Not So Fast: The Otherness of God

Exercise: What words and images do you associate with God? With a classmate, create both a list of your own answers, and a list of what you believe are common American answers. Where do they come from? Are they accurate? How do you know?

I. What "God" Means: American Historical, Intellectual, and Popular Sources
Vital Christianity draws from consistent sources of Christian tradition
(worship, community, scripture, sacramental life, charity, mission, etc.).
These sources, and Christian literacy, have weakened in many American circles.
Cultural Christianity draws from Constantinianism and folk religion.
Therapeutic Moralistic Deism (Christian Smith) draws from contemporary forms of pragmatism.
Indifference draws from competing priorities and stimuli (cf. Matt 13:7).
Diversity draws from immigration, globalization, and American religious ingenuity.
(Where have these and other forces been informing your churches' and families' meanings of God?)
II. Is "God" a Misunderstanding? The Challenge of Modern Secularism
Secularism (George Holyoake) draws from the Enlightenment, especially 19th and 20th century "Masters of Suspicion":
Freud/Nietzsche: Belief in "God" destroys human freedom (in order to cope, or to pacify others).
Marx et al.: Belief in "God" sanctions exploitation of the weak (marginal, poor, female, etc.).
Feuerbach: Belief in "God" constructs a super-personal, or impersonal, projection.
Durkheim: Belief in "God" reinforces mere private, personal 'taste' or group identity.
Contemporary pop culture synthesis: From secularism to "the death of God" (Nietzsche), apathy (Schopenhauer), and "the culture of death" (John Paul II).
Secularist arguments come from cultural and personal influences, not just logic (Henri de Lubac, The Discovery of God; Karl Giberson, Saving Darwin).
What do they produce?
Do they really remedy the conditions critics attribute to belief in God (immaturity, servitude, exploitation, ignorance, uncritical loyalty)?
Or might these conditions have other sources?
What other 'fruits' or effects do they have (cf. Matt 12:43-45)?
Are they valid (cf. Jer 16:19-21)? For at least some theologies? For ours?
Where does this leave God's teachers and students?
III. First Things First: The Doctrine of Hiddenness
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:
Deut 4:15-16, 5:8: "Since you saw no form, ... beware.... You shall make no image."
Job 38:4: "Where were you?"
Isaiah 55:8: "My thoughts are not your thoughts."
John 1:18: "No one has ever seen God."
Luther: God is revealed in hiddenness and hidden in revelation.
IV. From "God" to God: Lessons from Yahweh
When Moses meets his maker (Ex 3:13-15, Ex 19:16-20:8, 20:18-26), we learn:
Mystery: God is not naturally accessible to us; thus epistemic humility.
Revelation: Knowledge of God is a gift of God; thus special (and general) revelation.
Tradition: Indirect knowledge of God is mediated; thus evangelism and reception.
Holiness: God is other (Barth: "wholly other"); thus via negativa.
Activity: God is known through what God does; thus via positiva.
The Name (YHWH): God is personal; thus 'I-thou' knowledge.
Goodness: What God does is deliver, justify, reconcile, include, heal, refine, mature; thus wisdom.
Life: God is the living life-giver; thus foundational gratitude and trust.
Unity: God is one; thus knowledge is coherent.
These lessons are not "faith" versus "reason," but inferences through disciplined trust.
Subsequent events, including God's own advent, are surprising yet consistent.
V. Contextualization: Has "God" Been Ruined?
Can Christians reliably use a term with such diversity of incoherent meanings?
Abram renarrates the Canaanite creator-god 'El' (Gen 14:17-24).
This demonstrates Newbigin's "true contextualization."
(By contrast, the prophets reject the Canaanite lord 'Ba'al' [1 Kings 18:21].
Confusing the two is "false contextualization.")
Jesus brings worship "in Spirit and truth" to both Judea and Samaria (John 4:21-24).
He critically and selectively affirms some incompatible meanings of "God,"
though only as his gospel corrects, transforms, and redeems them.

Self-Test