During the 2016 election season, I heard scripture wielded by Evangelical church leaders in defense of ideologies that grieved and repulsed me. This unsettling suspicion kept me up at night — that American Evangelicalism had co-opted the Gospel to serve American mythologies. Did this mean that the church I loved actually had no truth in it?
In the years since I've struggled with this question and wondered if I needed to walk away from Evangelicalism completely. I imagined a pure faith, untainted by the American ideals that I believed were counter to the Gospel, and searched for this faith by reading theologians spanning history and place — Eastern Orthodox mothers and fathers, 20th century German theologians, contemporary scholars. I contemplated conversion to a more liturgical tradition. I thought that if I could only escape contemporary American culture, I could find a perfect theological lens that would give me a clear vision of God.
When I took undergraduate classes in critical theory, I often felt incredibly frustrated after reading criticism, then meta-criticism, then meta-meta-criticism. Each essay deconstructed the assertions of the previous piece. What was real? An essential truth seemed to be unattainable, a mirage in a far-off distance that even the most brilliant minds would never reach. I felt the same frustration as I searched for the perfect framework for Christianity.
During Lent as I meditate on Christ's final days before the crucifixion, I'm struck by the paradox of the Incarnation both expressing and constraining the Divine. While fully God, Christ lent himself to the constraints of time, place, and culture by inhabiting a body, speaking in language and imagery specific to a historical point in Jewish culture, and ultimately giving himself up to cross. Yet even while bound by these constraints, Christ claimed to fully express the nature of God. "If you have seen me,” He says, “you have seen the Father."
Paul, in the book of Acts, tells the Athenians that their altar to an unknown god is in fact meant for the Hebrew god. As he makes this argument, he quotes from the Greek poet Aratus. Paul is not embarrassed to figure his religion into the existing Greek culture. He takes the imagery and language of Greece and arrives at a conclusion that points to the radically new ideas of Christ while remaining situated in their cultural context.
The assumptions within my question were wrong. With Christ, we don't need to be afraid of our cultural moment, to try and escape it in order to live only in some transcendent, essential reality. The miracle of the incarnation is that Truth enters into our world, rearranges and redefines our cultures and narratives, and turns human constraints into a pathway towards God. This is the work of redemption.
I've given up on trying to find the perfect framework with which to understand God. It should've been obvious to me in the first place — that God would never be perfectly defined within even the best systematic theology. I'm now looking to remain in that space of tension where I devote my life to seeking the Lord while also acknowledging that He will mostly remain unknowable to me in this lifetime. In any Christian tradition, faith is a commitment to a lifelong pilgrimage in which we are often stumbling and grasping for understanding, seeing as through a glass darkly until the moment we stand before Him face to face.