While shelving in the stacks yesterday, I came across a book by a well-known mainline bishop who writes about Christianity, faith, and culture at a popular level. As I am wont to do -- at the risk of my job! I am getting better -- I opened to the table of contents and thumbed through the book. I came to the section where a set of chapters were devoted to lambasting Scripture's supposed anti-woman misogynistic texts, none more so (to this author) than Genesis 2-3. His critique was standard hand-wringing -- all fury, no context, everything "clear to all" -- but it got me thinking about an interview I read a few weeks back with this same bishop, in which he went off on a certain highly visible and influential Christian leader for not having the courage to do or say so-and-so about such-and-such issue.
The point is neither the bishop, nor the other leader, nor his critique of the Bible. The point is this bishop's view of God and what kind of God the real God ought to be and is, and how that sheds light on Christians' relationship with, feelings about, and orientation to the God we believe is somehow witnessed to in Scripture.
Namely: Must we like God? It seems a simple question, but I have been turning it over in my mind and don't have a simple answer. This bishop, in his critique of what he perceived to be hateful texts prevalent throughout Scripture and, accordingly, the God those texts portray, sought to correct distortions of human understanding of God in order to present a proper, healthier, "truer" vision of God.
But the question is, Where did the bishop get his right understanding of God? Whence did he receive it? By revelation? By experience? By other religious traditions? By study? By reason?
The answer, so far as I can tell, and put simplistically, is that the God spoken of in the texts in question is a God the bishop did not like. This God insulted modern assumptions about what a "good" or "loving" God looks like -- about what the "one in charge" ought to be like. And so he corrected the texts' mistakes.
Now -- as I hope would be apparent to any reader of this blog -- I have no interest in swinging to the fundamentalist side and merely taking whatever the Bible (or tradition, or experience, or whatever "text" in discussion) says at what seems to be "face value," pointing and saying, "Hey, we didn't write it. That's what it says. No more thought required. Accept it, believe it, don't question it." As I've written about previously, taking cues from Brueggemann and from the Jewish community, texts always require (and indeed, even if we don't recognize it, are always in the midst of) negotiation. We see this in the texts themselves as much as anything -- in, say, the dispute over Gentiles and circumcision in Acts 15, or ritual purity laws in Jesus' ministry. Texts are not self-evident, texts are not simple. The church interprets by the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit, and is never a non-interpreting community. The moment it (thinks it) stops interpreting, it ceases to live under the authority of Scripture.
However, the question remains: Must we like God? And not merely in the abstract, as an "ought," but do we -- in concrete faith lived day to day, do we like God? And is it possible to follow Jesus, to be a member of the church, to believe, and yet not like God?
To some extent, the response of faith to the proclamation of the gospel must entail some "liking," just to the extent that the message heard and believed is heard and believed as good news. On the other hand -- and this is the dangerous end about which I find myself so concerned -- if we must and/or do "like" God as a requisite or corollary of being a Christian, does that not ultimately succumb to the critique that every religion's god is merely an extension of the self? that ultimately worship is exaltation of the self? that "God" or "spirit" or whatever is only a reflection of human beings, not of the transcendent or the Other?
Experience seems to confirm that, for the most part, we make the God we believe in into a God we can believe in: If God is or does x, and x does not sit well with me, God must not be or do x. I could not believe in that God. So I don't.
Is this right? Is it coherent? Is it Christian?
These are rich, complex questions. For now, I'll leave them for contemplation. Next week, we'll jump in and see what we find.
[Image courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.]