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Posted by Matte Downey
 - Apr 16, 2018, 11:27 am

Thanks for the comment, Jon. The question I would ask is this: Is Jesus' use of the idea of the kingdom and the hierarchy associated with it an accommodation to human understanding, a contrast between human and divine authority, an actual reflection of godly authority, or some combination of all three? The more I study Jesus, the more I see how he invites people to reimagine things like authority, service, purity, leadership, law, grace, forgiveness, inclusion, hospitality, victory, judgment, etc. Always it comes back to the complex person of Jesus, not a simple descriptive or directive.

Posted by Seth Dobson
 - Apr 13, 2018, 6:31 pm

Great education. "In the end, we win" is less difficult for me than "God is in Control."  The Bible talks about "ruling and reigning with Him" at some point in the future.  Was "God in control" when ... still comes to mind. Perhaps our reverence to the possibility of divine intervention -- and we know we should pray and are commanded to, "gets in the way" in a way it should not.

Posted by Jon Stovell
 - Apr 11, 2018, 4:46 pm

Thanks for this, Matte. Pursuing a breadth of equality, mutuality, and inclusion in our spiritual and theological  posture is so vital and so necessary.

I find myself wondering, though, about this statement:

Quote from: Matte Downey on Apr 11, 2018,  2:09 pm... Defining God as the Lord Almighty, King over all, the being at the top of the cosmic heap, positions power (not love) as the primary attribute of the divine.

The idea that sovereignty is the supreme characteristic of God is found in statements like, "God is in control," and the theological omnis: omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. When commenting on the book of Revelation, I have heard Christians say, "In the end, we win." The implication here is that when God ultimately triumphs over evil, we will be right there doing the victory dance. The language of conquest is characteristic of the hierarchical, competitive systems we find in our capitalist society but has very little in common with the way of Jesus. Too often our image of God is informed by our context and politics instead of our politics being formed by an encounter with the suffering servant, Jesus (Matthew 20:24-28).

Is it not Jesus himself who most frequently used the language of "the kingdom of God" in Scripture? It seems like Jesus put a lot of effort into redefining what that term should mean, but insofar as you are right that this term implies hierarchy and power, does this not mean that Jesus had some sense of hierarchy and power involved in his conception of God's proper relation to the world?

I suspect that we need a very nuanced perspective on how both the egalitarian and hierarchical impulses are present in Jesus' teaching and thus of the way he calls us to. Perhaps what we need is not so much a rejection of all language of hierarchy and power, but rather a long (and almost certainly difficult and uncomfortable) meditation on how the way of Jesus radically subverts and transforms our sinful understandings of power and even hierarchy.

Thoughts?

Posted by Matte Downey
 - Apr 11, 2018, 2:09 pm

Much of the thinking and writing I have been doing for the past year or so, especially in academic settings, has to do with how hierarchy is embedded in our theology and ways of structuring communities. To me, that's not a good thing. One of the papers I presented on the topic last year was titled, "Toppling the Divine Hierarchy: How Trinitarian Thinking Shapes our Communities." Essentially, I argue that our penchant for hierarchies, both within and without the church, reflects more about our human constructs and desire for control than it does about the character of God. Defining God as the Lord Almighty, King over all, the being at the top of the cosmic heap, positions power (not love) as the primary attribute of the divine. 

The idea that sovereignty is the supreme characteristic of God is found in statements like, "God is in control," and the theological omnis: omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. When commenting on the book of Revelation, I have heard Christians say, "In the end, we win." The implication here is that when God ultimately triumphs over evil, we will be right there doing the victory dance. The language of conquest is characteristic of the hierarchical, competitive systems we find in our capitalist society but has very little in common with the way of Jesus. Too often our image of God is informed by our context and politics instead of our politics being formed by an encounter with the suffering servant, Jesus (Matthew 20:24-28).

This past week, I wrote another paper concerning theology and hierarchy, this time critiquing vertical theology. Hierarchies are based on verticality and scarcity: there is only room for one at the top. In a hierarchical system, one is always trying to ascend and transcend. References to verticality are common in religious language. God is up above in heaven. We are down on earth, separated from the divine realm. Hell is the lowest position in this three-tiered concept of the universe, the farthest one can plummet from the presence of God. The goal is always upward mobility.

While there is some language of stratification and uniqueness in the biblical text, it is not as clearly delineated as we might suppose. Very often vertical language signals that an upheaval or contrast is up next. For example, in the creation accounts in the first chapters of Genesis, we have two narratives. The first is a formally structured liturgy rife with vertical, magisterial images. It moves from heaven to earth. The second narrative (starting at Genesis 2:5) begins with earth, not heaven. Creation happens at ground level, literally. We have a Creator who is a craftsman, who gets divine hands dirty instead of speaking things into existence from afar. Whereas the first creation narrative is entirely regulated by the creator, the second introduces the dangerous element of choice. Hebrew scholar, Robert Alter, calls this second narrative an "unruly account of creation" because of its complex network of relations and its precarious movement.[1]

The compilation of these two creation stories reveals a certain theological purposefulness. The first story is the one we most often cite, the one which splendidly portrays the Creator in glorious and magisterial terms. Truth be told, it is probably the story we most want to live in. The omnipotent creator calls things into being with a mere command. The world is neatly ordered and complete, declared good. Humanity is at the top of the food chain, everything at our disposal. The second story is the one which more closely reflects the world we actually inhabit. We are ground-dwellers, creatures drawing our first breath as a gift, toiling and tending and categorizing the world around us. We are beings reliant on others beings, built for relationship, dependents of the natural world, our well-being related to the well-being of all creation. We may seek the transcendence of the first narrative, but we live in the immanence of the second.

The idea of immanence is embodied in the promised Messiah, Immanuel, "God with us." In Jesus, the creative Word of Genesis 1 is made flesh. In Jesus, we find solidarity (with-ness), not hierarchy (lording it over), breadth not verticality. While movement within a hierarchy indicates that one is either rising or falling in rank, movement in a latitudinal plane involves a broadening and expanding of horizons. This sense of wideness or breadth is exactly what we find when we look at the people who surrounded Jesus: rough fishermen, despised tax collectors, military officers, lepers, prostitutes, foreigners and outsiders, sick people, hungry people, large crowds, criminals, mothers, those tormented by demons, religious leaders, beggars, families, children, and wealthy women.

In a theology of latitude, we find hospitality and freedom, we come to know love as unconditional, inclusive, and expansive. When we look at the overall arc of the biblical narrative, we find that it is steeped in breadth. What begins in Genesis with Adam and Eve broadens out into Abraham and the nation of Israel, which, though never fully realized, is meant to widen out into a blessing for all nations, which expands into Jesus, the Messiah who offers up his life for the whole world, which opens up into the formation of the church where Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female are all equal, [2] and it all culminates in a vision of the City of God whose gates never close. This city is described as a perfect cube, equal in height, length, and width.[3] In contrast to a three-tiered universe where only those who ascend on high are saved, this final image leaves us with a sense of generous proportion, of breadth in every direction. This is the fullness of divine love. This is what we are invited into.

"I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:18-19).

---------------

[1] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 179-80.

[2] Galatians 3:28.

[3] Revelation 21:15-17.