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Thinking Out Loud

Talking About "Talking About God"

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 04, 2016

Talking About GodMy pastor, Steve Jester, and I were sitting in a favorite spot, the patio of the Starbucks on Frankfort Avenue. When we meet for coffee, we talk about most everything, from the best uses of corn and rye in the great Commonwealth of Kentucky to the meaning of life. On that particular day, with the morning sun breaking through the clouds, we were talking about “talking about God.”

We were lamenting, as many Christians are bound to do these days, the tendency of some folks to make absolutely certain pronouncements about God on the basis of which they proceed to exclude everyone who doesn't share their views. This tendency is not unrelated to Fundamentalism, but there are lots of non-Fundamentalists who exclude those whose doctrinal formulations differ from theirs. I've known otherwise perfectly nice religious folks who get mightily rigid and dogmatic as soon as the conversation takes a turn into the "higher math" of Christian beliefs. They seem to feel that it dishonors God if one does not share their favorite doctrinal statements.

This tendency reminds me of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead's comment that it was unfortunate Christians developed the habit of "paying God metaphysical compliments." Perhaps this habit was inevitable, however, given the way Christian theology evolved in the centuries following the founding of our faith.

David the Psalmist praises the mercy of the God whom, he believed, was with him wherever he went, even if he descended down into the depths of Sheol. "Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there," prays the psalmist (Psalm 139:7-8). But, by the time the church started reciting the Psalms morning, noon and night, and quicker than you can say "Neo-Platonic adaptation of Hebrew thinking," Christian theologians were saying that God is "omnipresent." The shift may not seem terribly significant at first glance. But, the Hebrew psalmist was talking about his own personal experience of God while the Christian theologians converted that personal experience into universal philosophical terms ripe for dogmatic codification.

The distinction is crucial. We moved subtlety but decisively from confessing, "I just can't seem to get away from God," or "Whether I am experiencing joy, sorrow, anxiety, the depths or the heights of life, God is with me," to the metaphysical assertion that God is present everywhere. This transition, from one theological perspective (idiosyncratic personal experience) to another (metaphysics) sets us up for angels dancing on pinheads and riddles like, "Can God create a rock so heavy God can't lift it?" And, it places us in a posture to include those who agree ("I believe God is omnipotent") and to exclude those who don't or who confess that they just don't know.

It isn't hard to move from a deeply personal and idiosyncratic confession to a statement that creates more problems than it solves. And once we have made this move, it becomes much easier to demand that others (whose experience of God may be quite different from our own) must either adopt our statements about God or remain excluded from our fellowship.

Don't get me wrong, our personal experiences of God demand expression. And this leads, necessarily and inevitably, toward making some kind of positive theological statements about God.

When the faith of the first followers of Jesus was awakened, and they came to believe that when they met Jesus of Nazareth somehow they had met none other than God in the flesh - even though this belief seemed to run counter to their centuries-old, deeply held faith that "God is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4) and that God is utterly beyond human conception and perception, indeed that "one cannot see God and live" (Exodus 33:18-20) - they were forced by their experience to find new theological wineskins. The doctrine of the Trinity, which can get theologically and philosophically pretty abstract and has proven as divisive as any other area of Christian faith, is itself grounded in personal experience.

Theology as a discipline is made necessary by our experience of God. The key, as Christian theologians have long believed, is to hold our doctrines lightly, reverently and humbly. The key, to put it another way, is not to confuse our theologies with the God about which our theologies are trying to speak. We need to remember that our creeds and confessions of faith are simply stumbling and sometimes bumbling human attempts to express in the words and thought-forms available to us in our time and place the ultimately "Inexpressible Who" we have encountered.

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