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Seriously, God, Why HAVE you Forsaken Me? | Challenging the OCD Divinity | Dirt

Quick thought around Easter…which is, when one thinks about it, a pretty bizarre religious festival, unfolding a complex, gruesome, politically charged and then miraculous narrative.

For some time my friend Pete Rollins has focused quite a lot of his theological thinking around Jesus’ cry from the cross about being forsaken. “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” is, as Pete has identified, perhaps the most fascinating kernel of Christianity, because, as he sees it, it puts doubt right at the centre of the Christian religion…which is not a fulcrum you hear a lot about, especially from Republican presidential candidates, or fundamentalist lobbyists.

I like this idea of doubt, but I think there’s something far more troubling about these words of Jesus, which comes simply from changing the tone of voice. Rather than a painful cry of abandonment, what if his words are an actual, unrhetorical question: seriously, God, why have you forsaken me?

This is an incredibly important question, because it drives at the heart of what Christianity is about. Is it about a supposedly loving father who, at the very point of his son’s greatest anguish, abandons him and will have nothing to do with him because he’s ‘impure’? That seems to me to be an utterly despicable thing to do… the behaviour of a petulant, obsessive compulsive, someone so afraid of contamination that they need bizarre purification rituals to be performed, with blood and incense, before they’ll be present.

This is the Old Testament God that we read about: angry, yet weirdly lacking robustness, unable to be near things that are imperfect. And this is important, because this is the sort of ‘holiness’ that so many Christians base themselves on: putting themselves as far as possible away from ‘impurity’ and being really quite angry and neurotic about it.

So, in light of this, Jesus’ question about being abandoned is a direct challenge to this mode of being. Why, Jesus asks…why can’t you handle dirt? God comes across like an angry Tudor monarch, obsessed with cleanliness in a world that has never been clean.

The key question for me is whether God faced that challenge. If he did not, and this cry of abandonment is just that: despair at being left alone in his hour of need, then I couldn’t call myself a Christian. It just doesn’t fit together.

But… if, in an inverted reading of this cry, we imagine that God sees his own son become filth and decides that enough is enough… that he has to get involved, overcome his OCD and get his hands dirty…. and stop hating and punishing people for all their pettiness… then that feels a bit more like it, because now we get a theology which takes engagement in ‘filth’ as a positive thing… and thus ought to lead those who profess to be Christians away from sanctimonious declarations of who’s clean and who’s dirty, and into full engagement with a world that still has too many people who experience abandonment in it.

I’m currently reading the manuscript for Pete’s new book, which talks about this… It’s very good, and has been making me think…perhaps the single greatest sin is religion itself, because it’s that that has led to so much condemnation of difference… So what we see on the cross is the death of religion, because we see the death of this angry and neurotic god who is challenged to change…and perhaps does.

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7 comments to Seriously, God, Why HAVE you Forsaken Me? | Challenging the OCD Divinity | Dirt

  • One of my former professors (Brandon Scott) often writes about the parable of the leaven along the same lines of what you lay out here. In the ancient world leaven was associated with rot, with all that is unclean. And yet Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is like leaven…”

  • I love the thinking here. It reminds me of the scene in Lamb by Christopher Moore when Jesus and Biff are in India rescuing the children who are about to be sacrificed. Jesus is so outraged that all he can do is tell God, No more sacrifices.

  • I think that an important part of the idea that because of Jesus, God is able to identify with humanity is that Jesus *did* experience what it was like to feel separated from and abandoned by God. If we really do have a leader who can “empathise with our weakness”, who really understands what its like to live a human life, then knowing loneliness and abandonment is a part of that, surely, as those are feelings that many people experience?

    With regard to doubt and dirt, I agree with so much of what you have written above, but I’d love to hear how you link such ideas to the concepts of decay, rebirth and renewal that you’ve spoken of before. I want to know whether God getting dirty is an end in itself, or part of a process of transformation for us all.

  • Yeah, but… what if God wasn’t “angry and neurotic” in the first place?
    What if we are actually misreading vast portions of OT and attributing acts of man / mankind to God / instructions from God?
    What if God never actually had any issue with ‘contamination’ in the first place? Lets face it, when it comes to Jesus – he went out of his way to touch the untouchable and instead of ‘it’ contaminating him, he healed and redeemed ‘it’ (think lepers / prostitutes / woman with heavy periods / dead people etc…)
    God mud-wrestled with Jacob – that’s got to be a pretty dusty task.
    God wasn’t too ‘proud’ to get all up-close and personal with Moses on the mountain and It seems like Joshua slept in the ‘tent of meeting’ and that doesn’t seem like something that an ‘OCD’ God, ‘obsessed with cleanliness’ would tolerate!
    I don’t know, I might be all barking up the incorrect tree I guess!

  • Peter

    Thanks Alex, finally a voice of reason.

    Kester – love your work, love the challenging of the religious status quo, and Other is second only to The Irresistable Revolution on my bookshelf, but these thoughts are simply not theologically accurate. “Whatever I speak is only what the father told me to speak”. God the Father and God the Son are one, Jesus IS the God you describe as a petulant, obsessive compulsive. The God of the Old Testament could come near to imperfection, but the imperfect didn’t fare all that well when he did.

    Voices such as yours and Pete’s are so important in Christianity today but posts like this one do much more harm than good, and they make me (you can possibly tell) quite angry.

    Perhaps it is inappropriate to be so frank, but they also make me doubt the intimacy that you share with Jesus Christ, or indeed whether you think intimacy with Jesus Christ is possible. To the extent that people like you and Pete are able to say from a position of intimacy, there’ll be no stopping you. Otherwise it’s “clanging cymbal; noisy gong” syndrome.

  • KB

    Peter, I’m glad you’ve posted. And really glad you’ve enjoyed my work! Thanks – encouragement is so good.

    I would obviously want to contest your view that a post like this can do more harm than good… because I’m not sure what the ‘harm’ can be if people write material that is challenging. If you have been challenged by the above, and been forced to rethink your position, perhaps from another angle, then I think that’s a win. I lament the lack of polemic to be honest – I feel people are afraid of expressing alternate views. I feel strongly that ‘inverted’ readings can be profoundly helpful, because by turning things upside-down a little, our easy readings are challenged and we have to do a little work to put everything straight again… except things are never quite as straight as they once were. And that’s a good thing. So that’s why I like to take some theological poetic license if you will…it actually helps people figure out what their centre is.

    On the intimacy thing… part of the role of the public theologian, I feel, is to live something of their journey in public. To hide all would be to be a cold academic – whereas to have full disclosure would cross the boundaries of what’s appropriate. What concerns me is that very often readers of sites (me included) somehow elevate the writer and assume that they are ‘sorted’ in all their thinking… and when we disagree we do so without much pastoral concern. So… my question, what’s the locus of your anger? Are you worried that I might be corrupting others? And if so, doesn’t that say something awkward about the ability of the church to communicate its orthodoxy?

    Thanks again for commenting – and for supporting my work. I guess I hope people can be robust in having their faith challenged… and that that will not lead to anger, but a greater heart for what’s true.

  • Peter

    Kester

    Thank you for your reply, and again for your work. As a church leader, I am trying to work out how phenomenal ideas like “TAZ” can change how we do things.

    I also agree that inverted readings can be very helpful, and Pete is of course the master. And I agree too (there’s a pattern emerging) that most “followers of Christ” flee from rational argument, or challenge to their beliefs.

    My anger (maybe frustration is a better word) is that I think you and Pete and others like you are most powerful when you are speaking as “Christians” in the eyes of the church. Other is a perfect example – I don’t see anything in Other that is not consistent with an enlightened, reflective and passionate reading of the Bible (it’s been 6 months since I read it so forgive me if I’m wrong).

    Within that framework, you can powerfully shape how the church in the UK and elsewhere thinks and operates and approaches relationship and social justice.

    But this post (and certain others) to me come from the perspective of “I don’t believe in the God of the Bible, either because God as Trinity doesn’t exist, or the Bible is fundamentally and extensively flawed. And maybe that’s what you’re aiming for and where you’re at and that’s cool and it’s not for me to say that you should be doing something else or be somewhere else. I just want you and Pete etc. to be saying “this is Jesus”. And to me this post doesn’t reveal the real Jesus but alienates people from the real God.

    I also agree with your “living something of your journey” point – very true.

    Again, thank you again for your work, I look forward to the new book.