Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Wrestling with a Latent God

The idea of a latent God is unsettling to me. What does it mean for my faith if I am forced to recognize that--as far as I can tell--God exists as potential? Does it mean that I don't really believe in God? Or is all of this just part of faith? Is there such thing as faithful agnosticism? Does the latency of God change everything? Or does it change nothing? What are the consequences of acknowledging that God is latent?

One of the big questions this raises for me is this: What/who do I believe in if God is only potential? Does that mean that I believe in nothing? Does that mean that all I am holding on to is a thin strand of hope? Or does it actually have no effect on faith? Perhaps all I am doing is placing emphasis on the uncertainty that makes faith possible. When I acknowledge that God exists as potential, does that undermine or undergird my faith? I'm not sure that I have an answer to that yet.

Even if that question remains unanswered, I am faced with another: What does the latency of God mean for the way I live my life? I'm not sure what it means in a broad way, but I know that it affects many small things. It means that whenever I pray for help I am faced with the possibility that there is no one who will help me. In a way, it makes everything conditional. My prayer becomes, "God, if you are there, please help me." (But please note that the conditional clause is not an expression of doubt; rather, it is a recognition of the reality of my situation.) On the other hand, because God is uncertain, any ordinary faithful act is transformed into an act of faith. It means that going to church on Sunday or reading the Bible are more than just activities that Christians commonly do; instead, they are active expressions of faith in spite of uncertainty. Even though the latency of God transforms these simple acts into demonstrations of faith, it also means that life is lived with the knowledge that these Christian acts could be for naught. The hopeful possibility of faith can never be separated from the morose possibility that faith is in vain.

Does it make any sense to place my faith in a God whom I recognize to be latent? Is it really faith or is it merely hoping in some faint possibility? Is this faith just something I do to console myself in the face of a tragic world and an uncomfortable life?

Is there a difference between believing in God while ignoring all the uncertainty and purposely believing in that uncertain God? Is it crazier to have faith while denying the obvious morose possibilities or to have faith despite those possibilities?

Read my first two posts on this subject: "Acknowledging a Latent God" and "Confronting a Latent God."

Monday, November 19, 2007

Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

My job on Skid Row is to work with homeless people who are applying for housing (specifically those with severe mental illness and/or substance abuse problems). What this means is that I get to work with crazy, drug-addicted people who are living on the streets and in emergency shelters. For the most part, they are upbeat and motivated. They come in telling me about all of the programs they're involved in, that they're going to tons of 12-step meetings each week, and that they're seeing a psychiatrist and taking their meds. They insist that they are trying to turn their lives around and that ever since they hit rock bottom they've been gung-ho about making real changes.

However, after talking with other case managers in the organization, I've found out that the majority of the people in our housing are still drinking heavily, smoking crack, and hanging around the streets like before. The only thing that is different is that now they have a bed of their own. All of those people came into our housing wanting to change their lives, but all they've managed to change is their sleeping situation.

Don't get me wrong--it's not that I think those people don't deserve housing. It's just sad to me that they come in with such high hopes only to fall flat. I have to say, though, it is a big achievement for many of these people to get permanent housing in the first place. Many of them have been homeless for so long that they don't remember anything else. They've developed survival techniques--functional dysfunctions--that help them survive on the streets but that work against them in regular life.

When I'm meeting with my clients, I can't help but think that it won't be long before they're smoking crack and drinking again and that nothing will really change. However, I need to be hopeful for them and help them get into housing so that they can have a chance. I have to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I have to wonder what God thinks of my job. If Jesus were a young twentysomething in Los Angeles, would he consider sitting at my desk? If he were like me (no supernatural powers, socially awkward, and financially limited) would he be a case manager or would he consider my work a waste of time? I don't save anyone's souls. I don't help them beat their addictions. I don't feed them or clothe them. All I do is help them get housing. I give them the benefit of the doubt so they can have a chance.

I'm sure there are plenty of important questions I could ask about the intersection of social work with the kingdom of God, holistic soteriology and Christian living, but there is one question I have to ask first:

Is my work worthwhile?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Active Compassion

I work for a non-profit organization that provides permanent housing to homeless people on Skid Row. A woman who is waiting for housing said something to me yesterday that took me by surprise: "You all have beds at night so you're in no rush to find me a place to stay! You know, it's a lot more important to me than it is to you!" My first inclination was to defend our organization and the work we do--we try to house people as fast as possible any time there is a vacancy, but there are just more applicants than rooms. But as soon as I opened my mouth I realized that, regardless of how hard we try to provide housing, she was right.

Even though all of us in the organization really care about the homeless, at the end of the day we get to leave Skid Row and go home to our own beds. As I drive home each day, she's waiting in line trying to get into one of the shelters. While I'm eating my salmon and asparagus in lemon butter for dinner, she's eating the shelter's cafeteria food. Every night while I sleep in my own room, she's grateful to be sleeping in the shelter again. After I leave work, her problems don't even cross my mind.

I'm not saying that I should constantly be worried about everyone's problems. There is nothing I can do to magically transform Skid Row. There is nothing we can do to house everyone instantly. But that woman was right--it means a lot more to her than it does to me. And that's shameful. I should care just as much as she does.

It got me thinking that we (Americans, Christians, humans) need to have a greater sense of urgency--truly active compassion--for the problems we see around us. It is so easy to give 47¢ to the homeless guy on the corner and then walk into Gap and drop $100 on a sweet pair of jeans and a sweater. We feel good that we made a contribution to someone who needed it, but it isn't good enough to care about someone for thirty seconds only to revert back to our self-centered consumerism. Compassion and action need to consume us to the same extent that poverty and problems consume the lives of those who are less fortunate.

"You know, it's a lot more important to me than it is to you." Of course that's going to be the case--the person who needs help is going to value it more than the helper--but it shouldn't be so lopsided. We shouldn't give so apathetically to someone who's crying out in need. It should be embarrassing to us that our cities can't provide enough beds for the homeless, let alone the psychiatric and counseling services they need. It should be embarrassing that we get distracted so easily and we forget about the poverty in our backyards. It should be embarrassing that sometimes we don't even notice. We need to exhibit active compassion toward others--we should care about others' problems enough to do something about them.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Confronting a Latent God

The latency of God should come as no great surprise. The fact that we believe in God suggests that we do not conclusively know that God is there. We cannot see God. We cannot hold a conversation with God. We have no proof that God exists. Sure, some people have visions, hear God speak, and believe that the natural world is proof enough, but all of that is debatable. What this reveals is something that should be obvious--that to some degree God is hidden. Because we do not fully know who God is, where God is, and what God is doing, we are left to guess (and read and pray and theologize) about it.

We believe God can work miracles, can move mountains, can change hearts, and can save the world, but we have no way of knowing whether God is really doing those things. Thus, to us as limited humans, God exists as potential. God potentially exists, potentially does supernatural works, and potentially loves us. We choose to believe those things--it's just that we have no proof.

Describing God as latent neither denies God's existence nor undermines God's attributes--it just recognizes that God is not readily evident. It is honest. We can makes claims about God until theology runs out of our ears, but those claims are no more valid than the claims made by atheism. We've all met people who count their lucky stars rather than thank God, people who see emptiness where we see presence. God is not evident, not obviously manifest. Atheists have just as much evidence as we have; they have just as many compelling stories about injustice and chaos as we have stories of providence. God remains a question, a possibility. That is what latency describes.

What does latency mean for faith? It has no new ramifications. If we are to see God it must by faith. If we are to know God it must be by faith. It forces us to look into the depths of uncertainty and acknowledge faith for what it is--a risk. Latency requires honesty and humility. It causes us to respect people with different ideas than our own--there is no way for us to determine (at least in the short term) who is right. It means that we must embrace faith as a personal decision, not as an inevitability. It means that we must strive and struggle with it. Faith is not simple because knowing God is not simple. We are left to work out our faith with fear and trembling in the face of our latent God.

Read my first post on this subject: "Acknowledging a Latent God."