Monday, October 16, 2006

Series on God: 4. A Distant God

I have just got back from speaking during assembly at a local boys' school. I always wonder how much anyone understands what I say, let alone cares! You can only hope. This is by no means a problem just with teenagers, though it is perhaps particularly acute with them, as they are growing up with a worldview not always understood by those who are older. This is about more than the traditonal age gap problem where the assumption is that as they get older, they will eventually become more like those they have the gap with!

No, it's about how we talk to those, and they are not just teenagers, who have a worldview in which, for example, what handbag Victoria Beckham is wearing at the moment is much more important than the question of the origin of the universe. The answer apparently is that it is, coincidentally, like the bang that started the universe: a big one.

Handbags are big in every sense of the word at the moment. Here in Hong Kong, I am reliably informed, women buy on average three handbags a year. So it's important to get it right. Mind you, given the size of accommodation here, I have no idea where they keep them all, especially if they are like Posh's latest.

The point is a serious one. How do you talk about God to someone who really does care more about the size of their handbag than their relationship with him 'in whom they live and move and have their being'. I am not meaning to be patronising about this. A great deal of time and money is spent on designing, making, and promoting handbags. If we as Christians just dismiss it as a waste of time, then we are not engaging in any meaningful way with those who have spent hours over the weekend looking for their next must have consumer item.

Talking about God may mean some of us having to learn a lot more about handbags.

Appropriately, then, today in my series about God, I come to the Distant God. I hope to be back on Wednesday for the next in the series on Changing our View of God. I hope your week is good!

4. A Distant God

For the past few weeks, we have been considering the four Gods identified by researchers from the Baylor Institute of religion in America in their survey of American religious attitudes. They found that Americans believed in four different kinds of Gods regardless of what their religious affiliation was. We looked first at the Authoritarian God and the Benevolent God. Both these versions of God are much involved and engaged in the world and expect their followers to be also. Last week, we looked at the first of two versions of a God who is not involved in the world. The Critical God we saw only got involved at the end of our life to pass judgement on us and to reward or punish.

I argued last week that while we should reject the suggestion that God is NOT involved in the world, we should not also reject the idea of judgement based as it is on the teaching of our Lord himself.

Today we come to the final version of God, the Distant God. The researchers say that ‘believers in a Distant God think that God is not active in the world and not especially angry either. These individuals tend towards thinking about God as a cosmic force which set the laws of nature in motion. As such, God does not “do” things in the world and does not hold clear opinions about our activities or world events.’

In the Bible, God does not simply create the world, he upholds it as well. It isn’t that he has started it off and left it to get on with it, he is intimately involved moment by moment so that if he were not, it would cease to exist. God both creates and sustains his creation. As such, Christians have to reject the God of much popular culture which, while not wanting to reject the idea of God altogether, believes in a God in a way that makes very little practical difference.

This is a ‘having your cake and eating it’ sort of philosophy. This kind of approach realizes that there are good, sound philosophical arguments for the existence of God. But believers in this God want a God who doesn’t bother them too much. He doesn’t give commands and so doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t do anything in the world so there is no need to pray to him or to worry about him doing anything out of the ordinary. It is a very convenient sort of God, and Christians are right to reject it.

But have we rejected too much and gone too far the other way? Christians today want God to be involved in the world and want to be involved themselves in the creation and its affairs. We want a God whom we can speak to whenever we want and who is always there for us. A good mate in fact! It is true that in the Bible God is a God who cares deeply about us, who loves us so much that he sent his Son into the world for us, a Son who also taught us to call God our Father. Nevertheless, this is the same God who is Spirit. In other words, who is a God who is also different to us, whom we cannot see and live, who dwells in light inaccessible, whom we can only speak of imperfectly. This is a transcendent God who condescends to know us. And who, while he has made us in his image, remains over us and above us.

Christmas will soon be on us again. Until we see how utterly and completely transcendent God is, we won’t begin to see how incredible the miracle of the incarnation is, whereby this God became one of us and dwelt amongst us. We are but ‘dust and to dust we shall return’. It is only when we realize how weak and feeble we are compared to this God that we can begin to comprehend how absolutely amazing it is that this God should love us and care about us.

While it is right to approach God as our Father, we should also do so with fear and trembling, knowing that it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God. Our worship all too often is in danger of becoming a conversation amongst friends instead of the humble honour that creatures owe their Creator. We need to rediscover a sense of reverence and awe in our worship and liturgy as well as, dare I say it, fear.

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