Monday, June 14, 2010

Guest Post: "Our God Isn't An Awesome God"

Ironically, in my ponderings over humanity's need to place life into neat little boxes, I ran across the following post from a friend. So good (and relevant), I had to repost.

Our God Isn't An Awesome God
Mike Todd | miketodd.typepad.com

In fact, I don’t think our God is a god at all

Well, you’re still reading, which is a good sign… although it might just be me and you and my mother at this point (and even she’s a little nervous with where I might be going with this). But, either way, thanks for giving me the chance to explain myself.

We are a people who generally love boxes. Want to know my politics? Here’s the box. My faith? I’ve got a box for that too. And I’ve got you placed firmly in a box too, thank you very much. There are several problems with life in a box though. Boxes don’t allow much room for flexibility, for individuality. Often what’s not in the box becomes more important than what is. In other words, the box itself, as a border, as a barrier, as a divider between what I like and don’t like, who I am and who I am not, becomes more important than the contents of the box. Ever witness one of those YouTube moments where the kid on Christmas morning falls in love with the box and ignores the gift that came in it? We’re a lot like that I think.

OK, I know what you’re asking. “What does any of this have to do with the potentially heretical (but not blasphemous, in my opinion) statement above?”

I’ve been very slowly reading and rereading my way through our friend Brian McLaren’s latest A New Kind of Christianity. On p. 104 he asked a question that jarred me, as it resonated with something I’ve been thinking about for a while now.

“What if people who live in the second-grade world of polytheism [The Old Testament world where everyone had a god] need to learn about one God as superior to others before they can handle the idea of God as uniquely real?”

Let me unpack that thought a little and show you where it takes me.

It seems to me that by labeling God as, well… God, we’ve placed him (this God is almost always male) in a box of our own creation. Not that I don’t appreciate how it all started. Brian hints at it above. God chose to reveal Godself in a world overpopulated with gods. It made sense at the time. People understood the concept of gods, they just didn’t know the one true God. But I wonder if we’ve locked God into that mold—picture the old man with the long flowing beard; I’m thinking of Flannel Graph God, or God on The Simpsons —and have been incapable of truly letting God be more of who God is.

As we’ve said though, it made sense at the time. Check out this famous “name” passage from scripture:

Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?"
God said to Moses, "I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'"
God also said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites, 'The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.' This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation. (Exodus 3:13-15)

“I am who I am.”

I love that response. I’m tempted to translate it like this: “Moses, you wouldn’t understand it if I told you, so lets not go there.” Yes, the label “the God of your fathers” was used, but I see that as more of a continuity thing, tying in to the already established Jewish story that Moses would have been intimately familiar with.

In a polytheistic world the shelf space for deities was crowded, and gods needed names to distinguish themselves from the competition, so our god, the one true God, became the LORD, or Yahweh, so the people could be clear about who the object of their worship was. Made sense.

Still, it’s a box.

Our friend Tim King likes to use the term the Unnameable, among others, and that works well for what I’m trying to say here.

When we place the Unnameable in the god-box, we’ve signed him up (remember the box comes with a gender preference) for a theistic cage match.

“My God is better than your god.”

“Your god is false, but my God is real.” Which leads us right to, “Your religion is false, but my religion is real.”

It becomes a beauty contest. We lower the Unnameable to the level of all the other gods, and then we are left to argue that our God is the only real god.

But what if, instead, the Unnameable is wholly other (or even Holy Other)? Not the One True God on a crowded playing field of false gods, but the creator of everything, who is above everything, who cannot be explained, or grasped, not by the title “God”, or even “The Very Best God”.

If the Unnameable is not a god, not even a God, and if aligning your life with the mission of the Unameable is not a religion but is instead the purpose of all life, well, that can cause problems too. This kind of thinking will not be popular with those who are in the God and religion business.

I’ve made no secret of the influence our friend Bruxy Cavey has had on my thinking in this regard. I’m in agreement with Bruxy when he says that Jesus came to teach us how to live and to shut down religion. (Of course I’m using the word religion in the negative sense, defining it, as Bruxy does, as any system of rules, rituals or regulations that we use to try and “get right” with God.) To me a natural consequence of discarding the religion box is the notion that the god box cannot be far behind. A deity requires a context within which the deity is situated, understood, and worshipped. In other words, a deity requires a religion. Get rid of the notion of religion, and our understanding of God must change. Perhaps a better way of putting it would be to say that without the restrictions of religion our understanding of God is free to change, to evolve. I’m not sure Bruxy would go this far, but hey… he’s the one who got me started on this path! Is this heresy? Most definitely. Blasphemy? I don’t believe so.

As humanity continues to evolve, our understanding of the Unnameable must evolve to.

In her book The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle talks about the church having a rummage sale every 500 years or so, and I agree completely. The thing is, I think it’s our view of the Unnameable, and not just our idea of church, that is changing at these points of inflection, and causing such turmoil.

When you start to think this way, examples appear all over, including in scripture.

Jonah is one of my favorite biblical prophets. We could spend a lot of time looking at his story—I happen to think he was a wonderfully flawed, bigoted son of a gun—but I want to make another point here. What if the Jonah story was meant, among many other things, to mark that God could no longer be contained in the box that said God only cared about the Jews?

Fast forward to Jesus. What if Jesus was God busting out of the box that said to follow God was to keep the Law? “You have heard it said… But I say…” Sounds like a major point of change to me.

Reality Check Time: As much as I’d like to think that we have broken the Unnameable out of the box, I can’t. As I said earlier, our understanding of God is undergoing evolution, which is an ongoing process. At best what we are doing is moving the Unnameable from one box into another. But if the new box is bigger than the old, we are moving in the right direction, and our understanding of God can continue to expand.

In a polytheistic world the Unnameable had to present as a god—yes, the One True God—but a god nonetheless. I wonder if we are still stuck in that place.

I also wonder how the Unnameable would choose to unveil in an atheistic world.

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