I see God as a loving humanitarian, not a tyrant and dictator who enslaves people with fear, harsh law and frontier justice. My theology of God has nothing to do with slave mentality that makes me a “slave” to God, and negative servitude and fear of the sort that the German philosopher Nietzsche criticized so hard and so well–he who famously declared God dead. My idea of fearing God is being found unworthy to serve a God so loving and full of grace and tender mercies.
Read on for more on this thought, jitterbuggers, and I hope you’re having a blessed Holy Week. . . .
The other night when I was making patient rounds at the hospital I had a nice talk with a very interesting gentleman–a businessman who has been in the bicycle business, of all things, in China, of all places, for going on 15 years now. Actually, that’s just one of his many business ventures but the one that certainly struck me as most interesting.
We talked business and lots of things before we got around to talking religion, and it turned out he has quite a jaundiced view of it. He told me he grew up in one of those fire and brimstone churches where the image of God planted in his mind was that of a big and power-happy old man with a long flowing beard. He fled the church as fast as he could when he came of the age where he could do so.
He did say, though, that while he’s not religious, “I’m spiritual.” His problem with religion, he told me, is that there’s no getting around the image of that fearsome God who demands respect and fear–or else. That God is right there in black and white in the Bible, he asserted.
We had a very lively and interesting discussion and respected each other, and when I asked him if he wanted me to pray for him–he did. “It can’t hurt anything,” he said. So while he’s “not much of a believer,” I did appreciate that he didn’t throw me out of the room on my ear as soon as I identified myself as a chaplain and asked if I could come in. And, at the risk of sounding a trifle full of myself, I could see by the time I left the room that he was thinking about God in quite a different way–thinking a new image and broader understanding of God. Or at least I hope he was and do believe he was.
I can understand how people come to see God as such a domineering and rather scary control freak and iron-fisted disciplinarian. There certainly are commands to “fear” just such a God as that, and images that would lead one to actually live in fear of God as such a holy dictator rather than a loving humanitarian.
But that’s why we have thousands of years of theology–an academic discipline that explores all those pesky “nuances” and subtleties and symbols and winks and perspectives and contexts that the writers of the Bible brilliantly weaved together in a vast mosaic of God. As I told this patient, to get stuck on one image of God–especially that of the sort of tyrannical God presented in much of the Old Testament–causes one to miss the image of the whole God. Unfortunately, teachers and preachers and churches throughout the ages, too many of them, got stuck on the image of God as that patriarchal tyrant who demanded respect or else. And a patriarchal tyrant is, well . . . patriarchal.
It’s never pretty when men have total control over faith and religion, is it.
Nietzsche the philosopher, who in 1882 famously proclaimed the death of God, presented a tough-minded challenge to Christianity, seizing on the Bible’s call for this sort of “servile” fear of the Lord. Nietzsche gave us the alternative of a sort of Superman who was strong enough to stand on his own and didn’t need a “higher power.”
The fact is that we find in the Bible — in the whole of the Bible and even in the Old Testament — a God whose will is for peace on earth and good will toward all, whose will is for mercy and justice and taking care of one another and lifting up each other when we fall, whose will is for love. The will for justice includes some rough justice in that Old-time Testament, for sure, but we always have to remember that the Bible has to be interpreted in the context of the very primitive times in which God was inspiring those who wrote it. Times are always changing and were changing over the hundreds of years it took for the Bible to be drafted, edited and finally canonized for all time, which means that we get radically different images of God in the Old and New Testaments just as we get radically different images of God through the centuries in theological study.
Slavery, don’t forget, was biblically justified for quite a while, and could be biblically justified now without theological perspective and context. The same could be said for women in servitude to men, a servitude of the sort that few women today tolerate.
Anyway, the fact remains that we must fear God, but not in the sense of Nietzsche’s servile fear, a fear that makes us “enslaved” to this crazed God. Rather, fear in the sense of being in awe of a God so great, so awesome as to have provided us all we need for this love and justice that God wills. Being in awe of all this grace of the sort that I and the aforementioned gentleman found in our quick discussion about this God.
As I told my friend the patient, it’s my belief that authentic religion is not about the certainty of God, but the magnificent mystery of God. Whenever I see a Christian or any kind of believer who has no doubts whatsoever–that’s the God I fear in the worse sense coming through, but not the true God. Doubt is the good cop that keeps the bad cop under control. Those who have no doubts whatsoever–those who can’t appreciate the beauty of the mystery of the God who can be known, while hardly being known at all, are of the sort who smash airplanes into buildings or band together in weird and very misguided “Christian warrior” militias. (See the headlines today.)
God is way too big to be stuffed into the sort of little boxes we try so hard to stuff. God is love. And that means God gives us the ways and means to carry on the divine will for mercy and love and grace and peace and justice.
My theology of God has nothing to do with slave mentality and negative servitude of the sort that the German philosopher rapped, but rather the fear of being unworthy to serve a God so great in the ultimate of the best sense of greatness.
Just a few scattered thoughts there for you, jitterbuggers, on this Holiest of Holy Christian weeks. And with that–a prayer for you from the late and the great spiritual writer and teacher Mr. Nouwen:
I hope that I will always be for each person
what he or she needs me to be.
I hope that each person’s death will diminish me,
but that fear of my own will never diminish my joy of life.
I hope that my love for those whom I like will never lessen
my love for those whom I do not.
I hope that another person’s love for me will never
be a measure of my love for him or her.
I hope that everybody will accept me as I am,
but that I never will.
I hope that I will always ask for forgiveness from others,
but will never need to be asked for my own . . .
I hope that I will always recognize my limitations,
but that I will construct none.
I hope that loving will always be my goal,
but that love will never be my idol.
I hope that everyone will always have hope.