Response to Recent Events

January 8, 2021

A Theological Crisis Unfolding in Public

Hidden beneath the tumult generated by the people convinced that President Trump did not lose the recent election is a theological crisis that will continue to rage and result in increasingly dysfunctional expressions if not given  productive attention. This is because elections are not only about politics, economics and social organization. Voting reflects not only party allegiance or commitment to causes and personalities. At its core, in a nation where the majority of voters are theists of one sort or another, are understandings of who God is, how God is related to our society, what we think God might be communicating to us, and what we’re capable of discerning about God’s intentions. Decades ago, theologian Paul Tillich reminded us that whether or not there is claimed belief in a personal God our nation and/or economic system can become our ultimate concern and thus our real God.

So, it was not surprising that around the time of the recent election a number of videos were circulated portraying a range of Evangelical and Pentecostal leaders and “prophets” declaring that they had heard unmistakably from God that President Trump would be in office for another four years. The religious certainty evident in these declarations was consistent with utterances in 2016 when I first heard from persons in these Christian streams that  to go against then candidate Trump was to invite curses on ourselves, our children and our children’s children. After the 2016 elections, Robert Jeffress, a prominent Dallas pastor and adviser of President Trump, captured the conviction of many that the fate of our nation hinged on electing Trump to office.  Jeffress spoke about the despair his community experienced before that election day as they “wondered if God had removed his hand of blessing from us.” However, he declared enthusiastically that God made “his” stance known as “President Trump won the evangelical vote by the largest margin in history.” Jeffress proceeded to declare that “millions of Americans believe that the election of President Trump represents God giving us another chance, perhaps our last chance to truly make America great again.” The prevailing conviction of many within these streams of faith entering November 3, 2020 was that the work God had raised up Donald Trump to oversee required two terms in office. And presupposing typically held theological positions, God as the absolute ruler would have made this decision in sovereign freedom with a meticulous providence that took account of all actual and possible contingences.

So, what are people to do when such confident declarations from trusted religious leaders who are perceived to be veritable Oracles of God are contradicted by facts on the ground? It has been both distressing and fascinating to witness the diverse ways the stage was set for the nonacceptance of Joe Biden’s victory over President Trump. There is a video of Texas powerhouse Kenneth Copeland leading a Fort Worth congregation in derisive laughter – supposedly to counter pain – in response to this news. In the process, his disdain for Biden showed in the quip “so he’s going to be president and Mickey Mouse is going to be king ….”

Paula White, President Trump’s most visible religious adviser and one of those who has claimed that to go against Trump is to go against God, was even more dramatic than Copeland when the election count showed Biden winning in certain key states. She attributed this result to the work of demonic networks. In incantation-like fashion she called upon  God to “strike, and strike, and strike” these networks. At the dramatic height of her presentation she  called upon hosts of angels from Africa and South America to come to the US and shore up local spiritual forces already waging battle to defend God’s plan for Trump’s presidency against the onslaught of the forces of the antichrist. Terri Pearson, Copeland’s daughter, went as far as to encourage God to orchestrate “another election; another voting day” if it is deemed necessary to keep the President in office. Since then, a number of public figures from these streams have turned, shifted and nuanced details of their earlier “prophetic” declarations in order to sustain their credibility. In instances where consternation seems unresolvable, some persons have resorted to a strategy that was very popular during my early life in another country, which is to declare that the chaos their decisions have helped to ferment is a sign of the “end of time” and preparation of the return of Jesus.

Those who are caught up in the religious orbit guided by the sure safe convictions regarding President Trump’s victory and God’s plan are left with certain options for interpreting the result of the elections. They very likely would not countenance the view that God might have deceived them. Yet, the biblicists among them might wish to review 1 Kings 22 where Micaiah, God’s prophetic harasser of King Ahab, explains why the chorus of prophetic utterances in support of the King should not be trusted. God is portrayed as having sent a lying spirit to deceive the court-related prophets, thus setting the stage for Ahab’s demise.

The option most plausible to me is admission that uncritical embrace of definitive pronouncements by those who claimed to be prophets was foolhardy. Those who would point to Amos 3 where it says that God does nothing unless the plan is revealed to the prophets might want to consider what this implies for the prophetic status of those who claimed to know exactly what would occur in the November 3 elections and who have since resorted to theological gymnastics and become susceptible to ludicrous conspiracy theories in order to save face. Not only should these persons admit that they were wrong about God’s intention for November 3; they should be challenged to recognize that claims of indubitable knowledge of God’s plan may well be the outgrowth of the sins of hubris and idolatry.

Their hubris is the unwillingness to face up to the fact that humans are finite, flawed beings that by nature do not have the capacity to discern precisely the mind and will of a God who in all relations and communications retains an essential otherness. As hinted at in our relations with other human beings, our deepest feelings of intimacy with God cannot eliminate the fundamental mystery of transcendence. Even the most robust doctrine of incarnation should not attempt to reduce God’s being and action to Jesus’ being and action. Disciples of Christ theologian Clark Williamson speaks of the bipolar nature of revelation. If God doesn’t communicate there is no revelation; if human beings do not interpret communicative impacts as coming from God there is no revelation. Thus, “we cannot say, first there is revelation and then, later, the community interprets it. To name an event as revelatory is already to interpret it.” Embracing this position gives us the freedom to take account of fears, desires, prejudices, hopes, attachments and other features of life that might fuel that which we are inclined to classify as revelatory.

In addition, we should bear in mind that human beings are neurally wired as self-preoccupied storytellers, good at weaving tales that utilize God concepts to establish the significance of our own beliefs, claims and visions of the world. As has been shown at numerous times in the history of Christianity, when things fail to occur as predicted, rationalizations are easily fashioned to get us out of the theological bind created by our delusion of certainty. This delusion, with its underlying condition of severe misunderstanding of our finite human selfhood in relation to the infinite being of God, easily results in what Martin Luther called “homo incurvatus in se” (humanity curved in upon itself). It may well be because of the belief that the Spirit of Christ dwells within Christians, with some convinced of a further infilling, that we have come to trust ourselves — our feelings, perceptions and interpretations — too much. A dangerous result is that we are resistant to correction, and those who disagree with us are easily perceived to be in opposition to God.

Reformed theologian John Calvin was on target in his declaration that the human mind is a “forge for idols.” We fail to appreciate the depth of our ignorance about the matters passionate beliefs and bold faith statements address, especially God in se, and the ways we employ the imagination that fuels storytelling to fill out this ignorance. Calvin points to “pride and boldness” and our “desire for a tangible deity” as motivations for imagining a God according to our own capacity.

Our limited capacity as human beings will always condition our most profound insights about God. A form of Idolatry emerges when we fixate on the limited God images we generate, treating them as if they are complete and final. We operate as if the associated beliefs we harbor about God’s character, will, and purpose are logically necessary and indubitable. As human beings curved in upon ourselves, preoccupied with our emotions and desires and overcome by our fears and prejudices, we become oblivious to what the categorical distinction between God and humanity entails for our claims regarding God’s character and intentions. In the worst-case scenario, the God image we end up with is the domesticated guardian of our group interests, the ultimate justifier of our ideological commitments and the final vilifier of those we consider our adversaries.

Those in Texas and elsewhere who have ignored repeated findings by agencies, lower and higher courts and even the Supreme Court that are tasked with securing the integrity of our electoral processes certainly misrepresent God’s name as they support a nefarious power grab. But these dangerous actions are also designed to hide a looming theological crisis in Evangelical and Pentecostal circles. Many shrewd leaders in these streams of Christianity expect to ride out the present turbulence of contradictions until the issues recede from visibility and become overlaid by other life events and new “authoritative representations” they will provide as  direct communication from God. These persons look to the day when they and those they have misled can operate as if the national chaos they helped to generate did not occur.

But those interested in Christian maturity, theological integrity and personal liberation must recognize that these maneuvers constitute religious deception. This need not occasion a loss of faith but an expansion of it. The present crisis offers the opportunity to engage in the critical evaluation of established theological foundations and spiritual affinities with the humble awareness that we finite human beings are wrestling with the implications of believing that we are intimately connected with the in-finite divine. In my familiar context the process I’m encouraging is called deliberative theology, the posture necessitated when religious answers previously taken for granted no longer seem beneficial in an emergent situation. In the popular book, Thinking Theologically James Duke and Howard Stone point to the jarring, fearsome, disorienting nature of this venture because it involves the honest questioning of deeply held beliefs and commitments that attach us emotionally to settings, situations and revered people that contributed to the embedded convictions about God, self and world we have come to perceive as constitutive of authentic faith.

This is a time when the desperate rationalizations provided to explain away the incongruity between what has been claimed with absolute certainty and what has actually occurred demands honest and open examination of all aspects of the foundation for those claims. Getting to the root of the situation we now face might even mean risking a faith that explores an idea of God that is different from the one that supported those claims of certainty. This would modify our attitude to those who have wielded authority over our lives because of their claimed intimacy with and access to God. A Reformed understanding of Christian freedom might involve requiring our confident leaders to admit that their prophetic predictions were simply wrong and maybe deliberate misrepresentations; and that repentance is required for misleading (advertently or inadvertently) trusting adherents. Without question, repentance should include renunciation of the insidious link between the prosperity gospel, white supremacy, and the xenophobia that permits the degradation and vilification of the vulnerable Other beyond the borders erected to protect the self-interest that is paraded as God’s interest. Finally, in the valuation of what constitutes a good leader, the qualities of humility, care and honesty would rise above grandiosity and public acclaim in the order of priority.

Conscientious Christians of all stripes are concerned about the sustained assault on the integrity of Christian witness in this nation and the way cynical misrepresentations of God’s will have undercut the ability of the Christian community to offer ethical guidance for wholesome human life that contributes to broad planetary welfare. I encourage us to build a broad-based coalition willing to wrestle together for an approach to the theological enterprise that values multifaceted scrutiny to counter the excesses that emerge when persons in an individualistic society make claims and justify positions purely on the basis of personal-private experiences to which are attributed absolute credibility because of exalted self-understandings that are justified by the absolutization of God images forged in finite, fractured minds.

Brite Divinity School Dean Michael St. A. Miller

 A Prayer of Lament for Religious Americans

Gracious God, we lament the deeply troubling events of this week.

A mass of people, some proudly identifying themselves as white nationalists, carrying flags and banners, including the flag of the Confederate States of America and a banner stating that “Jesus Saves,”   broke through police barricades and illegally entered  the Capital of the United States seemingly intent upon halting by intimidation the certification of the election of the President Elect.

These shocking events in which four lives were lost have increased the anxiety and daily fears of persons of color and others of your beloved offspring who do not conform to the expectations, values, norms, and beliefs of self-named white nationalists and the Evangelical Christians who marched with them. The association of Jesus with these violent actions has also deepened the convictions of persons who believe that little or nothing good can come out of Christianity or other religious traditions.

Forgive us for not having done more to counter views and perspectives that nurture such deeply troubling actions as we have seen this week.  Work through us to foster the beloved community that is your will for all of humanity.

This prayer of lament we offer in the name of the gracious God, loving parent of us all!

Amen.

Brite Divinity School President D. Newell Williams