Repenting of Religion: Turning from Judgement to the Love of God by Greg Boyd
Here’s my summary thought for this book: it is so obvious in Scripture that we never even think about it. Honestly. That’s what kept coming to me as I read it. We typically prefer to over-complicate ethical questions for reasons that will become very clear but it really isn’t as complicated as we might think.
The general flow of Repenting of Religion follows along with the Genesis creation story and Deitrich’s Bonhoeffer’s Ethics which is similarly centred on the Genesis creation story. In that sense, it was also good research for my Lessons in Genesis 1-3 series I’ve been slowly working on. The thing with those texts is that they have been very heavily interpreted in a variety of ways over millenia. We all have a fairly precise idea of what it means and it is usually based on Greek philosophy or at least other theological concepts which aren’t actually in those texts and maybe not in any other. That’s what made this so refreshing. When you read it, you realize that it is saying exactly what the biblical text says absent of a lot of twists that have been introduced to it in later years.
The book divides into 4 general sections. The first theme is humanity as the image-bearers of God and what this means for our ethical formulations. The second theme is the root sin which puts distance between us and God. I’ll give you an early hint: it isn’t what you probably think it is. The third delves into elements of spiritual warfare by discussing the lie told by the serpent which led to the root sin. And finally, the fourth deals with a couple of other practical elements based on all of the previous ideas.
How God Sees Us And How We Should See Each Other
At the root of humanity is that we are image-bearers of God. I’ve attempted to discuss what this may mean before, but Greg does an amazing job particularly with an emphasis on the consequences of such a doctrine. He begins by talking about the dance of the triune God, known to theologians as the perichoresis. It describes the radical intimacy within the Trinity, different persons yet also bound together as one.
When the Genesis account speaks of being made in the image of God, it at least partly means that we are designed for similar relationship with God and each other. The New Testament also picks up this theme in talking about how we are “in Christ” which is not just a metaphor but a reality of what we become in the new creation Jesus offers us.
Therefore the core concept we need to remember is this: every human being is loved by God with unsurpassable worth and invited to be a part of the divine dance. We have all been offered to eat from the Tree of Life which is not simply a physical life nor is it simply a matter of eternity. We are offered the chance to get our worth from God, the only source that can satisfy our yearnings.
The Root Sin
It is a common attitude that we are separated from God when we commit evil. It makes a lot of sense based on the Greek philosophical assumptions that pretty much everyone in the Western world shares. Since the Reformation it has been an especially strong assumption in the Western world. The logical theory is this: since God is perfect good, he can’t be in relationship with a human being who has committed anything evil in even the smallest degree. Note, though, that this is not what Genesis, or anything else in Scripture, actually says!
Like the Tree of Life represents what we are invited into, another tree is forbidden: the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. According to most people’s assumptions about how God and the world works, this should actually be the Tree of Evil or at least the Tree of Knowledge of Evil. When most people preach about it, they talk in this way: the problem is that we went from being perfectly good to being evil or at least having the potential for evil. But it’s not. Why is knowing the difference between good and evil seen as a bad thing? As Greg explains, it is because it puts us in the place of God when we take on the role of judge who is able to determine what/who is good and what is evil.
The core of all sins, then, is not actually evil. It is the hubris of taking God’s place as judge. In other words, it is creating gradations to which God loves us, God loves others, and thus how we love others. The Genesis text and many other texts are extremely clear about how we are not supposed to be judges. At all. Not of ourselves and not of others. Our job is to love people with the same unsurpassable love that God has loved us with. It doesn’t matter if that person is a prostitute, a serial killer, gay or lesbian, or anything we may consider (rightly or wrongly) to be evil. Our job is to love them. At some point our love for them may reach a point where we help them fight through issues in their lives but we always accept and love as they are. If you say or imply “you’re welcome once you fix this” then you are not loving them.
We are separated from God as we commit this sin but it is not the sin in and of itself that separates Adam or Eve from God. Once they know good and evil, they are able to recognize their own sin and respond the way that most of us do: by becoming ashamed. God goes chasing after them but there is forever the barrier of shame between humanity and God.
Religion capitalizes on this impulse by telling us exactly what we need to do for God to accept us again – believe this doctrine, do this ritual, avoid these evils, etc. Which criteria we use to judge vary by community and by individual because we all pick things that we are good at to be the important good things and the things that we are bad at to be the most evil things. Most Christians can dismiss homosexuality as the ultimate evil because they are straight and often don’t know anybody who is openly LGBT (they probably know at least one person hiding it from them). A lot less Christians are willing to speak ill of those who are greedy, or those who get angry and hate their enemy, simply because it is a lot more common and probably includes them.
According to the Genesis account, the lie which caused Eve and then Adam to commit this sin is simple: “you can be like God.” Isn’t this basically what religion, in the negative sense of the term, is usually about? This is what makes religious sin so much more insidious than secular sin. In secular sin, people are open about playing the judge and it actually makes sense in their worldview (if we’re the highest beings, it is our duty in a sense to judge as best we can for the sake of everything else). In religious sin, we are able to claim much more authority; we are simply the representatives of God sorting between good and evil. But Genesis and many other Scripture passages make it clear that this is not our job! It is the one thing that God does not allow and we have made it central to not only secular life but also to religious life.
Greg doesn’t get into atonement in much detail but I’d agree with him that at the heart of the work of Jesus is the victory over this lie of Satan. Penal substitution theory, frustratingly, is based on the same framework of judgement. The biblical texts instead seem far more interested in how Jesus dismantled the lie of the legal framework than penal substitution’s approach of maintaining the legal framework but simply making Jesus a loophole. Jesus’ death defeats the lie in an obvious way: not only is God able to relate to us despite our sin, he loves us so much even when in sin that he is going to die on a cross for us.
Living In Love
If you are the average Christian, you’re probably asking one or both of two questions: what about confronting religious judges using their man-made position for oppression? And what motivates us to be good if we aren’t condemning ourselves and each other? Greg deals with these two things in the last section. They only make sense within the framework of the rest of the book but most want to jump here, so without reading the rest of the book this might seem crazy to you.
To the first, Greg points out that the only sin Jesus ever publicly confronts is religious judgemental oppression. Jesus does acknowledge that other things are sins, yes, but the only cases where he warns of condemnation are the religious leaders. Again, it is the lie that they can be like God fueling their continual eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil separating them from God. In this case, then, the most loving thing to those religious leaders as well as to those who they are oppressing is to point out that this is not how God operates and doing so in his name is wrong.
To the second, I think it is in a way asking the wrong question. We like to focus on the perimeter of the faith – who’s in and who’s out. Instead, our job is to focus on keeping Jesus at the centre and live out of that. By focusing on this and our brothers and sisters who are in close relationship to us, we are able to move forward in our new creation together. Yes, we must sometimes call each other on our sins but we do so because we have invited each other into our lives with that understanding. We approach this with a genuine and deep love for each other, always honoring the unsurpassable love God has given us and always with humility knowing that they will help us through the same or other issues. This is because being loving is not the same thing as being nice. Jesus was not always nice. True love includes aspiring to make the other the best person they can be; it just does so in such a way that we all remember that the other is already infinitely valued even as they are.
So in conclusion, I say: Look to Jesus. Go and do likewise. Love the world as God does.