I had the opportunity to get away from Denver for a few days and travel. Part of my journey was some quiet time of reading and reflection along the Pacific Ocean in Southern California. I was able to unplug a bit, which was needed. There seems to be so much yelling amongst communities nowadays, and I reflected on that a bit.
In many Christian circles there is a despondence between the belief about religious faith and the manner in which we speak about God. As the prominent Protestant claim goes, salvation is not based on action, but on faith alone. Good action – morally approved behavior – should be the result, not the source, of salvation. I have no qualms about the theological claim here. What is concerning, however, is our language about God and our subsequent behaviors. That is to say, there is a disconnection with our view of salvation with our method of relating with God.
Take for example discussion of God’s love and grace. We say that these features of God (which are embedded in the very notion of God as Being) are unconditional, that there is no limit or restriction on these features. God’s love and grace, then, are unconditional and are not given to humanity when we meet a set of expectations.
Yet this understanding of God is distinct from how we talk and act about God. When something goes wrong, it is easy to claim that we are somehow being punished by God for our wrongdoings. When God seems absent, we must have done something that caused a distancing in our relationship with God. We sometimes feel like God does not love us due to our behaviors. This is action-based language about God. When we say, or believe, these things, we are not truly believing in God as God, but God as our construct of God. What is really being said is God doesn’t love me because I’m not meeting a set of expectations.
Yet God’s love and grace is not dependent on our actions or beliefs about God. In fact, the very nature of the Christian narrative of salvation is that God’s love and grace are not bound by what we do. God is not a God who shows up only when we meet the established rules. Rather, God precisely wants to meet us when we fail to live up to expectations.
Expectation-based language not only has an adverse effect on our view and relationship with God, but also has a negative social outpouring in our relationships. When we live our relationship with God based on expectations, we naturally transfer those expectations onto our loved ones. I do not see expectation as a purely negative term. For instance, if I plan to meet a friend for a drink at a set time and place, I expect that friend to be there. Or, if something comes up, I expect to be notified. In essence, I expect for be organically communicated with in an atmosphere of respect. Here, expectation is connected to respect and treated naturally as such.
Expectations, however, have the power to curtail respect and turn into performance-based results. That is to say, expectations can so easily be connected to our selfish and self-centered desires. If I have an established basis of expectation of how I should act, I transfer those expectations onto my loved ones. If they fail to meet those expectations, then I react in a manner which is selfish and judgmental. I’m concerned with my image and reputation. My concern is for my external appearance and acceptance. Focus is not on the other.
When this cycle begins, it is easy to form stigmas about those who are different than us. It’s easy to judge the homeless person holding a cardboard sign on the street corner. “He’s just a beggar. He needs to get a job.” It’s easy to judge the gay person. “She’s just giving into secular impulses, we say. She needs to repent.” It’s easy to judge the person on the other side of the political fence. “That damn liberal,” we say. Or, “What a heartless Republican.” Loaded language permeates. When expectations are the way we relate to God and others, our mind creates stigmas about the “other.” We judge on our fabricated expectations and label people accordingly.
Stigmas don’t merely remain mental constructs. They move outward. Stigmas become engrained in our words. Suddenly they are audible and visual. Go on any Facebook or Twitter thread and you’re bound to see a judgmental or stigmatized comment. When used repetitiously and in mass, stigmas become trends. Stigmas create language that isolates. Stigmas polarize. We seem to have entered a time where proper discourse is lost and constant shouting is all that remains. The ironic part is when someone ends up saying, “I’m not being heard.” Is that a surprise? I want to respond with a “No shit.” It’s improbable that someone will be heard when there is so much noise to navigate through. We’ve lost the ability to listen, to ask questions. We no longer are patient. We want to be heard immediately and often times at the expense of listening to someone who we disagree with. Here, we polarize. It’s support marriage equality or you’re a bigot. It’s liberal Democrat or fundamentalist Republican. Whatever the issue, there seemingly is only two sides, black vs. white. In a world of gray, we operate in a manner in which pretends any middle ground on a spectrum doesn’t exist. When we refuse to listen and merely demand to be heard, we only widen a schism that exists between us.
This polarizing “us versus them” mentality has but one tragic consequence: exclusion. This mentality is one of warfare. It’s the good guys versus the bad guys. Thus we naturally want to associate ourselves with other allies and dismiss any discussion of the villains. Our faith communities have transformed from civil arenas of love to hostile environments of judgments and expectations. Somewhere in there we talk about God’s love, but often times only on our own terms. Is there a need for the rise of the gay church? Due to the climate right now, I suppose the answer is yes. Yet this ought not be the reality. There should be a place for civility and love amongst disagreement. Should Christians fear losing their job because they are too “liberal” or fear a stunted advancement because they are too conservative? Socrates famously once said, “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.” This humble admission of one of the wisest individuals in history is long lost in our culture. It seems the one thing we readily know is that we know everything. And this is the sad demise of relationship.