Commissioning my selfPosted: 15/05/2009
This week, my heart is in a state of delicate preparation: I will graduate from seminary. The past three years at Union have been those of a constant prodding: a loosening of scripture from bonds of intolerance and injustice, a massaging of my heart to understand (if not to forgive), and an unfolding of my mind to questions, to uncertainty, and to flexibility.
Some years ago, before coming to Union, I went to the Boundary Waters (on the Minnesota-Canada border) with a group of friends from bible camp. A seemingly endless chain of cold, clear lakes linking upon lakes, the Boundary Waters provides peaceful respite from motor-boats, pontoons, and other forms of civilization. There, one’s heart can wander amongst the stars even as the body submerges the mind, relentlessly sweeping away useless thoughts as a paddle cuts through water.
This trip, however, my heart could not wander freely with the stars. Instead, it is the moment in my particular history to which I pinpoint the death of my ‘faith’, at least as it existed at that time.
My friends and I, throughout the nights of our trip, had decided to do some bible studies. We were taking turns leading them, and the person leading it that day had chosen a text from the Old Testament – one of the prophets, in one of the many texts that God sanctions Israel’s plundering of another nation. The topic was to be, then, God’s wrath, and the question of the day: “Is God Wrathful?” The implied answer, given a literal rendition of the text, was yes.
Maybe it was the promise of those stars, or the transparency of the water, but my heart refused to capitulate. I couldn’t muster a yes to that particular question. And by the end of that conversation, a wedge the size of Mount Everest had been driven between my friends and me. To them, my beliefs were fundamentally and decidedly not Christian. In order for God to be merciful, God must also possess the twin characteristic of wrath, which waited for all who refused to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Wrath was an essential part of a Christianity that understood faith as a function to bring one closer to salvation.
Today, three years deep into a theological education and one week shy of a “Master of Divinity” tagged to the end of my name, I can somewhat safely exegete and apply a hermeneutic of liberation to that text without explicitly remembering exactly which one it was. To a nation worn down and beaten, with no homeland, no king, and constantly sandwiched between empires, the promise of a wrathful God might have felt to Israel like salve upon a salted wound. This promise would have offered redemption for lost children and murdered spouses. It provided a different kind of salvation than the kind we think of today: it was safety from armed forces, a hearth to warm oneself, and a place to call one’s own.
Does this reading excuse the wrath of God? Probably not – we still need to think of those whose deaths were being sanctioned – but it does provide a framework from which to begin to approach a text about the wrath of God. To whom was this wrath directed, and why? Is it a wrath of eternal condemnation, or is it bound by context and circumstance? And what does God’s wrath in that instance mean for how people should interact with one another, both locally and nationally?
For me to be satisfied, I don’t need necessarily to be able to answer these questions. I do, however, need to know how to locate questions like these within a text. I prefer for the Bible to feel like a pliable, malleable structure between my temples, something that I can apply tools to and interpret for myself. To interpret the Bible ‘literally’ is really only to fool oneself into believing that it is possible to interpret free of social location or bias. The best any person really can offer is to interpret thoughtfully, with respect, with suspicion, and with honesty.
I mentioned earlier that the day I studied the Bible in the Boundary Waters was the day my faith died. That is true: today, I approach the title “Christian” with a great deal of trepidation, only naming myself as such in certain company. At the same time, I could also say it was also the day my faith was painfully reborn: for the first time, I was willing to imagine a world in which my heart could be completely free to wander amongst infinite numbers of stars.