Tag Archives: gods

4 February – God is not a god

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Epiphany 5

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147
1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Let us consider the following proposition: if God is God, then God is not a god.

Chances are that makes no sense to almost anyone – yet – but it matters. It matters because we need constantly to work on how we speak about God, and it matters because we how speak about God affects how we speak about ourselves, and how we act towards each other. A sense for God is implied in how we relate to each other.

Last week we noted that polytheism – the belief that there is more than one god – is the natural environment of the Scriptures. In such an environment religious conviction is not about whether you believe “that” there is a god (our contemporary question), but about which of the many candidates for divinity in your life you’ve committed to. In such an environment, the Scriptural imperative is: believe in this god – the Lord, Yahweh – for this is the one which matters.

Of course, things which concern us deeply are never that simple. At the same time, parts of the Scriptures do insist that there is only one god and that the other candidates are not gods.

This, however, has very a strange effect. If the others are not gods, then God – the one god – is not a god either. In order for there to be “a” god, there has to be more than one.

To justify this assertion, let’s consider the less controversial matter of the plurality of “Davids.” Davids are useful for our purposes because they are everywhere. On account of this, we might say “Oh, we have a David in our congregation” (or, in our case, four or five Davids). A David is a kind of thing, of which there are many instances.

By contrast, we don’t say that we live in an Australia. There is only one Australia (at least, as a geographical entity); it is not a kind of thing which Australias are, and so the name and the thing coincide.

As it is with Davids and Australias, so it is also with gods. If there are many gods, each is god; if there is but one God, God is not “a” god, but a name of a unique “thing”.

This brings us to Isaiah’s vision of God this morning. The second half of the book of Isaiah is characterised by an extraordinary sense of the uniqueness of the God of Israel, summed up in verse 25 today: “To whom shall you compare me?”

But an enormous theological problem is now beginning to open up. If there is nothing with which to compare God – if God is not a god – then from where do we get our ideas about God’s godness? We might think we know what “a” god is, but if God is not a god, then… what? With Davids, it’s easy. There are many Davids because Davidness is comparable and transferrable; this is why they were named David in the first place. We bestow something when we name a child: perhaps we honour an ancestor and hope for something of the same in our son, or perhaps we simply resonate with a cultural vibe which mysteriously communicates that now is the time for more Davids (which is why Davids tend to come in generational clusters).

But Isaiah’s vision pulls this rug out from under us. If the one which Israel and the Church designates as “God” is not a god, then what we think a god is, or whether we think we need a god, tells us nothing useful about this One: “To whom shall you compare me?” To no one, and to nothing.

The biblical answer to the whence of a proper sense for God is God’s words and actions: God is what God says and does. But I don’t want to develop this much further today. Rather, I want to move to how the incomparability of God affects the way we relate to each other, for there is political or social effect of such a sense for God.

Last week we noted the relationship between the plurality of the gods and the plurality of our fears. The gods divide us along the lines of our fears. This has always been recognised. A single religious conviction is a useful political concept for stability within national borders (cf. the post-Reformation notion, Cuius regio, eius religio, which stabilised nations by allowing monarchs to specify which of the warring religious factions would be “the” religion of that country).

But unity of conviction for political or philosophical convenience simply shifts the problem of divided hearts and minds, or just ignores it. The political solution of a single religion with a single god moves the problem of division from communities within the national borders to the borders themselves. The philosophical solution of a single god or the naïve proposal that there is no god are both abstractions which simply don’t take seriously how we actually are.

For how we are is that we are divided. But it’s important that we are not divided simply because we have gods; we also have gods because we are divided. The gods are extensions of us. They are ourselves with our contrary fears and aspirations, writ large. It is because I can compare myself with you that I can invoke a contrary god against you; the gods are many things to many people. This comparability and contrariness runs very, very deep. The political and philosophical solutions don’t work because the divisions are not overcome; they are either pushed into the background or ignored.

By contrast, consider Paul’s declaration in our epistle this morning: I have become all things to all people. He speaks here of his particular vocation as evangelist but, adapted for each particular vocation, this is how each Christian disciple is called – and enabled to be – if the God of the church is truly “incomparable”.

Paul’s being “all things” is not in any sense about him being “flexible”. It is about seeing the barriers between himself and all others as broken down. He sees others not in terms of their difference from him – the comparability of their fears and gods – but in terms of their commonality with him, in Christ.

This would be socially and religiously arrogant were it not that Paul himself has been subject to precisely the same redefinition. What he once thought was a matter of comparative wisdom and strength in himself – his God over against the gods of others – has been stripped away. What he has met in the crucified and risen Jesus is the sovereign freedom of the One who does not fear the cross, who is not bound by death. The incomparability of the God Isaiah proclaims is the freedom of the God of encountered in Jesus, and this is the God in whom Paul now lives and moves. It is God’s divine freedom which frees Paul, on the one hand, and binds him to his neighbours, on the other.

God does not divide because he is free to be against all who would wrongly claim him as an ally, and free to be for all who can do nothing other than simply wait on him. This for-ness and against-ness – of the same people – is the incomparability of the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ. All other putative gods are for us and against our enemies, such that we can only be some things for some people.

This God enables and calls us to more.

With Paul, then, let us allow ourselves to be found within the incomparable God, that we and those we meet might know something of the blessing of the God who keeps his distance from any one of us, that he might be the God of love for all of us.


28 January – On the fear of God

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Epiphany 4

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Psalm 111
Mark 1:21-28

To endeavour to learn a new language – particularly to speak it – is to wander into dangerous territory. Even when the words are not lacking, nuances of meaning are often hidden from the learner. Great confusion and embarrassment await those brave who risk a strange tongue.

The world of Scripture is a new language, even when translated into the vulgar tongue. It, also, is riddled with nuance and hidden meaning to trip up the presumptuous novice.

Let’s consider the closing thought of our psalmist this morning: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” If a beginning in wisdom is taken to be a good thing, is “the fear of the Lord” the best – or even a good – way to such beginning? Ought we not rather love God? We know fear as a basis of relationship, and we agree that love is a much more desirable way to relate. Or, perhaps, we might try to bridge the gap between fear and love by reading “fear” as “respect.” “Respect” allows that God could be feared but need not be.

Linguistic refinements like this make an apology for how the psalmist portrays God here. If love is good and fear is bad, then relating to God on the basis of fear is unpalatable. We refine the text to do God a favour. We ought, however, to keep in mind that God generally gets along quite well without our help, and that the text generally means what it says: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This doesn’t yet make the sentiment any more palatable but, like any strange mode of expression, it might give us pause: what could this mean?

The distance between our culture and context of Scripture is often obscured by things we imagine we have in common, like cognates between two languages. The Bible is interested in God, and we are interested in God, thus we presume that when the Bible refers to God it does so in the same way that we do. Yet “God” – as a concept – is for us something quite different from its conceptualisation in the Scriptures. In particular, we tend towards the idea that there is only one God, and “God” is in fact a viable name for God. Strictly speaking, God can only be God’s name if there is one God. In the Scriptures, however, the basic assumption is that there are many gods – as we heard from Paul this morning – and that “God” is not so much a name as a type of thing.

In fact it’s much messier than that, but this much helps us to get inside our psalmist’s thinking. For we can say that, in the Scriptures, a god stands for something the present or absence of which we fear. Do we fear the absence of life or money? Then Death and Mammon become gods. Do you fear the absence of power? Then that which gives power, mythologised as a god, becomes what we fear, lest it withdraw that power. Because there are many who fear such things, and often in contradiction of each other, there are many gods. The important thing is, then, not whether you fear “God” but whether you fear the right one among the many feared gods: the god properly feared if we are going to fear anything.

For us today, “God” means almost nothing like this. Whereas the atmosphere of the Scriptures is polytheism, philosophical pressure has driven us to monotheism. It is this monotheism which makes us squirm – especially in the churches – when it comes to “the fear of the Lord”. Because the gods are no longer a given, we imagine that “mission” is about making the gods – or just “God” – palatable again, and love is more palatable than fear.

But the Scriptures know us. Even if our modern world is emptied of gods, it remains filled with fears. And these fears work on us as they always have. The “‑isms” of our world indicate our new pantheon: racism, sexism, nationalism, fundamentalism, conservatism, progressivism, scientism, Islamism… each invoked out of fear. Knowing the human to be a creature which fears, the scriptural question is simply: What is best feared?

For this reason the psalmist proposes fear not of a generic “God” but of “the Lord.” It is a subtle nuance which the novice in religious language will miss but it is crucial, and is really only evident in the speaking: Not “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” as if we might relate to the Lord in some other way but “the fear of the Lord,” as if there were other things we might fear. This nuance moves the declaration from our concern about the appropriate emotional response to a God who might or might not be there, to the question of which realities in our life are actually worth worrying about.

“The Lord” – Yahweh, Jehovah – is the name of one God among many, one candidate for our allegiance among many. “There are many Lords and many gods”, Paul says, “but for us the one God, the Father… and one Lord, Jesus Christ.” Do you fear? Fear this one.

But why? Precisely because of the love which we might want prematurely to edit into the psalmist’s thought to make him declare that the love of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom. There are as many lords and gods as there are contradictory fears and desires in us; these things we serve and invoke over against each other. In Paul this morning we saw the logic of fear and love set in their proper place in relation to God. Yes, there are real fears – real enough to cause division in the young Christian community about what could be eaten, and so who could eat with whom. A fear of the gods of old and a fear of a loss of freedom clashed to fracture the community; dividing the communal mind and rendering asunder the communal body is what fear does.

The unity of the body, or its division, is the sign of the Spirit active within it, the sign of what is feared. There are many lords and many gods, Paul acknowledges, but for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. All things are from and to the Father; this we might call the “generic” function of a god: the beginning and the purpose of the world. The specifically Christian nuance is in the “through” used with respect to Jesus: “one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”

To live in and through the crucified Jesus is to live in and through the victim of human fear. It is to see where fear takes us – the cross – and what it takes from us, even the God we might think demands the cross.

But, just so, to live through the crucified Jesus is also to see grace in action because our fear and loathing is not met with God’s own. In the world fear begets fear; in heaven, fear is just one more human characteristic God can use to reveal love and bring healing. The fruit of fear is a broken body and blood poured out. Grace is the broken body raised and given to teach that with this God there is nothing to fear.

To learn a new language is to wander into dangerous territory. Even when the words are not lacking, nuances of meaning are often hidden from the learner. But when God speaks our language – takes our words and actions seriously – there is no embarrassment, even when God uses those words and or interprets our actions in the wrong way. God’s creative work with us is to change our grammar, to speak our words and ways in such a manner as to re-make us and, in this, to make possible us a new beginning in wisdom and in love.

The fear of this Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever. (Ps 111.10).