On the right stands an impenetrable rock wall rising so high it disappears into the clouds. To the left, pretty flowers stick up, but from a soggy marsh. You cannot scale the rock cliff. You cannot walk among the pretty flowers without sinking into the bog. Between the two stands a dense wood with tangled underbrush. You cannot see through the woods, but there is no other way. A path must be cleared.
There is, for many, the God of stone, a rock wall that rises until it disappears above the clouds. This God condemns you for who you are, what you think, and for every failure you hide as well as those shameful failures that stick out in plain sight. There is on the other hand, the God of mush who cares not who you are or what you do but gushes gooey love all over you unconditionally. The Father Almighty or the Grandpa God who never stops smiling and patting you on the head. What a choice! To which could you turn in your time of deep trouble? Before which can you stand as you really are?
Here is the problem I now face in continuing this series of blog posts on relearning Christian faith. How do I clear a path between philosophical apathy (the rock wall that prevailed in Christian theology) and Christian sentimentality (the bog with pretty flowers that prevailed in the churches)? To one side stands the God of the divine attributes, the God who towers above everything human as the very apex of perfection – too perfect to move or be moved, to care about anyone, or to feel anything.
To picture this philosophically conceived God, imagine yourself standing precisely at the North Pole. Any step you take in any direction (backward or forward, to one side or the other) becomes a step southward. That’s the God of the attributes of perfection, the all-everything God who cannot change or even move without being diminished and being, then, no longer God. The God philosophically conceived stands precisely at the summit, the north pole of perfection, so that any deviation would be a step down that would destroy perfection utterly.
The Bible knows nothing of such a God. Not only the great prophets but the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) confronts us with the God who steps down deliberately and decisively for us, to meet us where we are. On the stage of civilization’s history, God enters as the humiliated God of slaves. Why do I say “humiliated”? The pharaoh of Egypt gives us the answer: “Who is Yahweh [rendered as “the LORD”], that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh, and I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2 NRSV ). Merely to be the god of slaves is to be humiliated because, in the thinking of the ancients (but not only the ancients) the status of the god’s people reflected the power and prominence of the god. The god of slaves is a slave-god.
Throughout the Bible, before even getting to the Christian books we call the New Testament, God steps down again and again to be the God of Israel, to self-identify with the covenant people, to forgive the people who have soiled their God’s name, and to care (actually care!) about Israel’s response. The all-perfect, all-everything God of the philosophers does not and, indeed, cannot step down to meet us, cannot care where we are in life. That Perfect One cannot empathize with the plight of mere humans, cannot feel compassion, cannot feel anything. You might think you have never heard of this God, but you have. In coming blog posts, I’ll show you, and you might be surprised how well known to you “He” is.
This All-perfect One has influenced Christian thought far more than most Christians realize. The Council of Nicaea (4th Century) managed to hang on to the principle of Jesus Christ’s humanity, but just barely and not very effectively. The emphasis fell almost entirely upon the principle of Christ’s divinity, as required by prevailing philosophy and demanded by Emperor Constantine. Emperors do not rule under the principles of humility and compassion.
The people of the churches, the so-called “people in the pews,” countered with God’s love. They held on, clung, to God’s love that came into our world as an infant. But, at the same time, both God the Father and Jesus Christ (enthroned at God’s right hand and coming to judge the living and the dead) were moved further and further away from them, and so they looked for compassion to saints and the Virgin Mary as sympathetic figures who could understand the griefs and pains of human life and who would care enough to hear their cries and intercede for them.
In American Protestantism, we got “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” We got “Love conquers all” and “All you need is love.” We got a grandpa God who winked at misbehavior and far worse. “He’ll always say, ‘I forgive, I forgive, I forgive.’ He’ll always say, ‘I forgive’” (from the song, “He”).
I’m looking for ways to clear a path.