VIEW VIDEO I was talking with a young person this week who wants to be a doctor and I thought what a noble profession medicine is, how when you’re a doctor people respect your advice, because they know you’ve studied many years and passed a test confirming your expertise. I was talking about this with a doctor once and he said, “You should have gotten an education and been a doctor instead of a pastor.”
I said, “I do have an education. I attended college and graduate school, then went an extra two years to study Quakerism and writing. I did a two-year internship, and before my degree was conferred, I had to write a thesis and pass an oral exam with my professors.”
He said, “That’s not the same. Anyone can pass a theology test.”
Now, you know I’m a pacifist, but I swear to Jesus I wanted to slug him.
According to a recent poll, 20% of Americans now identify themselves as Christian Nationalists. Here’s what that means. They believe God has chosen America to be a Christian nation and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way, including banning books, excluding immigrants of non-Christian faiths, limiting voting to Christians and even white males, passing no law unless it is Biblical, and allowing Christians to possess more rights than non-Christians. This is all to say that not everyone can pass a theology test, or for that matter a history test.
Given our society’s theological illiteracy, it’s important to know the basic dimensions of our Christian faith. So I’m naming this new series Christianity 101 and let’s begin with God, and admit from the start that we’re at a disadvantage, because as John the Gospel Writer reminds us, “No one has ever seen God.” This means the proper frame of mind when discussing God is humility, because no one has ever seen God. You’ve heard the story of the little girl drawing a picture. Her mother asks, “Honey, what are you doing?” The little girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” Mom said, “But no one knows what God looks like.” The little girl said, “They will when I’m done with my picture.”
If I had drawn a picture of God when I was a kid, it would have been an old man, based on the two things I had been taught about God, that God was male, and that God lived forever. God would have looked just like my neighbor, Mr. Vaughn, a man, who by all appearances had been around forever. It helped that Mr. Vaughn was nice and gave me candy. But then Mr. Vaughn died and when he didn’t come back to life three days later, I realized he wasn’t God, despite meeting most of the criteria. As it turns out, Mr. Vaughn, while not God, was made in the image of God, as were all of us, which blows my mind to think about and I’m not sure how that works. What does that mean, to be made in the image of God? We’ll be talking about that, too. I do know being made in the image of God has caused some people to think they are God, usually television preachers, certain billionaires, and several members of Congress.
We ask ourselves what God is like because this is the big question in life. Maybe not the first question. The first question might be, “Is there a god?” Of course, we have no scientific proof there is, which is fine, because it isn’t a question for science. What we have are moments and experiences of transcendence, times when we feel deeply loved and known by a spirit beyond ourselves, an encounter unlike any other encounter. These encounters transcend cultures and religions, and are so significant, so real to us, we cannot easily dismiss them. Our shorthand word for that experience is God, which raises the second question, “If there is a god, what is God like?”
Our answer to that question influences our behavior. If we believe God is an all-knowing, all-powerful ruler who must be obeyed, then you and I will be slaves, stripped of freedom, treated with contempt, groveling to a tyrant in the sky who demands our conformity or else. In my experience, a good many people who believe in God believe in that kind of god. I have never experienced that god. Indeed, if that is who God is, I want it known that I am an atheist, having no interest in bowing to a celestial Hitler. It has also been my experience that those who do believe in that kind of god, having made their peace with tyranny, are more likely to tyrannize others, believing it their sacred duty. This is the god of Christian Nationalism, a god whose mercy, what little of it there is, is confined to a tribe or nation or religion. This is the god of fundamentalists everywhere. It is the god of closed minds, hardened hearts, and militant ignorance. It is the god of those who turn hate into law.
Wherever and whenever people are reviled and rejected, there this god is found. When this god finally dies, when it can not find lodging in any human heart, the world will be a far lovelier place.
I have not seen God, but I have enjoyed moments of deep and profound joy. I have enjoyed moments of clarity when my path and duty became clear. I have enjoyed moments of forgiveness and acceptance when self-hatred threatened to overwhelm me. I have enjoyed moments of reconciliation when my anger and hatred gave way to compassion and understanding. I have enjoyed moments of insight, when wisdom beyond my customary capacity helped me know things I would not otherwise have known. I have enjoyed moments of love when I have been entirely consumed, overwhelmed, with affection for others.
Throughout my life, I have heard others say the same, so believe the experiences I’ve described are not unique to me, but are common to all humanity, transcending religion, culture, and race. I believe these experiences are rooted in a Spirit within us all, which I call God. This spirit calls us to love when it is easier to hate, calls us to share when it is tempting to accumulate, calls us to embrace when we would rather shake the fist, calls us to listen when we are tempted to rant, calls us to create when we are inclined to destroy.
To be made in the image of this God is to aspire always to be our best selves, the finest humans we can be, and to, when the day is done, lie down in peace, our hearts full and conscience untroubled, knowing we are both loved and called to love. That, to me, is God, in whom we live and move and have our being.