The unconditional and the insistence of God

I had a far more mutual conversation than usual with my spiritual director on Wednesday. We spent most of the time discussing our own ideas of God, where we find the sacred and divine in our life experiences, our experience of God’s encounter with us, our experience of the church, and our experience of the ways in which the church embodies and describes Christianity – yes, all this in an hour. We disagreed about the church. My director’s view is that the church is benign and is functioning well at the grass roots but dysfunctional and abusive at the top. I think the hierarchy’s inability to think healthily and with clarity about the essence of Christianity that results in abuse and a dysfunctional church permeates every part of the church, most certainly including theological colleges and courses, with the result that we clergy are infected and through us, pretty much every congregation. I know that at the same time, congregations manifest many of the fruits of the spirit in the pastoral work and outreach and values they embody.

Within the mindset of the institutional Church of England, whether in the College and House of Bishops, Church House, Lambeth Palace and Bishopsthorpe, to the networks of each diocese and local parishes, the idea lurks that the church is ‘IT’, the working out of the kingdom of God; and if not fully exemplifying the kingdom, then the church embodies to the best of its abilities the image of God as made manifest in the teaching and ministry, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And to some degree, of course, it does – to some degree. My spiritual director sees a higher quality of kingdom life in the church than I do. I have developed a different perspective on what I see in the church, local and national. I observe now how far from being able to live into and communicate what I have come to identify as a simplified understanding of the divine – that God is unconditional, infinite, intimate love. I don’t hear sermons preached or House of Bishops’ statements issued about the unconditional love of God, and what the implications are for theology and ministry and teaching if God’s love is unconditional.

Yesterday I was reading and making notes on John D Caputo’s 2015 book Hoping Against Hope (Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim). I suspect Caputo is an author not that widely read. God doesn’t exist, writes Caputo, God insists, and insists with so much love and grace that the omnipotent Daddy you don’t believe in anyway gives up the ghost.,

One of the later chapters is titled: Adieu to God: Praying to God to rid us of God. Caputo writes:

“The name of God, the God who is love, of the God who is the giver of all good gifts, is the name of the unconditional. God loves, God gives, and forgives, unconditionally, without why. God is the unconditional ground of all good gifts and of everything unconditional.”

Caputo’s reference to the unconditional ground made me wonder whether the idea of God as unconditional love was present in John A T Robinson’s ground-breaking book Honest to God published in 1963. On almost the first page I opened, in the chapter about The New Morality, I found this:

“The Sermon on the Mount does not say in advance, ‘This is what in any given circumstances you must do’, but, ‘This is the kind of thing which at any moment, if you are open to the absolute, unconditional will of God, the Kingdom (or love) can demand of you’. Jesus’ teaching is saying that love, utterly unconditional love, admits of no accommodation; you cannot define in advance situations in which it can be satisfied with less than complete and unreserved self-giving.”

That explains where the idea of God’s unconditional love came from for me, an idea I wrote about in my journal when visiting my childhood mentor in Brisbane, Australia in 1985.

My spiritual director and I are the same age and both spent our childhoods in the diocese of Southwark. In our conversation on Wednesday, we discovered that we had both, in our teens, worked out that anything in the Bible that didn’t ring true to the ideas about God that had to be true had to be rejected – so much else in the Bible being unbelievable or downright un-Christian. I was hugely relieved when Honest to God was published to discover a bishop confirming that I wasn’t a heretic nor totally at odds with current church teaching. That was fifty four years ago. The conflict is still running through me.

I continue to interrogate the Bible and the Gospels in particular, searching for the texts and passages that grab me as being fundamental to the teaching of Jesus and thus to the living out of his teaching, and life, death and resurrection. Because his teaching and the event of the end of his life by crucifixion and the discovery of the empty tomb are why I am a Christian and why I find an insistent urge to live and act and proclaim in a certain way – the way I am trying to do it. It isn’t because I was brought up going to church that I do it, nor that I am convinced by the authority of the Bible or the evidence presented in the Gospels – that’s far too confusing to taken at face value. It is because I have been pursued all my life by an insistence, a lure, the hound of heaven in poetic language, the insistence of God in Caputo’s image.

The insistent God arrived on my tail more insistently when I began to trust that there might be something really worth trusting. I made an act of faith during my ministry in Wandsworth, at least seven years after I was ordained. My act of commitment was, “I really don’t know whether I believe any of this is ultimately true, and I’m not sure those in authority would recognise me as a Christian if they knew what I really think, but I’m going to take a crazy risk and live as if it is true – that the really crazy, mad, simple things in Jesus’ teaching are true, the trust and openness and justice and poverty and letting go of power and control and letting go into unconditional love, that all these, if lived into, are really true in this life.

Unconditional – that’s the most difficult of the impossible things. It’s impossible to imagine that I am loved unconditionally – no conditions whatsoever. One of the elements that was making it difficult back then in  1985 was that the church, despite John Robinson’s wisdom, didn’t teach about unconditional love, didn’t really seem to believe Jesus’ teaching. The institution read the parable of the Prodigal Son differently from me. In the liturgy and teaching and practice of the church, God’s love was, and is, conditional – on me being a nice, well-behaved, conformist individual; and all my adult life I’ve thought, stuff that.

“Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘You know that among the Gentiles the recognised rules lord it over their subjects, and the great make their authority felt. It shall not be so with you; among you, whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:42-45)

Caputo comments:

“That is a kind of managerial madness that is the very foolishness of the kingdom of God, which Jesus demonstrated in his own life. Jesus was an outspoken critic of the powers that be, which cost him dearly. To implement the kingdom of God, to translate this poetics into practice, into a working institution, requires affirmation and reaffirmation, imagination and reimagination, a willingness to go ahead in impossible situations, a willingness to reinvent itself in an ongoing self-renewal of itself. The church, charged with the realisation of the kingdom, requires a repetition with a difference, lest it freeze over into infidelity to itself and immunize itself against itself, suppressing the very event of the kingdom of God that is its mission to express, its mission impossible.”

Later Caputo argues:

“The deconstruction of Christianity is not an attack on the church but a critique of the idols to which it is vulnerable – the literalism and authoritarianism, the sexism and racism, the militarism and imperialism, and the love of unrestrained capitalism with which the church in its various forms has today and for too long been entangled, any one of which is toxic for the kingdom of God. The deconstruction of Christianity is nothing new. It is the ageless task imposed on the church and its way to the future, the way to be faithful to its once and future task, to express the uncontainable event from which the church is forged.”
“What then is the kingdom of God? Where is it found? It is found every time an offence is forgiven, every time a stranger is made welcome, every time an enemy is embraced, every time the least among us is lifted up, every time the law is made to serve justice, every time a prophetic voice is raised against injustice, every time the law and the prophets are summed up by love. From time to time the figure of Jesus, or fragments of his figure, shows up in people who burn with a prophetic passion, sometimes in people of inordinate compassion and forgiveness. When this happens, we are likely to mistake such people as mad or weak, which in a sense they are – mad with the folly of the cross, weak with the weakness of God.”

These people are to be found anywhere, in any faith community, in people of no faith, anywhere on earth. It is the event that manifests the Kingdom, the conscious or unconscious action of individuals who exhibit unconditional love. Many in the church, the Church of England, manifest the kingdom. But bishops who meet in private with selected advisers to produce a teaching document about me that would astonish me were it to exhibit the teachings of unconditional love, these bishops do not manifest the kingdom.