Open versus Closed Theology

Here was the First Reading at Mass yesterday (in the Revised Common Lectionary, it was the third paragraph only, but the same basic idea):

When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and, falling at his feet, paid him homage. Peter, however, raised him up, saying, “Get up. I myself am also a human being.”

Then Peter proceeded to speak and said, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”

While Peter was still speaking these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word.  The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also, for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God. Then Peter responded, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?”  He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Earlier in the same chapter (Acts 10), Peter has a vision of a cloth descending from heaven, containing all of the unclean animals that Jews are forbidden to eat.  In the dream, God tells Peter to eat them, and Peter refuses, citing the commands of Torah.  To which God responds “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:15).  At which point Peter wakes up to find that he has been summoned by Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, leading to the encounter above.

There is a way to read this passage that makes it only about the status of Kosher food laws in the early Christian community and/or the intertwined question of the status of Gentiles in those communities.  But I think that this reading misses the broader point, and indeed has a tendency to negate the basic message.

For a faithful first century Jewish man or woman, of whom Peter was one, the basic notion was that God has revealed to the Jews a simple life plan--if they followed the law of Moses, then God would bless them, and they could be secure in that blessing.  They were not wrong, and that world view is not a problem.  The problem comes with the unstated corollary to that basic plan--"and, by the way, if you don't follow the law of Moses, then God will not bless you."  First century Jews had constructed a closed theology--this way and only this way is how God operates in the world.

Closed theologies, intentionally or unintentionally, attempt to put limits on the scope of God's action.  Closed theologies, intentionally or unintentionally, attempt to provide assurance for the in-crowd that those on the outside are indeed on the outside.  By saying where God is not, closed theologies protect a limited, narrow space where God is.  Which, as it happens, is often the space where we happen to be standing.

The message of this story, it seems to me, is that God is not, and cannot be, constrained by our closed theologies.  God is radically free to act in the world, in whatever manner God sees fit.  This radical freedom is not in conflict with God's promises, but it is in conflict with these unspoken closed corollaries.  God blesses observant Jews in their following of Torah (i.e. God keeps God's promise to them), but God also blesses Cornelius and his household.  God does what God wants, and God laughs at our attempts to box God in.

Lest we get hung up on the Kosher/Gentile part of the story, notice the sequence of events in the last paragraph.  The Holy Spirit descends on Cornelius and his entourage before they are Baptized.  That's not how that's supposed to work, either then or now.  Earlier, in Acts 2, Peter instructs the crowd to "repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit," making pretty clear that Baptism is the gateway to receiving the Holy Spirit.   And, yet, here God flips the script.

The standard symbol for the Holy Spirit is the dove.  The dove is a placid, inoffensive bird, and so we tend to think of the Holy Spirit as a meek afterthought to the Father and the Son.  But the Celtic Christians of the first Millennium thought of the Holy Spirit as a Wild Goose.  Geese are big, loud, awkward, frantic birds.  If you throw a goose into a room, it is not going to peacefully flit up to the ceiling; it is going to flail around, knock things over, make an enormous racket, and generally raise a ruckus.

In using the Wild Goose as the symbol of the Spirit, I think my distant ancestors grasped the (from our perspective) anarchic quality of God's action in the world.  God raises a ruckus, going to places that we don't think God will go and doing things God isn't supposed to do.  Like show up at the house of the symbol of occupation for the People of Israel and pouring out the Spirit on them without filling out the proper paperwork and following the approved pathway.  Faced with this reality, we can either stick our fingers in our ears and hope that God changes God's mind (good luck with that), or we can do as Peter did and acknowledge and accept God's fait accompli as the new normal.
This passage is an important lesson for thinking about God.  It is one thing to say what God has done or will do; that kind of certainty is an appropriate pursuit.  But we run into big trouble the moment we try to define what God won't do or can't do.  The moment we try to do that, the moment we try to box God in, is the moment when God is likely to show up in some unexpected, inconvenient place.  An open theology, one that is not afraid to make positive statements about God but is unwilling to claim a total picture of God's action in the world, is the safer course.

We can say that the Holy Spirit resides in our Church or denomination without insisting that it is absent in other denominations or religious traditions.  We can say that God blesses a traditional opposite sex marriage without needing to insist that God won't bless other relationships.  We can say that we are standing on firm ground with God without demanding that others standing in a different place sink into the quicksand.  That, to me, is open theology.

After all, God shows no partiality.


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