Riffing on Richard Beck and Why God Matters

Rev. Bill Vanecko, a retired pastor, prays on Palm Sunday, April 5, during a live-streamed service in a nearly empty Saint Columbanus Catholic Church in Chicago.

Riffing on Richard Beck and Why God Matters

In a recent post at the always excellent Experimental Theology blog, Richard Beck opines that the most important question facing Christians and churches today in this pandemic is why God matters to us.

He gives two examples of Christian reactions to the Covid-19 crisis that he has observed. The first involves Christian people taking a stand for and promoting common sense health and safety measures. He welcomes this as a legitimate expression of wisdom, but far short of the kind of theological thinking that involves God in what we’re thinking about, praying about, and talking about. The second is the impulse to serve. Once more, this is a necessary and noble reflex for those who follow the One who came to serve, but again Beck suggests that doing benevolent work in our communities still doesn’t necessarily force us to face the God question.

Over the last two months, as we’ve wrestled with the world of COVID-19, I’ve been having a bunch of scattered thoughts about God and the church.

The big question I’ve been thinking about is this: How does God matter in our lives?

It seems to me that this is the most pressing question facing churches today. Two places where this thought has occurred to me.

First, when you look at progressive Christian Twitter the spiritual counsel being offered is, well, not all that impressive. It basically boils down to wash your hands, social distance, and practice self-care. All legitimate bits of advice, but you don’t really need God for any of this. Just follow the recommendations of the CDC and listen to your therapist. When this is the content of Christian speech during crises–#selfcare and #medicalprofessionals–God isn’t adding anything to our lives, or to our ability to cope with challenging times. During pandemics you don’t really need God. All you need is science and self-care.

Second, I was on a call with some pastors recently, invited to share some thoughts and encouragements during this difficult time. During the call, one of the pastors lamented how he wished his church had more and better ways to meet the needs of his community as we wrestle with the world of COVID-19. Specifically, there were so many good community organizations already in full swing and doing great work this pastor couldn’t see the niche for his church. And without that niche, he felt that the church was useless.

I totally empathized, and encouraged his church to find some place to serve or support the community, but I also offered a caution or, perhaps, a question.

Specifically, the church doesn’t primarily exist to do benevolence work in the community. The church should do this sort of work, and I’m even comfortable in saying the church must do this work. But the church can’t be reduced to this work.

So I shared with the pastor, you’re right, there’s lots of good work being done by community organizations. And they often do this work better than the church. But a pressing challenge for pastors is to boldly articulate for your congregation why God matters independently of social work.

My point in all this, again, is that Christians and churches need to articulate why God matters, beyond science, self-care, and social work.

This, I think, is the theological labor of our time.

The first thing I would say in response is that crises tend to limit our imaginations by necessity. Pressed to respond to the immediate situation, we tend to lock in on a few actions we deem appropriate and helpful. We may not have time for much in the way of reflection or theological discussion.

However, this pandemic has afforded a different kind of opportunity. We are not all fulfilling roles of health providers who work to exhaustion caring for Covid-19 patients in addition to carrying their normal load. In fact, for a lot of us, life has slowed down and given us ample opportunity to read, think, pray, and have conversations via various ways of connecting.

With regard to the two responses Richard Beck writes about, I would hope that we would not only practice common sense wisdom and works of helpfulness, but also go deeper in our theological reasoning as to why these things are important. Though he urges us to think of why God matters independently of these responses, I prefer to start there.

This virus gives us an optimal opportunity to think about the nature of God’s creation, the importance of our bodies, and the vocation God has given us as this good world’s stewards. God matters because “We believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” That’s why my attention has gone back to the first pages of the Bible and I encourage us all to reflect upon why a good Creator God matters in the midst of a pandemic.

One complaint I’ve always had about evangelicalism is that I’ve seen a lot of shallow activism without a corresponding amount of devotion given to serious study, attention to history and tradition, and spiritual practices. But I would never criticize the impulse to serve. Nor does Richard Beck, though he notes correctly that our faith cannot be reduced to good works alone.

When our work pauses, there is ample time to let the experience of serving our neighbors (and being served by them) lead us into a deeper love for Jesus, the servant of all, and a more profound grasp on why he matters to us and to the world. Let’s not miss this chance to develop a more Jesus-shaped theology and spirituality.

45 thoughts on “Riffing on Richard Beck and Why God Matters

  1. It rarely or never occurs to us that He needs us. Our standard perception of His perfection negates need of any kind but that perception may be askew. He may well need us as much as want us.

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  2. God is love because is Trinity, and God is one because God is three. And to add wonder to wonders, in Christ God is revealed in love that suffers for humanity, for his creation.

    Why do we matter to God? For the same reason that God is loving Trinity, and for the same reason that God is one because God is three, and for the same reason that God reveals himself in suffering love. That’s the Divine mathematics of Divine love.

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  3. This.

    And the first Christians didn’t reach out just to be different; it was practically unheard-of for someone to offer help to those outside their kinship group or patronage circle. No, they had an understanding that was driven by the Death and Resurrection of Christ and what exactly that meant for being [human made in the image of God].

    Every year during the Paschal season we hear a special set of verses interspersed with the first three verses of Ps 68. Here is some of this hymn. It contains the deepest answer to the “why” of the question, “Why do Christians serve others?”

    Today a sacred Pascha is revealed to us: a new and holy Pascha, a mystical Pascha,
    a Pascha worthy of veneration; a Pascha which is Christ the Redeemer; a blameless Pascha, a great Pascha, a Pascha of the faithful, a Pascha which has opened for us the gates of Paradise, a Pascha which sanctifies all the faithful.

    The myrrh-bearing women at the break of dawn drew near to the tomb of the Giver of Life; there they found an angel seated upon a stone. He greeted them with these words: “Why seek ye the living among the dead? Why mourn ye the Incorrupt amidst corruption? Go, proclaim the glad tidings to his disciples!”

    Pascha of beauty – the Pascha of the Lord! A Pascha worthy of all honor has dawned for us. Pascha! Let us embrace each other joyously, oh Pascha! Ransom from affliction! Today Christ has shone forth from the tomb as from a bridal chamber, and filled the women with joy, saying: “Proclaim it to the Apostles!”

    This is the Day of Resurrection; let us be illumined by the Feast! Let us embrace each other! Let us call “Brothers!” even those that hate us, and forgive all by the Resurrection! Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

    It is baptism into this, as you pointed out elsewhere in the comments, Robert, that gives Christians whatever purpose and strength we have to serve – whether any particular group of Christians understands and accepts that theology or not.

    Dana

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  4. God is Love because God is a Trinity of Persons. There has to be an Other to love, and then real love will admit a Third. A wise Lakota Christian theologian of blessed memory once said at a conference, “God is one because God is three. This is completely consistent with early Christian thinkers. The Persons of the Trinity have to be considered before we think about what “god” is (essence).

    And, as Christiane wrote, love is generative. Love begets life – in God’s case, love begets all of creation, and the crown of creation, the human being, is equipped to participate in the life of love more than any other creature. God can be united with humans in a way unlike other creatures.

    St Maximos the Confessor had this all worked out about 1500 years ago – at least, it makes sense to me.

    Dana

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  5. You just haven’t met any true-blooded Calvinists.

    “Of *course* I couldn’t choose – my fallen nature will not permit me to view my children and rightly judge them with holy eyes.”

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  6. why God matters?
    15The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16For in Him all things were created, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together
    (Colossians 1)

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  7. ‘why God matters’?

    and its connection to serving? and to needing to be helped?

    if Christ Crucified is not the answer to this, then what is?

    “I thirst”

    sometimes I think His ‘I thirst’ is a command to us to help in this world in the ways that we can, for His sake, for the sake of those who need our help, and even for our own healing as we nurture selflessly in His Name . . .’ it is in giving that we receive’ is a saying of St. Francis

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  8. “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law.”

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  9. Well, whatever the answer is, that is also the answer to the question of why we matter to God.

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  10. ” In other words, it’s not about “science and self-care,” but about love for our neighbor and deeper understanding of our humanity and our sin.”

    THIS !

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  11. Your proposal to the class illustrates very well, though, the concept that apparently we ARE worth the trouble.

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  12. Exactly. This is the approach I take with my neo-Calvinist friends, who insist God has pre-destined those He will toss into the fire. What parent, in his right mind, would have a child, only to at some point in this child’s life…toss them into a fiery pit?!?! This really works well with Calvinists who have two children.

    Okay, Calvinist friend… Which one of your precious children gets to be with you in eternity and which one are you going to send to everlasting torment? Choose now!

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  13. Thanks for sharing Beck’s thoughts and sharing some of your own, CM. Very helpful to me today.

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  14. –> “We should not deem practical words and acts of health and safety as non-theological “common” things that don’t take God into account.”

    Giving a cup of water to someone who’s thirsty, sharing clothes with those who have none. Yep, we are told those are things God notices; they are non-theological common things that scripture tells us have significance to God.

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  15. I think that’s just the nature of posts at blogs. They aren’t necessarily meant to be the be-all and end-all. I view Beck’s post as a “thought of the day” kinda thing meant to get his readers (and now, via CM, us) to think differently than we might be thinking. I found the post helpful (personally).

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  16. I think Beck’s background is Churches of Christ. He later became personally progressive, while remaining a member of Churches of Christ to this day. I don’t think he really knows what life in the mainlines is like. He, apparently like many evangelicals, has a something of a caricature in mind when he thinks and talks about the theological center of the mainlines, as if traditional theology and belief has all been replaced by progressive activism and politics. That might account for some of what you’re saying.

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  17. OK, but then I am not sure how this post fits in. It really comes across as other people were having a conversation, while he thought they should be having a different conversation. So have that conversation, too. They aren’t mutually exclusve.

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  18. Beck regularly visits a state penitentiary as part of his Christian discipleship, and is member of a downtown storefront congregation — in Texas, I believe — that serves and is comprised of the urban needy and disadvantaged. He’s more likely to be the guy in a mainline suburban congregation relentlessly pushing the need to serve those in need, if he were a member of such a congregation.

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  19. This. A lot of theology made a lot more sense to me once I had children. Other parts make no sense at all. Simultaneously loving my children and being angry with them? Perfect sense. Condemning them to eternal torment? I can’t imagine what would lead me to that, and I am of but fallen humanity.

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  20. I have read Beck much, so this may be completely unfair, but reading this post he strikes me as tedious. I imagine him in a committee meeting devoted to finding ways to help the homeless, and being That Guy who insists on frequent ritual pieties. “Yes, a soup kitchen would be a good thing, but where do we need God for this?” That would get very old very fast.

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  21. I think this post is missing the mark a little: what I’ve heard most often in progressive circles is not just talk about “common-sense safety measures,” but about our broader understanding of how deeply interdependent human beings are, how our own actions can protect or harm total strangers and our whole communities, and how the pandemic is revealing more clearly than ever the institutional sins of our society. In other words, it’s not about “science and self-care,” but about love for our neighbor and deeper understanding of our humanity and our sin.

    That understanding of how human beings rely on each other and how structural sin damages us all is deeply theological, and is one of the most important theological conversations we can be having right now.

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  22. To answer that question, I think you’d have to answer this one first: Why is God love?

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  23. One might also suggest that historically the widespread idea and practice of helping one’s neighbors by practical means, even when those neighbors are not among your religious or secular in-group, is rooted in the early Christian community reaching out to its pagan neighbors in just such acts. That practice was one of the things that marked the early Christian community as different from the surrounding pagan civilization, and it could be argued that the widespread practice of giving such help in our world, and even devoting one’s life to it, came from the practice of that early Christian community. If they hadn’t existed, would that idea exist in our world today? Would there be secular charitable efforts like the ones we see around us today? In reply to what Beck is saying, we might say that without the theologically rooted works-of-love practices of that early Christian community, the kind of secular humanitarianism that exists today would not exist.

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  24. When our work pauses, there is ample time to let the experience of serving our neighbors (and being served by them) lead us into a deeper love for Jesus, the servant of all, and a more profound grasp on why he matters to us and to the world.

    It’s that “and being served by them” that often gets passed over when being Christian is identified by activism, whether it is the social activism of progressives/liberals, or the missionary activism of conservatives. There are many people who because of circumstances, often health issues, need a lot of service from the their neighbors just to get by. That they can’t be activists in either the liberal or conservative Christian senses does not mean that they are any less Christians, or disadvantaged as Christians. Being Christian is not rooted in our ability to do anything in particular, but in having received the from God baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. Whatever we are capable of doing, or not doing, none of us can raise ourselves from the dead, and we need raising from the dead to be faithful in either the Christian activism of giving support to others, or in the Christian receiving of support given by God through our neighbors.

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  25. Once, in seminary, in the first session of a class (I think it was philosophy of religion or something like that), we were broken up into groups and given an assignment. The premise was that we were a committee of angels, who had just been briefed on God’s plan for creation, and we were tasked with offering ONE change to that plan. I talked my group into my brilliant idea – that God should just dispense with the idea of making humanity altogether. I argued my case, I think, quite eloquently – that the vastness and complexity of the universe was a more than adequate display of God’s wisdom and power, that humanity was going to rebel and ruin it all, and that God would ultimately have to sacrifice Himself to make it right. In other words, humanity just was not. Worth. The trouble.

    My proposal was voted down by the class as a whole, of course. They chose some simple piety (no disease) instead.

    I’ve always been a contrarian freak. 🙂

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  26. And that’s exactly the kind of theological thinking and conversing that needs to be done today, Eeyore. We should not deem practical words and acts of health and safety as non-theological “common” things that don’t take God into account.

    To quote Luke Timothy Johnson:

    Two simple convictions animate this exercise in theology. The first is that the human body is the preeminent arena for God’s revelation in the world, the medium through which God’s Holy Spirit is most clearly expressed. God’s self-disclosure in the world is thus continuous and constant. The second conviction is that the task of theology is the discernment of God’s self-disclosure in the world through the medium of the body.

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  27. “when you look at progressive Christian Twitter the spiritual counsel being offered is, well, not all that impressive. It basically boils down to wash your hands, social distance, and practice self-care. All legitimate bits of advice, but you don’t really need God for any of this.”

    Well, when it comes right down to it, the Old and New Testaments both put much more priority over practical expressions of love of neighbor over any sort of display of piety. So, back to Bonhoeffer, where IS the “need for God”, apart from a need/desire for there to be an eternal significance to our actions?

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