Last year I spent 250 hours driving around the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex for my job as a hospice chaplain. As I drive I listen to sermons and lectures from cutting edge biblical scholars, theologians and preachers, and podcasts and YouTube videos produced by post-evangelical hipsters. One simple declarative sentence keeps rising to the surface: “God looks like Jesus.”
A second oft-repeated phrase flows inevitably from belief in a Jesus-like God: “Jesus is Lord; and Caesar isn’t.”
These religious sentiments may sound commonplace but, growing up, nobody told me that God looks like Jesus, and nobody asked me to choose between Jesus and Caesar. People just didn’t talk that way when I was a kid.
But when the preachers, pundits and professors announce that God looks like Jesus they are tentative, almost apologetic. The affirmation normally comes at the end of a long monologue about growing up in a semi-fundamentalist religious culture and being forced to swallow religious dogma on the sole authority of Mother Church. Then comes college and the complete collapse of a religious worldview quickly followed by the rejection of a once-nurturing faith community. And the part about God looking like Jesus is tacked on at the end of this lament, almost as an afterthought.
This three-fold pilgrimage from naïve certainty, through critical deconstruction, to a reconstructed faith pops up everywhere. Paul Ricœur speaks of a “second naiveté” that sometimes rises, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of childlike faith. Walter Brueggemann, the Old Testament scholar, speaks of Psalms of equilibrium, Psalms of disequilibrium and Psalms celebrating the manna of “new equilibrium” that Yahweh provides in the midst of our despair.
But I’m going with the analogy suggested by Richard Rohr, the Roman Catholic mystic who describes a journey from First-Box innocence, through Second-Box deconstruction to (hopefully) mature Third-Box spirituality.
Rohr says that Third-Box faith is relatively rare because most people are content to pitch their tents in the Second-Box wilderness and make the most of it.
Why are we Second-Box pilgrims so reluctant to pull up stakes?
We’ve all heard the story about the guy who bashes his head against a wall because it feels so good when he stops. Losing your religion can be excruciating. When you finally let go of the old certainties a wave of relief comes crashing in. We are happy to talk about our release from the old certainties and the joys of “living the questions,” but don’t ask us what comes next.
Our willingness to live among the ruins of Second-Box existence is encouraged by the growing rift (in America at least) between conservative Christians and the scientific community. We sure don’t want to be associated with anti-science panic, but the science camp regards our God-talk with a suspicious sneer. So we whisper our hallelujahs and we mumble about metaphors and poetry and the perils of foundationalism.
Do we really think our questions about the Bible, the existence of God and life after death will be resolved if we just read another book? Scientific inquiry generates just as many unanswerable questions as the quest of faith. If your answers are certain your questions don’t matter. Sometimes you go with you’ve got, and what we’ve got is the Jesus of the Gospels. God is like that Jesus, and that’s good news.
Finally, there is the fearsome radicality of the God who looks like Jesus. Even as a metaphor this God is startling. As a living, breathing reality, he’s scary as hell! If God looks like Jesus then Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t. You can’t say yes to the upside-down kingdom of Jesus without saying no to Caesar’s militaristic consumer culture. Jesus plainly said so, and that too is good news. Hard news, without a doubt, but very, very good.
It takes a tight community of resistance to stand up to Caesar. What if the current crop of churches isn’t built for that kind of mission? We may console ourselves in the knowledge that we, and a handful of on-line chums, harbor anti-Caesarian sentiments,but Caesar isn’t worried in the least. Caesar fears the God who looks like Jesus.
Noting the cartoonish disconnect between Donald Trump and the ethics of Jesus is child’s play. If you want plenty of likes on Facebook just insult the Donald. But building a church around the Jesus-God is hard. Small wonder that we’re happier dissecting our ideological opposites than building a credible alternative.
A culture addicted to trinkets and redemptive violence is flirting with despair, and science can’t save us. As the Nazis effectively demonstrated, the scientific method is morally neutral. Scientists can give us computers, warheads and robotized factories, but a simple moral compass is beyond their powers.
It’s us or the silence. Prophets preach their best sermons when no one is listening.