I recently went to a theological lecture. At least, it was ostensibly theological. The lecturer was discussing a variety of social problems, and, in the end, I suppose the point was that we have to do something about these problems. I optimistically filled in the narrative gaps that I was experiencing, hoping what was meant was that we should do something about these problems because they are inconsistent with God’s will for the world. After all, I thought we were engaging these matters theologically. God should be in there somewhere, right?
Nevertheless, even if that was what the lecturer meant to convey, that would not be enough. Among Christians, ostensibly religious talk about social problems that takes no account of the agency of God is not enough. The God of Christian faith is an agent. If we are supposed to do good in the world, it is because of the sanctifying action of God who motivates us, pricks our consciences, and changes our will. I would not, moreover, limit the action of God to sanctifying work within individuals. God is working in ways unseen, setting the stage for great triumphs that we cannot yet anticipate.
I spend a lot of time talking with Christians. I have taught and participated in many courses in churches through the years, been in conversation with a great many seminary students, and spent hours upon hours in conversation with pastors and Christian academics. I’ve come to realize through this that, for many Christians, God is essentially a construct. God doesn’t do anything except give credence and authority to the ethical claims that we want to endorse. The Holy Spirit does no heavy lifting in this scenario. This type of religion is disconnected from the God of the Bible and Christian tradition.
Sermons often leave us with a call to action. As a result of the message we’ve just heard, we’re supposed to do X. This can be a very powerful way of getting people to be about God’s purposes in the world. The question I have more and more, though, is, “What does God do in this scenario?” The next time you hear a sermon or a lecture in theological ethics, ask yourself this question: according to what I’ve just heard, what does God do? Whether or not I can or should do anything, what have I learned about the agency of God?
I’ve heard many times, “God has no hands but our hands,” but this isn’t right. This isn’t the God of which we read in the Bible, nor is it the God who is handed on to us in tradition. God may use our hands to do something of value in this world, despite all of the ways in which we’re likely to mess things up. In our walk of discipleship, however, the question we should be asking is not simply, “What would Jesus do?” but “What is God doing?”