Archive for March, 2020
“Speaking of God…”
Allan C. Groen.
In most cultures, people speak about God or beings or forces that express a similar concern. Clearly there is need to give a name to something that is other than the natural world of the skies above or the earth beneath and all it contains. Even something as vague as a slogan spiritual but not religion spites beyond the visible and tangible world.
Because we are more aware of the immensity of the world the suffering that can overwhelm us our ability to explain the universe without recourse to the gods or God we seem to have less need of resorting to God they thought the concept of a superior being becomes more difficult and problematic for many period any notion of God is receding into a distant background. For many God is an idea that scarcely functions. Prayer becomes stopgap measure we hope to never have to use, except in an emergency.
When we speak of God, we speak of what is inherently a mystery. We do not have God available to our senses like we do our everyday world. Everything in the universe is in principle knowable even though there is much we do not know or about the world. But God is not available to our senses, but possibly more to our intuition. This may be the reason why people don’t simply want to do to dismiss this idea of God even when they do not feel like they know much about him. The universe is too great and mysterious to be only a function of the movements of molecules. People are often not content to say that it is all a matter of physics and chemistry.
Now suppose that biochemistry, chemistry, biology could explain our consciousness our language, our sense of beauty, justice and love would that necessarily result in dismissing God? Much depends on our desire to include God or to exclude him.
There are many concepts of gods that we no longer find believable, for example, gods or spirits that live in the world. Most often they come as animism or polytheism, concepts that seemed at some time to make sense to people, they seem to be helpful in explaining a great deal. In the Bible we meet these as idols are false gods, gods who mostly were considered to be evil. Over against these, the Bible promotes monotheism, the belief in one God who, as creator, exists outside of the universe as well as in it . This God is presumed to be able to act on the world as well as interact with it.
However, to me, thinking of God as outside of the universe is a difficult concept as we now know that the universe is large beyond imagination. Where is God? How can a God outside of the universe interact with the universe? With earth? With people? Perhaps a developing understanding of the concept of the universe and its complexity needs to lead to a developing understanding of what we mean when we speak of God.
One option is to say that we believe in God but God that God has mysterious dimensions so we really cannot say much meaningful about God at all. We do not understand without this causing us any difficulty or discomfort. It would make good sense to believe in a God who is beyond our comprehension but who nevertheless is capable of the kinds of acts which the Bible attributes to him. In this case, however, we are to understand who God is, but God we think of God as the creator, as god of justice, as sustaining power, as the source of peace, joy and love. It is only as God who is capable of such interaction that makes God incredible or at least of interest to us. An old man in the Sky would be of no value or interest to us. In this case, would be content to let this God enjoy long naps in his heavenly easy chair.
Since God is wholly other, we need to be careful of any claims we make about God. It seems to me that the proofs for the existence of God are likely more suggestive than truly probative.
Since God is wholly other, then he is beyond our reach, our ability to discover him. We can do no more than speculate about who God is and what God’s actions might be. For many religions, especially of the past, the gods are at best indifferent to us, and often they are perceived as evil beings who have it in for us humans. Seldom do they seem to have benign intentions toward us. This is understandable given how frequently the forces of nature which seem to be forces of the gods, are destructive. Such gods are to be feared, rather than trusted or loved, perhaps even hated.
If God is wholly other, then perhaps all our talk about God is based on wishful thinking or about jumping to conclusions based on our observations. We have nothing but anthropomorphisms, a God who is much like the people we are and know, some of us decent, others truly horrible. We end up with a God to avoid, or perhaps a God to whom we become completely indifferent.
The other option is the one Christians adopt. It is that God makes himself known to us. God then must make himself known only to the extent that we can understand. God bends towards us; he condescends to us. The true grandeur of God is far beyond us and perhaps not necessary for us to know. Perhaps in the age to come, we will know an understand better. But we may have a degree of curiosity that does not need to be satisfied. We will enjoy and glorify the God whom we do not fully know.
The only way for us to know anything trustworthy about God is for God to make himself known to us. But does God indeed do that? If he does, should there not be one consistent message from God? Many Christians would say that there is indeed one coherent message in the Bible for us. This message is given by the Holy Spirit who caused inspired writers to compose books and letters that express everything we need to know.
But does the Bible indeed give such a message from start to finish? There are many common themes, but the final message is the Word who became flesh. The Bible is not only a book of history stories, parables, poetry and letters but it is ultimately the story which describes the person of Jesus who fulfills the promises of God. If there is an authentic message in the scripture one of authority it is not so much in the book as it is in the person the book describes to us. We meet Jesus as Lord and savior in the book. It’s basic purpose is to describe who the person is and what he does. The bible’s description of what Jesus has done and who he is, also comes through pluriform ways, different in each of the gospels. This is not necessarily a flaw as I see it, but the result of describing a complete complex person in complex ways.
The Bible speaks to us in anthropomorphic language about God. This is not a problem. It seems obvious to me that God would have no choice but to speak to us in human terms and as a person who must be at least in part like us. First, we see the like, then we notice the otherness. There must be analogy before we can be dialectical. There should be no embarrassment to note that the basic message from God is difficult and complicated. We should not be perplexed by this but affirm it as inevitable. At the same time, the message of the Bible must be simple, at least in part. Would not God all people to be able to understand it?
The apologetic task of Christians is to try to show that the message goes beyond wishful thinking, beyond projection of what we would like, and that the language is ultimately based on reality. Christians need to show that our teaching is based on a sound foundation. This is easier said than done.
Is there any way that we can establish authoritatively that the truth that we preach is true? I do not believe that there is an objective truth in the sense that Euclidean geometry is true, or that a scientific statement is true, for example that 2 X 2= 4 , a statement we can make without fear of contradiction. But whatever we say in defense of the gospel, some will surely say this cannot be correct.
For an unbeliever, appealing to the Bible as authority does not help, it just backs the issue up a further step or it begs the question a step further. “Where does the Bible get its authority” has no easy answer. Possibly the best we can say is that we believe because it has the ring of truth, it makes sense, and it helps us understand life better than we could otherwise do. Here our conformation bias plays a major role. Do we want the message we hear to be true? Or are we inclined to dismiss it out of hand? Or we can go with Pascal’s wager. Betting on the message of the Bible will give us a more meaningful life than if we place our bet somewhere else.
Christians have a high view of God. We believe in a God who is worthy to be praised, whom we can love with all our heart, soul and mind We can commit ourselves to follow God, to trust his promises for us and to lead us safely home.
While we can certainly be critical of certain statements in the Bible, we take it for granted that all the great sayings of our God are true and reliable. The deeds and words, all the activities of the God with us and here for us, are indeed words to be trusted and on which we may build our lives.
We speak not only of the imminence of God but also of God’s transcendence. God is in the creation, but he was before any creation or any part of it existed, so he is beyond, outside and transcends. What that means is not very clear to me. God is immortal, invisible, dwells in inaccessible light, he is hidden from before our eyes. God is silent as light. That we see God as the great mystery is as it should be.
When people go to church, they should expect to find a community that speaks with wisdom, conviction and humility about God. They should not be surprised to find that this is a major emphasis in a believing community. For this reason, churches should do their very best to speak about God responsibly. The Bible has many dimensions and characteristics about God. All themes should, in due time, be part of the message in its totality.
How does it happen that faith seems impossible for some while it is the enduring rock and foundation of the lives of others? It appears to be the case that many Christians seldom or never have doubts or questions. Some major conversion event hit them so hard that faith never again left them, while others pray often for help with their unbelief. I relate better to the latter, questioning faith.
To speak of God would seem to be an act of unbridled hubris. However, we speak about God constantly in many cultures. We often think we know who God is, what God does and what God wills. The great diversity of ideas about god already suggests that we should speak about God with great caution and humility because what we believe or teach others to believe has a great impact and shapes us for better or worse. Therefore, we can understand that both much good and terrible evils have been perpetuated in the name of God or gods.
Our ideas of God are powerful character and behavior shaping whether God exists or not. Even when we say that there is no God, our lives will be shaped by that belief. Agnosticism and atheism are also life shaping worldview faiths.
No wonder there are so many ways of speaking about God. We clearly have a need, but who are we, with our puny minds, to think we can say things that can truly express who God is? Why do we try? Why do we feel the need? Why not just give it a rest? And why are we so quick to say that we are right and everyone who disagrees with us is wrong even murderously wrong? Why so inflexible, given our limitations? Can we not live with uncertainty? Questions? Doubts? Perhaps rigid orthodoxy suggests that we are not sure we can maintain our trust or faith if our understanding is not absolute. Perhaps questions left unanswered might collapse our confidence into chaos and quicksand.
Why do we want to speak about God? What is the purpose? I think it is more than just idle curiosity. God talk feels like fundamental human needs. We look for meaning, wisdom, joy, comfort, purpose. We don’t want a life that is mere vanity or suffering, strutting an hour on the stage and then … forgotten. Life has to be more than misery. When we decide there is no God, we turn to spirituality. “spiritual but not religious,” we say. Pure searching is difficult to maintain. We easily we resort to karma, fate or idols. Religions claim too much with too great assurance, proclaiming truths that are problematic. How can one believe in a God who permits, even seems to cause so much suffering? How can one in good conscience believe when there is so much violence, disease that takes a loved one away in an untimely death is the will of God? What makes us so sure? Pretty much everything we say seems to provide no comfort or value or truth. We say, “she is now united with her family.” Really? “He is with the Angels.” How do you know? Such things are acts and words of desperation, offering no comfort. Based on no discernible ground as far as we can tell. The grieving person says or thinks: “Easy for you to say.”
Christians speak of God not because we believe we have discovered God and can therefore describe God as if God were something within the creation like an animal, bird, fish or any object. Christians speak of God because we believe God has made himself known. What god has made known about Himself is profoundly different from anything else ever spoken about by anyone seeking after God. No one would have imagined that God has made himself known in the crucified and resurrected Christ. This Lamb of God is the essence of the gospel. For this reason, God can only be accurately and rightly known through the preaching of the gospel, not through research in a lab or through tight philosophical reasoning. The latter do hint or may hint at God, for example by learning ever more about the intricacies, order and beauty of creation, but they are unable to penetrate to the heart of the matter the gospel of the grace that has been made known to us in Christ Jesus.
If I’m correct, then I think we could think of the Bible as the biography of Jesus and more accurately of the triune God father, son and holy spirit. Obviously not everything in the Bible easily fits into that into that mode, or even at all, but I think the Bible can be described in that way, or even as the autobiography of God. In this case, preaching is basically an exploration of this biography. Because Jesus is the Christ, it is no wonder that there are diverse Christologies. It is difficult enough to write biographies of people because we are so complex, how much more so is it understandable and to be expected that writing the biography of Jesus is difficult and that we have four gospels, each with its own point of view.
We preachers do well to consider carefully before we say: “thus says the Lord.” We could be mistaken, and no doubt are mistaken from time to time. We need to be open to correction!
Christians make a bold claim: Christianity is superior to all philosophies or religions. All others are either incomplete or wrong. All seekers are either on the wrong track or only partway towards the true way. As Acts says we can be eager to find God, we can be devout, while at the same time we are not enlightened. It is easy to imagine people who are offended by such claims or find them a stumbling block. However, we must insist humbly on making this claim otherwise Christianity has nothing going for it. We can pick and choose what to believe or just walk away. Many are indeed walking away.
The uniqueness of Christiana T is not in its morality, its stories or its dogmas but in the crucified and resurrected Christ with without whom our faith is vain.
To fully describe the person and character of any human being is pretty well impossible, although we can see and learn a great deal and value one another accordingly. We can see a person as honest, trustworthy, wise, happy or to the contrary we may see them as deceptive, unreliable foolish, etc. What went into those descriptions often remains still a mystery. For each of us to describe our own person can also be mysterious and difficult. We are prone to self-deception, but If we pay attention to ourselves, we may discover new things, good or bad, and not just when we are young. It takes a desire to know and grow in our self knowledge.
Since it is true that we know ourselves and other people only in part, how much more true is this of Jesus, the Incarnate son of God? The personal stories of Jesus in his relation to the father and the spirit, in his relationship to history, creation and humans is a never ending, beautiful and fascinating story. The Bible gives us a surfeit of material.
Anyone who thinks that there might be something special about Jesus, has to give some account of what that might be. The accounts often boiled down too few items: his teaching his moral example, or his ability to heal, although such miracles are usually casually dismissed. Miracles could not have taken place. We know better than to believe in them. In any such case, most of what the Bible teaches is not taken seriously. We decide on our own what we think might be special or valuable. We do not in this case submit obediently under the Bible but stand critically over it. In this way it is always the case that we know best.
Christians insist, or should insist, that the only valid and authoritative view of Jesus is found in scripture, especially in the New Testament. Here the descriptions are both simple and complex. The stories of Jesus are simple enough so that anyone can get the basic message and turn to Jesus as Lord and savior. The stories are also complicated enough to keep interested scholars occupied for decades to try to truly understand who Jesus was and what he did and what he said. Because Jesus was a complex person his life and work are exceptional, therefore it should not be surprising to find a multifaceted and sometimes not totally coherent account. There are different authors who have different readers in mind.
Each of us has a unique story. Many will know parts of their story but probably not at its entirety. Probably no one knows all the details of their own stories. When we tell our own stories we often try to make ourselves seem better than we are. We tell our stories to impress as much as to inform. We tell stories that come out of a larger sense of ourselves. We tell some stories and not others, depending on the points we want to make. Any pastor knows that the story people tell are not necessarily the ones they need to tell. What is really our story, or the story of the person next to us on the bus, or the story of the person in the coffee shop? The big story within which our small stories find their place is the metanarrative.
About Jesus, we have both the stories and metanarratives and because of the nature of the stories we hear about Jesus, we suspect that his big story is fundamentally different from all other method narratives. What is this “otherness”? It is difficult to state this precisely because the story is indeed “other”. We have no perfect point of reference so in regards to Jesus, we know only in part not only because we never know a person fully, but because this is especially true of him.
In Matthew 5, Jesus contrasts what teachers said in the past with his own teachings. You heard but I say. It seems to me that in a way this is a provision of a new metanarrative. On a number of occasions in the gospels, the other teachers take exception to what Jesus said to the point of being so greatly offended that the teaching of Jesus becomes one of the main reasons for their desire to crucify him.
The meta narrative of Jesus is thus experienced as wholly other and this becomes one of the reasons for investigating who this man is who speaks with such authority and who dares also to reinterpret the teaching of the forefathers so drastically. The Pharisees and scribes have the same text but could scarcely interpret the text with greater diversity. Who is this man?”
The best title I can think of for the Christian metanarrative is “the coming of the Kingdom of God.” Stories need titles an so do metanarratives. Here are other metanarratives: the Enlightenment, Marxism, capitalism, romanticism, modernism, postmodernism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Islam.
It seems to me that all such meta stories are built on faith or accepted on the basis of faith. Therefore, all metanarratives are important in their own way. Perhaps a test for the usefulness of these metanarratives is how helpful they are in explaining issues for the formation of healthy societies and people. Here some clearly provide better insight than others. The story of capitalism, while flawed, has better results than Marxism or fascism which both resulted with oceans of blood in the streets.
For a set of ideas to be truly a metanarrative, there has to be something that is identifiable as idiomatic comma the heart of the matter. It does not seem likely to me that all our thought, words and deeds will fit perfectly into even our own meta narrative. Like all the pieces of the puzzle because our insights are always limited and imperfect, but there is always our own effort. We try to think as consistently Kingdom thoughts as we can about all the parts of life, politics, society, economy, art, and so forth.
Conversely when someone speaks of politics or whatever, we might well be able to deduce what this person holds as his her worldview or metanarrative. Someone who opposes medical care for all persons probably has a libertarian view as their narrative. There can also be a clash of narrative: someone may hold a libertarian view while thinking he or she is a Christian at heart for example.
Another way to speak of the clash of meta narratives is that, unintentionally, what we say we believe is our story while we live at odds with each other. This may be because we do not examine ourselves carefully, assuming that we are on the right path, but we also very readily pick up the dominant, clashing values of other narratives around us. An example would be that we buy into the idea that what we want to become in our minds becomes a need that has to be satisfied. This becomes a Creed that producers and that sellers promote and exploit in the hopes that their bottom line will improve. An example is that we have to have the latest gadget even though last year’s model still works perfectly well. We feel the need to belong to the “in-crowd.” We want to belong with the “big boys,” even if it means we live in perpetual debt. Here “no” is a very difficult but liberating word.
On the basis of john 1: 17, I would venture to say that the metanarratives of the two testaments are quite different. The flavor of the old tends to emphasize the law, but not exclusively, but the New Testament has greater emphasis on grace. I don’t say that the two testaments are contradictory but the new goes far beyond the old. There is grace in the covenant story of the old, but it is mixed with more emphasis on law than in the new. It is tempting to put a strong emphasis on obedience to the law, because it suggests that we are able to make a worthwhile contribution to our own well being and salvation. To be completely dependent on Jesus alone feels like an insult to our pride and to egos. However, obedience grows out of salvation, salvation does not grow out of obedience to the law. If obedience could do the trick it would be unnecessary for Jesus to die on the cross for us. So, the metanarrative of the new goes well beyond and completes that of the old.
Not all metanarratives are completely wrong. There is a great deal in society at large that has much to offer everyone, whether it is specifically Christian or not it. Is easy to be too critical of others while not being nearly critical enough of ourselves. It is hurtful if we criticize others without putting ourselves to the test. Things we assumed to be right might leave a lot to be desired.