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Jason Derr Headshot

God Is a Verb

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It has come up for me a few times recently, the gap between Christianity and my own personal spiritual journey. On my best days I can put myself into the "Emerging" or
'Progressive" camp, but at other times -- when I am bombarded by blogs, TV news commentators and comments from friends -- I have to admit that I am not in a space most Christians would find safe.

It even got so bad that my wife's priest, a lovely Anglican clergy member who married us just under a year ago, declared I was "not truly an Anglican." Sad if we see the Anglican Church -- in theory at least -- as being a third way theologically between extremes.

Like many people I understand myself to be in the progressive Christian tradition, a tradition that is at the heart of the Christian theological project to speak truthfully and faithfully in the contest of life in which we find ourselves. If people cannot question faith and push back against certain assumptions or positions in light of medical, scientific and philosophical insights, then we have exchanged faith for belief.

The Christian church continues shrink in North America, opening us to unimagined space for its renewal, revival and resurrection. This renewal will take place in the post-Christian world, which author John Caputo dubs the post-secular age. The shapes and contours of Christian faith in the emerging century will have a reality more influenced by "p2p" networks than by the printing press, and post-denominational structures will arise "with, in and under" our traditional denominational and non-denominational framework, to borrow a phrase from Luther's sacramental imagery.

Looking back, we are able to see that it is always forerunners and outsiders that do the groundwork for the shifts that happen a few decades latter. For example, the current GreenTech revolution can only exist today because of the theoretical and philosophical groundwork laid in the '60s. The emerging church movement owes much to the groundwork laid by the liberation theologies of past decades.

In this way I say the future of the church and of Christian faith will turn on the work of radicals and outsiders in this generation, many of whom are just starting seminary and graduate school but who will do the the majority of their work -- unless they find a very supportive religious studies department, seminary or think tank -- outside of the academy, possibly in their peer networks. In his book Participatory Spirituality John Heron calls this "equipotency."

Like John Caputo, I affirm that God as we have known him must pass away so that God as we could know her may emerge. After the fall of the towers on 9/11, it is impossible for us to affirm an all-powerful God. The events of that day forced many an American to ask how God could allow such destruction to happen and why God did not stop it if that was within God's power. Add to that the staggering deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq as we war with our brothers and sisters in humanity and fellow travelers on God's path in Islam, and the question becomes even more powerful.

Caputo says -- and I want to affirm -- that the line between "atheist'" and "theist" (or "panenthesist" as well) is a false one. What he means is that God is not an all powerful/all-knowing being outside of history but is instead life itself. "God," Caputo says in On Religion, "is a name we put on Love." Other names we put on love include justice, mercy, joy and goodness.

God, then, is not a force who acts on the world through coercion, violence or the suspension of physics and free will. Instead, God is something that we participate in. God is a verb, an action we bring to the world to make love, justice, mercy, joy and goodness known.

Both of these models of God are rooted in the cross. In the first God enacts violence -- or allows violence to happen to himself/his son -- to appease his own wrath at humanity. In this model God's rage and anger at sin must be abated. In the second model Jesus is the holy one of God for whom the work of love, or of God emergent in human form, ruffles the feathers of the empire the wrong way, bringing about his death. (Note: these are not the only theologies of the cross, but they are used as examples.)

Of course this weak God has its own power. Love finds a way; it pushes up in the cracks of the heart and society and tears down our assumptions. Love finds away, like lifelong LGBTQ couples who live lives of integrity and faithfulness in the face of cultural assumptions that devalue their love. Love forms alternative communities and economics as a pushback against cultural injustices. This is why we tell the story of the resurrection, the Work of Love that steps out from the worst we can throw at it and announces that Love conquers injustice, covers a multitude of sins.

The God who is a verb or a name for love does not extend beyond the personal God so many have held onto. Love is personal. Justice is personal. When we are loved we should scream, "Praise God!" The personal God is a valuable model as it moves the work of Love into the world of relatable and relational experiences.

Worship has always been a valuable part of the Christian community. From the sacramental and liturgical forms of worship to the contemporary pop-culture-infused attempts by the evangelical church, Christian worship is the centerpiece of the Christian life.

And rightly so. Communities should gather to thank God, to celebrate and mourn and mark life passages. The liturgical calendar marks out a different way of telling time, where we tell the story of faith and not the story of nation.

But how do we worship a God who is not a thing but an action and activity in the world? A verb! Remember we said that God is an activity; something that we make happen in the world, and as such is not contained to our religions but is present whenever a person enacts love, justice, mercy, joy and goodness?

If God is a verb, then so is worship. The future of the church will not turn on our new theologies but on how we pray and whether our prayer is rooted in an action and activity. Can we honestly say "body broken for you" over the bread if we don't address how the world and church contributes to the breaking of bodies?

The church -- which may not be a church as we know it but a study group, a 12-step style program, a distributed network spread across a city or even the world -- of the future will be a place where we celebrate the work of justice we have done and are sent back out to make God known. The church will be the place where we invite atheists, Muslims, Jews and the whole of humanity in and announce that, when we work from Love to make the world a better place, we all engage in the same thing. There is no line between the atheist and theist.

Those of us with these views, or who dare question the historical accuracy of miracles or virgin birth, or who push back against the church's discrimination against woman, LGBTQ folk and the disabled, are often relegated to the dust bin of faith. While the term "Christian" will never vanish, as we kill and rebirth the church I have been tempted at times to call myself a Jesusian instead of a Christian. If God is a verb, then maybe this works better, for I have been in love with the verb of the life of Jesus for as long as I can remember. I doubt so much of the miracles, the doctrines, the top-down structures of the church -- but I do not doubt that verb.

But then again the early Christian community called themselves The Way. A way indicates a path we walk, narratives we ponder and question we ask. It is telling that they did not call themselves The Answer. Following a way is an action. It is a verb. It is making God known because God is not far away and all-powerful but is instead something we make real in the world.

I cannot say this is what the future of Christian faith will be. But I believe that outside the faith, it is the voice of Spirit that so many are hearing. It is the future of faith in North America because it is only lack of love that is not faith.

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