Thursday, November 1, 2007

To Be in the Image of God - Part One

A reader asks, "If God is a loving God, does he allow terrible things to happen to innocent people (however one defines that term)? Or is the Old Testament right, in that God is a vengeful God to be appeased and who can wreak terrible things just because God can?"

When I ask “Who is God?” what I am really asking?
Am I asking about God whom I may know only in part?
Am I asking about myself whom perhaps I may know in full?
Am I asking because I am afraid?
Am I asking because I am in the image of God and this world is such a mess that my faith is being shaken?

What am I doing here?
What is to be my part in the human story?
What if I’m here for a trivial reason?
What if I don’t like the part I am to play in the human unfolding?
Why am I suffering when that person, who appears no more worthy than I, is enjoying so many good experiences?
Am I going to be kept alive so long that I become a gaunt old person with no money?
Am I going to die before I have figured anything out?
Is God pleased that one third of the world’s 6.5 billion people are going hungry while Americans are either obese or benefiting from a multi billion dollar diet and fitness industry?
Is it worth killing off the fish in the sea so that I don’t have to worry about cholesterol?
If American capitalism is so good, why is China, who is making so much of our economic ease possible, suffocating in its own pollution?
Can ecological filth, however temporary, ever lead to a greater good?

Whom am I really calling when I call upon the name of God?
Since I may know God only in part, can I make any distinction between my God and the God whom Jews and Muslims worship?
What about Buddhists who meditate within the non-god?
Or Hindus, with three million and one God at the same time?
Who is to be saved?
What does it mean to be saved?
What do I wish to be saved from? Or for?

And so I move from God, to self, to world, and back to God.

I wonder whether my questions are reflective of theology or of my own anxiety. Am I seeking truth or reassurance?

I live in a culture that fears suffering and death so deeply that it will do anything, including killing others, to keep itself alive. I know that this culture has rubbed off deeply on me, even when I believe I am critiquing it. Therefore the image of a vengeful God hold terrors for me because I see power and terror so closely woven into the fabric of what I call the real.

But is my image of the real, given to me by men, God’s reality? What if, in holding on prayerfully to the vengeance of God, I begin to see rather the fullness of my own terror? Once it becomes my problem and not God’s, I may begin to claim the truth that terror is not the way I wish to live. I might also affirm that terror is not the way I wish to die. And in doing this, I pass through the wrathful curtain (which is one of the stops along the way to God) and see that God is not vengeful.

Still, what do we do with a passage like this one? The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. (Proverbs 1:7) It is often taken to mean that God is fearful, and that my best response is to cower. I can see people hunched over in prayer, their noses to the ground, their knees calloused and scabbed from prostrations. God is best in small doses, this seems to say, like Moses hidden beneath the rocks and seeing only the back end of a departing deity. But thus hunched, and feeling quite safe, I can move with the passage, leaving fear behind and moving toward wisdom. And indeed, that is where the proverb itself goes – we remember that Hebrew poetry always comes in parallel couplets – and the second half of the verse is this: fools despise wisdom and instruction.

In evolutionary terms, fear is less about terror and more about alertness. Fear is instructive. It leads to wisdom. Fear is how I remain awake to this world’s real dangers and lead my clan between the saber toothed tiger and the crashing wave. Today this is gone. Fear has degnerated into stress, a medical problem that produces hypertension and illness and great profits for the health care colossus. My heart becomes mere muscle, subject to "attack." Too easily do I forget that fight, flight and awareness have more traditionally been the conditions of life, not the agents of death. Perhaps in my culturer's controlling myopia, I have become the fool who despises wisdom and instruction.

I know from living in the times that we do that fear has degenerated from a condition of being awake to a powerful agent of social control. Fear can exact a great deal of obedience very quickly. It requires no subtlety or wisdom to make others afraid. If fear is invoked in the name of God, it becomes easy to adduce that God is a fearful being. (And since I'm a Christian, I'll project that fear onto an "Old Testament" God.)

But then I go back and deeply read the Hebrew scriptures. I reread Genesis. Is God in this story a God of vengeance or simply a God who is present at the consequences? How can God require obedience when God makes freedom possible? (And if I'm free to trash my neighbor, I see far less of this from God who is free to do a great deal and yet declines.) Look at how God responded to all the mess ups. God clothed Adam and Eve in the skins they would need to survive. God marked Cain so that others would not destroy him and just maybe, there would not be a chain reaction of murder. God didn't wipe out everything in the flood. God appeared twice to Hagar when others drove her into the desert. This is not a deity that rains down vengeance. Even in those cases where it appears that vengeance is raining down, it is more the deafness and willfulness of the people that bring about destruction than it is the wrath of God. If I choose to defy the laws of nature, I may very well die as a result of my choice. Had the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah been less into violence and more into meditation, they would have felt the earth tremble under their feet. According to the Jews, God is a collaborator, not a dictator; it is the task of humanity to complete the Creation that God has given into our care. Maybe God was speaking to everyone and only Noah heard.

This leads me to suspect that if I am seeing God as fearful, I am dealing with something inside myself so big and so impossible that the only way I can even begin to see it is to project it upon God. If I am in the image of God, so is God the mirror in which I learn to see my true face. To be continued. . .

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