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Looking for ways to talk about God

Theologian Dr Val Webb

God is currently a hot topic with Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything on bestseller lists, dismissing God as irrelevant, harmful and non-existent.

Their Rottwieler-style attacks are aimed at the traditional theistic God, the all-powerful, all-good, unchanging transcendent Being beyond the universe controlling everything from without and usually depicted as an over-worked, elderly, bearded male.

Many progressive Christians today agree with much of what these men say because this image of a Being changing the laws of the universe at will to aid some and not others no longer fits comfortably with twenty-first century scientific knowledge.

A desert tribal God annihilating neighbouring clans in order to annex land for the chosen ones would inevitably face an international war crimes tribunal today and contemporary ethics have no time for a God who fails to condemn the “righteous” Lot for offering his virgin daughters for gang rape in order to protect his male house guests.

Christian dogmas down the centuries have continued this mentality with a God of love who killed his own Son as a blood sacrifice in order to appease his own Divine offence and wrath over inevitable human sin.

Those offended by such critiques need to realize that, in order to take the Bible seriously, it is not enough to quote tired, out of context proof-texts and humanly constructed atonement theologies while simply ignoring or explaining away these uncomfortable stories.

Since no one has seen God in order to draw a composite picture, anything said about God is a metaphor, a language attempt to describe the Divine in words and images familiar to those in a particular place and time. Such images are necessarily culturally bound and, like any metaphors, may not work in a different setting.

Today we take great pains to explain a Palestinian shepherd to urban children so they can call God the Good Shepherd, yet when that metaphor first surfaced, everyone would have nodded in affirmation at familiar imagery for God’s protective care.

Not only are our God descriptions metaphorical, but sacred texts across all religions contain not just one but a plethora of Divine metaphors – wind, breath, spirit, rock, fortress, mother hen, shield, sword, midwife, potter, archer, friend, destroyer, voice and warrior.

Neither one, nor even all of these metaphors together can describe the Unseen yet somehow we have ignored such diversity to fish from a shallow metaphorical pond, such that God has been limited to a literal father, king or judge and endowed with culturally specific characteristics assigned to such human images.

Why is this metaphorical exclusivity a problem? Because our Divine metaphors matter! How we imagine God determines how we live. If the Divine is an all-seeing Judge on high, we live and act in fear of exposure and punishment. If God is a faithful friend, we are courageous in such a Presence. If God is Wind, Breath and Spirit within and around us, enlivening the universe and ourselves, then, as part of that Divinely infused universe, we are in this sense, divine.

Just as tribal people living in fear of natural elements and enemies imagined a more powerful God-in-their-corner, so our Divine images must arise from within our contemporary world view. Consequently, progressive Christian thinkers have moved away from the theistic God images (which Dawkins and Hitchens attack) to descriptions of a Divine Ground of all Being, a Life-Breath, Lure or Energizer of the Universe, affecting and affected by all that happens within it.

These images are not foreign – they recover the sense behind many biblical metaphors of Wind, Breath or Spirit energising and giving life, images Jesus affirmed within himself and offered to his followers.
When today’s questions demand different answers from those of biblical times, such answers are not rebellion or heresy but an acknowledgement of contemporary encounters with what inspired our ancestors in their day.

The question is… can we live with such openness to the new?

I can, because I can do no other. It is the way I live with everything else, an ongoing juggling of a few certain facts, constant new experiences, diverse opinions, and faith in many things, some scientifically verifiable and others not – it is the adventure of being alive.

I find theologian Frederick Buechner’s words incredibly comforting: “Theology is the study of God and his ways. For all we know, dung beetles may study humans and their ways and call it humanology. If so, we would probably be more touched and amused than irritated. One hopes that God feels likewise.”

This article was first published in Insights and Dr Webb’s book Like Catching Water in a Net: Human Attempts to Describe the Divine is published by Continuum.

Photo : Theologian Dr Val Webb