Friday, October 20, 2006

God is Resistant to Cheap Certainty

Giles Fraser offers a critique of Richard Dawkins’s new book, The God Delusion. He suggests that the error that some modern atheists make is that the Christianity they challenge is a very conservative model which does not even begin to capture the experience of many progressive and moderate Christians:

...The root of the problem is that too many modern atheists adopt a position that is a photographic negative of a sort of Christianity believed only by the most conservative. God is X, says the modern atheist, giving a short definition that allegedly captures what all believers believe. This means that the God they reject doesn’t look anything like the God that most of us meet in our prayers.

Yet the one thing that we learn from the Hebrew scriptures is that there is no X that can articulate the infinite mystery of the divine. Again and again, the Bible puts us off trying to achieve definitions. What else is "I am what I am" but a very Hebraic way of refusing to allow God to be put in a box?

The God of Israel is the God of the burning bush, the God who exists in the cloudy mountain-top, whose face cannot be seen. This is not the God who doubles as my best pal, or who fits a snappy one-line definition. The God who has been at the centre of the Church’s life for centuries is a God who is disconcertingly inscrutable, and utterly resistant to cheap certainty...

...Unfortunately, public discussion no longer involves enough people who are prepared to say: "I don’t know." This is not a problem just because it lacks modesty. What is wrong is the attempt to force the unknown into declaring itself in the terms of our own limited imaginations. That, surely, is the makings of a real God delusion.
It seems more and more in the conversations going on in the Episcopal Church, and beyond that in the Anglican Communion, we find a list of "beliefs" that one must adhere to in order to be classified as a "REAL" Christian. Just recently, in another setting, I witnessed such a list being used in a successful attempt to kill a conversation. I find such lists not only terribly arrogant, but downright sinful, as they place unnecessary stumbling blocks before those seeking the kingdom of God.

Do we really think that we can know the full nature of God? I recall the well-known story of St. Augustine, who was walking along the beach contemplating the nature of the Trinity. He encountered a young boy, who had dug a hole in the sand. The boy was running into the waves, filling a pail with water, and then running back to empty it into the hole. He did this over and over again.

After watching this for awhile, Augustine finally asked, "Boy, what are you doing?"

The boy replied, "See that ocean out there? I'm going to pour it into this hole."

"That is absurd," responded Augustine. "You cannot possibly contain a vast ocean in such a tiny hole!"

The boy looked up at Augustine, and said very quietly, "And neither can you, Augustine, contain the Trinity in such a tiny mind." The boy then disappeared, of course, because, as the story goes, he was an angel.

We cannot contain God in our tiny minds. This doesn't mean we give up on trying to know God, however. And, within the limits of our humanity, aided by divine revelation, we can gain some knowledge of God. But it is always incomplete knowledge. Whenever we say, "This is God," we need to add, "But God is more than this."

Does this mean we embrace an "anything goes" perspective? I don't think so. If you want to know what Episcopalians believe, worship in an Episcopal Church. It's all there in the liturgy. When we offer our praise and thanksgivings to God, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, we are attempting to express, in our own finite and limited way, using time-tested forms and customs, the way we have found to build a closer relationship with the living God.

However, our ushers do not administer entrance exams at the door. I do not test those who come to the altar before offering the sacrament. When the world wants to know who we are, and who God is, our response is "Come and see."

If we like it or not, the religious landscape of the world has shifted. Christianity is no longer THe Main Event. We have become simply another booth at the fair. Such a shift requires that we rethink how we present our faith.

The area in which I live grows a lot of blueberries. Imagine going to a farmer's market, approaching a booth offering blueberries, and being told that before you can make a purchase, you must state without reservation that these are the best berries, and in fact the only REAL berries. Further, you must renounce all previous berry purchases, and believe in the stated formulary and history regarding the creation of these berries, which is included in the 25 page booklet that the vendor thrusts in your face. I don't know about you, but I know I would avoid such a booth in future trips. It's not the pedigree of berries that interests me. The question on my mind was "Do they taste good?" ...Taste and see...

I've got some other thoughts regarding divine revelation, but enough for now. In the meantime, let's help shatter the generalized image of Christians as arrogant absolutists who have no respect for mystery. And, good heavens, stop thinking you must respond to the interrogations of the self appointed Grand Inquisitors!


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