Monday, December 05, 2011

God is Not Enough

Here's a look at the Bishop's article for the December edition of the Springfield Current. For those who get the hard copy, it should be out any day now.

The first article of both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds is “I (we) believe in God…”. It seems entirely appropriate that we begin our confession of faith with such an affirmation. Whatever else we might believe, it stands or falls, after all, with the existence of God. The Bible, the sacraments, prayer itself—it would all be empty superstition if God were not there it give it reality and life.

If the surveys are to be trusted, while professed atheism is on the rise in our culture, belief in God is still remarkably robust. Atheists can be found, but you have to look for them. It is neither remarkable nor controversial to believe in One Supreme Being who is responsible for the creation of the material universe and continues to be involved with it in one way or another.

It is, therefore, easy to overlook the fact that monotheism—the notion that there is, by definition, only one Being who can legitimately be called “God”—is a relatively recent intellectual development. When we read the Old Testament, it is clear from the sweep of the narrative—from Abraham to Moses to David and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah—that the Israelites believed that while YHWH (rendered “the Lord” in most translations of the Bible), their particular god, was definitely superior to the gods of “the nations” (Hebrew–goyim: heathen, gentiles), He was not completely without competitors. The prophets continuously warned the people not to forsake YHWH, the one who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, for any of these competing deities. It was only later in the history of Judaism, almost at the time of Christ, that a truly monotheistic theology developed.

So, polytheism (belief in many gods) seems strange to most of us—at least on the surface. When we look a little deeper, though, it’s all around us. We’ve just refined the way we express it, from “belief in many gods” to “many beliefs about God.” There is a generally accepted hierarchy of belief: To affirm “God” is considered virtuous, even necessary. On that level we expect uniformity. But the next level is another story. What we say precisely about God is optional, a matter of personal opinion. On that level we expect diversity. And it feels admirably “tolerant” to do so. But we delude ourselves, I fear. To accept limitless diversity in what we say about God is tantamount to accepting belief in many gods. It is latter-day polytheism.

Simple belief in God seems such a virtue in itself that we are reluctant to expect anything more. It seems downright impolite. Well, the Christian creeds, by that measure, are not very polite, because after “I believe in God…”, they go on to say a great deal more. Specifically, they go on to say that this God who created heaven and earth did a scandalously un-godlike thing: He assumed human flesh, was born of a woman, and walked this earth as a man. Of all the world religions, only Christianity is bold enough to make that claim. Our belief in the Incarnation (God becoming a man) changes everything. It leads us from the intuitively appealing notion of one “simple” God to one “complex” God—as classical Christian theology expresses it: unity of being in trinity of persons. The God whom Christians worship is Triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a far cry from the generic God that our culture approves of. We would never have invented a God like this; we only know Him because He has chosen to reveal Himself to us.

The Incarnation also changes the way we view the material world. God took on flesh; God, who is by nature spiritual, became material for our sake. We can therefore never, in good conscience, despise our flesh. We can no longer see our bodies as mere “vessels.” To be a human being is to have a body; a disembodied spirit is not “free,” but less than fully human. The Christian hope is not the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection of the body. The whole physical world, and everything we do in it, is invested with the potential to carry deep meaning. This is the sacramental principle, that the common things we do with our bodies—eat, drink, bathe, touch, see, hear, speak, etc. etc.— can be instruments of grace, media through which God makes us like Himself, precisely because He first made Himself like us.

One of my sad observations about the Church in these times is that we have a tendency to reduce Christian faith to the lowest common denominator. For many people I meet—and I’m not talking about people off the street, but people I met in my role as a priest, and even now as a bishop—their religion can be summarized as “believe in God and be good.” That’s not enough! That’s settling for way less than the fullness of Christian truth. We have become disconnected from our own tradition, our own inheritance. We do not believe simply in “God”—some vague First Cause. In fact, the notion of such a generic god has absolutely no meaning for a Christian. As far as that kind of god is concerned, I am an atheist! No, Christians believe in a particular God—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who makes Himself known to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God who unites us to Himself in Word and Sacrament through the ministry of a particular organism and institution: the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, the society that commands our allegiance and affection before any other association.

I love how Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson puts it: “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel out of Egypt.” So as we prepare for the celebration of the Great Scandal on December 25, let us raise our awareness beyond the sentiments of “the holidays,” and even beyond mere “believing in God and being good.” Let us worship and adore the Father of lights, the Word who was made flesh, and the Holy Spirit who fills us and guides us.


Undergroundpewster said...

Agreed. I ran into that lowest common denominator in the form of my father-in-law this past Thanksgiving.

It is a tough nut to crack.

We all need help to evangelize in these times.

Keep spreading the unique good news!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an excellent article. The Bible calls us not to just believe in the existence of God, but to trust ourselves fully to the LORD. James 2:19 "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that - and shudder." is a wonderful reminder that sinply believing in the existence of God is not enough.

Unknown said...

Amen and Amen.

April Dobbs said...

This is a great article! If only all, or even a majority, of Episcopal clergy believed the same way I would probably still be an Episcopalian. But to have the Presiding Bishop publically state that "Jesus is ONE way to God" was almost the final straw for me, along with the "individual salvation is the great Western heresy" remark, and her un-Christian support of abortion and same-sex marriage.