In a presentation at a symposium on “Being Missionaries to our own Children,” Michael Downey posed this question: how do we speak of God inside a culture that’s pathologically distracted, distrusts religious language and church institutions, and yet carries its own moral energy and virtue?
That’s a key question today, when so many of our own children, siblings, and friends no longer go to church and are challenging our religious beliefs. They certainly fit Downey’s description: Distracted, distrustful of religious language and church institutions, yet carrying a lot of moral energy in their own way. Where do we go with that?
Downey’s answer? Among other things, he suggests that we need an image of God and of Jesus that can show what God does in these situations. What image of Jesus might be helpful here?
There are, as we know, many images of Christ, both in scripture and in our church traditions. Christ is presented variously as “shepherd,” “king,” “teacher,” “miracle-worker,” “healer,” “bread of life,” “sacrificial lamb,” “lover,” among other things. Different ages have tended, for their own reasons, to pick up more on one of these than the others. What might be a fruitful image of Christ for our culture, one within which so many of our own children no longer walk the path of explicit faith with us?
Downey’s suggestion: the image of Christ as the kenosis of God; Jesus as divine self-abandonment; God as emptying himself in the incarnation.
What does this mean?
Scripture tells us that God offers in Christ a love so pure, so self- effacing, so understanding of our weaknesses, so self-sacrificing, so “self-emptying,” that it’s offered without any demand, however veiled, that it be recognized, met, and reciprocated in kind. In the incarnation, God, like a good mother or father, is more concerned that his children are steered in the right direction than that he, himself, be explicitly recognized and acknowledged for who he is and thanked for it. God, like any parent, takes a huge risk in having children. To have children is to leave yourself painfully vulnerable. It’s also to be called upon for an understanding, a patience, and a self-dethroning that, literally, can empty you of self. That’s as true of God as of any mother or father
What are the qualities of this “self-emptying”?
To “self-empty” in the way Jesus is described as doing means being present without demanding that your presence be recognized and its importance acknowledged; it means giving without demanding that your generosity be reciprocated; it means being invitational rather than threatening, healthily solicitous rather than nagging or coercive; it means being vulnerable and helpless, unable to protect yourself against the pain of being taken for granted or rejected; it means living in a great patience that doesn’t demand intervention, divine or human, when things don’t unfold according to your will; it means letting God be God and others be themselves without either having to submit to your wishes or your timetable. Not an easy thing at all—that’s why we’ve sung Jesus’ praises for two thousand years for doing it—but that’s the invitation.
We need a theology of God and an image of Christ that can give us a horizon and some hope as we struggle to be missionaries in the toughest mission field of all today, our own culture with its own innate virtue and its own innate inattentiveness to God and church. Downey’s suggestion that we take as our horizon God’s “self-emptying” in Jesus is, I believe, a very good one. Properly understood, that image can show us where and how to stand in faith inside a culture that likes to think that it’s outgrown faith.
At that same symposium, a social-worker from Quebec, Vivian Labrie, in her keynote address, made this statement: “I believe that God is mature enough that he doesn't demand to be always the center of our conscious attention.” While that statement needs some nuance, it is, in its own way, a commentary on the famous Christological hymn in Philippians (2:6-11) which describes Jesus' “self-emptying” in the incarnation.
When a mother or father sits down at table with the family, she or he doesn’t need, want, nor expect, to be the center of attention, a prerogative that a healthy adult generally cedes to the kids. What he or she does need and want is that the family be happy, respect each other, respect the ethos and aesthetics that the family gives value to, and that everyone is essentially on the right track in his or her life so that each family member knows what’s ultimately sacred, moral, and important, even if a given member doesn’t, at this particular moment, recognize or credit the family for what he or she has been given to prepare him or her for life and happiness.
This is even more true of God, whose love, understanding, patience are beyond our own and who, like any good parent, doesn’t demand to be always the center of our conscious attention.