Saturday, August 2, 2014

Seeking the God Beyond God

Blogger PerfectNumber recently wrote a post called Could He Really Accept Me As I Am? I Mean, REALLY ACCEPT.  Using a hypothetical "other" voice, she speaks as if she were calling herself back to a kind of understanding of Jesus, God and Christianity that she can no longer accept: 
Perfect Number, he accepts you as you are, and he will guide you and give you time and help you to change into a "good Christian." 
He'll take you back to the way you were before, forgiving all this straying, all this questioning and the blasphemous things I've said on my blog. 
Yes, he accepts you as you are, even though you don't believe in purity, and you don't oppose gay rights, and you *gasp* have even been deceived into thinking abortion might sometimes be okay. 
It's okay, Perfect Number. Come back to Jesus. 
And I fear that's the deal. And that's why I don't want to come back to [that version of] Jesus.  I won't give him everything. I don't surrender. Obedience to God is not the highest thing in my life. 
You guys, I want love to be the highest thing.
And life. And freedom. 
And no matter what Jesus says, I won't go along with anything that is, as far as I can tell, incompatible with love and life and freedom. [Emphases in original.]
And then there's the story Vyckie Garrison of No Longer Quivering once told.  This was on an old message board that is now defunct, so I can't share the link, but in the "Quiverfull" movement, women are often burdened with the requirement to eschew all birth control regardless of whether their own health, or even their lives, are in danger.  Vyckie tells the story of a husband who loved his wife enough to refuse to go along with this:
"I had a friend who was bedridden with every pregnancy and each time it was worse ~ not life-threatening, but just really miserable. After the 6th, her husband asserted his "authority" over her ~ and had a vasectomy. He refused to put his wife through that any more.

I remember feeling so jealous ~ I couldn't imagine having a such a decisive husband who was willing to take the responsibility to say, "No more" himself ~ and I was really impressed when he told me, "It may not be the right thing scripturally ~ but if God has a problem with it, He can take it up with me. I will not do that to my wife again." Wow ~ a god-fearing man willing to take on the Lord in defense of his wife. That's love like I have rarely seen."
While I disagree in general with husbands "asserting authority" over their wives, in this case I can't help but see the husband as doing the most loving thing he could in a no-win situation. But I have to ask: what kind of a god is this, that an ordinary human man can so easily outdo him in love and compassion? A deity who would insist on "the right thing scripturally" to the real harm of its followers-- who cares more about rigid rules than about people?

Jesus said in Luke 10:27 that the whole law is encapsulated in this: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart. . . and your neighbor as yourself."  And then when asked "who is my neighbor?" He told the story of the Good Samaritan, the hated outcast who treated a member of the story-hearers' own people with care and compassion.  So the question is, if our enemy is our neighbor, how can our spouse not be our neighbor?  Surely despite whatever this Quiverfull couple's church said, the husband could not have been disobeying God if he loved his wife as himself?

And if "God is love" (1 John 4:8) and if "the truth shall set you free" (John 8:32), then how could Perfect Number be going against Jesus if she's prioritizing love and life and freedom?*  And why should obedience to God be the highest thing in her life if it's not obedience to love?  If we're not obeying love, are we obeying God at all?

The way I see it, if we find we want to be, and can be, morally better than our conception of God, then what we're following isn't God. According to St. Anselm, God is "That than which nothing higher can be conceived." If we can easily conceive of a better, a morally higher God, then our god is too small-- it's only a caricature of God. The better, higher version is closer to the God we're really searching for, the One we should be seeking.

James McGrath at Exploring Our Matrix defines the common phrase "God Beyond God":
This is the very ancient idea that, beyond any sort of anthropomorphic deity that we may think of and tell stories about, there must be an even greater reality that transcends our ability to comprehend and describe.
The Christian idea of God has always been an idea of transcendence, of an Entity beyond human conception, but which makes Itself known to humanity using ideas we can understand.
There are a number of places in the Bible where, despite the fact that the writers' human understanding of God was limited (as ours is too), the idea of a "God beyond God" shines through.
  • God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM"; and He said, "Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" Exodus 3:14. 
  • For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9. 
  • He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords,who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. . . . 1 Timothy 6:15-16. 
  • The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things. . . . Acts 17:24-25.
If we mistake God's accommodation of God's Self to our limited understanding, for the real God, then we are re-making God in our own image and ascribing to God our own limitations.  We make God into what Joe Hinman on his blog The Religious A Priori calls "just a big guy in the sky."

The result is that we can then end up with a god which is little more than a big stick used to enforce religious control.  Rules get prioritized over people, and obedience to those rules gets mistaken for devotion.  And then when someone protests and tries to seek a more transcendent idea of God, their very seeking is construed as rebellion and disobedience!

To this, some might respond that what looks like love to us sinful humans isn't really love, or that God is holy just as much as God is love, so have to mix our love with hatred of sin.  To this I would reply that love is holy-- because sin is that which hurts ourselves or others, and love will always oppose people hurting themselves or other people.  And anyway, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 shows what love is:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
To bring the familiar words into clearer focus, let's paraphrase the verses using opposites:
Love is never impatient; love is never cruel.  Love is pleased when others do well, love draws attention to the accomplishments of others, love is humble.  Love honors others and seeks their good.  Love stays calm and supportive; love is only angered by the giving of real harm.  Love keeps memories of the joys and triumphs of others.  Love never abandons, never becomes judgmental, never sees the worst in people, and doesn't view loved ones with disappointment or cynicism.  Love never gives up on you.  Love goes on and on. 
Anything counter to this kind of love is not holiness.  And any version of God that is impatient, cruel or any of these other things isn't holy either.

So I say if we're going to seek God, let's keep seeking the God beyond God.  No matter what anyone else says.

*Note:  I know that taking snippets of verses like this can look like proof-texting, which means lifting pieces of scripture out of context to make it say whatever you want.  But I believe that the snippets I'm quoting do bring across the meaning I am intending to convey here, when they are taken in context. 


Anonymous said...

Thank you for everything you write. I needed to hear this!

heather said...

I have thought this before but never said it out loud :) thanks !!

perfectnumber628 said...

Well-said, as always. Thanks for writing about my post! I really like how you talked about people's understanding of God always being limited- the real God is much bigger than that.