This is continuing a line of thought from a previous post on systems. Read it here first, if you haven’t yet! These are more academic and less casual than my usual posts, and they are more for my own personal reflection as I sort through a lot of these things than they are for you (no offense). I hope you enjoy anyway though! 😉 -e
“I have faith in the system,” said agent Madani.
As a fictitious CIA agent in the Netflix rendition of Marvel’s The Punisher, she exquisitely encapsulates the modern notion of the government as a suitable replacement for God. In the first season, she and her small team are on the hunt for the truth about a mission gone sour in the Middle East. Rather than assume the corruption of all human nature, she has decided to fully thrust her faith into the system constructed by the American constitution writers. If she can’t catch the perpetrators of injustice, the system of government will. Their wrongs will be exposed eventually due to the nature of the way the hierarchy is set up. Of course, in this fictional world, Frank “The Punisher” Castle takes matters into his own hands and sprays bullets everywhere until justice is fully served.
Madani’s faith in a human system reflects a much larger epidemic of materialistic (secular/existential) belief in our culture. That somehow, sinful, broken and selfish humans can construct a flawless system in which justice will be served and all will be provided for equally. But if the past few years have shown us anything, it’s that our system of government, law, and the way those laws are executed is fundamentally flawed. People have placed far too much faith in the system of government to dole out equal measures to all people while neglecting the fact that the very people pulling the strings are also looking out for their own well-being, typically above that of the masses’.
In the recent election, “evangelical Christians” put Trump in the most powerful office in the world and I can’t help but wonder if their emotions were swayed by a conflated view of the governmental and the ecclesial systems. This leads me to wonder if our systematic theology is in dire need of straightening out, or scrapping entirely.
As a Millennial theologian, it’s romantic to push for a razing of systematics in theology with the argument that an infinite God cannot be constrained and described by mere human language. I was in Kansas City for a conference years ago and overheard two guys talking. One was a friend of mine, several years younger than me and the other was someone we had just met who was attending a different Bible college.
“What do you think when it comes to systematics?” our new acquaintance asked.
“Scrap it,” my friend waved his hands in a tree-chopping motion. “Get it out of here. It’s useless.”
Since then, I’ve seen arguments for both sides of this theological quandary. Is it worthwhile to attempt to construct systems by which God operates? After all, doesn’t He do as He pleases and our feeble attempts to understand Him are just a chasing after the wind?
What, then, is the work of theology? I think this question has been answered by the fact that we do not worship a God who is silent in His magnitude. He is not distant in His transcendence. We worship a God who is incredibly near and very loud.
We worship a God who reveals Himself to us.
He knows us and wants to be known by us. This is the difference in worldview between Christianity and every other religion or worldview in the world. Agnostics are people who claim the transcendence and holiness of a god they cannot comprehend, but it doesn’t want to be known. It’s more akin to the notion of The Force in Star Wars than it is a living, active Person who may be described. Buddhism doesn’t even refer to itself as a religion, but a philosophy. Roman and Islamic gods leave humans striving just to attain their attention and mercy.
It is exactly because Yahweh is a person that we may have any hope at all of knowing and understanding Him. What’s more is the fact that this distant, unknowable, inexhaustible God came TO us in the man Jesus of Nazareth and met us in our wickedness. This incarnation of God is the heart of our gospel, for otherwise we would simply be stabbing at the air and constructing humanistic philosophical structures built on little more than conjecture about the nature of the divine. God is knowable and reveals Himself.
With this in mind, let’s return to Donald Trump and the Christians who voted him into office (And yes, I hesitated before typing “Christians” just now. And that’s all I’ll say about that). Donald Trump currently sits atop the apex of a human system built by constitution writers, a strong military, and an extreme nationalism which rivals that of Ancient Rome and Greece. How did he get there? By working the system, and especially by playing heavily into uneducated people’s notions of religion and the conflated nature of God and America. One of the reasons I began this series of posts on systems is that people often vote with one person in mind: Themselves. By refusing to see the world beyond ourselves, we have crippled the democratic system of voting. When I put myself in the shoes of a rural voter, I can see why they would want to elect someone who promises to make my life better in a myriad of ways. He said very nice things to tickle their ears. Then again, so did the false prophets in the Old Testament whom God cursed repeatedly…
Historically, as mentioned in the last post, the Church was its own freestanding system, operating with a top-down flow of leadership and guidance from the Vatican. It was a much more powerful force because it was not splintered as the churches we see today around the world are, but it could do a lot of good for a lot of people, and had significant political power of its own merit. Not all of these were good things, and in fact many of them were very unhealthy and negative, which led to Luther’s penning of the 95 theses 500 years ago. The Catholic church got into a lot of trouble getting mixed up in political houses of cards and causing mass violence and destruction because of political vows. This is part of what led to the Reformation, and ironically, Evangelical Christianity, which in turn put Trump in office: A man who heavily used his notion of conservative and ‘Christian’ ideals (as well as a buttload of cash) to win himself the office.
See how history repeats itself?
When it comes to systematic theology, one of the downfalls is that we think we have worked out a perfectly oiled and functional machine in which our little rendition of god can run about and do as he pleases. This is the god I see smeared all over America. With such a small god, it’s not surprising that many Americans, while claiming the name of Christ (more as a lifesaver than authentic relationship) turned to politics as their source of hope. A man who claimed the same allegiance both to god and country as they do promises them a better life and they’re going to jump on board. This also comes with the promises of destroying not only political enemies, but spiritual enemies as well (i.e. the Islamic State…Like, could it be more plainly spelled out? Islamic=spiritual, state=political).
Since I’m friends with a LOT of Christians on Facebook, I saw a lot of similar posts around the time of the election, each containing a similar notion of I don’t care who wins this election because God has put them there. I couldn’t help but think that their statements were a bit trite. While this is true, and it’s true that we are citizens of a higher, coming country, I don’t think this calls for negligence on the part we play in the American governmental system. I can’t help but wonder if this notion stems from some kind of union in our minds between the American nationalistic ideal and the kingdom of God. In other words, ‘because God loves America the most, He is going to ultimately pick who’s in office, and it’ll all go swimmingly.’ This overlooks a lot of scripture which would demonstrate that yes, God puts every leader into their position of authority, but often these leaders are wicked and evil and are meant to punish the people they rule. The sentiment which normally accompanied these types of posts were more optimistic, suggesting that God will take whoever gets elected and use their leadership for good. (I wonder if 1930’s Germans had the same ideas?)
We live in a country where the masses have the ability to sway political outcomes (to some degree, anyway), so should we not influence it in favor of doing the most good for the most people? I struggle to find the balance between trusting that this system can and will do good for her people, but remaining cynical that any manmade system will not ultimately crumble.
This is why we Christians have hope in the coming Theocracy: A governmental system ruled and dictated by a good and just God. A God whom systematics cannot fully define, yet who reveals Himself to us. A perfect union of Church and State, you could say. We cannot fully systematize our infinite God, but we can tangibly see how our government works. Perhaps that is why some have settled for a democracy as an adequate substitute for God on earth. Perhaps this is why so many evangelicals put their faith in Trump, because to them, he is the closest their minds can get to God. And for the most part, this isn’t their fault, it’s the fault of a church system which favors emotion over intellect or political leanings over truth.
My head hurts now from thinking so much about things I know so little about. And I’m hungry so I’ll end this here. If these posts have interested you at all, let me know! I’d love to hear your thoughts. Stay tuned for part 3!
Update: Read part 3 here!
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I appreciate your thoughtful exploration of history and culture as it relates to our understanding of theology. We need thinkers, we need people who are considerate of the greater good as well as the state of the individual. God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Wisdom dictates that we observe the ways cultural filters impact our systems and policies. Thank you for your posts and your sincere thoughts.
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