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The God We Have

I am in the midst of a fairly busy stretch of sermon preparation, worship scheduling, article writing, class planning, etc, etc, not to mention the ordinary demands of life with a young family, so apologies for the lack of substantive and/or original posting around here over the last little while. I hope to rectify this deficiency shortly, but in the meantime, here’s another arresting quote from William Willimon’s Why Jesus?:

The modern world has many ways of turning us in on ourselves, eventually to worship the dear little god within. Christianity, the religion evoked by Jesus, is a decidedly fierce means of wrenching us outward. We are not left alone peacefully to console ourselves with our sweet bromides, or to snuggle with allegedly beautiful Mother Nature, or even to close our eyes and hug humanity in general. A God whom we couldn’t have thought up on our own has turned to us, reached to us, is revealed to be someone quite other than the God we would have if God was merely a figment of our imagination—God is a Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly. This God scared us to death but also thrilled us to life.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    re: We are not left alone … to snuggle with allegedly beautiful Mother Nature

    She is beautiful.

    Apparently Willimon has no sympathy for panentheism.

    I don’t mean to take away from your admiration of Willimon’s theology. What one of us admires, another finds depressing or judging. I hear in Willimon’s quote a cruel judgment on the faith of others. And so, he repels me.

    In the previous posting we had begun discussing piety. I have been thinking about my own reactions to it. I am not the least pious in the Methodist sense, like Willimon, or in the conservative evangelical sense, like Sarah Young. I don’t connect with those pieties, or pieties in general, and I don’t admire them. I have virtually no contact with them either. At the same time I have enjoyed writings that reflect the pietism of Hasidim, but they are liberal writings, those of Wiesel, Heschel and Potok, not orthodox, and not the same as the Christian pietists. But I have no contact with Hasidim either. I suppose what I enjoy in their liberal writers, writers on the fringe, I suppose, is that their theology, like mine, is panentheistic. And I suppose I just enjoy their prose and the joy they find here where we are. I guess I think it would be fair for Hasidim to be called joyful as much as pious. I fear that Willimon would call their tales, and their mysticism, pejoratively, “sweet bromides.” It would be unfair.

    January 18, 2011
    • Paul Johnston #

      I don’t know, Ken. I think I’ve read you often enough to believe that you have a reverent/pious appreciation of nature. I don’t think your objection is with piety per se but rather with what some might choose to revere. Irony aside, Wilimon seems to be saying something similar.

      Would it be better for him to simply say that pantheism is a misunderstanding of God rather than offer the condescending term “sweet bromide”?

      I know I have a tendency to over simplify but it seems to me that if pantheism is true then Christianity is false. Likewise if Christianity is true, pantheism is false. I’m pretty sure your with me on this one. I don’t think either one of us is comfortable with the “sweet bromide” of relativism….(indignant relativists commence typing now! 🙂 )….

      A final thought, I think the stunning magnificence of God’s creation leaves room for pantheistic interpretations, an understandable misunderstanding so to speak. On the other hand I don’t think a pantheistic interpretation leaves any room at all for the God of Abraham. I tend to think you think that too. I think that has a good deal to do with why you still hold on to Jesus.

      January 18, 2011
      • Ken #

        Yes, I think you are right in your assessment. When I wrote that I generally do not connect with pieties or admire them, I was thinking of particular pieties really, those that arose in Protestantism that I think are reflected in Willimon’s and Young’s writing. And generally my lack admiration for those pieties is not an actual objection to them as much as it is a lack of attraction to them.

        I think that panentheism, rather than pantheism, is what we find expressed in Christianity as in Saint Francis, or Teilhard de Chardin, and as some have observed, even in the writings of Calvin and Edwards. It is, I think, an expression of the immanence of God in all of creation. And as I have studied my own thoughts and ways I have found that I do have a strong tendency to see God in all of creation, but not to think of the universe itself as God as in pantheism. I think my ways indicate that I see God in the “beauty of things,” as Robinson Jeffers did. Hiking, for me, is a kind of “snuggling.”

        It may be that Willimon was not thinking of panentheism of the kind found in the history of Christianity when he wrote his words, but of something or someone that has let him down, or repelled him. My own words here are just a reaction to a few words for the sake of discussion, a perhaps too transparent revelation of my feelings evoked by a just a few of Willimon’s words that bumped into something that matters so much to me.

        January 19, 2011
    • I can’t add much to Paul’s wise comment, except to say that what I see Willimon getting at here is the idea that, in Christ, God genuinely confronts our understandings of who or what God might or should be. This might make us uncomfortable—I know it makes me uncomfortable. So be it.

      Re: “allegedly beautiful Mother Nature,” I don’t read Willimon as saying that there is no beauty in nature, only that, like all blessings, she comes to us mixed. She may be stunning, but she is also “red in tooth and claw.” From a Christian perspective, at least, she still groans and we with her.

      January 19, 2011
  2. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Ken, thanks for the explanation regarding the distinctions between pantheism and panentheism ( I didn’t know there was such a word and assumed it was a typo). Apparently, given my earlier comment, I’m rather sympathetic to the panentheistic viewpoint. Who knew!! 🙂

    January 19, 2011
    • James #

      I agree with Paul, Ken. That is a very big distinction and while, as a person with a strong empiricist instinct, I am cautious of the Franciscan and Calvinist expressions of Christianity- I do also recognize them as part of our faith. Pantheism, as I understand it, is not.
      Thanks for making that distinction. I think I might understand you better now.

      January 20, 2011
    • Ken #

      Paul and James,

      Thank you for your observations.

      It is probably not necessary for someone like me to use the term panentheism. Like so many other words, it has more than one meaning. We can just say that we sense the presence of God in nature and beauty, as did the writer of Psalm 104.

      It is tough to reconcile pantheistic theology with the ways of God in the Bible. God is is clearly more personal than pantheism allows. It may be possible, but few Christians or pantheists do it. I think such a reconciliation would need to be similar to the one made by those Christians and biologists who believe theistic evolution reconciles the ways of God and the ways of nature. Something similar to that is found in the panentheism of Chardin, and even more so in the panentheism/pantheism of the Methodist process theologians at Claremont.

      As for me, I recognize my tendency to see God immanent in creation, and I recognize that this tendency can be called panentheism. I fear that I do cross the line of orthodox belief. I want no quarrel with God over this, or with the prophets, or with other Christians or Jews. I have no wish to challenge orthodoxy, only to be aware of my own tendencies. I defer to the prophets and the wisdom of the sages.

      A few nights ago, after spending an hour or so in the Psalms, my tendency was troubling me and I talked to my wife it. I talked about my awareness of my tendency and about the difficulty I have sometimes of reconciling it with my other tendency to sense the presence of God in Scripture and in the Eucharist. Perhaps it is one of those cases where we see things differently when we change the angle of our perspective.

      So, I memorize verses of scripture to carry with me when I hike into the wilderness. Lately I have been hiking with Revelation 12:1, 13 & 14 and Isaiah 40:31.

      And by the way, on Tuesday, I encountered two rattling serpents on the trail in front of me just before sunset. It’s true. I wonder what that means.

      January 20, 2011
      • I think each of us has to battle against this or that tendency as we wrestle with questions of faith, reason, experience, etc. In the grand scheme of things, I think the tendency to “see God immanent in creation” is actually a pretty good one. I would certainly put myself in that camp (provided that words like “immanent” were properly qualified, etc). God has left us many traces, it seems—Scripture, the Eucharist, or snakes on a path—and can be seen from many angles and perspectives.

        I like the passage you mention from Isaiah. There are many things that can cause us to stumble and grow weary, but strength does come, and it comes to people of all different tendencies, perspectives, etc. It is a big hope, this hope in the Lord, and there is room for many to find refuge.

        January 21, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Your, welcome Ken.Believe me when I tell you that our relationship, such as it is, is reciprocal. The clarity and humility with which you articulate your concerns has always been inspiring to me. I strive to be better in these regards, in some way, because of you.

        I like what you said about the need sometimes to “change the angle of our perspective”. I think this is most true for me when I am consciously aware that my participation in a circumstance has become counter productive…”part of the problem”…so to speak.

        The challenge seems to be to remain certain about the truth of Christ while at the same time open to the various possibilities offered by different points of view. Sometimes I feel that too many perspectives leads me into an “intellectual hall of mirrors”….fascinating images in of themselves but all the while I find it gets harder and harder to find my way out.

        January 22, 2011
  3. Ken #

    Thanks, Paul. Your faith bolsters mine too.

    Re: “Sometimes I feel that too many perspectives leads me into an “intellectual hall of mirrors”

    Me too.

    January 22, 2011

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