21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. 22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” 23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Reading Scripture with the intention of faith will not allow us to avoid its more unsettling passages. We can, and often do, artificially resolve these “a priori,” based on how we already imagine God to be. If we imagine a nonviolent God, we will go to great lengths to assure ourselves that the moral of the story of Abraham and Isaac is not “you should kill your son if God asks.” I use this example of self-justification because this is my current position and resolution.
What motivates me to explain things differently than they appear? I am not speaking in favor of a mythical “plain” reading of Scripture. I am referring to the times when even with all the necessary background and context, like Peter, I am still not able to accept God’s own pronouncements about Himself.
Some believers and theologians seem to go through these exercises as performance, trying to keep up appearances for the nonexistent “Big Other.” This can be seen in the church’s theological taboos, and explain why sometimes we are afraid to say the obvious about God. For my part, I do not think that God is the least bit offended when we say that he seems to be capricious and unjust in the book of Job. Some might explain this hesitancy by the “fear of God,” but for me this is too easy. We are performing for the emotional sensitivity of someone who is quite unlike God.
This is also seen in the current church discussions about the belief in hell. Some will claim that avoiding an afterlife of eternal torment is not a primary concern of Scripture, and this of course triggers a rush of defenders who say that God wants us to believe in hell, if only because of its efficacy in motivating conversions. My unfair characterization here is that both sides try to justify their conception of God, and both would say they are letting Scriptures speak, but both are also performing. They are performing for their idea of what God wants, what their colleagues want, what their friends want, and so on. We are obsessed with following the etiquette and rules of theological conversation (a conversation that includes orthodoxy and heterodoxy). So as Christians when we either attack or defend traditional church teachings, we are not doing so in an ideological vacuum. We are moving, and talking, and thinking in preordered ways that give us some security. Our indirect belief in these rules is what makes them real, and part of the reason we defend them so fiercely. This leads me to say what I think is the matter with me.
I am, like Peter, afraid of losing God. I believe in a holy, loving, ultimately redemptive God of justice. God is the anchor of everything I think I know about myself and humanity. If He is the root of my identity, and if he turns out not be the One I have trusted in all this time, I will have really lost everything. This fear guides and directs all of my theological exploration. I always have to return to the God in whom I allow myself to believe. When I observe a God who contradicts Himself, or who claims responsibility for the destruction of people He Himself claims to love, my first instinct is to defend my own treasured conception of Him. The only other choice is for me to ignore the evidence.
The death of God still shakes me. I see this passage in Matthew, and know I am not the only one who has felt this way. Peter gave up everything to follow Jesus, and then Jesus told him that He was going to die. “God forbid it,” is how one translation records Peter’s reaction. Who was Peter trying to protect? How often have I also tried to defend God from Himself, when all God really wanted was for me to let Him die?