Radical Jesus 101: What is God?

Radical Jesus 101: What is God? January 14, 2015

Most cultures in human history have had some concept of God, whether it’s one god or many gods, whether these gods are good or evil or a mix of both. What is it that makes the Christian God unique? There are some ways in which the God of Israel described in the Bible’s Old Testament basically behaves the same as the tribal gods of other ancient peoples. It’s not unique for a tribal god to expect his people to worship him alone and not any other gods. Nor is it unique for tribal gods to prescribe elaborate systems of ritual and taboo for their people to follow. It’s not unique for ancient people to explain their military conquests as obedience to the will of their gods. Nor is it unique for ancient people to explain all the natural disasters and military setbacks they encounter as punishment from their gods.

So some of the character traits and behaviors that the Christian Bible attributes to God are predictable tribal god attributes that could also be found in the gods of Israel’s ancient neighbors like the Edomites, Moabites, Philistines, Ammonites, Babylonians, Assyrians, and so forth. I’m not making any claims about the truth or falsity of the Biblical God’s tribal god features. I tend to believe that God allowed the Israelites to depict God with tribal god features in order to meet the ancient Israelites where they were. Nonetheless,  in order to understand God’s nature, I’m more interested in examining the ways in which the Christian depiction of God stands apart from other ancient accounts of God. I see four main distinctions about the Christian God which I would like to elaborate in this post.

1) God is inside of us

While it’s pretty common for ancient cultures to depict their gods with human-like features and give them human-like character traits, I don’t think it’s terribly common for a religion to say that God creates humans with divine qualities the way that Genesis 1:27 describes the creation of humanity: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Notice the way this sentence is constructed: God’s image is both male and female. Due to the limitations of human language, God is often described with male pronouns, but that doesn’t mean that God has a gender. Since Jesus had a human mother, he refers to the one who sent him to Earth as “father,” but this doesn’t detract from the reality that God contains all aspects of masculinity and femininity.

What does it mean that humanity has been created “in the image of God”? It’s a mystery that Christian theologians have argued about for centuries. Some have said that it just means we’re rational creatures like God is rational, but I think there’s more to it than that. I take it to mean that there’s a glimmer of divinity at the core of all of us. It means that each and every human being has infinite worth as an image of God, so that when we disrespect other people’s bodies through doing things like indiscriminately bombing their countries or starving them through unjust economic policies, we are disrespecting God directly.

For me, the other implication of humanity being created in God’s image is that we should expect to see God in other people and we should expect for God to speak to us through other people. We aren’t perfect images of God. We’ve all been corrupted by sin to varying degrees. Jesus Christ was and is the perfect image of God, and as such he is the perfect human archetype. The more that we emulate Jesus’ character, the more we are able to reflect God’s image and gain our full humanity. That’s not to say that God literally looks like a first century Middle Eastern man. God’s image is so infinitely complex that humanity can only reflect it in our entirety through a wide range of human identities, personalities, styles, talents, senses of humor, genders, and so forth.

Since I’m going to cover humanity in my next post in this series, I don’t want to elaborate on this too exhaustively, but the fact that God creates humanity in God’s image means that divinity is something God wants to share with us, not something that God guards selfishly. So the Christian God is utterly unlike the Greek gods who punished the mythic hero Prometheus eternally for bringing the divine gift of fire to humanity. 2 Peter 1:3-4 says, “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness…Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become partakers of the divine nature.” God wants to give us God’s divinity. Now there’s a subtle distinction here that’s important. None of us can become God, but we can participate in God and partake of the divine nature. God wants us to share in God’s divinity.

2) God is part of our family

I totally get that for many people, it’s very problematic that the Christian Bible refers to God as “Father.” This seems like the ultimate affirmation of patriarchy. Indeed, fundamentalist Christians point to the supposed masculinity of God to claim that men are supposed to be in charge of women. But one thing that we overlook when we see the “fatherhood” of the Christian God as solely an expression of patriarchy is that Christianity’s primary metaphor for God makes us part of God’s family. It’s actually an unusual thing to understand humanity to be part of God’s family. The ancient Greeks didn’t see themselves as the children of Zeus, nor did the ancient Babylonians see themselves as the children of Marduk. I don’t know of any other religion that uses familial language to describe a peoples’ relationship to their god.

My favorite Hebrew word chesed gets used a lot in the Old Testament to describe God’s faithfulness to God’s people. It’s sometimes translated as “mercy,” but what it literally means is loving somebody like they’re family. God promises to love the Israelites like they’re family. The reason this is “merciful” is because you don’t throw your family out in the street or take them to court when you have a disagreement. You work it out. Because you’re family. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work in an ideal world.

What God wants is for all of humanity to recognize their place in God’s family, to enter into the circle of chesed that God has created, which means accepting God’s mercy and showing that same mercy to each other. To be in God’s family requires two things: 1) accepting God’s authority as the head of our family and 2) accepting the fact that God welcomes people we may not get along with into God’s family. We can’t be part of God’s family if we reject other people whom God accepts, because that means rejecting God’s authority as the head of our family.

3) God is a polyamorous love triangle

trinityYes I’ve worded this in a provocative way that will surely generate some angry comments. But the kinkiness of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity needs to be openly acknowledged. Christians believe that the entity we call “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is one God, not three. The technical language used is three persons in one substance, whatever that means. If three human beings shared the same physical space as intimately as the three persons of God share their God-ness, they would be having an orgy. Obviously God transcends our crude physicality, but the intensity of love shared between the members of the Trinity is infinitely steamier than the hottest sex that any human being has ever had. Part of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is the term perichoresis, which means the absolute interpenetration of all three persons of God at all times. Each person of the Trinity is constantly overlapped and enveloped by the other two persons of the Trinity. If you want to make it G-rated, it’s like a never-ending group hug or the most amazingly choreographed three person dance team pretzel in the history of the universe.

When 1 John 4:8 says “God is love,” it’s not an abstract conceptual statement. That love refers to the explosive exuberant joy at the core of the threesome that is God. Every time that we love, we are experiencing a diluted form of the energy within this mysterious threesome that is the core of everything. It’s like the difference between walking on planet Earth in the warmth of a sunny day and being inside the sun itself. The universe is the byproduct of the infinitely giddy ecstasy that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit generate through their love together. Their love for each other does not exhaust itself or exclude others, but spills over and becomes the love that human beings are capable of having.

Now I respect the fact that some Christians feel the need to give the members of Trinity a new set of gender-neutral names as part of pushing back against centuries of patriarchy. I can’t really explain why I have a hard time giving up the traditional names. Somehow the names lose their sacredness for me when they’re invented by modern academics rather than handed down from ancient times, though I completely understand why people feel compelled to do it. I really love the Trinity icon that I’ve included to the left here which was painted by Russian painter Andrei Rublev in the 15th century. It captures the genderlessness of the Trinity and the adoration of each figure for each other.

In a poem that I wrote a couple of years ago, I did use a different set of names for the Trinity. I referred to the Father as the Source, because basically what’s being conveyed by the word “father” is the one who is the origin of the other two. I referred to the Son as the Light, because the Bible refers to Jesus as the light of the world. Jesus illuminates for us most clearly what God is like. I called the Spirit the Breath because in both Hebrew and Greek, spirit and breath are the same word. The Holy Spirit is the breath that God breathes every day when God breathes life into everything that has life. The dissatisfaction I have with calling God Source, Light, and Breath is that these metaphors are really impersonal since they’re objects rather than people.

In any case, the Christian God is not just one person but a mysterious tightknit community that is somehow just one God, despite being a threesome. And what God wants more than anything is to bring us into the infinitely intimate embrace that the Trinity experiences all the time. This is what Jesus prays in John 17:20-23: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Notice the way that Jesus explains what it means for his disciples to be “one” with him and each other. It’s not just agreeing on a set of doctrines or ideas. It’s not just working toward the same goal. He says, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” It’s about being so intimate that we are inside of each other. It’s the absolute safety and sense of belonging that physical sex tries to express but can never fully accomplish, especially when it’s engaged in haphazardly. The Trinity have the pure form of what we are desperately seeking when we bring our bodies together physically with other people. So much of our social existence is driven by our innate hunger for the loving embrace of God. Unfortunately we often try to satisfy this hunger in cheap and tacky ways rather than savoring the real nourishment of God’s presence. As broken and messy as our relationships are, every time we experience authentic warmth and intimacy, that is the Trinity drawing us into their embrace through God’s image-bearers in the world.

4) God is crucified

It’s understandable that many Christians feel icky about the cross. It was horrifically violent, and the glib way that so many Christians talk about it as part of a salvation sales pitch is truly disturbing. Some progressive Christians want to push the cross to the side as much as possible and make Christianity only about Jesus’ teachings. I respect the feelings behind this, but I don’t think we can escape the fact that Jesus’ cross is the centerpiece of Christianity. Christian theologians say that Jesus’ suffering on the cross is the most perfect revelation of God’s nature. What does this mean? How can the one who controls everything in the universe become a human being and die a horrible death? Exactly.

Many Christians try to sidestep the scandal of a God who helplessly suffers, bleeds, and dies by saying that Jesus the human being died on the cross, but God didn’t die. Obviously whatever happened, the atoms and molecules in the universe didn’t collapse into themselves when Jesus breathed his last breath. But something about the mystery of God’s relationship to creation is expressed by Jesus’ willingness to be tortured and killed when he presumably had supernatural powers at his disposal to resist his oppressors.

Philippians 2:6-8 says about Jesus that “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” So what the cross shows us is Jesus’ willingness to “empty himself” and “take the form of a slave.” Why would he do that?

Jesus gives us the answer himself in Matthew 25:31-46 where he says that when people decide whether or not to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner, they are doing it to him. By “taking the form of a slave,” Jesus shows that he takes the side of the slaves. So . I’m going to spell out the many meanings of the cross a lot more thoroughly in a later post, but a significant part of what Jesus’ cross shows is his solidarity with other people who are being crucified, bullied, abused, or otherwise oppressed. Every time we hurt other people, we’re crucifying Jesus.

So here’s the big question: what does the cross say about God if God is a Trinity that includes Jesus and everything about Jesus, including his crucifixion, is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15)? Many Christians try to say that even though Jesus was helplessly tortured on the cross, the Father part of God was completely in control. Some even go so far as to say that the Father crucified Jesus because he needed to do something violent to get over his anger over humanity’s sin.

But what if Jesus’ cross represents how God always experiences the universe that God has created? What if God chooses not to be a meticulous puppet-master over every single aspect of existence but “empties himself” and “takes the form of a slave” even though God creates everything? What if God is constantly being crucified by a world that God loves too dearly to overpower and destroy?

I believe that God chooses to disempower himself the way that Jesus did on the cross in order to create the space for love to happen. A world in which love can happen is a world in which pain can happen. You cannot have one without the other. A completely choreographed and pre-programmed world where there is no war, disease, poverty, or any other bad thing else might be painless world, but the beautiful agony that is love would be absent from the robot creatures who inhabited that world.

Love requires both freedom and adversity to exist. In fact, it’s often through the most difficult circumstances of our lives that we bond more deeply in love than we ever could otherwise. I don’t know how much power God gives himself to intervene in difficult circumstances. I believe that miracles have happened. I don’t know why they happen sometimes and don’t happen other times. But one thing I do believe is that God chooses not to be in complete control. I believe that God chooses to be crucified by the world so that God can also be loved by the world.

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