Who Is This God?
Richard Dawkins famously opens chapter two of The God Delusion with the following oft-quoted, adjectivally promiscuous salvo:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
A bit over the top, perhaps, but certainly a common enough sentiment out there—at least for the religious skeptics. Whatever might be made of Jesus in the NT, OT God = angry, jealous, violent, and intolerant. For those looking for Scriptural ammunition to use against the faithful, the Old Testament is often the first stop. One does not have to look far in the wild and wonderful world of blogging to find someone enthusiastically delighting in the myriad inconsistencies and supposedly immoral and absurd behaviours predicated of God in the Old Testament.
This much is par for the course in a skeptical post-Christian context. But what about the person in the pew? Do these questions touch down there as well? Well, this afternoon I got an answer via a phone call from someone who has, over the course of the last little while, been reading through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. The OT is, of course, not light or easy reading. There is a lot of strange stuff in there, but this person had made it through a large portion of the OT with their faith intact.
Upon arriving in Jeremiah, however, the questions and the dissonance became acute. So many bleak prophesies, so many angry-sounding oracles against other nations, so much violence and intolerance, so much stuff that just doesn’t fit well with our twenty-first century Canadian moral sensibilities. Jeremiah is often called “the weeping prophet” but in this case, reading him was nearly cause for weeping as well! This person had had enough! “I need you to either convince me to keep reading or give me permission to stop!”
This is not Richard Dawkins or one of his acolytes talking here. This is a committed Christian—a generous, kind, compassionate, socially engaged person full of spiritual vitality and an infectious love for life. But what to do with all this anger and judgment? At one point, this person simply said “I say this with the utmost reverence, but who is this God?”
The question of how to reconcile God as described in the OT with “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” isn’t easily dealt with, regardless of how many books and commentaries read, no matter how many lectures listened to. And the question doesn’t necessarily get easier the farther along the journey of faith one goes. We all need to come to some peace regarding the nature and character of God, but there is a sense in which the question never disappears entirely.
On one level, it was a bit sobering that I had so little to offer. I spoke a bit about narrative approaches to Scripture, different theologies of inspiration and Scripture, and the concept of progressive revelation. I talked about how God accommodates his revelation to the cultural forms and patterns of those he seeks to communicate with. I talked about the difference between descriptive and prescriptive texts. I talked about how every part of Scripture is a product of its time and uses literary forms and themes that do not always make sense to us. And, of course, I talked about how the most accurate and complete picture of who God is and what he is like is found in Jesus (Col. 1:15-20). All of this was well and good, I suppose, but was it enough? Would anything be enough? Should I have had something like a grand unifying theory of making sense of the Bible at the ready?
In a sense, God hasn’t done himself any favours in binding himself to this strange collection of books we call “The Bible.” I’m afraid it’s just not very good divine PR for a people as “enlightened” as us. Anger makes us postmoderns uneasy and is thought to be unworthy of a good God, violence is considered barbaric, and exclusivity is deemed intolerant and judgmental. In a post-Christian, skeptical world in which many of us have friends, neighbours, siblings, spouses, parents, and co-workers who find the God in whom we have put our hope unbelievable and/or immoral, is this “primitive” book redeemable?
I certainly didn’t fix any problems for this dear soul today. I didn’t unlock the mystery of why God seems angrier in the OT than in the NT. I didn’t send this person back to Jeremiah with any creative, esoteric interpretations that made all of the nasty bits more palatable. I think this person left the conversation glad to have found somewhere to discuss the problems and grateful for the assurance that they were part of a long and rich tradition of wrestling with difficult passages. But tomorrow morning when they crack open the book of Jeremiah, will the questions have disappeared? I suspect not.
One of the passages I am pondering as I prepare for this week’s sermon is Jeremiah 9:23-25:
This is what the LORD says:
“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,
24 but let those who boast boast about this:
that they understand and know me,
that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the LORD.
As our conversation drew to a close today, we paused on the observation that despite all of the seemingly impenetrable cultural trappings that God comes to us in, despite the passages that we find bizarre and even offensive, despite the perceived dissonance between the God of doom and gloom oracles in Jeremiah and the self-giving, self-emptying, sacrificial love-exhibiting God of the NT, people still read this book—this whole book—and come to the conclusion that God loves them, that God is one, and that God is good. Despite the “bad PR” of the OT, people still discover a God who exercises and delights in kindness, justice, and righteousness.
That’s worth remembering, I think. It provides us a safe space within which to wrestle and get frustrated and confused. It also provides a space for us—all of us, including postmoderns—to have some of our assumptions and certainties about things like anger and violence and intolerance sharpened, challenged, or reoriented. We are part of a long tradition of learning how to love and live with God.