Q & R: Niebuhr’s famous quote – Part 2

Here’s the Q:

Hi Brian. I continue to appreciate your facebook postings. They are always thought provoking. I also appreciate your efforts to build bridges between different points of view. As I look at theological trends, especially of mainline protestantism, I am reminded of a quote from H Richard Niebuhr, descibing his assessment of liberal theology. He writes, “a God without wrath brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a ministry of a Christ without a cross.” I would like to hear your response to this. From what you have seen, do Niebuhr’s concerns apply to today?

(Continued from last week)
Niebuhr, as I understand him, was trying to forge a middle way between the kind of soft and shallow liberalism exemplified in the quote and the kind of religious conservatism of which he was no friend. He saw Barth, among others, as a trailblazer of that third path.
I think my work and that of many of my friends has a lot of resonance with this desire for a new path. There are important differences too. Like them, right wing Christianity isn’t an option for us, but we also see strengths and values there. Like them, we see that traditional Protestantism suffers from a lack of clarity and energy. Unlike them, we would probably see institutional apathy more the problem in the Mainline Protestant (MLP) world than an excessive commitment to “the social gospel.”
The MLP world has changed a lot since 1937, its “social gospel” leanings being modified by WWII and the postwar suburbanization of America, by women’s rights and civil rights, and over the last 40 years, by severe retention problems with younger generations and the rise of the religious right and megachurch.
So let me respond personally to each of Niebuhr’s “withouts”:
1. a God without wrath – The word “wrath” raises two questions.
First, what kind of wrath? Wrath that leads to eternal conscious torment? Vengeful wrath? Zeus-like wrath – or Christ-like wrath? Many of us believe that among the many conventional understandings Christ came to overturn were conventional conceptions of God’s wrath. Which leads to a second question …
Wrath at what? Women in leadership? Gay people accepted as equals? Laws to protect the environment from human greed? Immigrants?
Christ’s anger, in contrast, focused on hypocrisy, a lack of compassion, greed, exclusion, and an inability to distinguish “weighty” matters of morality from insignificant matters.
2. men without sin – Of course, this raises questions about how we define sin. Is sin reducible to law-breaking, or does the New Testament expand and intensify the definition of sin to mean “love-breaking?” Is sin only personal, or only social – or it is an integrated system that includes both personal and social dimensions? Is the primary danger of sin that it elicits God’s retributive punishment, or is the primary danger of sin that it is ultimately destructive? Is it something that insults God so God wants retaliation against us, or something that threatens us so God wants to rescue (save) us?
3. a kingdom without judgment – What is judgment? Is it primarily retributive – punishing wrong, or is it primarily restorative – setting things right? Does it involve God making a list and checking it twice, storing up eternal torment for those who have not been nice? Or does it involve humans reaping the consequences of foolish and hostile behavior that is out of harmony with God’s holy melody and rhythm?
At whom is the spotlight of God’s examination primarily directed – at gay people, undocumented immigrants, people on welfare … or at corporate plunderers, war-makers, self-interested politicians, and complicit publics? Is the social purpose of judgment to divide the world into clean and unclean, saved and damned, insiders and outsiders? Or is that tendency to divide humanity in these ways one of the dimensions of sin that are under God’s judgment?
Does our imperfection render God against us? Or is God against what is against us? Is condemnation the last word in God’s universe, or does grace get the final word?
4. a Christ without a cross – Is the cross a reinforcement of conventional notions of wrath, sin, and judgment, with Christ appeasing an angry Father by submitting to the Father’s infinite wrath? Or does the cross reveal God as one who identifies with victims of oppression, who suffers with humanity, who forgives when others insult and reject?
Perhaps I could put it like this: You have heard it said that a God full of wrath condemns men full of sin to a hell full of judgment, unless they avail themselves of penal substitutionary atonement purchased by Christ upon a cross. And you have heard it said that a God without wrath brings men without sin to a kingdom without judgment through the ministry of Christ without a cross. I think both options miss the mark.
I believe a God full of love calls for radical repentance among human beings who are oppressed (and oppress) externally and internally by destructive systems of sin, so they can increasingly experience the gracious liberation of God’s will being done on earth as in heaven, through Christ and his peace-making cross.
So, those who have read my books know that I believe Jesus came to radically alter our understandings of God, wrath, sin, kingdom, judgment, and the cross. For people who are interested in more … check out my new book, We Make the Road by Walking.