We speak of a conscious god, one with feelings like sorrow, anger, and joy. We speak of a just god, one who demands moral behavior and forgives moral breaches, one who speaks and gets His way. But is that true? Is there really a god like that or do we simply want that to be true?
Is there for instance, a god who has established justice, one who balances the cosmic scales of justice? Let me quote scripture to answer that one. Qoheleth says, “In my own vaporous life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evil doing” [Ecclesiastes 7:15].
Is there a god with consciousness, one who has feelings like anger, sorrow, and joy? We are talking about the creator of the universe, and who knows, maybe multiple universes. We are talking about the driving force that has guided creation’s evolutionary story from hydrogen atoms to Shakespeare. Is this god a Father, Judge, or Healer? Of course not. I believe I have support from the mother’s milk of reformed theology, the Westminster Confession of Faith. “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him, as their blessedness and reward . . . ,” [Book of Confessions: 6.037]. The starting point of theology is necessarily a god that stretches beyond human categories and concepts.
Why is that important now, in this day and age? It is important, because an anthropomorphic god inevitably disappoints. There is enough disease, war, injustice and loneliness in the world to warrant such a claim. To suggest that such a god is ontologically real is a lie, one that violates the second commandment to boot. Let’s face it, we desire a god who is just and so we project that god onto our imagination. We desire a god who forgives, creates peace and heals and so we project such a god onto our imagination. This god, as Feuerbach so famously said is, “humanity writ large across the cosmos.” The scriptures will have none of it. “What is your name?” Moses asked. Is it father, mother, warrior, judge, Lord, peacemaker, or perhaps even non-dual presence? No, “I AM, I will be what I will be, I have caused what I have caused and I will cause to be what I cause to be.” We cannot know God in God’s being.
Such is the false hope garnered from an anthropomorphic god and yet here I stand, a believer, one who stakes his life on a God who “by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, is pleased to [offer some fruition of God’s self,] by way of covenant” [Book of Confessions: 6.037]. God, the God who for 13.7 billion years has guided creation’s evolutionary story, makes God’s self known through the very projections that obscure the being of God. How do I know? I don’t. I believe and bear witness to the reality that, in the living of a life of faith, the truth of that statement becomes crystal clear.
Living such a life of faith, does not begin with an intellectual assent to ideas and constructs which are but a distorted reflection of what is real. Rather it involves a commitment to critically engage what is real . . . to you.
And for the modern mind that cannot begin with the ancient picture of a Lord up in a place called heaven from where He rules the cosmos according to His inscrutable purpose; it cannot begin with a God who has His Son killed because the magical life force imbued in blood must be released to correct a moral imbalance; it cannot begin with a God who has the kind of control over the process of creation that allows or disallows suffering and evil to exist. The cognitive dissonance between that view of God and our modern understanding of creation’s evolutionary process makes we Christians sound ridiculous when we talk about what we know to be real.
It is a travesty to do so when a life of faith, formed by the 4000 year old conversation of Scripture is pointing us even now, towards an astonishingly beautiful truth permeating creation. Without trying to lay hold of an exclusive claim on truth we can tell the world that we have come to know God who moves from death to new life. Cross and resurrection are realities whether or not the physical resurrection happened. We can tell of a God we have come to know in three ways.
I have come to know God in the third person. For when I stare into the night sky, or watch my surrogate grandson trying to walk, the immensity and complexity of this bewildering universe. looms before me and I begin to see Spirit shimmering behind and within it. I see a river of grace with all its eddies and currents, turmoil and twists carrying us into the future.
As I contemplate this extraordinary beauty I begin to encounter that shimmer as “other,” and a mystical, I-Thou, second person relationship begins to emerge. In that “relationship” I come to know something of God’s character; I come to know that I am an expression of the love of God, an integral part of God’s creative purpose. In that sense I can speak of God metaphorically as having human like emotions and motivations. But we can never let those metaphors domesticate and obscure the reality that stretches beyond human apprehension.
Then there are those moments, moments I myself have barely glimpsed, when we have an experiential dawning, when we know that God has “brought all things together in perfect harmony” and we glimpse God in first person. I AM.
I am so very tired of a church that hangs onto its mythic , anthropomorphic language of God so tightly, a church so myopically focused on how truth was expressed that we fail to call people into covenant relationship with the creative love now driving creation forward.
Change is on the horizon – seismic change. It is being met by fear; the resulting violence threatens to overtake us. Most of us are asleep, anesthetized with everything from TV to Bud Light. Growth is required of us at a time when more and more of us are turning our collective back on the presence of God. And why? Because when we say the word “God” people think of that anthropomorphic god who inevitably lets us down.
We have one thing to offer and that is our belief that a life of faith, one that engages what is real, enables us to live into the future, knowing that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God. We can no longer afford to obscure that message with fairy tales.
When you’re a Christian preacher sometimes you get a real earful concerning the nature of the Christian God. Things like this, “I despise the Christian God with his arbitrary judgments. This God who makes people feel ashamed of who they are and doles out punishments to the guilty. Guilty of what, being human? I want nothing to do with the Christian God. All he does is rip families apart, cause hatred, condone prejudice, send us to war, and let unspeakable acts of violence be perpetrated on the guiltless.”
I’m not making fun; I have suffered much at the hands of this image of god. As a young man, unable to live up to this god’s idea of “good,” I slid into a dangerous depression. I get how damaging this un-evolved and misguided image of god can be.
There are a lot of people out there who, having been brought up in a predominantly Christian culture, react negatively to Christianity for just this reason. I grew up in a predominantly Christian culture. I assume that there are people who have grown up in other areas of the world where different religious traditions have held sway, who react against other un-evolved and misguided images of god.
Once a person has experienced this destructive, controlling side of my religious tradition, [or any tradition for that matter], I think they are left with some choices. Depending on how damaging the past has been, where they are now, and so forth. Sometimes, maybe even often, I think it is important for a person to make peace with the tradition of their past; it’s part of our spiritual growth and development – whether or not we stay in the tradition.
I’ve obviously come to an understanding of Christianity that is very different from this damaging and I believe, profoundly distorted image of god. I am writing this blog from that perspective. I hope it is helpful for those who are looking at Christianity afresh, whether or not they “become a Christian” again.
But I recognize that there are people for whom resolution simply is not possible. Like an abusive parent, it has hurt too much. To you let me say that I hope you get as far away from the Christian tradition as possible. There is nothing magic about it; nothing magic about any of the traditions really. I have every reason to expect that you can find another tradition that serves you well. Patheos.com is a great place to start. It is one of the reasons I write here.
Having come back to Christianity, and denying the punishing view of God, I have to then contend with the texts of Scripture that lead some people – not all – to believe in a judgmental, punishing god. What are they getting at? Do we toss them or use them? I hope to open that topic next week.
Grace and peace,