glorifying God

Judging from many a recently heard prayer, Christians seem to want to bless and praise and glorify God a lot; or to sanctify and make famous God’s name; etc. Even sometimes to “boast in God” [sic]! But what are we even talking about?

I don’t know for sure. I am aware (vaguely) that each of these verbs traces back to a biblical antecedent. Lots of psalms urge their readers to bless the Lord; or promise to bless the Lord “in the congregation” if and when the Lord comes through on the deliverance for which the psalmist pleads. E.g., “I will keep the promises I made to the Lord in the presence of all God’s people, in the courtyards of the Lord’s house” (Psalm 116:18, CEB).

Paul talks a lot about blessing God, too. Arguably it’s a central theme for his writings. He seems to think in Romans, for example, that the basic human problem is that we do not “honor God as God or thank him” (1:21). A signature sign of trusting in God is “giving glory to God” (4:20), like Abraham our forefather. Paul even summarizes Christ’s mission like this: “Christ welcomed you, for God’s glory” (15:7). In longer form: “Christ became a servant of those who are circumcised for the sake of God’s truth, in order to confirm the promises given to the ancestors, and so that the Gentiles could glorify God for his mercy” (15:8).

But if it’s such a big deal, what is it, this glorifying God? Does it mean Christ “became a servant” (with all that entailed!) so that humans could have a powerful devotional experience?

Not to belittle this possibility (after all, perhaps God is most glorified when humans are most [devotionally] satisfied…). But it seems to me a balefully limited outcome for the death of God’s own Son; and a piss-poor reply to the devastation of this world. As if a supercharged devotional bonanza is enough of an achievement to ascribe to the blood of Christ; or as if a seraphic worship experience could compensate for, say, hundreds of years of racial violence (even the saints beneath the altar still cried out, “how long,  o Lord, before you require justice?” Rev 6:10). It’s also discomfiting to remember that, historically, those theologians for whom this interpretation of glorifying God was most important were some of the least concerned about making this-worldly reparations; their sequestered vision of glorifying God paralleled their sequestered understanding of discipleship.

No. Glorifying God cannot mean looking away from the bloodiness of our national and world history, shifting attention to a more exalted plane (“And the things of earth will grow strangely dim / In the light of His glory and grace”). Nor can it be a practice for interiority and privacy only. For the psalmists, blessing God was a public occasion: pointing to God’s rescuing power before the great congregation. For Paul, this glorifying of God is not a goal that looked away from impossibility. As for Abraham our forefather in faith, Paul claims that for us also, glorifying God is facing down raw impossibility, without qualification or caveat. Sarah could not have children. And the hellhole of American racial history cannot be sutured. And we cannot be made whole.

Except: except: except: for hope against hope, in “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence” (Rom 4:17).

Glorifying God is holding onto the promise of God in the face of truly depthless impossibility. And holding on, out loud, in public. Trusting in God to save, even when – especially when – what salvation would even mean lies beyond comprehension and beyond imagining, on the other side of human incapacity. Glorifying God is stirring up our shared memory of God’s creating and resurrecting work so that we may hope afresh.

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theological taproots

In such times as these, my thoughts have circled around the words of the following three (anti-[?]) theologians.

For this post, I will leave the dots unconnected and uncurated — though I think for all their differences of time and circumstance, these three block quotes read rather well together.

1. Paul the Apostle

God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life — what is considered to be nothing — to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. So no human can brag in God’s presence. It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us. This is consistent with what was written: The one who brags should brag in the Lord! (1 Corinthians 1:27-31, CEB)

2. Friedrich Nietzsche

Of all that has been done on earth against “the noble,” “the mighty,” “the lords,” “the power-holders,” nothing is worthy of mention in comparison with that which the Jews have done against them: the Jews, that priestly people who in the end were only able to obtain satisfaction from their enemies and conquerors through a radical revaluation of their values, that is, through an act of spiritual revenge […] It was the Jews who in opposition to the aristocratic value equation (good = noble = powerful = beautiful = happy = beloved of God) dared its inversion, with fear-inspiring consistency, and held it fast with teeth of the most unfathomable hate (the hate of the powerless), namely: “the miserable alone are the good; the poor, powerless, lowly alone are the good […] the only blessed by God, for them alone is there blessedness, — whereas for you, you noble and powerful ones, you are in all eternity the evil, the cruel, the lustful, the insatiable, the godless, you will eternally be wretched, accursed, and damned!” We know who inherited this Jewish revaluation […]

This Jesus of Nazareth, as the embodied Gospel of Love, this “Redeemer” bringing blessedness and victory to the poor, the sick, the sinners —was he not precisely seduction in its most uncanny and irresistible form, the seduction and detour to precisely those Jewish values and reshapings of the ideal? Has not Israel reached the final goal of its sublime desire for revenge precisely via the detour of this “Redeemer,” this apparent adversary and dissolver of Israel? Does it not belong to the secret black art of a truly great politics of revenge, of a far-seeing, subterranean, slow-working and pre-calculating revenge, that Israel itself, before all the world, should deny as its mortal enemy and nail to the cross the actual tool of its revenge, so that “all the world,” namely all the opponents of Israel, could take precisely this bait without thinking twice? And, out of all sophistication of the spirit, could one think up any more dangerous bait? Something that in its enticing, intoxicating, anesthetizing, destructive power might equal that symbol of the “holy cross,” that gruesome paradox of a “god on the cross,” that mystery of an inconceivable, final, extreme cruelty and self-crucifixion of God for the salvation of man? (On the Genealogy of Morality, First Treatise, § 7, 8).

3. James Cone

The history of white American theology illustrates the concept of the social a priori asserted by Werner Stark and other sociologists of knowledge whom we discussed earlier. The social environment functions as a “mental grid,” deciding what will be considered as relevant data in a given inquiry. For example, because white theologians are not the sons and daughters of black slaves but the descendants of white slave masters, their theological grid automatically excludes from the field of perception the data of Richard Allen, Henry H. Garnet, Nathaniel Paul, David Walker, and Henry M. Turner […] Again it is obvious that because white theologians were not enslaved and lynched and are not ghettoized because of color, they do not think that color is an important point of departure for theological discourse. Color is not universal they say, moving on to what they regard as the more important problems of theological scholarship […] They must be challenged to take seriously another value system. That is, instead of studying only Jonathan Edwards, they must also examine the reality of David Walker (God of the Oppressed, 48-9).