I was asked to write a short piece on the subject of belonging, and turned again to a book I have enjoyed for a few years, but never quite gotten around to writing about: it’s George Stroup’s Before God(Eerdmans, 2004) The basic thesis is that human life is lived coram Deo, in the presence of God.This is the heart of the biblical story, Stroup argues, and he thinks this perspective has often been lost in contemporary Christian thinking. I agree.
I find myself wondering what idea of God is at work when people speak of ‘inviting God into their lives’—as a guest, or a possession, or what?
Stroup provides a very helpful summary of his argument and thus his theology, which I will quote here, from page 16:
First, beforeness presupposes a distinction between God and human beings.
Second, the reality before which human beings live is not simply sheer
otherness or transcendence, but a reality with a face, a name, an intentionality, even though each of these aspect is deeply ambiguous.
Third, God’s Word establishes beforeness. Human beings are spoken into being by God and live before God by means of God’s Word …
Fourth, To live before God is to live in a covenant communion with God, characterized by gift, calling and demand.
Fifth, beforeness describes not only the life of human beings before God, but also how human beings are to live together before neighbours. They are to live before one another as people who live before God.
Sixth, beforeness describes not only the ‘place’ of human beings before God, but their purpose and telos as well.To live before God means that human beings, along with the rest of creation, are called to live gratefully and in everlasting praise of God, that is, to live doxologically.
When stated in this way, I have to say that the thesis sounds very dogmatic. It has a strong (Barthian) ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ feel to it. Actually, nothing could be further from the case in the way Stroup writes. The bit that is missing from the summary above is the heart of it: it’s his thesis about Jesus. As he puts it earlier, (p.3): ‘Jesus is the one person who lives fully and authentically before God and before neighbour and in so doing is the epitome of true humanity and full human flourishing.’
This is what is so good in this book: while Stroup has a chapter on sin—which has been misunderstood as a moral category, rather than the loss of this wonderful sense of belonging with God—again the moralistic or the ‘ought’ character of so much dogmatic theology is not here. Rather, this concept is invitational. It is evangelical, in the best sense of that word. It is, simply, a declaration of how things might be. We could know that we are alive in God. That we are eternally loved. That we belong.
I think Stroup’s case is strongly human-centred, and does not have a sufficient sense of how the whole creation belongs together, before God. But that is a refinement of the thesis.
I like his core idea that to live this way is essentially about gratitude. To know that it is all given to us, to enjoy with gratitude is a indeed a life of joy and hope. It is so different from the grasping attitude of our culture. And it helps us to see that ‘inviting God into our lives’ is not quite the right way around, though it may express the beginning of the process.
I have long enjoyed the idea that the Christian symbol of the cross is a really helpful way of governing our thinking: it has a vertical and a horizontal dimension. Where do we belong? We belong before God, and we live this life with the world, God’s world. We live this way as Jesus did. The heart of Jesus is at the centre of the cross, the intersection of life with God and with the world as God’s. That’s where I belong.