I've always believed in the unconditional of love of God. I have a radical understanding of God's love that, when worked out theologically and morally, places me in the "liberal" or "progressive" wing of Christianity. This part of my faith journey hasn't changed at all.
And yet, my faith has also been moving in a more conservative direction. Specifically, I guess you could say that I'm coming to believe more in sin and depravity.
What I mean by that is that I'm more acutely aware of human wickedness, fallenness and brokenness. Obviously, I think my experiences out at the prison have been important here. And so have my experiences at Freedom Fellowship where addictions and criminality are a regular feature of our congregational life.
To say nothing about all the violence, war, torture, pornography, sex trafficking, hate, injustice, indifference and exploitation in the world.
You add all that up and it's a pretty dark and grim picture. Consequently, a lot of my liberal and progressive optimism has worn off.
For example, I've always been a huge believer in kindness--still am--but I've come to think that we are too mean, selfish, self-righteous, self-absorbed, wounded, sick or damaged to be kind. I also don't kindness gets deep enough into the rot.
I'm pretty good at kindness, but deep inside I know I'm as sick and twisted as the next guy.
And yet, my belief in God's unconditional love and forgiveness remains undiminished. In fact, it's grown.
Specifically, the grimmer the picture when it comes to humanity the more radical and unconditional is my vision of the love of God.
What's happening in my spiritual life is that as the vision grows darker and darker in one direction it grows brighter and brighter in the other direction. The deeper into the pit of wickedness I go the greater the scandal of grace.
Morally and theologically, my faith is becoming one of deepening contrasts. Darker night. Brighter light. It's this sharp line of contrast between wickedness and grace that has transfixed me.
My theological guides in this journey have been Johnny Cash, Dorothy Day, and Flannery O'Connor. The contrasts between light and darkness are so clear in their work--musical, literary and theological.
I think of Johnny Cash singing gospels songs and murder ballads in Folsom prison.
I think of Dorothy Day going every morning to Mass with a Rosary in her pocket before having breakfast with drunks and prostitutes.
I think of the monstrous and grotesque depravity and the action of mercy in the stories of Flannery O'Connor. As she describes it toward the end of one of her favorite stories:
Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it. He understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and which is given in strange ways to children. He understood it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame that he had so little of it to take with him. He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.I want my faith painted in bolder brushstrokes. I believe that God will reconcile all things in Christ, but I'd like to hear that message preached at a tent meeting revival, with talk of the devil, the King James Version of the bible and shouts of Hallelujah. I want the gospel of inclusion and grace of the mainline Protestants preached with the passion and rage of fundamentalist street-preachers.
I'm a doubter who believes in repentance and altar calls. I wonder if prayer works but I believe in the laying on of hands and the anointing of oil. I am a rationalistic skeptic who talks about demons and the Holy Ghost. I reject penal substitutionary atonement but I would rather sing "Are you washed in blood of the Lamb?" than contemporary praise songs. I am a universalist who wants more fire and brimstone.
I want my faith both more conservative and more progressive at the very same time. Too much sin, blood and damnation for the progressives. Too much mercy, inclusion and love for the conservatives.
I want Will Campbell's definition of the gospel, "We're all bastards. But God loves us anyway."
To end with O'Connor's passage above, I stand appalled at myself and at the wickedness of men and women as I judge us with the thoroughness of God. Before, I never really thought that I was a great sinner. Perhaps my true depravity was hidden from me lest I despair.
And yet, I've come to be convinced that there is no sin too monstrous for me to claim as my own.
I believe in sin and wickedness and evil.
But I believe that the action of mercy is not denied to any man or woman and that it is born out of agony. I believe that mercy covers our shame like a flame and consumes it.
I believe our sins have been forgiven from the beginning of time.