Basics one - one god
God. This is a word we often use without thinking. We talk about God. We pray to God. We refer to God's will. We use "God" in curses (I suppose not the best example). The word God is so much a part of our language that we seldom stop to consider what a profound theological statement we are making when we use the term.
Monotheism, the belief that there is one God (and not many gods) is a remarkable concept. For much of the history of God's people (see there I go using God) monotheism was not even on the theological horizon. For at least a thousand years God's people were henotheists (those who worship one god but accept the presence of other gods). We see this in the Exodus 20:3, "You shall have no other gods before me." In other words while the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob may have believed that other gods existed they were to worship one God alone; the God who had called Abraham and through Moses had liberated the people from the power of Pharaoh.
This belief in the presence of other gods was to be expected in the ancient world. Except for very rare instances nations and peoples had a plethora of gods in which one god would be dominant but not exclusive. Speculation exists that the present understanding of monotheism developed during the Babylonian captivity (597-538 BC). We see this development expressed in Isaiah 44:06, "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god" and it's further developed in Isaiah 44:09-20, a satire on the making and worship of idols. This new concept not only clearly set Judaism off from all other religions but it became the backbone of the Hebraic faith.
Christianity, as an offshoot of Judaism, continued the tradition of monotheism. This absolute adherence to monotheism proved to be a difficulty however as the church tried to discern the nature and work of Jesus of Nazareth (we will deal with this struggle of who Jesus was and is in future articles). In other words, how could Jesus be both a human being and God, especially if God is one and cannot be divided? As the church spread throughout the Roman Empire it would have been very easy for Christians to return to a polytheistic stance in order to deal with this quandary. They refused to do so however and were clear that while Jesus is mysteriously God with us, God is still one.
Ultimately then this adherence to monotheism shaped and shapes our faith in several critical ways. First monotheism allows us to focus our devotion and worship on the one, true living God. If, as we believe, there is but one God then this one God is deserving of our worship and devotion for all of the blessings of life we have received. Second, monotheism reminds us that our primary allegiance is to be offered to God and to God alone. Scripture tells us that we are to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, thus giving God "first dibs" on our lives. This orientation allows us to be guided by God as we seek to bless others. Finally monotheism allows us to orient our lives to God who is the very source of life and blessing itself. Since God is the creator and giver of life, then by aligning ourselves with God we encounter the one who is able to help us become fully human; meaning becoming capable of living in right relationship with Gods-self, neighbor and creation so that we can both be blessed and can bless others. Monotheism thus forms the very foundation of our faith, allowing us to not only talk about God, but to discover who this God is.
basics two - blessing God
In their 1971 album "Aqualung" the group Jethro Tull (I know that this is probably the first time in a while anyone has talked about Jethro Tull in church) focused the second side of the record entirely to an examination of how the church and society talk about God. In the song "My God" the lyrics read, "People -- what have you done -- locked Him in His golden cage. Made Him bend to your religion --Him resurrected from the grave. He is the god of nothing -- if that's all that you can see." In more recent times Alanis Morissette in her song "What if God were One of Us" sung "What if god was one of us? Just a slob like one of us just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home."
Last week we looked at monotheism as one of the defining characteristics of our faith. As the lyrics noted above show us however simply believing in one God as opposed to many gods still leaves a very wide open playing field in terms of who is this one God? Is this one God the one who wants to welcome everyone into heaven? Is this one God the one who gives us permission to kill our enemies? Is this one God a distant and remote power who has little interaction with humanity? Is this one God a tyrant who punishes those who do not perfectly obey? I ask these questions because they each describe how God has been interpreted by the church across time. So who is this God and how do we know what we know about God?
For those of us in the Reformed Tradition (meaning Presbyterians and Reformed churches) the answer to how we know about this God we worship is scripture. Though tradition, culture and experience always play a part in how we understand God, our central focus is to be on mining the Bible for clues to knowing and understanding God.
While that might appear to make the task of discovering God easier, in some ways it makes it more difficult. It makes it more difficult because the scriptures, spanning more than a thousand years, written by dozens of different individuals, in dozens of different cultural environments, composed of multiple kinds of literature does not give us a single definitive vision of God. Thus it has been easy for the church and individuals to create God in their own image. We can pick and choose the images we like while discarding those we do not appreciate. As Ian Anderson put it, we lock God in his golden cage (a cage of our own making).
So who is this God? As I said a few weeks ago I am going to argue that the Biblical story while offering a variety of perspectives on God gives us, in the end, a cohesive image from which to work. That cohesive image is of a God who wants to bless humanity and creation. From the opening words of Genesis (God makes a good creation), to the prophets (God desires to restore that creation), to the life and work of Jesus (proclaiming the new Kingdom in which relationships with God and neighbor are restored) to the final words of Revelation (where there is a new heaven and earth in which pain and death have been destroyed) we are shown a picture of a God who desires humans to live in right relationship with God, with one another and with the creation that God has made.
This vision of a God who desires to bless humanity (and has come personally to bless us…more about that later) helps us see that God is: interactive, personal, loving, purposeful, judging, forgiving and creative. Realizing that this language is not the traditional language we have used to speak of God (omnipresent, etc.) I will spend some time next week discussing why I believe the language I will use is closer to the Biblical vision than the traditional descriptions many of us were taught.
Basics three - creating god
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth." With those words the epic story we know as the Bible begins. Over the next two chapters we witness the unfolding of God's creative activity as God (in and through two different accounts) molds, shapes and fashions creation. As I noted in a previous article, most of us Presbyterians, understand these accounts to be more theological than literal. We understand that the earth is billions of years old and that its formation, along with the formation of the rest of the universe, was an evolutionary process that took place over a mind-boggling amount of time. So, while we believe that God was intimately involved with this creative process, we do not take literally the six, 24 hour days of creation, as do many more Biblically conservative Christians. While these differences might appear to be inconsequential (what difference does it make what we believe about the length of the creation period?) interestingly enough the way these stories are read (literally or theologically) directly impacts our lives in the United States and around the world.
Here is what I mean. Many of the churches and Christian communities that profess a belief in God as literally creating in seven days do not believe that creation is an object to be used (and sometimes abused) for the needs, wants and desires of humanity. This view comes out of a belief that humans were to subject creation to humanities will (see Genesis 1:26 in which human beings are given dominion over creation). In this view humanity was the highest end of all that God did and everything else was merely the "stage" upon which we were to play; a set for us to change at our will. This is why many conservative churches see the entire ecological movement as suspect and even sometime Satanic; because it appears to say the rest of creation is as important at humanity.
On the other hand the churches (I believe including ours) which see the epic narratives of Creation in the opening of Genesis as more theological than literal hold a much different view of our relationship with creation. Instead of subjecting creation to our whims and desires, we are to "steward" creation; caring for it as God's possession (see Genesis 2:15 where Adam is to keep creation as a gardener). This orientation brings about a completely different way of looking at our world. We see the world as belonging to God, not to us. We see that our task is to take care of this world in the same way a hired gardener would careful care for the garden of their employer. Humanity, while being very different from the rest of creation (we are those created in the image of God) is not "better" than everything else around us. We are simply different; different because of the role (stewards) that we have been assigned. Thus we generally support the ecological movement because it encourages us to care for God's creation.
So which of these views ought we to choose? I believe that the second view is appropriate for two reasons. First it affirms the Biblical assertion that this world is God's and not ours. The Psalmist tells us that "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness there of." (Psalm 24:1) The scriptures constantly remind us that God is the owner and we are the caretakers of this amazing blue-green planet. Second I believe this view is appropriate because God's plan is to renew this world. In Revelation 21:1 we read of a new heaven and a new earth (meaning not a new planet to replace the old one, but the renewal of the planet on which we live). This means for me is that since God loves this planet enough to renew it, we ought to love it that much as well. It means we ought to be working for the renewal of creation while we are here. My hope then is that we as a Christ centered community will care for creation not because it is the latest fad, but because the God who made us calls upon us to so do.