We tend to define our humanity in terms of our current social and cultural mores. In the West we stereo type the ‘uncultured’ man among us as being made in the image of someone like Homer Simpson rather than God. Ironically none of us would want to be considered anything like this particular cartoon character as anyone observing the behaviour of Simpson would not consider his behaviour the ‘norm’— especially for themselves. Homer lives to: eat, drink, be merry, and to bring in the ‘burgers’ for his family. These things seem to sum up Homer Simpson’s raison detre — yet there is a glimmer of a desire to communicate with God even in the likes of Homer Simpson. How then would most people in the West define the meaning and purpose of their lives? How do people in the UK, Europe and the USA define themselves, their lives, their experiences — their ‘meaning’? Is ‘life’ for the average person as, Mike Featherstone suggests [Consumer Culture and Postmodernism], little more than consumerism playing with people’s aspirations—clouding the boundaries between reality and fantasy? Are ‘products and commodities’ US?
Like many efforts to put a label on the ‘human problem’, the above definition of personal reality only gives an insight into the effects of culture on the individual — a way of outlining the ‘current’ symptoms. If, as we are convinced, there is a deep seated problem in the human psyche then prognosis is vital; of course, this would be an impossible task if there were no pattern to work from. For this we need more than a degree in physiology or psychology. Having such knowledge would only give us a certain amount of information, information that does not give a complete picture of what it is to be human. The question is, do we really need to define or diagnose the ‘human problem’? If we answer no, it may be that we are afraid of the results and the consequences for us personally. If we answer yes then we are in good company for many are seeking answers to that question.
In our increasingly secular western culture any question of meaning has been marginalised by the shift to materialism and consumerism — so much so that we in the West seem to have lost the will to enquire as to whether or not there is any ‘meaning’ outside of our quasi- materialistic ghettos. Barack Obama, some years before his historic move to the White House, observed, “Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds….and coming to the realisation that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness are not enough. They want a sense of purpose, a narrative to their lives, something that will relieve a chronic loneliness or lift them above the exhausting, relentless toll of daily life.” Interestingly enough the article this quote comes from what was named ‘The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on reclaiming the American Dream’ (2006). ‘The audacity of hope’…now there is a phrase to chew on in itself! We may not feel that we buy into the American dream — especially in these tricky times but perhaps we feel that Obama’s comments on the search for meaning and purpose have a ring of truth to them.
Whether it be through political, social or cultural systems, or indeed ‘spiritual’ experiences, it is likely that people are looking for a narrative to provide some sense of purpose to their existence. Our contention would also be that in societies with any kind of ‘Christian heritage’ [especially in America and the UK] people would be most reluctant patients when it came to an attempt at diagnosis of a human problem that could in any way include themselves. We are quick to blame all manner of things for the breakdown of law and order, or the state of our schools, or the ‘youth of today’, but we don’t often go looking for problems inside of ourselves, or in generalised humankind. Day-to-day living takes enough of our energy and focus and brings enough problems of its own. It is true that introspection is not always a healthy pursuit but if in the physical realm we see or feel symptoms, then we tend to seek a diagnosis, because only then can we receive, or offer, appropriate treatment and care. We would argue that the same applies in the spiritual realm, and in the space where the spiritual and physical meet, i.e. God at work in us as people made in His image.
According to the first part of the Genesis account of origins humans were made in God’s image. This image does not mean that we have a physical resemblance to God — a kind of ‘doesn’t he look like his dad’ image. No, not at all. The idea that God has the same kind of substance as humanity is a particularly banal depiction of God. It is also typical of what is an anthropological caricature of the actual relationship between God and Humanity. Moreover, it is a slanderous depiction of the creator and sustainer of the universe — the universe that is both known and yet relatively unknown.
The idea [a common caricature among atheists back in the sixties] that the theist’s God was akin to an old man with a beard playing a harp on a cloud was never taken seriously by anyone with an iota of intelligence. Oddly enough though intelligent people do think that ‘we think’ that God is a Moses lookalike, who has nothing better to do than play around with the creation — like the imagined gods of the Greek Pantheon.
Being Apart, Staying Apart
The Genesis narrative apart, it is no wonder that when faced with the challenge of the Apostle Paul’s writings, Christians and non-Christians alike, would much prefer to move on from Paul’s ‘hard-talk’ to some of the more acceptable words of Jesus as reported in the Gospels. Paul just seems to make a difficult job an impossible job. How on earth can we tell the average post-modern that they are ‘controlled by the sinful nature’. Of course we would rather not and ‘they’ would most certainly be offended at such talk. They are what they do, after all. Clearly, should we confront people with such verses we will not only stay ‘aloof’ we will seem arrogantly aloof. But, by watering down the truth we do the unchurched no favours, which is exactly what is happening in so many circles of ‘radical’ Christian writing and practice. So how do we prevent the separation between the church and the unchurched in our generation?
God with ‘US’?
On one occasion, not long after the start of my Christian journey, one of my trades union colleagues decided that he would put me back on the right track so, kindly, pointed out that there was nothing in the sky save atmosphere. Obviously he had not come across String Theory, which suggests that there is more ‘out there’ than meets the eye, so to speak. There is, most certainly, more than meets the ‘idea’ of most speculators when it comes to the nature and character of the Triune God. If there isn’t more to God than we have experienced or can see [with the naked eye], or can imagine, then we would be better served by some other kind of deity.
What Kind of Father?
For some God is some kind of cosmic sadist, who enjoys nothing better than torturing his creatures — or allowing his ‘son’ to be beaten, humiliated and crucified. Granted, for many people, God, according to their perspective, experience or expectation, may seem to be just like the absent ‘Landlord’ or a disinterested deity who just started things off and then went on his way. This may well be their perception, it is though their personal ‘insight’ rather than the ‘facts’. Isn’t it the case that we are too quick to judge God?
The Psalmist eloquently describes God’s imminence, God’s actual delight in his creation through the use of metaphor: “O my soul, bless God! God, my God, how great you are beautifully, gloriously robed, Dressed up in sunshine, and all heaven stretched out for your tent. You built your palace on the ocean deeps, made a chariot out of clouds and took off on wind-wings. You commandeered winds as messengers, appointed fire and flame as ambassadors. You set earth on a firm foundation so that nothing can shake it, ever.” Psalm 104 [The Message] The view of God that sees God as a disinterested deity is indeed a caricature of the ‘God who is there’, and who is intimately concerned with his creation. John’s gospel makes some challenging claims for God. John claimed that God was actually here, and that he walked this earth. John says that he and some of the other followers of Jesus actually saw him and touched him. The Message puts it this way: “The word [logos] became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood—we saw the glory with our own eyes.” John even claims that God was so in love with the world that he sent a part of himself — God in Flesh.
An ‘Everywhere’ Father?
In his book ‘The Church Beyond The Congregation’ James Thwaites states that deep down in our psyche we know that God must be more on the scene than Christians may have led others to believe. The question we ask is: Why would Christians want to leave others with the impression that God isn’t so imminent? Thwaites suggests that Christians have made it theologically impossible for God to be continually involved with the creation because in so doing they could have possibly opened the door for Pantheistic belief. Opening the door for Pantheism or any other unwelcome intrusion is not sufficient reason for disallowing the intimacy of God for in so doing we open the door for an equally unacceptable ‘ism’ [Deism]. If ‘God’ ,through whatever process, created life, and then lost interest in his handiwork, he then, as some have noted, would only have the incarnation [the cross] as an excuse [if he needed one] for his abandonment of his, creative, yet corrupt handiwork. If it were true that God is a disinterested deity, we would have no reason for hope and every reason for despair for we would not know when this God might become bored with ‘Project Earth’ and move away — out of touch. The fact is that God has never stepped out of the story, God has been ‘around’ facing all the opposition that, from before ‘day-one’, has waged a sedulous assault, not just on ‘Theos’ [the notion of one God] but on the God of the Bible. This assault has been an assault on the character of God, on his goodness and on his trustworthiness, making faith in God a very hard sell indeed.