Our Postmodern God

This post is a response to Tony Jones’ call for progressive theological bloggers to write a post about God. So here goes …

That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.

– The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

It’s struck me lately that the best way to think of God is to compare him to an elephant.

Specifically, I think of God like the elephant in the old South Asian tale of the blind men who each grab hold of a piece of him and describe the animal they think they have. One has the trunk and thinks he’s holding a snake; another has an ear and thinks he’s holding a fan, etc. Each of them is attempting to accurately describe what they know, and some do a better job than others, but none of them is exactly right – indeed, being exactly right would have been impossible if they had never seen or felt a whole elephant before.

Which is why I call God postmodern and why it would serve the church well to stop running in fear from the notion of postmodernism. Perhaps no era in the history of the world better suits the God we worship than the one that openly and completely questions the ability for anyone to fully grasp and explain truth.

In the end, we are all blind. We cannot know God because we cannot see him; more important, we cannot see him without the cultural assumptions and baggage we bring to the table. Not only is this true for us, it is true for every person who has ever lived, including those who described the God they knew and wrote about him in the ancient texts we have collected, bound together and called “the Bible.”

Tony asked that we write about God, not the Bible. But of course the Bible is the story of God – more specifically, the story of God’s interactions with his people – and we cannot learn about him without studying what others have thought about him. It helps lift the curtain on our blindness a little, maybe helps us grab a second or even a third piece of the indescribable elephant.

The ancient Israelites thought they knew God. Their culture taught that God was a vengeful, violent warrior who did battle for them, demanded sacrifices to appease his anger, and required from them absolute loyalty no matter how seductive the wiles of the gods surrounding them. In that sense, Yahweh was no different than Ashdod or Baal. Yet they also had glimpses that Yahweh was much different than those other gods. While they were said to have created the world through violence and carnage, and that humans were the annoying products of accident whom the gods tolerated, the ancient Israelites had a different story, a hymn in which God creates the world on purpose, and after he’s done considers his creation very good.

In some tellings, their God is very human – walking with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, regretting his choices, changing his mind, loving his children. In others, however, he’s transcendent and awe-inspiring, demanding holiness and fealty, striking down enemies and demanding the extinction of entire races opposed to his people. All the violence and wrongness of the world is easily explained as part of his plan and directly related to the actions of those suffering the violence and wrong.

The ancient Israelites were blind; they described what they knew, but they couldn’t escape their culture. They got a lot of it right, and they got a lot of it wrong.

A few hundred years later, prophets describe a different God than the one passed down through the oral history of the Israelite and Judaic monarchies. The God who cares, grieves and loves is still there, but the prophets also tell the people God does not care about sacrifices, nor about worshipping him the “right” way. He cares about justice and compassion. He cares about righteousness, but he views it through the lens of social justice. Men like Amos and Isaiah describe a set of priorities far different from those espoused through most of Israel’s history to date. Their picture of God was a little more clear.

But it was no less bound to culture. Bad things were still the result of God’s hand moving against them. The exile needed an explanation, and the one for which they grasped – the only one available to their cultural assumptions – was divine punishment. To them, either God was dead or teaching them a lesson. They could only choose the latter.

Israel in exile was blind; its priests and scribes described what they knew, but they couldn’t escape their culture. They got a lot of it right, and they got a lot of it wrong.

Fast forward another few hundred years, and God, who has progressively revealed more of himself to the blind children he has adopted, reveals himself completely – wrapping himself in flesh and coming to earth in human form. The incarnation is a stunning, counterintuitive move, completely antithetical to the theologies of the millennia preceding it, especially in light of God’s decision to allow himself to die the cursed death of a criminal.

As the Gospels make clear, even those who walked with Jesus every day were blind. In the physical presence of God every waking moment, they were no better than the man at Bethsaida, who after being touched by Jesus could still only see people who looked like “trees walking around.” Even in the light of Jesus himself, his followers could not see clearly.

Yet they described what they could. In light of the resurrection, much became clearer, and the next decades were spent hashing out exactly what the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection meant for the people of this God who loved them so much he died for them. Followers like Paul, John, Luke and others put flesh on the bones of the story they knew and described in still more detail the God they had glimpsed.

But even in the light of Jesus, they were blind. As first-century Greco-Roman Jews, their cultural assumptions about the relationship of God to people and people to each other – radically transformed though they had been – remained impossible to escape. Perhaps no people have ever seen so much of the elephant at one time, yet not even Paul or the writers of the Gospels saw the whole thing.

In the 1,800 years or so since, the church continues in its efforts to describe the elephant it cannot fully see. More modern concepts such as fairness, equality under the law, egalitarianism and democracy have reshaped our view of God beyond what the authors of the new Testament could know. In many ways, this has illuminated the nature of God in tremendous ways; in others it has led us into further darkness.

Scientific discoveries in the past 200 years have changed anew the way we see God. The realization that he used a painstakingly slow process to create the universe, that humanity itself is the product of millions of years of evolution from the animals we see around us, that for some reason death is built-in to the structure of the world God created – all of these things change our view of God. Cultural movements like feminism and gay rights lead us to reexamine our assumptions about the God we too easily make in our image, giving us the freedom to perhaps grab hold of a different area and see what the elephant feels like from someone else’s point of view. Because if studying the many voices and arguments about God enshrined in the Bible should teach us anything, it’s to hold loosely to the God we think we see and be ready to acknowledge he – she – might be something else entirely.

At no point in the history of our dealings with God has humanity ever gotten the answer right. No one – not even those who saw God himself walk the hills of Palestine – has ever fully understood him. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see now what the ancient Israelites did not see. Through the radical pacifism and sacrifice of Jesus, we can understand how their view of God was limited by the violence of their culture around them. Through the teachings and actions of Christ, we can hold ourselves up to the mirror and see how every day our culture blinds us to just how big and awe-inspiring and impossible to understand God is, even today, with all of our scientific accomplishment, cultural openness and critical scholarship.

Because we, too, are blind. Our culture for all of its progress is still violent. It still glorifies power and money; it still abuses the weak and the vulnerable. We’ve added doses of individual liberty and American exceptionalism, and we’ve created a God who doesn’t look much different than the one described by the authors of Joshua and Judges – violent and judgmental, quick to draw the line between who’s “in” and “out,” rewarding the rich and punishing the poor. We continue to describe a God who doesn’t look much like Jesus.

In Evolving in Monkey Town, one of the best passages is when Rachel Held Evans places the famous language of Isaiah 55:8-9 – “My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans.” – back into its original context.

That verse is often used against those of us who claim perhaps God is not interested in sending hurricanes and cancer to punish people for their sins, that perhaps God has revealed to his people a more complete version of who God is than the one of violence and wrath with which many of us remain fascinated. After all, others argue, who are we to question what God does? His ways are higher than ours! Yet Isaiah 55 is not about God’s power or his judgment or his transcendent qualities. It’s about God’s forgiveness and mercy.

It begins:

All of you who are thirsty, come to the water!
Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat!
Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk!
Why spend money for what isn’t food,
and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy?
Listen carefully to me and eat what is good;
enjoy the richest of feasts.
Listen and come to me;
listen, and you will live.

Then comes the key passage. Yes, it calls for repentance, but it’s not a threat. Far from it; it’s a reminder that none of us is too far away to be rescued:

Seek the Lord when he can still be found;
call him while he is yet near.
Let the wicked abandon their ways
and the sinful their schemes.
Let them return to the Lord so that he may have mercy on them,
to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness.
My plans aren’t your plans,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
Just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my plans than your plans.
Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky
and don’t return there without watering the earth,
making it conceive and yield plants
and providing seed to the sower and food to the eater,
        so is my word that comes from my mouth;
it does not return to me empty.
Instead, it does what I want,
and accomplishes what I intend.

God is really, really big, and so are his mercy and forgiveness. We have a glimpse of them – people like trees walking around – we have a hold of one piece of God, but Isaiah tells us as much as any of us knows, understands and appreciates the love, mercy and forgiveness of God, there’s so much more that we cannot yet see!

Yes, you will go out with celebration,
and you will be brought back in peace.
Even the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you;
all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
In place of the thorn the cypress will grow;
in place of the nettle the myrtle will grow.
This will attest to the Lord’s stature,
an enduring reminder that won’t be removed.

If God has that much mercy and forgiveness, why do we keep putting him in a box? Why do we keep assuming the piece we’re holding is all there is? We worship a God who cannot be fully grasped. In a postmodern world rejecting the notion of a single, obtainable truth, God is still here, waiting for us to realize he can handle that, too. That in fact he has been trying to get his people to see that all along.

We are so blind. He is so big. Through this postmodern world, our postmodern God is revealing a little more about himself, if we’re willing to hold loosely to the piece of the elephant to which we’ve been clinging.

3 thoughts on “Our Postmodern God”

  1. Wonderful. I especially like the way you point out that even when God put himself in flesh within touching distance, the people who were there were still blind and had to work to make sense of what happened; and also that in today’s world we so easily drift back into a primitive interpretation of as much of God as we can grasp. It’s so important to remember that God is more than we can understand, and that it’s God who reaches out to us, because on our own, without his cooperation, we can’t even get hold of a little piece of the elephant.

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