January 19, 2021

Richard Beck on a faith of deepening contrasts

The Brothel, van Gogh

The Brothel, van Gogh

The following is a quote from a recent post by Richard Beck at his blog, Experimental Theology. I encourage you to click the link and read the entire piece. It’s especially fun the way he teases out his point with references to Johnny Cash, Dorothy Day, and Flannery O’Connor.

He describes a phenomenon I’ve seen in myself, though I have come to it from the opposite direction. Beck is a self-confessed longstanding member of the “liberal” or “progressive” wing of the theological spectrum, especially with regard to his belief in “God’s unconditional love and forgiveness.” However, he has found himself becoming more and more “acutely aware of human wickedness, fallenness and brokenness.” Nevertheless, this has not diminished his belief in grace; indeed, he finds that commitment enhanced.

Richard Beck confesses that he is becoming both more progressive and more conservative in his theology at the same time!

It reminds me of what a friend once said to me: The truth often may not lie at either end of the spectrum, nor in the middle, but in the full acceptance of both extremes.

I don’t know what to make of this, but I can testify that this story is, in many ways, my own.

So, here’s a text for all spiritual schizophrenics out there, starting with me.

B1VwLiiqEPS._UX250_What’s happening in my spiritual life is that as the vision grows darker and darker in one direction it grows brighter and brighter in the other direction. The deeper into the pit of wickedness I go the greater the scandal of grace.

Morally and theologically, my faith is becoming one of deepening contrasts. Darker night. Brighter light. It’s this sharp line of contrast between wickedness and grace that has transfixed me.

I want my faith painted in bolder brushstrokes. I believe that God will reconcile all things in Christ, but I’d like to hear that message preached at a tent meeting revival, with talk of the devil, the King James Version of the bible and shouts of Hallelujah. I want the gospel of inclusion and grace of the mainline Protestants preached with the passion and rage of fundamentalist street-preachers.

I’m a doubter who believes in repentance and altar calls. I wonder if prayer works but I believe in the laying on of hands and the anointing of oil. I am a rationalistic skeptic who talks about demons and the Holy Ghost. I reject penal substitutionary atonement but I would rather sing “Are you washed in blood of the Lamb?” than contemporary praise songs. I am a universalist who wants more fire and brimstone.

I want my faith both more conservative and more progressive at the very same time. Too much sin, blood and damnation for the progressives. Too much mercy, inclusion and love for the conservatives.

I want Will Campbell’s definition of the gospel, “We’re all bastards. But God loves us anyway.”


  1. Wow! This! I love it! Totally fits with where I’m at right now. The more mature I become in my Christian walk, the more mysterious it becomes. Spiritual schizophrenia, indeed.

    “I wonder if prayer works but I believe in the laying on of hands and the anointing of oil.”

    That’s me to a T.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says


    • For me it’s, “I wonder if prayer works, but I believe in prayer” (after all, the laying on of hands and anointing with oil is accompanied by prayer, and is a form of prayer itself).

    • “Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”
      (Flannery O’Connor)

      there are things we ‘know’ . . . sort of like that expression ‘dogs just know’
      . . . if the human soul is instinctive in its ability to sustain such ‘knowing’, then that is even more proof that the reason for our ‘faith’ is not some rational theory or ‘explanation’, but instead, a Person who walked the Earth two thousand years ago

  2. Although I like the idea of universalism, I find there are just too many biblical and patristic hurdles to jump (apologies to Origen & Gregory of Nyssa). David Bentley Hart at Eclectic Orthodoxy, gives my mind a workout. However, it seems urgency & accountability “go out the window”. How many universalists are on the mission field ? How many “Christians” are having their lifestyles “glossed over” because, in the end, a bit of personal suffering won’t matter.

    No need to face transformation now because there’s lots of time to sort things out…

    I’m actually drawn to “Conditional immortality”. The only thing I can’t understand from Catholic and Orthodox opposition, is the argument that if Christ sustains all “life”, He will not take it away in annihilation. I would have thought that if God’s image in a person is being extinguished through sin, that continues on after death until regret becomes all consuming and His image is lost to the person in question.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      “No need to face transformation now because there’s lots of time to sort things out…”

      I do not accept this as a valid critique of Universalism [I am not a Universalist, BTW]. This implies that someones eschatology drives how they behave and what they do; I am 144% confident the exact opposite is true [behavior and prejudices are more likely to be in the driver’s seat of someone selecting an eschatology to proclaim].

      Turn-or-burn as a behavioral modification device clearly doesn’t work. “Don’t worry be happy” is equally ineffectual.

      Something else motivates transformation, and that thing it is demonstrably not the concept of Judgement [or lack of it]. It might be Love, in some cases. Often times I have no idea what it is; in real-life one encounters the strangest and most unexpected heroes.

      • Hi Adam,

        Yes, I agree, but I wonder if holding to universalism can become a subtle roadblock in, not only personal salvation, but in proclaiming the gospel. After all an agnostic could just say he/she is willing to “sit it out” once they know that “all will be well”, in the long run. Rom 11:22, part of our message is to warn people isn’t it ?


        • Actually, as I find myself drifting toward universalism, I find it EASIER to proclaim the gospel. Here’s what I’ve been telling a couple of non-believing friends of mine: “If God made Jesus ‘the way,’ and Jesus saves everyone somehow, isn’t that a God you’d want to worship? If it’s not based on ANYTHING, any statement of faith, justification by works, etc. etc…if Jesus loves you so much that he’ll save you regardless of your acknowledgement of who he is, isn’t that an awesome God worth praising?”

          Both have stated that this notion intrigues them.

          If I’m wrong, they’re no further from salvation than had I said nothing. If I’m right, they might just begin worshipping God and Jesus for a very good reason: because of their deep gratitude for His love.

          • I like this way of thinking. Beats “every knee will bow…and then Jesus will kill the majority for not bowing sooner” type of thinking.

          • Hi Stuart,

            I’d say that wouldn’t be the case as people that have rejected Him (I’m leaving those who have never heard out of this, as there is a possibility that “Holy Saturday”, takes care of that), collapse in on themselves in regret in the next age. They are so consumed by regret in themselves, they can not recognise ANY grace of God.


    • I find it difficult to believe that, if hell exists, it could have been created as a big stick to get people in line with God’s will: for one thing, no one could ever be really sure of the stick’s existence until it’s too late, so it would be a highly ineffective tool. No, if hell exists, it could only have been created as a form of punishment, not motivation; I prefer to believe that it either doesn’t exist, or won’t always exist.

      • Hi Robert,

        I think hell is how people that reject God experience His love. God is an all consuming fire…in one way or another…It can be secondarily used as a stick since people should be warned away from it. But yes, in the classic sense, hell became distorted in ways Steven King wished he would have dreamt up !


    • I would have thought that if God’s image in a person is being extinguished through sin, that continues on after death until regret becomes all consuming and His image is lost to the person in question.


      Why do you think that regret has the ability, at its extreme-most edge, to erase the image of God in a person? How would that work? What about the human experience of regret in this life leads you to believe it would have such power in the next life?

  3. Yes and yes:

    Yes: Evil is real. There are living beings, both human and other, that practice deceit and negation of the original goodness of God’s creation (how often I am one of them!). The entire human race, along with creation, has become subject to pain, suffering, death and alienation as a result of the that systemic secondary negation of the original goodness of God’s creation (where, when and how this happened, I don’t know, but the evidence of it hits me hard in the face every day).

    Yes: The grace of Jesus embraces everyone and everything. No evil, no deceit or negation, is stronger than that grace, no decision against it is as enduring or powerful. In Jesus Christ, provision has already been made for the redemption and reconciliation of all creatures; this salvation, already achieved in Christ, is unfolding in our world, even though it is hard to see most of the time, and evil still must be opposed at every turn. We trust this on faith in the living Jesus, who we know as the one who vanquished sin and death and sits at the right hand of the Father, from whence he even now is coming again.

    This is my hope and prayer; Beck says it well in his blog post. Amen.

  4. The truth often may not lie at either end of the spectrum, nor in the middle, but in the full acceptance of both extremes.

    This was one of the things Pascal returned to again and again in his *Pensees*. Humanity is both angelic and demonic, rational and emotional; God is both just and loving, Jesus is both God and human. When we insist on having only one of the paradoxical poles in order to remain “logical”, we open ourselves to all kinds of woes and mischief. I bless the professors who assigned Pascal to us in modern philosophy class.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      It is very important to quote “logical”, as none of this is precisely Logic either way. When Theologians become convinced they are in-fact Logicians achieving unassailable conclusions things really go off the rails.

  5. Clay Crouch says

    The jig is up. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Thanks be to God.

  6. “The primary paradox of Christianity is that the ordinary condition of man is not his sane or sensible condition; that the normal itself is an abnormality. That is the inmost philosophy of the Fall… That whatever I am, I am not myself.”
    (G.K. Chesterton)

  7. I am a universalist who wants more fire and brimstone
    I just don’t get it.

    Part of what this means, I suppose, is that I don’t understand the Law And Gospel as well as I thought I did. At least the part about accepting both equally, at once, in constant tension, rather than trying to “balance” the two.

    • I don’t think Richard Beck gets it either. That’s pretty much why he is saying it. He is a very reflective person so I think he is simply expressing the truth of his thinking as an example of what can happen in our continuing attempt to delve into the big mystery that is our faith.

      • Yep.

        It’s kinda like admitting, “I’m a hypocrite that hates hypocrites.” And I am.

        • That’s funny. I was watching the show Homeland this week. The German authorities in Berlin were releasing some Muslim prisoners. One was a real murderous son of a gun. As they entered the street there was a large crowd of people and reporters and I was hoping there was a group of Neo-Nazis out there that would deal with them. How’s that? I despise everything the Nazis or the Neos stand for. I abhor it but there I was asking, “Where’s a good Neo-Nazi when you need them?” I think Richard Beck sees a lot of the dark side in the field of psychology and may sometimes have a similar reaction.

        • Or… “I’m intolerant of intolerance!” And I am.

        • “There are only two things I can’t stand in this world: people who are intolerant of other people’s cultures, and the Dutch!

    • I think he’s a universalist who wants more fire and brimstone because, to him, they aren’t fundamentally opposed to one another. “Fire” is being used in a refining 1 Corinthians 3 or 1 Peter 1 or Zechariah 13 etc. kind of way.

      • Fair enough. I too believe that sometime between death and entrance into the high places we must finally be perfected.

  8. Thanks for this post from Dennis Miller’s (older??) brother; very timely and, IMO, wise. I think we are all both wrong and at least a little right. Richard seems like someone I’d love to share a tall beer and long conversation with.

  9. But how this to be distinguished from the apparently universal human desire to have it both ways?

  10. Regarding the notions of a “faith of deepening contrasts” and “spiritual schizophrenia,” these are both ideas that I’ve been mulling on for a while regarding church itself. My church – and no doubt yours – is a collection of people with varying levels of faith, people dealing with cancer or job loss sitting beside people who’ve given birth to their first child or gotten a promotion, people who are joyful beside those in despair, some who like to sing, some who don’t, etc. The list of contrasts in The Body goes on and on and on.

    And it has an odd beauty to it.

  11. I can not say exactly why but I think about the movie Leap of Faith with Steve Martin. A lot of phoniness and grace in that movie. Just like the life of most Christians. Great post!!

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