when we learn truth, the Spirit encourages us to embrace it and make it a part of us. And sometimes we resist him—we don’t like the truth, or find it impossible to believe, or it goes against our politics, or we’re even under some bizarre delusion Christians aren’t allowed to think that way. (Happens a lot.) When that happens, fall back on our mantra: “I’m wrong. Jesus is right.” We need to be more skeptical of ourselves. We’re not infallible: We’re depraved. We’re getting better, but still.

Left to my own devices, I’m selfish, apathetic, looking for the easy way out, looking for the way that gets me the most with the least amount of effort, and looking out for number one. That’s how we humans are. All of us. Christians no exception. If we actually behaved otherwise, do you think our churches would have any of the problems we do? (Other than persecution, of course.) Of course not; we’d act like Jesus wants. But we don’t. And it all comes back to selfishness, to total depravity, to the view, “I’m right. They’re wrong. [Do something biologically disagreeable to] them.”

We have to stop this cycle of arrogant jerk-like Christianity which we see in so many of our fellow Christians—and which they see in us. This starts with humility, the Spirit, and “I’m wrong. Jesus is right.” With that, then we can start looking at theology.

So. Your homework assignment is to memorize that mantra. (I know, “mantra” is a Hindu word. I don’t care. I’m Christianizing it. We get to do that, you know.) Put “I’m wrong. Jesus is right” in your brain. Say it whenever you feel like you know it all. This’ll help us develop the kind of humility God can work with. It triggers growth. So recite it—and grow.