Chapter Two: Trusting Our Experience with God
by Chad Holtz
I believe God will save every person.
This is the mantra that guides each segment of the book. In chapter two the author aims to lay a foundation that will prop up the rest of the claims made from here on out. The foundation? Experience.
I confess that I may be overly critical of this chapter. So let me get this off my chest at the start: I believe God will save every person. By affirming this I am affirming the main thesis of the book. However, I think there are better ways of arriving at this conclusion than those described in this chapter (granted, there will be more to say in upcoming chapters and more nuance offered, for which I am grateful). I welcome this opportunity to offer my pittance on this chapter in the hope of sharpening what may be considered a dull critique. With that said, let me tick off what I call the bad stuff, first…
· At the root of the author’s belief that God will save every person is the confession that the author has never “experienced a wrathful God” (12). I do not doubt that. However, I do not believe the author’s experience is one that is universal. What of the millions of people who have never known the peaceful, loving God as he has? What of the millions who grow up wondering if God even cares? What of the millions who are in a living hell as I type this and cannot imagine that God loves them in the same way the author gives testimony about? Experience is a fickle lover. She will give us, individually, our just rewards and confound the rest whom we try to persuade. While experience cannot be discounted it should never take center stage for this very reason. I’ll return to this in a moment.
· It is right to say that Jesus best reveals God to us. The author insists that this Jesus shows us that God is a God who “loves people more than formulas, mercy more than judgment, and pardon more than punishment” (13). This is too simplistic. We do not serve a wishy-washy God. Yes, God loves the whole world as the author goes on to say but that love is not vacuous – it is love with teeth – it is love for a purpose: the redemption of the world. When God saves is it always for something and not just because God “loves mercy more than judgment.” Furthermore, we do not serve a God who turns a blind eye to sin and evil. All of this will be judged. What the author seems to miss is that mercy and judgment are not opposed to each other. Granted, our understanding of “judgment” needs some overhauling, but it does no one any good to perpetuate bad theology by implying that God’s judgment is the bad cop and mercy is the good cop. Scripture tells a story that anticipates with great excitement God’s judgment. Why? Because God’s judgment is what will ultimately set the world to rights. God will name evil and deal with it. How that dishing out takes place and what it looks like in the end is open to debate. But God will judge. We should look forward to that day in hope, not fear.
· “But I need to admit my faith is not based primarily on theological reasoning. I believe because God whispered in my ear” (18). I said before that experience can confound those we wish to persuade. This is the sort of statement that can shoot us in the foot. First, I would argue the opposite. I have come to the conclusion that God will save every person through studying scripture and “theological reasoning” and not because God whispered in my ear. Second, statements like these construct a dualism that I am never satisfied with. It should never be the case that we separate theological reasoning from experience. They must go hand in hand or else both are pointless. Theology without experience is vain musings in ivory towers and experience without theological reasoning is subject to the ebb and flow of emotion and amounts to little more than wishful thinking. Again, there are better ways to reach the conclusion offered in the thesis of this book without perpetuating the dead and boring liberal dichotomy of pitting experience against theology, as if they were dueling stepchildren.
· The Kantian move in this chapter was pervasive. Kant made famous the “turn to the self” for truth and made “autonomy” a household name. Most Westerners today are Kantian without knowing Kant and our Christianity reflects his philosophy in more ways than we can count. This shines through when the author talks of his upbringing and his discovery of truth only when he stopped taking at face value what others told him and relied on his personal experience alone (29ff). Again, we can reach the conclusion of the book’s thesis without Kant (thank God!).
· Finally, at the end of the chapter the author asks, “Is God a gracious, loving father waiting long through the night, with the light lit and the door open, confident his most defiant child will one day come home? Or is God a harsh judge eager to pass sentence, eager to punish and destroy all who do not satisfy him?”(46). My answer: Neither!! God is not timid and docile, waiting at the open door! Our God is a God who stormed the streets looking, searching, calling and wooing and dying. God became flesh incarnate because God knew that left to ourselves we would never wander back to the open door. This issue bleeds into the author’s Christology which will be developed some more later in the book. Again, we can reach the conclusion of this book’s thesis with a more robust Christology – one that does not leave God waiting by the door wringing his hands but becoming the Victor the early church came to believe in.
And now some good news…
· I can hear the Wesleyan influences in this chapter (Mulholland was a Methodist). “God speaks to all people, even when they’re not inclined to listen” (19) is a wonderful illustration of how prevenient grace operates.
· I appreciated the Barthian influence as well. The author is careful to highlight the necessity of understanding Israel’s election and the continuity between the Old and New Testaments. Given the author’s somewhat liberal view of Scripture I might have assumed them to make a move like Marcion did and divorce Jesus from the God of the Hebrews. To my delight they go the other way and insist that we only know the God of the Hebrews rightly through Jesus and that God’s election of Israel is a proto-type for God’s election of the world.
· I was particularly interested in the use of the Peter narrative in Acts 10 and 15 and how Peter’s experience with the Gentiles can be “theological reasoning” for our own experiences. I have long considered Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council to be paradigmatic for the Christian life and our use of experience, reason and scripture and have written an exegesis of that passage that you can find here: Acts 15: Paradigmatic for the Way of Jesus One caveat: I wish the author would have demonstrated how Peter is not a lone ranger in these narratives but is acting in concert with a community and, most importantly, the Holy Spirit. Our experiences should never give us a green light to think ourselves autonomous (Kant) or that we can do better at expressing God than the God we have revealed to us. We have the God we got, not the one we want.
· The author hits a pastoral note by sharing that he tries to be gentle with people who believe differently or hold convictions he once held but no longer does (34). I think this is a lesson all of us should heed, especially as we try to articulate what it means to be an emerging Christian and especially what it means to confess that God may in fact save every person. Let us be sure to extend grace to those who do not understand in the same way we confess that God extends grace to those who do not yet believe. I will be the first to admit that this is my greatest challenge (and on the other side of this is the fact that by realizing how I, a Christian, can love so poorly and yet claim with trembling lips that I am saved and going to heaven that there must be hope for those who do not yet know the God I confess to know yet follow so blindly).
· I loved how the author sees God as still active and still “speaking fresh words” today (37). The Holy Spirit did not take a vacation after the canon was closed. Jesus promised the Spirit would lead us into truth and that job is far from over (for we do not yet know fully just as we are known). The Bible should not be a tool to be used and manipulated for our benefit but a means of grace by which we experience God (more Wesley). Scripture is not to be worshipped but the one to whom the scriptures give witness to is to be worshipped (more Barth). This quote is brilliant: “We belong to a long tradition of people who’ve found it safer to trust the Scripture we can control than the God we cannot” (42). How true.
This chapter was challenging for me in the sense that I agreed with the thrust of it but was not always in agreement with how we get there. I look forward to hearing everyone’s comments. Perhaps I was overly critical. Perhaps not enough. May God’s grace haunt you.