Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Knowing God--Where Do We Start? Theological Convesations #1

This post is part of a series entitled "Theological Conversations." These are short writings that address key theological topics and questions in a way that invites your feedback and interaction. These conversations are "in-development" and we appreciate the dialogue you might offer.

Everyone is a theologian.

Even you. No one gets to opt out of thinking about the questions regarding God even if you don't believe in God. You might not think much about God or what God does and doesn't do in our world. Your Bible might be weighted with dust, your prayers might be rusty from neglect and church might rate alongside paying taxes. Even still you are a theologian of some sort because your actions reflect some perception of God.

The question is not whether you will be a theologian but whether you will be a good one. Good thinking about God depends not so much on having advanced degrees in theology, memorizing lots of scriptures or our commitment to God's cause. While these things are important, it does not guarantee that we actually have an imagination about God that fits the kind of God God is.

While in my twenties, I lived in Vancouver, B.C. where there are a ton of hiking trails. On many Saturdays I'd determine where I wanted to hike and then find where the trail started. In many cases, one parking lot would serve as the entry point for three or four different trails. If I started off on the wrong path, I'd end up at the wrong place.

Throughout church history people have began the journey of asking questions about God by starting off on trails that looked right but were slightly off. For instance, when asking about who God is, they would start with proof texts about the reliability of the Bible. Their faith was not in the God of the Bible but on the facts about the Bible. While the Bible is the main source of our understanding of God, too many times we can worship the text and knowledge of the text as if that is the same as a knowledge of God.

Others start with beliefs that are commonly accepted in the broader culture. God is commonly viewed as unchanging, passionless, and all-powerful. You can find verses in the Bible that can be interpreted in a way to support these characteristics. They try to get all of the categories right about God and then they read the Bible and force those categories upon the God they find there. For instance, because the broader culture of philosophy might determine that God does not experience emotions, all of the references to the various passionate experiences revealed in the Bible are determined to be anthropomorphic, which simply means that they are projections of God based upon the experience of humans.

If we want to know who God is, then we must refrain from going to God assuming that we know where to start. God is so other and different than we are. We must allow God to show himself to us on his terms and avoid trying to fit him into our assumptions or categories. The most clear example of this in my experience has been marriage. Every time I assume that I know what Shawna, my beautiful bride of almost twelve years, is thinking or assume the motivation she might have about her decisions, I am wrong. Listen, listen, listen. To honor her, I must let her reveal what's going on with her. I cannot place my conclusions or interpretations upon her.

Every time I assume that I know what God is up to or know what it means to know who God is, something new or dynamic occurs in my experience with him. This is because God is not a list of characteristics or a set of categories that determine what God does and does not do. God is personal and the nature of God is revealed not as a text book, a theology class or even a sermon. God is revealed in a person. If we don't get this about God, then we can mess up every subsequent question we might have about God and theology.

Let's look at what the earliest Christian writers said about this person that revealed God. This person, Jesus, whom them knew personally and shared life with. In other words, these words are the result of a revelation they had in their experience with Jesus.

First, let's consider the words of Jesus as recorded by his closest earthly friend, the Apostle John:

Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us."
Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? (John 14:8-9)

When a first century Jew referred to the Father, it was a reference to seeing God. In a similar way, Moses asked to see God when God came to him in the burning bush. Philip was one of Jesus' 12 disciple and he was simply asking a Moses-like question. Jesus' response is shocking. Jesus claimed that he revealed God. If we want to know who God is, then we must begin with what Jesus said about himself. (And if you are thinking that the Apostle John made these words up, please toss that idea in the trash because no sane Jew would ever make this claim. The fact is that making this up would have actually discredited the early Christian movement. It would not have given it more clout. Good Jews revered God too much to think that he would have come to earth as a man.)

Another disciple of Jesus wrote these words: "All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). Again, it is important to get clear on this point: these are radical statements to make about any man in any culture of history. But to say this as Jew about another man got those saying it killed. Matthew had no reason to make these words up. He is saying that Jesus, of all the people who have walked the earth, had a unique relationship with the Father, one that no creature has ever or will ever experience in the same way.

The Apostle Paul did not know Jesus personally while Jesus walked the earth, but he was the first one to actually put words on paper about who Jesus is. Before Paul embraced this perspective of Jesus he was one of the defenders of the Jewish belief that Jesus could not be who he said he was. Then he had a radical, miraculous and mystical encounter with Jesus and he turned to believe what he would later put on paper:

•"For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God's glory displayed in the face of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6). Jesus is the visible face of God. The glory of God is put on display in the life and person of Jesus.
•"Jesus ... being in very nature God,..." (Philippians 2:6). Jesus was in nature or being God. He was not a sub-creature or a lower God. He was at his core God, from all eternity.
•"For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form..." (Colossians 2:9). When the Apostle Paul wanted to drive home a key point, he often wrote elaborately, even with a degree of repetition. This is one of those cases. It would have been sufficient for him to write, "In Christ, Diety lives in bodily form." That would have been sufficient, but it would have been easy for the reader to misunderstand his point. So to drive it home, he could have written, "In Christ, the fullness of Deity lives in bodily form." But he goes far beyond that. He wants to make sure that we get the point the Jesus is not just a partial revelation of God. So he gets reduntantly repetitive by saying "all of the fullness of Deity." All, everything, complete and total fullness of who God is is packed into the person Jesus Christ.

Just in case the point is not clear, let's consider one more writer from the early church. We are not told who wrote the beautiful and finely-crafted book we call Hebrews. We only know that it one of the refined and well thought out pieces found in the Bible. Every sentence like a work of art. It opens with these words:

"In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being., sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Heb 1:1-3)."

It is hard to imagine a more clear statement about who Jesus is, "the exact representation of his (God's) being." The writer of Hebrews begins his book with Jesus, acknowledging the fact that any talk about God must begin with what God says about himself. This is revelation. God revealed himself in the person of Jesus. We cannot attain a level of revelation through logic or through research. Revelation of truth is the result of a truth coming to us from outside of ourselves. Jesus, God, came from outside of us and our world into our world and to us to reveal what we could not see on our own.

What does this mean for us? It is easy for us to agree with these conclusions while at the same time holding onto other ways of thinking about God. In other words, we might confess that Jesus is the full revelation of God, but we try to merge that with previously held patterns of envisioning God. We try to combine revelation of God with our own wisdom, logic and understanding. This is exactly what Jesus was confronting in the first century and it is a battle for us today. It is normal to think of God in terms of a list of attributes like infinity, eternity, omnipotence, omniscience, unchangeableness and impassibility (passionless). Jesus introduces us to a different way. Jesus is the "door" (John 10:7) to God. He is the way, the truth and the light to true knowledge of God.

Practically, this means that we must let Jesus overcome all of our pre-set assumptions about who God is. God really does look like Jesus. Jesus is the revelation of the inner life of God, the portal so that we can see into what cannot be seen. If you want to know God, read about Jesus and what his companions said about him. Start there, stay there, end there. If we do this, our we will see our entire world differently. We will see ourselves differently. We will see God, for the very first time.

Please give us your feedback on this Theological Conversation. What makes sense? What stands out? What needs clarification? Where do you see things differently? We are on a journey of knowing God together. Let's have conversation about this.

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