A god of conditions, and a god without

A god of conditions, and a god without

Glynn Cardy 20th November 2022

There is one god in the Bible that continues to have a significant level of popularity in religious cultures, and whose assumptions permeate secular cultures too.  A very powerful god indeed.

It’s the god of conditional love.  Actually, the god of condition period.  

Here’s a taster from Deuteronomy 28:1 “If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all (God’s) commandments that I am commanding you today…. (then) all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God’.

And unless you think this god just resides in the Hebrew Scriptures here’s a sample from the Johannine gospel, with Jesus purportedly saying to his disciples, “And you are my friends if you do what I command you.”

It’s kind of a bad friendship from a Primary School playground.  ‘I’ll be your friend if…’

And then there’s the bad news if you don’t obey.  Again, from Deuteronomy 28 (v. 15-20):

“But if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments… Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field.  Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading-bowl.  Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground…  (God) will send upon you disaster, panic, and frustration in everything you attempt to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly…”

This is a god who resembles a judge you don’t want to meet.  The sort of judge who says ‘Do what I say or you’re toast’.  One who often seems to indulge in retributive justice, and not restorative justice as we know it today. 

Note that this judge god has intermediaries – the speaker/author in Deuteronomy 28 says, ‘(obey) all God’s commandments that I am commanding you today’.  So, this god has people – usually religious or political authorities (like Moses) – usually men – who are this god’s mouthpiece.  Of course, we wonder about their interests overlapping and the will and muscle-flexing of leaders being uncritically proclaimed as god’s will and muscle-flexing.   

Now with this god of conditional blessing, with this god’s need for obedience and threats of punishment, there is a reverse logic too.  It goes like this: If you are healthy and/or prosperous then obviously you have done what this god wants, and this god has blessed you.  And if you are sick and/or poor then obviously you have not done what this god wants, and this god has cursed you.

If you think this reasoning is a relic of the past and should be left there, you might consider how our society applauds and holds up those who are healthy and body-sculptured, and those who are wealthy and accessorized, as examples of success, and how our society either blatantly or by inference says those who are vulnerable, needy, and impoverished are failures.  So it goes, the rich deserve their riches and the poor their poverty.

We need to be on guard against this normalization of inequity and the gods who endorse it.  

This logic though dominant in much of the Bible has its critics – like the author of the parabolic book called ‘Job’.  This author says, ‘Hey, hold on a minute mate, what about my buddy Job?  He got sick, lost his family, his wealth, his faith in the way this world was meant to operate – and none of it was his fault.  Why did he suffer?  What great plan was this a part of?’

The parable of Job doesn’t often a clear answer, it just offers a clear criticism.

The answer is found, and an alternate theology is found, in phrases like ‘God causes the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike’ (Matthew 5:45) and ‘God’s blessing falls on the kind and generous, and on the ungrateful and wicked’ (Luke 6:35). 

As you know, I don’t believe in an omnipotent supreme being god who causes good things and bad things to happen.  I would simply say, of Job, bad stuff happens, and to Job, ‘it’s not your fault’ and ‘how can I help?’ 

Some bad stuff though happens as a consequence of our actions, like what we are seeing with climate change.  Which is in part our fault.  But it isn’t willed by God as a punishment for our disobedience.

This ‘obey-if-you-want-me-to-love-you’ god, is the product of what Dom Crossan calls sanction theology.  

And it’s still alive and well in churches: ‘I will love and accept you’ says this god, ‘if you repent and believe.  I will love and accept you if you act justly, walk humbly, be merciful.  I will love and accept you if are busy Christians, attend church, give money etc.’

It’s a religion of ifs.  An iffy religion.

The opposite is, in Crossan’s words, Sabbath theology.  And its god is a god of rest.  And rest is not just a pause between activities or jobs, but a state of being in its own right.

This god is introduced in the overture to the whole of the Bible in Genesis 1:1-2:4a.  (Overtures as we know from the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke introduce us to the recurring themes throughout the whole book).

Now there are problems for our times in Genesis 1.  In v.28 the deity gives humans ‘dominion’ or ‘rule’ over the other creatures, and the writer (not being a lawyer) doesn’t spell out what that means.  How to responsibly exercise authority is not detailed.  The word ‘responsibly’ isn’t even there.  And the results of which have been catastrophic.  Each year some 10,000 species go extinct!  Never give a human authority without spelling out the purpose and parameters of that authority!

The other problem in this text is v 26-27: “Let us make humankind in our image… male and female God created them”.  We now know there are more than two human genders.  As Transgender Remembrance Day reminds us.  We now also know that humans, including those of a religious bent, have frequently persecuted, killed, and generally made life miserable for those who don’t identify as male or female.  As Transgender Remembrance Day also reminds us.

Without excusing this ‘text of terror’ for queer people, I would simply say – like with the plural pronoun used of god here – don’t assume the writer was trying to say anything more than a supreme being god brought human life into existence.

What we should notice is the literary intention of the author.  For this is a piece of poetic prose building to a climax – a climax which is not the creation of humans.  As Crossan says, ‘We humans are not the crown of creation we are the work of a late Friday afternoon.’

This omnipotent god who, instead of making everything with an instantaneous snap of the fingers, spreads eight cosmic creative acts out over six working days in order to build to the seventh day.  And on the seventh day there is no creative act.  God rested.  The 7th day is not a breather for a hardworking god who is out of breath.  Rather rest/sabbath reveals the very nature of that god.  That seventh day is blessed because it is a day to ‘do godding’.  To god (the verb) is to rest, support, restore, rejuvenate.  A day on which to be.

This is what god is.  God is not a divine being who commands, sets rules, judges, punishes, but a god who is known in all of life as resting and restoring.  To rest is to god.  To be at rest is to be in god.

Now the model for both these constructs of divinity is the same – namely the household.  Or, in our language, whānau.

Do children have to earn the right to be fed, to be clothed, to be looked after, to be loved?  Well, in some families unfortunately they do.  And in ancient patriarchal families some did too.  The god of conditional love makes all gifts conditional.  Conditional on obedience (and submission) to authority.

But the god of rest, of unconditional love and acceptance, says children don’t have to earn the right to be fed, clothed, looked after, and loved.  They share in what the whānau has.  The resources of the whānau are not kept just for the obedient and submissive but distributed to each according to their need.  In other words, this whānau/household operates on the model of distributive justice.  We can rest and be secure within this household of the planet because there is enough for all, if only we take responsibility to share.

This is so foreign to most religion as we know it.  The idea that we have to work our way, earn our way, even if it is just by believing the right beliefs, is deeply ingrained in our religious consciousness. We can’t quite believe in this alternative religion of unconditional gift and grace.

And people – and there are lots of people – who have been hammered and harmed by this deity of the conditional can’t quite believe it either.  Transgender people, those who are nonbinary, all who don’t fit the available categories on offer, and who have often been beaten up or beaten themselves up trying to conform to religion’s and society’s norms, need assurance that we will change not only our discriminatory and unjust ways, but also to change our gods.  They need assurance that we will begin to live this unconditional deity – to live unconditional acceptance and love, to live sharing according to need, to live a way of rest and support for this planet and all upon it – and by living this kind of deity a difference will be made.