The terrifying truth about God

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
7 Jun 2009

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17 and John 3:1-17

“Truly, truly I say to you, we speak of what we know and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.” (John 3. 11)

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Appropriately enough, we get three events in one today. Churches across Britain are marking 7 June 2009 as World Environment Sunday. It is also the focal point in the World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel, dedicated to prayer, education and advocacy for an end to the tragic 60-year-old conflict in what we call (stretching credibility to its limits in the face of recent events) the Holy Land. Last but not least, this is Trinity Sunday, when Christians are invited into the terrifyingly mind- and soul-expanding mystery of God.

Now call me a cynic, but I suspect that for quite a few churches it is that last dedication which, though undoubtedly the most traditional, remains the really difficult one. Let us put it this way: if charged with creating a religion aimed at ease of reference and marketability, I suspect most people would not opt for one that spoke of God in complex, Trinitarian terms.

Likewise, many contemporary Christians would probably say – to themselves, if not aloud – that debating the niceties of God’s unfathomable being seems a rather impractical activity with which to be preoccupied while the world is tearing itself apart (often in the name of religion) and when the good earth we have been gifted is increasingly imperilled by our human rapacity.

What this outlook assumes, of course, is that the central Christian account of God is – to all intents and purposes – irrelevant to the business of daily living and to addressing the world’s deepest problems. But if Christians have ceased to believe that the God they worship makes any substantial difference, except perhaps as a comfort or final wager, why on earth should anyone else bother?

Stanley Hauerwas makes the key point with characteristic pungency. If we knew a doctor was badly trained in anatomy, he says, we would rightly worry for our health. But does anyone seriously suppose that a Christian leader badly trained in theology is a life-threatening menace? Generally not. Yet this is a scandal. Because what we worship really is a matter life and death.

If the object of our devotion is ourselves writ large, we will be prone to flights of egotism which will cause untold harm to others and ourselves. Likewise, if our God is an illusion, we will be prey to fantasy. If our God is a tyrant, we will end up baptising tyranny. And if our God demands blood, we will sanction killing as desirable or even holy – as in the recent murder of Dr George Tiller in the USA. The hallowing of gods who are actually life-destroying idols is endemic in human cultures, our own included. This is one of the reasons a growing number of people are turning against religion.

Where many atheists (and indeed liberal Christians) go wrong, however, is in assuming too readily that idolatry – the false attribution of ultimate worth – is only possible for the religiously credulous, that disbelieving in ‘the gods’ is really a straightforward matter and that unaided human rationality can arbitrate reliably between enlightening belief and enslaving superstition.

If only this were true. But sadly, it is not. Just look at the world. Villainy, deceit and primal anger pervade every society and, to a greater or lesser extent, every heart. Both religious and non-religious creeds are used to justify or embed monstrous evils. And while human beings may abandon the easily identifiable gods, they remain remarkably prone to taking on new ones in secular guises: possessions, the market, the family, warriors, celebrities and overlords… there are too many to name.

Given these realities, only those with a dangerous lack of knowledge of themselves and others can believe that the world’s problems are overwhelmingly attributable to ‘that lot’. Yet there are plenty who think like this, some who sit solidly in their pews, and others who proclaim a gospel of undiluted scepticism.

What is the Christian given to say in the midst of this mess? It has to be something like this. The world we inhabit is indeed broken, brutal and deeply scarred. Tragedy is unavoidably implicated in both its contingency and its evolved freedom. But that is not the whole story, not its greater part. For if the universe is, in spite of its many lesions, God’s good creation (by which we mean sheer, unconditional, loving gift), then these wounds are held within a deeper, healing unity. This is a possibility we may only fleetingly perceive in ‘moments of grace’, both aesthetic and moral. For an instant, some action or event becomes a sign of what (or who) truly makes “all the difference in the world”.

This is what becomes possible as we confess God to be the creative, generative and inexhaustible origin, accompanier and goal of life. Yet that, as a singular attribution of the divine, could easily lead us astray. For a God of creation alone would either be bound up with its limits or magisterially disconnected from its wounds. So Christians also recognise God-in-the-midst, remaking our lives, reorienting us, embodying the way of life with and for us, in a particular life and history (that of Jesus of Nazareth) which is also bound up with, while moving beyond, the story and history of a particular suffering people.

All this reminds us, says Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that the transcendence (the going-beyond) of God has nothing to do with the transcendence made possible by our own knowing or being. God is not us writ large. Rather, in the vulnerability and personalness of Christ, crucified and living, the God who is wholly Other transcends the limits of this ‘otherness’, as we comprehend it. God, who in essence is utterly outside our comprehension, nevertheless ‘stands in’ to our world and our humanity so as to enable us ‘stand out’ from our bondage to decay (as St Paul puts its in the continuation of our reading from Romans 8). In this way we discover that what it is to be God and what it is to be human are not contradictory. However, their final harmony can only be found in God working through humanity, not in humanity abstracted from God. This is the logic of incarnation.

Yet, as a double attribution, that too could mislead us – as if God was limited by our perception of the face of the divine in one person, one place, and one time. As if this God, who we meet in the goodness of creation and in Christ the wounded healer, was somehow incapable of communicating through the non-personal and the inter-personal, to those outside the immediate community of Jesus and to those way outside the conventions, beliefs and rituals within which the gift of God has come to us. So Christians also rejoice in God the Holy Spirit, comforting the disturbed, disturbing the comfortable, encountering and changing us in unexpected ways and unstable places. “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from and where it goes… So it is with all who are born of the Spirit.” (John 3. 8).

All in all, the Trinitarian account of God is inescapable within the totality of Christian experience. If God eternally is, if God is as God is in Jesus, and if God’s Spirit has moved us, then this unity-in-diversity of the divine is the only way to confess the meaning, identity and truth of God. However, such a confession, given by God in Christ and sealed by the Spirit, is not over and against others, but in through, with and for them. For it tells us that nothing we are, or say, or do can possibly alter who God is. The Triune God is giver, gift and given – and what this means is that when we refuse, withhold or destroy the gift of creation (the natural world) or the gift of other people, we declare ourselves strangers to God. This, not some propositional denial, is unbelief. For faith in God is not a matter of theory, but an understanding we receive as we are joined to a community of terrifying hope. Terrifying? Yes. Because God’s love (a truly un-possessive desire for the well-being of the other) cannot avoid the cross, does not leave us unchanged, and will not spare us any of the tragedy that is bound up with our freedom.

In short, the Trinitarian account of God proves vital in correcting our dangerous, delusional and fantastic human ideas about God, the world and ourselves. God is beyond, but not uncaringly remote. God is for us, but in the power of love not the love of power. God is among us, but to thwart our lust for control not to feed it. The god who is uncompassionate, overwhelming and ours alone – at whatever cost, with whatever amount of force and violence: this is not the God of Jesus Christ. This is a deadly idol, whether in religious or non-religious guise.

This is why, rightly understood, Christian worship, doctrine, prayer and discipleship are all different dimensions of a single act of divinely empowered resistance. They school us to refuse to worship any thing, any person, creed, event or idea within the world. Only by learning to worship the true God can we learn to disbelieve in ‘the gods’. Richard Dawkins is wholly inadequate. Likewise, only by learning to identify false gods and dethrone them can we worship the true God, the beyond-in-our midst who promises life not death, mercy not sacrifice, peace not destruction, understanding not ignorance, love not hatred, hope not despair.

Finally, it has to be emphasised that the Trinitarian knowledge of God is not about mathematical puzzle solving, but about personal and communal living. God’s ‘oneness’ designates completion. It does not mean God is the first in a series of numbers. There is no series or category of which God is a member – certainly not ‘the gods’. Likewise, ‘three’ is not some arbitrary alternative to two, seventeen or a million and one. It’s simply a way of saying that God embraces, indwells and releases without separation and without confusion. Our modern intellectual problems with Trinitarian language are largely a function of the naïve literalness of our rationality, signalled by our imperviousness to the metaphoric register that alone points toward the unspeakably real.

Which brings us back to the reality of eco-devastation and to the murderous sibling rivalry of Palestinians and Jews. The ‘religion’ that enables human beings to destroy the planet and each other is a greedy, fearful and merciless display of what is essentially insecure self-assertion. It can only finally be rejected in the name of One who truly is giver, gift and giving. A divided ‘holy land’ must give way to a shared land of the Holy One.

As David Jenkins once warned: we must face the reality of God, or if there is no such reality, the absence of God. What we must not do is fashion our tribal needs, concerns and ideologies into ‘a god for us’. For that way lies our self-destruction as dislocated, disconnected people on a tiny but beautiful planet.

But as it is, “When we cry ‘Abba!’ it is none other than the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ…” (Romans 8. 15b-16)

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This is an address given at St Mary Arches Church in the Central Parish of Exeter (Anglican) for Trinity Sunday 2009.

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