Thursday, October 05, 2006

3. Changing our View of God: God and Creation


My original idea was to post a series of weekly blogs on God. Then as I got thinking and received comments, I felt that it would be a good idea to explain why I felt one particular view of God was in the ascendancy and why, despite having been greatly influenced by it myself, I felt dissatisfaction with it. As I started writing, I discovered that I had more to say about it than even I had thought! Well that’s what blogs are all about, I suppose.

So I will continue to post the original series on God weekly. But I am also going to run this as a parallel series alongside it and, hopefully, complementary to it. This will be called: ‘Changing our View of God’.

Let me recap. I have argued that in the past we had an Authoritarian view of God, based on the Baylor Institute’s analysis of American religious beliefs, but that now, increasingly, Christians, especially in my own tradition, were embracing a view of God that the researchers described using the term Benevolent God. My own opinion is, however, that even those who today adhere to a view of God, which is Authoritarian in character, have themselves been more influenced by the idea of a Benevolent God than they sometimes imagine.

The purpose of this series is to examine in what ways our view of God has changed, and to ask why this has happened, and whether it is, after all, for the good. In doing so, I write, not as one outside the change looking in, but as one who has been part of it and profoundly affected by it. So in questioning what is going on in the church, I am also questioning myself.

Yesterday, I wrote:

‘It is as if we took a road because we discovered we were in the wrong place, but the road we have taken has led us further away from where we should be.’

I am interested to know the extent to which you agree or disagree.

Changing our View of God: God and Creation

‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through.’ When I became a Christian many in the church were deeply suspicious of the world at large and of any involvement in it. The world was a dangerous place for Christians with the Devil waiting to catch and ensnare Christians at every opportunity. Certain activities were regarded as worldly and to be avoided at all costs. Dancing, television, popular music, film, theatre, and pleasure in general were seen very negatively. You needed to be very careful when it came to alcohol, and pubs and bars were best avoided even if you didn’t drink!

The task of Christian mission was to save people from the world, trapped as they were in it. The Gospel was about saving individual souls. There was not much point trying to change the world because the world was evil and would one day be destroyed. Involvement in politics was ok, perhaps, for certain Christian individuals, but that involvement was as an individual. It was not for the church itself to get involved. This was something of a bizarre position for Anglicans to hold given that the head of the church was also the head of state, but Anglicans seemed to manage it. It was axiomatic that religion and politics did not mix.

Creation itself was fallen and anything physical was regarded with deep distrust. The body was a source of constant temptation. It was to be denied and controlled, not indulged and enjoyed. Sin often equalled sex. We were always told that sex was a wonderful gift from God, it just never sounded that wonderful, and it went without saying that it was only to be unwrapped within marriage.

It was quite some time later that I read the wonderful book by David Lodge: ‘How far Can You Go?’ In it he describes how Catholics in the 1950s would play a game he called, ‘How Far Can you Go?’ to determine what was and what was not permissible physical activity between unmarried Catholic couples. Although my background was anything but Catholic, it was interesting to see that Catholics shared the same value system and problems!

Protecting the environment, helping the poor, getting involved in social action were very low down the list of priorities, if they featured at all. In the Youth Fellowship I attended (which was large and successful) the most important issue was how to deal with the problem of lust rather than that of global warming.

Just to describe how it was is to describe how much it has all changed. While it may not have been as stark for everyone as it was for some of us, the principles were fundamentally the same. It seems a different world, as indeed it is. There are doubtless many reasons for the change. Without question, the rise of the permissive society had something to do with it. Our attitudes back then appeared somewhat ridiculous in the light of the changing values and beliefs within society as a whole. It wasn’t though that we just gave into temptation, we at least tried to find a theology to justify our changing perspective. Then, suddenly, we discovered that God had created the world and that God had made it good. It wasn’t the Bible that was negative towards the creation and the body, but early Christian theologians who had allowed alien philosophies into the Church in the mistaken belief they were Christian.

I have to say that for me this discovery came when at Theological College, we called it Bible College back then, but theological sounds so less narrow now. I was studying New Testament, and we were invited to compare Hebrew and Greek world views. The Hebrew world view was life affirming, positive about the world and the body, while the Greek view was life denying and negative to the world and anything physical. The Bible we learnt came from within a Hebrew world view. It was only later that the Church came under Greek influence. The Greeks really did have a lot to answer for.

It was they who had taught us that the body and the physical world were evil. It was they who had mistakenly led us to believe that salvation was about escaping from the body and this world and going to heaven when you die.

Discovering this was a form of liberation in itself. The ‘truth’ was so different. ‘The earth was the Lord’s and everything in it.’ (Psalm 24:1) ‘God had given us all things freely to enjoy.’ (1 Timothy 6:17) Jesus had turned water in to wine. (St John 2:1-11) He himself had been accused of being a glutton and drunkard because of his love of food and wine. (St Luke 7:34) And while it was put with the utmost delicacy, the fact he had hung around with members of the opposite sex suggested we ought not to be afraid of doing the same. (see, for example, St Luke 8:2-3) ‘Jesus is Lord creation’s voice proclaims it!’ I wonder how many of you remember the hymn.

What about sin? Well, sin is always an embarrassment. The idea of original sin, as I wrote the other day, was largely rejected as the creation of Saint Augustine. If creation was fundamentally good, then why should we go on such a guilt trip? Indeed, wasn’t it true that many people were more sinned against than sinning? And wasn’t sin more institutional than individual? Why tell poor, hungry, oppressed, people they were sinners when they were being exploited and treated unjustly by multi-national organisations and the rich and powerful in this world?

And what was the use of talking about spiritual things to people suffering from hunger and violence? Shouldn’t we be trying to share the good things of creation and put an end to the abuse of the world around us? Evangelism was joined by social action as the responsibility of the Christian, and then evangelism itself was defined as being about the whole of life and the whole of the person. It was about telling people how much God cared for them, loved them, and wanted to help them. God was on the side of the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the lonely, and the bereaved. Far from scolding them and telling them how much they had sinned, he reached out to them and came alongside of them. And the church ought to too.

The big sin used to be sex. Now it was sexism together with racism, elitism, capitalism, and a whole host of other ills.

Many of us now found ourselves teaching precisely the opposite of what we ourselves had been taught. The incarnation by which Jesus became one of us replaced the atonement by which he died for us as our favourite doctrine. God really was a Benevolent God who had made a good world.

But sin didn’t go away just because we stopped believing in it or, at least stopped talking about it. The reason Saint Augustine believed in original sin wasn’t because he was ignorant and unknowingly influenced by pagan philosophy, he believed in it because the Bible had a lot to say about sin and seemed specifically to say that the reason Jesus had died had been as an offering for sin.

The more we involved ourselves in politics and social action, the more many of us found that the problems of this world seemed to be more than social and political, they seemed to have a spiritual dimension. And some human beings rather than being good people more sinned against than sinning, even when all due allowance had been made, seemed very nasty and bad. We may indeed eat, drink and be merry, and enjoy all the fruits of creation, but we still die. Is it possible that, after all, death may have something to do with sin?

And yet in many sections of the Church the idea of individual human sin has become an alien concept. Indeed, the idea of God giving up his Son to die upon the Cross for us and for our sin is even described by some as a form of cosmic child abuse. Yes, we have our parties and our fun. We enjoy the fruits of creation. We believe in a Benevolent God who is on our side. We rail against social ills and join in political action. We just don’t know how to save anyone.

And all the evidence is that people do long for what we used to call salvation. A visit to the self-help sections of the bookshop reveals a desperate emptiness in the lives of many who have tried all the pleasures that life has to offer and have them wanting.
The creation itself while amazingly beautiful also has a dark side, a dark side that despite scientific discoveries, technological achievements, and medical advances refuses to go away. For if the creation really is so good, why is the world so bad?

We wanted to tell people that God was the Creator who loved them, that the creation was good, that salvation was about the whole of life, and that the body was not evil. We wanted to avoid any suggestion of dualism. We wanted to impress people with our political intelligence and our social action. What we have failed to do is to explain the persistent existence and power of evil. We have failed to tell people how they can escape from the powers and demons that possess, control, and destroy them.

The Benevolent God may be nice to us, he’s just not much use.

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