God as deus ex machina

(This was first posted in October of last year on Matthew Paul Turner’s blog. I’m reposting it here as I try to consolidate most of my writing in one place)

Reading the first chapter of Peter Rollins’ new book, Insurrection – which comes out this week; read the first chapter here – and his exploration of the way the church often uses the idea of God as nothing more than a deus ex machina, I was reminded of news I heard recently about the current pastor of the church I grew up in.

This church, in its heyday, was one of the biggest churches in the fundamentalist Baptist world. There’s a university associated with it, past its prime, like the church, and in recent years the pastor of the church and the president of the school have been one and the same. When it came to the attention of the school’s board of directors earlier this year that a chapter of his master’s thesis, a book some students were required to buy for their classes, had ben plagiarized – his excuse that he thought the pastor whose book he “borrowed” from was dead or the book was out of print and so it was okay to use it without giving credit, did not, funnily enough, prove to be a satisfactory explanation to everyone, even after he published an updated version – he resigned from his position at the university, claiming it was something he had already planned on doing. God wanted him to focus on his work as the pastor of the church, he said, and he’d decided it was too much responsibility to do both.

A couple of months after this pastor’s big announcement, God changed his mind (you know how fickle he can be). What God really wanted him to do, he said as he turned in his resignation letter to the church, was work for an evangelistic ministry, traveling around the country. “He felt like the Lord decided to move him,” one staff member said, claiming that his leaving had nothing to do with his resignation from the school. It was just time for him to move on.

In the first chapter of Insurrection, Pete critiques this view of religion, this way of thinking about God that uses God as nothing more than an excuse for why you’re leaving a church or starting a new church or quitting your job or ending a relationship, instead of giving the real reasons for your actions. Building off of the work of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he writes:

For Bonhoeffer, the Church approached God as a deus ex machina. God was merely an idea clumsily dropped into our world in order to fulfill a task. God was introduced into the world on our terms in order to resolve a problem rather than expressing a lived reality. The result is a God who simply justifies our beliefs and helps us sleep comfortably at night. God is brought into the picture only when we face a problem of some kind that doesn’t lend itself to solution by other means. In Bonhoeffer’s view, this God plays the same meager role as the supernatural beings in third-rate Greek plays.

While this way of using God, this use of the deus ex machina, can be fairly harmless, in can also lead, to name one example I’m personally acquainted with, to a father and husband deciding that God has told him to kill his wife and children. This, then, has become a position that I argue passionately against, a view of God, of the Other, that I think is, at best, rather perverse.

Toward the end of the first chapter, Pete gets into the way we talk about God with others if we believe in this way.

[T]he result is a faith that exists only at the very margins of our life, a faith that only has something to offer when we feel depressed, or scared, or when we face death. But what if someone actually enjoys life and embraces it? God as a psychological crutch would seem to have nothing to offer at all. The only option left for the apologist who is confronted by someone who actually enjoys life is to attempt to show that they are really in denial and crying out for this God in a disavowed way. If they cannot succeed in convincing the happy person that they are really unhappy, then they have nothing left to offer and must reject them as one caught up in rebellion, deception, and defiance.

I’m looking forward to engaging with the arguments Pete makes in Insurrection – the subtitle is “To believe is human. To doubt, divine.” – and hope it will be the catalyst for many good conversations. Download the first chapter here for free.

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