Every small town paper has a religion column, usually written by a rotation of local clergy regurgitating old sermon notes. Sans sermon notes, I take my place on the rota of a weekly newspaper in a sparsely populated county where most are nominally Christian, hard core Republicans, and self proclaimed conservatives. It’s unpopular to be anything else, so don’t be too public about it if you are. On the other hand, it’s a community comfortable with gays, open to outsiders (if they don’t stay too long), and generous in giving to those in need.
My turn came up this week, and I thought, Oh what the heck, I’ll share it with you also. The question I decided to ask was, Who or what is God, and how do we know?
“Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid for our eyes,” so wrote Walter Chalmers Smith in his well known hymn. Medieval mystics talked of the “Cloud of Unknowing” in which the closer one got to God, the less one knew anything about God. There’s a bible story about the man Job who wanted a face to face meeting with God so he could demand justice from God. When he got it, all he could do was say “Oops! This was more than I bargained for.” So how are we supposed to know God?
In a sense, we never do, but what we do know is this, God has chosen to incrementally reveal God’s self to us, step by step as we are able to grasp it. With each step God moves in the direction of greater love with fewer boundaries separating us from all the others whom God loves. For Christians, the record of God’s self revelation is found in the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament, and the Christian scriptures of the New Testament. In them, the fullness of God that can be revealed in human form is displayed in Jesus. Think of it as the flowering of a tree we have been watching grow from a seedling.
Oddly enough, that flowering deepens the mystery. Jesus may have restored many to wholeness of life while teaching that God’s ways were ways of love and peace, but he also violated most of the social norms of the day, associated with social outcasts, welcomed aliens, and dared to challenge the authority of established religious teachers. For that he was executed as an enemy of the state and the people. The story would be over if it ended there, but it didn’t, and the mystery of God deepened again.
We Christians are convinced by the testimony of those who followed Jesus that he rose from the dead, not as a resuscitated body, but as “the Word of God made flesh.” It forces us to go back and take a harder look at the record of what Jesus said and did because it’s no longer just good advice for a better life, but the way of life itself from the very mouth of the one who created life. How hard could that be? Well, two thousand years later we’re still working at it, largely for the same reasons that got Jesus into trouble in the first place.
Men and women, whoever they and wherever they are, are inclined to attach more authority to socially acceptable norms, political affiliation, and the life styles they’re accustomed to, than to what God has instructed. They get around it by twisting scripture to fit what they want it to fit, and by following teachers who appeal to their prejudices and selfish desires. What’s the cure? It lies in knowing what the history of the Church can teach about errors made and corrected? What light does that shine on our own errors in need of correction? What does our God given gift of reason enable us to discern? What does a deeper, more challenging investigation of scripture reveal? Asking hard questions is OK. Having doubt is OK. Not putting up with easy answers is OK. God can take it, even if pastors and bishops can’t. Just ask Job. After a long time of complaining, questioning, and demanding answers, he got his face to face meeting with God. Oops! Maybe he shouldn’t have said so much. Yes, God chastised him for his audacity, but then commended him for the courage of his faith to ask hard questions in full expectation that God would listen. You can do the same.