In my post, Eschatological Inclusivism, I write: “The Bible often presents God acting and the church joining him in what he is doing. That differs somewhat from how many present witnessing–as doing God’s work for him, or, more precisely, as being the sole means by which God does his work.”
I’ve encountered the motif of joining God in what he’s doing at various points in my life. When I was at DePauw, I was part of an evangelical Bible study group. The leader was somewhat of a Christian exclusivist, for he believed that one had to believe in Christ to be saved (though I think he made an exception for little children). But he also thought that God was all around him, communicating who he is to sinful humanity. For him, God could convey his inviting love in a Catholic service, a mainline Protestant service, a Unitarian Universalist service, and even a classroom. No, my friend didn’t believe in many paths to God, for he was clear that Jesus was the only way. But he did think that God was continually beaming messages to humanity about what he was like. And how could God not? He’s such a big God, and he’s concerned about all his creation.
I encountered that idea at Harvard as well. I was in a class with a group of evangelicals, and one of them was a pastor of a charismatic church. A little old lady who was auditing the class asked him what God thought about Muslims, and he responded that God may be communicating to them who he is through their worship, since God is love. That didn’t exactly mesh with a “the whole world is blinded by Satan” idea (which crops up a lot in the Bible), but it did present God as one who cares for all of his creation, even people in the non-Christian world.
Before I attended Harvard, I went through a workbook written by Henry Blackaby, a Southern Baptist. The book was entitled, Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God. I had questions about why God spoke to some Christians and not others (me), and someone recommended this book to me.
Blackaby outlines a few basic principles, and one of them is that God is at work around me and wants me to join him in what he is doing. According to Blackaby, the Bible is clear that human beings do not seek after God, at least not by themselves (Romans 3:11). Consequently, if someone is seeking after God (i.e., asking spiritual questions), that indicates God is at work on that person’s heart (see John 6:44). God then wants to use Christians to answer his or her spiritual questions.
My hunch is that Blackaby’s book is pretty popular, for, when I went to the Harvard Divinity School Christian Fellowship, one of the women prayed, “Father, help us to identify where you are working and join you in that.” I wonder where she got that idea.
My problem is that the model may not work as neatly as advertised. Sure, God’s in the business of creating churches and Bible study groups and drawing lots of people to them. I’ve seen that happen, especially at DePauw. But not everyone who asks spiritual questions is interested in hearing about evangelicalism or fundamentalist Christianity. Many of them have probably already had experiences with those belief systems, plus they may be looking elsewhere for answers.
There were Christians within the HDS Christian Fellowship Group who recognized this. The year I dropped out of the group, a girl asked what its mission should be at its very first meeting for the school year. The sponsor then replied, “There are many people who come to the Divinity school because they’re spiritually searching. But, for some reason, they don’t think that the God of Jesus Christ is the answer to their search. Maybe they had a bad experience, I don’t know.” Essentially, HDS Christian Fellowship wanted to show unbelievers that Christ contained the answers they were seeking. Its tactics included being nice to non-Christians and one another, inviting respected evangelical speakers to the campus, trying to distance themselves from Falwell’s 9/11 remarks, etc.
Did they succeed? I don’t know. I can testify that, when I was at Harvard, a lot of evangelicals were there. That’s a notable contrast from the Harvard Divinity School of the 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s, and maybe even the 1990’s. Was God bringing Christians to Harvard so they could be salt and light to unbelievers? Was that God at work? I don’t know.
Another place I encountered the concept of “God at work” was in Harvey Cox’s 1965 classic, The Secular City. For Cox, God is actively bringing justice into the world (the kingdom of God), and Christians should join God in what he is doing. Genesis 2 presents man as a co-creator with God, since God gives man the task of naming the animals, which is a creative activity.
I wonder specifically how Cox thinks God is working in the world. Do humans have to generate social justice by the sheer force of their will, as they get off their rear ends and actually do something? Or is God himself creating the currents of justice–by stirring people up to do his will, or by providentially arranging events in a just direction? Who creates the raging river of justice: us or God? Do we join God in something he’s already doing, or does God expect us to do his work for him?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s a little of both! We see incidents in the Bible in which God stirs people to do something through his Holy Spirit (e.g., Samson, Cyrus, the post-exilic Jews who lacked a temple, etc.). In such cases, God creates an intense desire in people to do his will. Yet, he does not hesitate to put his people on a guilt trip! The Book of Haggai is a good example of this: “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Haggai 1:4 NRSV).
As I read The Secular City, I thought about a point that Michael John Carley made in Asperger’s from the Inside Out. According to Carley, society is naturally progressive. In the past, African-Americans were treated as sub-human. Now, an African-American is running for President. And so Carley envisions a future society in which people with Asperger’s will find acceptance and appreciation. And he’s not being utopian: he truly expects society to become more accepting as it learns about the condition, since it has progressed in a number of other areas (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.).
Is God at work in human society, making it more and more just? I doubt that conservative Christians will view acceptance of homosexuality as something God favors. But could God be responsible for other aspects of society’s progress? Is God creating a current that he wants us to be part of?
In some cases, God may set the stage for his activity. Right now, I write about my Asperger’s. I wouldn’t have been able to do that several years ago, when few people knew what Asperger’s was. I’m joining a current that already exists. Yet, there were people who started the current. Maybe God blessed their efforts, since it takes luck to make a splash in today’s world!
Many Christians believe that other religions can be a preparation for Christianity. I just finished Joseph Campbell’s book on primitive mythology, which argues that many pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures had a concept of resurrection on the third day. Was God preparing them for the coming of Christ? Christianity can only make sense to people when it fits within some frame of reference. Did God providentially arrange that frame of reference, as Ben Witherington once argued?
Who does the work: God or us? Does God create the current when it comes to evangelism and social justice, or do we? Are we joining God in what he’s already doing, or are we doing his work for him? Maybe it’s a little of both.