One of the important aspects of childhood is the willingness of children to ask questions; the reception that our questions are given determines how many more questions we ask as time goes by. Christian children make a gradual transition from, "Jesus loves me, this I know," to the concept of God and the theology of God's actions in the world.
When children are taught to begin with Scripture as the basis for faith, it cannot end well. The fear-based clinging to the infallibility of Scripture creates a fear-based religion, one that comes directly from an erroneous false equivalency of the Old and the New Testament. In many cases, particularly in evangelical Protestantism, the Old Testament seem to trump the New Testament. Indeed, the New Testament with its assertions of God's love and compassion can pale in comparison with the jealous, Zeus-like Jehovah that the Hebrews came to believe in during antiquity. Whether today's Jewish theology espouses the same concept of God is often not explored, at least by Christians. It is simply assumed that the wrath of God that underlies the entire Old Testament is equally in place for Christians and Jews today.
But Jewish theologians, being stuck with what they have in the Old Testament, must deal with the Jewish Existential Predicament: the yawning gulf between human nature and what has been revealed to them. A God who is perfectly righteous and lawful, good and just, presents an inescapable contrast between itself and the nature of you and me. Can this gap be bridged, or are we stuck in this estrangement whether we blame it on Eve, ancient aliens, or mythology?
We see a portrait of God in the Old Testament whose nature is such that, in anger, he will punish an entire race with extinction, saving only one family that has pleased him in some arbitrary way that will ensure their survival. The child's question of why God killed all the puppies and kittens is usually quashed one way or another; the vigor with which such questions are rejected will begin the process that eventually erodes a child's belief that "Jesus loves me, this I know..."
By the same token, adults who are not afraid to use their critical faculties may ask why God created human beings in the first place, or why he (apparently) did such a bad job of it? Children, and adults with the emotional age of a child (which is encouraged in many religious settings), begin to fear God, not in a way that encourages spiritual growth and is "the beginning of wisdom," but in a way that lays a foundation for desperation and leads to the acceptance of ideas that are clearly un-Christian. Acting out religious beliefs in an increasingly-frantic attempt to prove their piety leads us to situations in which the rights of citizens are abrogated. Those who frame those laws are trying to prove to one another that they are faithful. There is nothing to prevent this from becoming a proof contest, with the rest of us as collateral damage--much as it is seen in the conversion of the Noah's Ark story to a morality tale of an angry, vengeful God.
Understand: children always make the transition from the animals coming two by two, the cute little plastic Ark and a chubby, paternal action figure of Noah, to the deaths of innocent people and animals. Attributing this story to God creates fear and incomprehension, but it also lays the groundwork for foolish ideas like, "Everything happens for a reason," with its corollary that anything bad that happens to you was supposed to happen--that God wanted it to happen--that God did it...because "God is in charge."
The implications of this situation are far-reaching. They are going to call for increasing scholarship in the Sunday-school community. It is now obligatory for Christian educators to consider the unintended side-effects of Scripture-based theology. And it is also mandatory that we decide what kind of theology we, as Christians, want to pass along to our children, who are slipping away from our churches with every passing Sunday.
Theology begins with God, as the term implies. What we need to teach in order to create a faith is the long process of deciding what the nature of God is. But we cannot teach anything authentically until we decide what we believe: what attributes must God have, then, in order to be a proper object of our worship? I must emphasize as strongly as I can that this process does not involve knowledge. We are not going to have the opportunity to interview God and ask him about himself. As C. S. Lewis said in his book Mere Christianity, we must find out what we can figure out with our own intellectual abilities. The question then becomes: what qualities in a divinity will you consent to worship?
There can be no doubt that if there is a God, he/she/it is not a human being, not a superhuman like the collective gods of mythology, and not some weird alien being that stopped by our planet a very long time ago. God is by definition an entirely other entity with another mode of existence, or, as the Church says, God is a spirit without body, parts or passions.
That statement makes it plain that God does not experience emotions other than what Christians believe on the word of Jesus: that God is love. It means by implication that the personality of God does not contain anger, vengeance or hatred. As Christians we ought to rule out the God who reveled in murder while the Hebrews rampaged across the Middle East on their way to the Promised Land. Yes--but how do we account for the fact that it seems that the Hebrews themselves believed in that God?
Christians can and should can dismiss the entire episode and simply admit that the Hebrews were mistaken. There is now no way to determine how the Torah was mythologized and embroidered through the passage of the years. And it does not matter. We simply put aside the ideas of God as angry and cruel, and turn to a whole different era in human history, when Jesus was born into the Jewish religious culture and came to an entirely different realization: that God, if he is perfectly good, must also be perfectly loving and compassionate. Thus the last place to begin theology is the Old Testament; this has to stop regardless whether you are Jewish or Christian.
We all know what loving and compassionate human beings are like. Our assumptions about the nature of God dictate that God's love and compassion must be superior to those of human beings; that God loves us more than, never less than, we love one another. The easy surrender to the desire to hurt and kill that we deplore in human beings cannot be an attribute of God--at least, not if we are to consider him an object of worship.
Another aspect of God that we must embrace, along with its implications towards ourselves, is that God is no puppet-master. God never interferes with the freedom that we were created with. Time and time again the arrows fly, the dagger strikes, the armies are assembled and people treat one another with appalling cruelty. The side you are on may dictate your attitude towards the cause, but no one can condone the result: men dying in pain, women raped, children subjected to all sorts of abuse. But it is not God who commands us to do such things--not if he is to be a proper object of worship. We must admit that it is ourselves who conceive and execute this behavior. We bear the responsibility for much of the human misery that is all around us. If we do not adopt a priority to clean up the planet and redirect our monies towards research instead of bombs, the responsibility that we bear collectively is all the more. But we still cannot believe in a God that approves of this behavior, much less a God who "takes" people or inflicts them with illness to teach them a lesson.
Still, if not, we must ask what we expect: shall we have a God whose breath blows the arrows off their targets? Do we expect God to turn the dagger blades into rubber that will do no harm? Do we want God to pass around heart attacks so that evil people do not achieve positions of power? Shall God blow out the hurricanes before they make landfall? And meanwhile, shall the rest of us sit by waiting for the dictators drop dead all around us, and lie down with our mouths open so that we can catch the food that will fall from the sky to nourish us? Are we supposed to do anything in regard to human misfortune, or is it all God’s fault? Do we live lives of consequence, or not?
The answer to this question must be determined in the light of reality. The situation on earth as we find it when we arrive at an age of reason is a "given;" it has never been materially different from what it is now. Although at this point in time we are gravely concerned about our environment, the infamous "year without a summer that resulted from the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa presented humanity with a planet-wide environmental catastrophe that they had to deal with about two centuries ago. There is nothing new under the sun. But Jesus did not tell us to wait for God to fix everything. He said this:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’" [Matthew 25:34-45]
We do not have permission to sit by and complain about the ain't-it-awful conditions that we or others are forced to endure. If we have the wherewithal to help, the object of Christian worship, Jesus himself, has ordered us to do something with it. It is not okay to complain when we are doing little-to-nothing to help alleviate the suffering all around us.
In the United States the collective community has yet to react to the situation that has been thrust upon us by a new oligarchy that is intent on stripping our country of its wealth and then abandoning us for other economies to exploit. America has been a rich nation since it was founded, but we have not yet awakened to the situation. What we see all around us are furious talking heads that are either repeating the talking points of the Culture Wars to distract our attention, or excoriating evil politicians who are on the take. We see citizens blogging and posting comments on news websites and then sitting back in satisfaction, assured that they did something to deal with the subversion of American society.
Meanwhile, Christians have a blueprint of what to do: what Jesus did. Just pick something that needs to be done, and do it. Give to your community food bank; adopt a shelter child through the various organizations that are constantly strapped for cash and overwhelmed by the world-wide need for sponsors. Get involved with local food-assistance programs. The church that I attend in Tucson, the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and All Angels, is visited by more than a hundred people every day who are hoping to get food.
You may be called upon to take in a friend or family member who has lost their home--it is nothing to politicians that families are living in their cars. Politicians don't care if school buses are now including shelters in their daily pickup and drop-off routes. You may have to pack extra food for work every day. Such things are crying out to be addressed now--now, before children sleep another night cold and hungry. The shock that we are in over the actions of our politicians will soon wear off, but the need is here and it has never been so urgent.
We know, as Christians, that Jesus wants us to step in. We have it in his words and also in his actions. As individuals we cannot help everyone, but as an emerging movement in the wasteland of America today, we can do more than we ever imagined to bring the American Dream back from the nightmare that has been brought about by the deliberate actions of evil people. They are blaspheming the name of Jesus as an excuse for their actions. We need to shut our ears to their lies and get started right where we are. Pope Francis himself rebuked Paul Ryan, who calls himself a Catholic, for his inhuman budget, and he is right: what Republicans are doing to America is not okay. But nothing will happen until we make it happen.