by Bryan Overbaugh
In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.”
Those of us who grew up in Evangelical circles were raised in a culture which rejoiced in the unabandoned embrace of our “calling” as Christianity’s gatekeepers. It is not much of a stretch to say we became experts in defining boundaries and making pronouncements about who is “in” and who is “out.” We act as if we are divinely appointed oracles who can accurately articulate God’s relational proximity to others.
While identifying boundaries helps preserve and protect Christian identity, for many these boundaries have been the source of hopelessness and despair, sealing their fate as the religious outsider. A static God, unmovable and predetermined, offers little hope for those who are not included in the blueprint. Sadly, this kind of determinism is not only reductionistic and hubristic, but robs our faith of beauty and the ability to be surprised by a God who is beyond our particular religious construct.
In part, our boundary issues surface because of our faulty and often biased assessments. Our evaluations are often biased because we assume our “in-out” language tells the whole story. Usually, our assessments are framed, primarily, in terms of one’s cognitive attestations, propagating determined and homogenous conclusions. There is usually little discussion about the fruit of one’s actions in this conversation. This kind of thinking needs to be challenged. If we engage people across the spectrum, we could position ourselves to observe exceptions to the rule.
Over the past couple years some friends and I have had the opportunity to develop and facilitate an ecumenical theological group. We are a diverse group with differences running the spectrum of faith, theology, class, sexuality, and politics. We created a community which clashed with the evangelical value of homogeneity with which I was raised. Where I was raised, we all thought the same, looked the same, and had roughly the same income and political views. The only way we were not allowed to be homogenous concerned who we loved. Despite the evangelical community’s heterogeneity on this point, they managed to unanimously resolve to discredit the experience of LGBTQIA people.
Through this new group, different from that of my origins, I discovered heterogeneity was better. Many of the participants in our gathering would have been written off by the evangelical community of my youth and labeled “devoid of the Spirit” and “lacking true spiritual wisdom.” Instead, I found the Spirit of God was alive and well. God was extending love, grace and spiritual insight to people I was raised to think had little to offer the spiritual life. Though I knew this for a long time, this group helped me gain a deeper understanding. God’s activity is often indifferent to boundaries we assume are determined and static.
I owe much of the philosophical underpinnings of this group to Thomas Jay Oord’s scholarship in general, and his theory of essential kenosis in particular. I admit it; I’m a bit of an Oordian fanboy. While I have not worked through all the theological particularities surrounding Oord’s novel theory of providence, I am certain herein lies a theological framework allowing us to speak about God’s radical hope and inclusiveness.
In The Uncontrolling Love of God, Oord claims God is fundamentally and essentially love. Since genuine love requires freedom and uncoerced interaction, God’s loving nature limits the things God can do. These limitations are contextual, requiring our unique responsiveness to God’s call to act. So when God (an incorporeal being) initiates the call of humanity (corporeal beings) and we respond, what results is a risky and participatory divine/human event. Simply put, God trusts humanity enough to allow the world to unfold through our embodiment of God’s call forward.
Our participation with God is lived out when, with God’s help, we choose the most loving option present in any moment. Individuals are always making decisions unique to their own life experience. The moment we understand the contextual nature of God’s activity, we realize there is no blueprint for determining who is “in” and who is “out.” This kind of assessment is both clinical and non-relational, allowing us to judge people from a distance. Instead, other-centered love (agape) is the relational assessment tool requiring us to get to know others, especially those with whom we may have little in common.
Oord’s Open and Relational vision of God undoubtedly levels the playing field. Those who have only heard exclusivist propaganda by Christian communities should know God is at work despite those voices. Those voices, however, are more concerned with maintaining religious purity and Christian identity than with extending love and grace to all God’s people.
We must each force ourselves to ask these very important questions: Where is God at work in the world? Whose life is God working in? Who can have insight into God’s loving plan? Do those people look like you? Are those places only the locations we frequent? If these questions are difficult, perhaps it is a good thing.
When the questioning of our “in-out” and “us-them” language leads us into a disorienting liminal space, may we stay long enough to be surprised by a God who is calling us to reflect on the way we assess our boundaries. We may find God having little regard for the boundaries we hold to be self-evident. Now that is Good News!