God on the sidelines

I’ve been wrestling with a few significant theological issues over the past few months, and while I’m getting closer to making up my mind on some, a lot of these ideas are the biggies– sin, Atonement, the problem of evil, the role of prayer, of Scripture … but the question I’ve been struggling the most with has been what does God do?

I’m honestly not even sure how to fully articulate this question it’s so big. I’m trying to figure out what God’s role in history has been, and what actions has he taken, does he take, will he take? Am I actually a deist? Do I believe that God has a strict non-interference policy/Prime Directive? Or is he much more active than that– determining who gets into accidents, who is cured of cancer, who finds their missing socks? Is it something more moderated than either of those? Has he stepped into linear history at specific important moments, but most of the time leaves well enough alone?

There’s so much that goes into this question, like Sovereignty vs. free will, the problem of evil, and the question that open theism poses; as I’ve been searching for an answer I’ve gone to so many different sources trying to piecemeal something together that makes consistent sense with logic, with history, with empathy, with other theological concepts.

As I’ve been looking, I’ve sort of stumbled into a metaphor that is working for me. I don’t know how well it will hold up, but for the moment I’m liking it.

God is a football coach.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to come up with it, but I’ve never heard someone make this comparison so I’m going with it. I think it works at least somewhat well because it fits into other patterns I’ve noticed, both in the Bible and in my personal life.

A little while ago I wrote about Moses and liberation theology, and that’s actually what started this whole train of thought:

It seems that people like Moses, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and Rosa Parks, are necessary, that it takes regular, every day, run-of-the-mill humans to stand up and say “No More.” I’m not sure what it says about God, but I like what it says about people, about you and me.

Then, a few weeks ago, during small group we talked about C.S. Lewis’ concept in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, that when Jesus taught his disciples to pray he was encouraging them to take action, that they weren’t supposed to just say the words “let thy will be done,” but to be the ones responsible for doing it. That was the night I came up with this metaphor– I sort of stumbled into it, actually, the words falling out of my mouth without me fully realizing everything I meant.

I firmly believe that the very foundation of being a Christian is love one another, and I believe that it is completely and totally impossible to love while passively existing in (or actively reenforcing) a white-supremacist bigoted patriarchal society that is almost totally ruled by greed for money and power. My partner is reading Exclusion and Embrace (I’m reading it next), and every once in a while he reads something out loud that he finds particularly insightful:

Even more than just encouraging inaction, neutrality is positively harmful. For one, it gives tacit support to the stronger party, independently of whether that party is right or wrong. Second, neutrality shields the perpetrators and frees their hands precisely by the failure to name them as perpetrators. (219)

As a Christian, it is my sacred duty to be a part of what Jesus came here to do: to liberate the oppressed, to set the captive free. If I do not combat the way I’ve internalized oppressive narratives, then I am failing to do that. When I look at not just Jesus but the whole Bible, what I consistently see is a deity who sides with the oppressed, the victim, the outcast. She cares for the powerless, for those who have been abused.

I feel that the God who interacted with Israel, the deity who became flesh in Jesus, the Spirit who guides all of us (and since I’m a universalist, I do mean all) has shown us how important it is not to just swing our arms wide open to everyone but to critically be aware of our culture and how it actively destroys people. I feel that was Jesus’ primary goal while he was with us– that’s why he spent so much time saying things like “You have heard it said (referencing The Bible, for those conservative Christians who seemed to have missed that), but I say to you ____.” And whatever follows that opener usually has something to do with non-violence, or love, or subverting power structures.

In a way, Jesus and God and the Spirit have been our coach, and now we’re the running backs and the tight ends and the centers. They have taught us how to love, shown us that our primary concern should be the widow and the orphan and the victim, and now they sent us out onto the field to be the ones to do it.

One of the better-known arguments surrounding the problem of evil is that God can’t override our free will, that to take our free will away from us would be more monstrous than any of the world’s darkness– and I still agree with that, at least partly. This “football coach” metaphor makes that argument work for me, though, because it takes the idea God gave us free will and puts boots on it.

God is encouraging us from the sidelines, reminding us of who we are, what our responsibilities are, and what our capabilities are. But they can’t come out onto the field and do it for us.

I haven’t fully worked all of this out– surprisingly, this has some pretty significant ramifications for what I could believe about eschatology (do I believe in any “Second Coming”? Do I believe in a physical and massive redemption/re-creation of the universe at some point in the future?) and it definitely leans toward the Moral Influence theory of Atonement, but, for now, this is an idea that’s brought me some comfort.

Photo by Chris Brooks
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  • Great ideas! Love it

  • ReverendRef

    As a football fan and high school football official, God as football coach has some good possibilities. I’ve often told my congregation, “There’s a lot of theology in football.” It does come up in a number of sermons, but not (as some suspect) every sermon.

    “Where is God in all this?” people ask. My answer is often, “God is with us.”

    God doesn’t prevent bad things from happening, but is with us when they do. God doesn’t make our life easier when we agree to follow Christ, but is with us in the journey. God won’t rapture us away from trials and tribulations, but promises to be with us when they happen.

    Like your coach metaphor, a coach can’t say painful things won’t happen on the field, but he will be with the players when they do. A coach doesn’t make the players lives easier, but prepares them for the struggles ahead. A coach won’t take the players out of the game when things get bad, but will be there for the players in the midst of defeat.

    Emmanuel — God with us.

  • Thumbs up for the analogy. And you’re not the only one who wonders if they’ve ended up a deist, though I wonder if that’s such a bad thing when the implications of a micromanaging God seem worse (ie, that whole theodicy thing).

  • Tim

    This is pretty deep, Samantha. I don’t know if I have anything to add to your coach analogy. I like the analogy and I think it contains some truth mainly for the reasons you indicate having to do with the problem of evil and the concept of free will as at least a partial answer to the problem. I also tend to believe in overlapping analogies – that one analogy (like the coach) may illuminate part of the truth while another analogy, which doesn’t obviously seem compatible, may illuminate another part of the truth.

    I appreciate your link to Exclusion and Embrace – I think I may read it.

    With regard to theories of Atonement, I think there’s something to the Moral Influence theory, but I think there’s something else going on in the Atonement as well. In The Reason for God (which you might or might not like, and I’m not necessarily endorsing it) Tim Keller brings up a point I found interesting. I believe it’s in his chapter on the problem of sin (don’t have the book in front of me at the moment) he talks about forgiveness in this way: If I loan you my car and you back out my driveway and accidentally knock down a wall, you can say sorry, and I can say, hey, no problem, but there is somewhat of a problem until the wall and the car are restored. If my insurance won’t pay, either I have to pay or you have to pay or we split it somehow. If I forgive you entirely and pay it all myself, that represents some work (or sacrifice, if you will) on my part to repair what was broken. It means that so many hours of my labor are exchanged for money to take care of that repair rather than toward books or bourbon. When we sin against others and they sin against us (whether through self-conscious selfishness with full knowledge of the pain we’re causing or through ignorant neutrality in the face of oppression and need) damage is done. The damage might not look like a car dented or a wall knocked down. It might look like a loss of freedom, a loss of relationship, like hunger, like bruises and bloody scars, like loss of a sense of self, sense of security, sense of belonging. How can damage like that be repaired? It’s not as easy to fix as rebuilding a wall, yet it can be done. But it can’t be done without some cost (or sacrifice) any more than the wall is fixed just by my saying, no problem.

    God is about coaching us in the task of “making the world a better place” in the way you talk about it above – coaching us to love one another, coaching us to resist oppressors and care for widows and orphans and victims. But he’s also invested in some way in the task of repairing what has been already been broken, and in some mysterious way, the atonement is part of the price that has to be paid to effect that repair. I’m not sure that I entirely understand or endorse this view, but I found it interesting.

    From reviews it seems that Exclusion and Embrace deals with the topic of not only identifying with and embracing the suffering, exploited, abused and victimized, and critiquing and calling to account the victimizers, perpetrators and oppressors, but also, somehow, forgiving and reconciling with the victimizers, perpetrators and oppressors. How is it possible to forgive? Somehow it’s possible because God forgave and absorbed the cost that forgiveness exacts from the forgiver.

    I think you’re right to see a connection between this and eschatology. If the atonement has nothing to do with a work of restoration, if it’s mostly about teaching us to not break so many things rather than about really ultimately fixing everything that has been broken, then what we look forward to is mainly a future in which fewer and fewer people are hurting other people and fewer people are being hurt before everyone takes the long dirt nap. But if the atonement does have something to do with God’s work in repairing past damage, then a future physical ressurection makes sense. I tend to see this as a “both and” rather than an “either or”. I’m on the football field, as it were, working toward a better now and a better temporal future, and I also have hope of an eventual ultimate restoration of all things.

    With regard to your universalist stance, do you see your rapist as being counted among the blessed or no? How do you work that out? Just curious.

  • I like this analogy, maybe the Holy Spirit is the microphone in the helmet calling the plays. Reverend Ref: Right on!

  • Not all analogies are perfect, but there are a couple things about the analogy that seem a bit problematic to me. The idea of a football game is that you have two teams of roughly equal kinds of people battling for territory on the field of play. That seems to have very non-universalist implications. Whoever those people on the other side of the ball are, they are people, and it’s your job, aided by your coach, to invade that team’s territory.
    A coach is also in charge of sending people in and out of the game pretty much constantly, so that who you are surrounded by at any moment to try to help your team is determined by the coach. And the coach has a specific play that he’s called that he expects you to play a very specific role in (and if you don’t do it exactly right, your team could have major negative consequences, not least of which, you could get pulled from the lineup) Some Calvinists believe this ordering of people and events is what happens most or all of the time, and most Christians believe in “divine appointments” of not-so-chance meetings between people for at least some of the time, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea that God micromanages the details of who we’re around and working with, and what our specific role should be.*
    I wonder if you can fix this by changing it to something like a golf coach. Golf is a sport where you can effectively play against the course to try to overcome all the traps and rough patches that it throws your way. The major thing I don’t like about the golf analogy is that golfers usually compete alone, which I don’t think is a terribly useful metaphor for how life should work.
    *I actually realized one day, long before I started doing some major theological questioning, that functionally I’ve long been a Deist, since I tend to believe that God rarely intervenes (at least today he doesn’t) and that events that happen are largely the result of random interactions operating according to a set of probability distributions. I think even most evangelical Christians are functionally Deist most of the time, but that’s another discussion.

    • I should note that my critique of the football coach analogy shouldn’t imply we should throw out the analogy, but rather that it might be useful to note where the analogy breaks down. I think a lot of the reason some people came up with and cling to penal substitutionary atonement so much is that Paul uses analogies to earthly justice systems to explain what he thinks Christ did, and people have run with it thinking that it’s not an analogy but an actual model for how the universe works.

  • I am glad you’re finding an analogy that helps you come to terms with some of the questions you’re struggling with. I have to say, it wouldn’t have done much with me during my struggles with faith, which is why I rejected most analogies.

    God as a football coach is a justification, but not an explanation, for the problem of evil for me. It still leaves a huge question for me: Why does an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, compassionate deity choose to sit on the sidelines? That is the point that was most trying for me as I struggled. Because we can imagine God sitting and directing from the outside of real life–in fact, this is a view adopted by quite a few of my family members–but I simply don’t understand how a compassionate deity could. I am a mortal human, and yet, I look at the pain and suffering in the world, and my heart bursts with wanting to do something–and knowing that there is so little that I can do. How then could an omnipotent being, who is simultaneously knowledgeable of and present for every single moment of suffering in our entire world, actually remain on the sidelines? For me, I found myself still stuck in the same cycle of questioning because it wasn’t the answer that made sense to me.

    I do, however, see how it could be comforting to others, and I think this is definitely one of those questions that everyone, and especially those leaving a particularly dysfunctional spiritual upbringing, has to come to terms with on their own level. There simply aren’t one-size-fits-all answers for us. I love reading your musings on these topics though.

    • Tim

      TL;DR. The stories about God’s role in history don’t picture him as indifferent to human suffering, but he (she, they) don’t generally swoop in like superman to save the day; nope the go-to move is to send a baby. God heard the cries of young women in evangelical/fundamentalist institutions suffering under the yoke of patriarchalism and sent a baby named Samantha Fields. Moses (see Samantha’s link above to her earlier post on this topic) had a burning bush and a rod. Samantha has 1500 years of religious texts, Strong’s, 2000 years of church history and secular history and caring professors and feminist writers, and a blog. I’m not arguing the historicity of the Moses story, but the meaning of the story is the same as the meaning of Samantha’s story, in some sense: God cares deeply and God is busy acting; God acts by empowering people.

      The God-sends-a-baby theme isn’t the only theme that recurs throughout the many books that make up the book, but it’s a prominent one.

      The first story of Genesis is the book of the history of sky and earth. In this story there is no picture of a struggle of Good vs Evil. Maybe it can be thought of as good vs better. God’s initial creation is characterized as dark, without structure or organization, and empty. In the “days” of creation, God goes about rectifying these deficiencies – creating life, taking the raw materials of the earlier creative acts and imposing structure and organization that brings new spaces and being into existence, and then filling the new spaces with life. The end of each day is good, but by the beginning of the next day it’s seen as not quite good enough, because creation begins again to bring about something better. At the end, mankind (an egalitarian male and female) is created in God’s image and placed in charge of creation to continue the creative work after the pattern of God’s initial work. This theme is not a theme of struggle, but a theme of maturation – history is to proceed from the glorious primeval garden to the even-more-glorious eschatalogical garden-city. This is a theme of progress, and I think there’s a connection between this theme and the underlying assumptions of progressive political movements – the idea that change is more than simply change, the idea that what was good can be made better, etc. This story aligns nicely with a Deist view – God turns autonomous humans loose in a good world for them to make better with little more than a pattern of behavior in the way of instruction or direction. Perhaps this is like the golf game Indecisive speaks of above.

      But the second story in Genesis, the book of the history of Adam, brings in two new themes: The War and The Seed. These themes are necessary to explain existence as we experience it, because “evil” is a part of our experience, in the form of oppression, abuse, pain, frustration and deprivation. Where does all this bad stuff come from? The theme of the War tells us that humankind has an enemy and that Deception causes humans to believe lies which sets up a condition or situation in which humans routinely harm other humans. The humans doing the harming must be resisted via struggle, but the ultimate enemy is not the human oppressors, but rather the lies that incite or empower them. The theme of the Seed gives us God’s solution, both to overcoming the enemy and also to repairing the collateral damage and healing the casualties caused by the War. God’s solution to man harming man is man. When people are oppressed, abused, enslaved, suffering and deprived, God will send a baby.

      This theme of the Seed is reiterated multiple times, and ultimately God himself comes as man to fight the War on the behalf of the oppressed, but he doesn’t come as some kind of superman. Just another baby, born to another mother. But before that particular baby, God sent Moses, Samson, Samuel, and a lot of other babies to a lot of other heroic mothers.

      The theme of the War still resonates with us. A lot of video games, movies and literature just wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for this idea of epic struggle (as opposed to merely tribal struggle). I think feminism, as an idea, is shaped to some degree by this theme.

      And I think the idea that Samantha throws out here of God as football coach aligns with these secondary themes of War and Seed. God recruits a team and sends them out on the field to engage an opposing force, and provides something in the way of instructions, but I don’t think there’s either a sense of micromanagement, on the one hand, or a sense of abandonment on the other hand. God is Emmanuel, God with us, experiencing the conflict with us and empowering us at the same time. I’m not here arguing that this is true, I’m just saying that this analogy is consistent with the sacred stories that have been passed down for literally millenia, and noting that these stories continue to resonate through many different cultures and eras.

      Why doesn’t God swoop in like superman and save the innocent and deliver us from evil in an instant? I think it may be for the same reasons I let my two year old run careening after her older siblings, knowing that she’s going to fall and skin her knees. The same reason I let my boys build the tree-house high enough that they may fall and break a bone. The same reason I’ll talk to my older daughters about abusive relationships, but I won’t forbid them from dating a guy just because in my judgement there are some warning signs that he’s an abusive person. My goal is that they grow up. But I can’t grow them up. Only they can do the growing up. Just my guess.

      You spoke of each of us coming to answers on our own. What answers have you found that bring you comfort? Peace.

  • Nelson Keener

    Samantha….if you haven’t discovered Michael Hardin, he’s gaining a following for his deconstruction and reconstruction of everything Christian and biblical in going back to (centuries) earlier thought and practice. Michael may well have addressed some of your questions (this is not Anabaptist doctrine/theology)
    i.e. Discussion with Brian McLaren about René Girard views on mimetic

  • Excellent post! Exactly the same train of thought that I have. To be a “follower of Jesus” does not mean to sit around and passively praying and going to a temple. It is to go to the streets and get our hands dirty feeing the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and taking care of the sick. I also wonder about the characteristics of God and whether or not He intervenes. One thing I am sure about, if God interferes, it is through us that he does it. If we don’t move and fight for righteousness, then we will not see anything.

  • Reblogged this on flamesword ~ watching in the shadows and commented:
    This is pretty much exactly the same things I have been sorting through, and I’ve come to much the same conclusions. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but it definitely works.