Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Jesus/God, God/Jesus

Ask most Christians today to describe God and invariably you'll get some version of the omni's: he's omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omnipresent (everywhere all the time). Throw in immutable--unchanging and unchangeable--and all-loving (omniagape?) and you've pretty much got the definition of God that has prevailed in Christianity for more than a thousand years.

Ask 1st century Jews to describe God, and they would say, "Well, let me tell you a story."

There's a big difference.

The "omni" school of defining God came out of theological and philosophical reflection and reasoning. Really smart guys sat around asking, "If there is only one God, and he created everything, then what must he be like?"

Now, I'm not saying that Creator God is not omniscient, omnipotent, etc., just pointing out that those are not the terms that the Bible uses to describe God. The Bible tells stories of God's interaction with humans, and from those interactions you learn something of the character of God. And those stories are very anthropomorphic i.e. they describe God using human terms (he walks, he talks, he smells aromas, etc.) Whatever the omni's are, they aren't anthropomorphic.

Which is a problem when we get to Jesus and declare that he is God, a part of the Trinity, no more and no less God than the other two Persons of the Trinity.

Anthropomorphic terms are appropriate in describing Jesus because he is "anthropos", the Greek word for "human." There is no other way to describe Jesus. But when you say that Jesus is God, and God is omniscient, things get confusing. Jesus knew all things? He knew that the earth wasn't flat, as was the prevailing view in his day, but in fact round? You've probably never thought about that, but I've heard and read people say, "Yes, Jesus knew the earth was round because he was God."


OK, so here's the problem with that, as I see it: if you assert that, you can say that Jesus was human, but not like any of us are human. He's, like, super-human.

"Well, yeah, no other human was also God." Fair point.

My thing is this: when you cease to describe God in anthropomorphic terms, doesn't that make him seem more distant, less available, less personal? In theological terms that's called "transcendence", and it's true--God is utterly "other" and different. But even when you assert that God is "immanent"--that he is close and personal, there's still a distance to that closeness.

And don't you in prayer wonder what you have to tell a God who knows everything? And why you have to ask for something good before an all-loving God will give it to you? And why an all-powerful God seems so impotent or unwilling to address the cruelty and injustice of our world?

I'm sure that the theological/philosophical reasoned-out definitions of God are true, but I'm not sure that they are all that helpful. (Remember, the description of this blog says that I'm thinking out loud, so cut me some slack, OK?)

And then, when we use those categories to describe Jesus' "Godness", we get into even more difficulty. Paul says in Philippians 2 that Jesus, though he was God, emptied himself in order to become human like us. But isn't it true that what we have done is empty Jesus of much of his humanity in order to somehow get him to conform to a definition of God that is "other" and different from the rest of us?

Jesus became human so that we could see God's immanence, and we have insisted on making Jesus super-human i.e. transcendent.

Might I suggest that we are looking at this whole thing backwards? Instead of using our reasoned-out definitions of God to somehow come to an understanding of the divinity of Jesus, that we instead use our understanding of Jesus to understand God? Isn't that the whole point of the incarnation? That we would look at Jesus, what he did, what he said, and from that come to an understanding of who God is?

I did this recently with my Wednesday night study group. We listed on the board all the characteristics and actions of Jesus that we could come up with, and then said, "OK, based on this, who is God?"

I suggest you do the same thing. And I suggest that you start with the statement, "Jesus suffered and died on the cross," change that to "God suffered and died on the cross," and see where it takes you.

Yes, I know, you can't reconcile that statement with any idea of God being omnipotent, ominpresent, or, especially, immutable, but that's kinda the point.

And I don't know about you, but when I'm hurting, it's easier to pray to a suffering yet victorious God than one who already knows about it, could do something about, but hasn't yet and might not ever, no matter how much you ask.

My friends Jody and Andy Landers say that they learned to run to suffering rather than from it because that is where the blessing is. Suffering is where God is.

Omniscience says that God is everywhere. Jesus on the cross says God is where suffering is. Both may be true--but maybe one is truer than the other.

© 2008 Larry L. Eubanks

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