I recently heard of someone say to a Priest that they did not believe in God. He replied – ‘Please tell me about the God you don’t believe in, I probably don’t believe in him either!’ Perceptions are a huge factor, not only on what we believe about God, but on how we live, behave, interact with others and the world we live in. If our perceptions are wrong they negatively affect us in so many ways – some fairly inconsequential, others crucial and yet others, life altering.
Over the summer I have had the opportunity to meet and speak with many people from different nations of the world. Speaking with Americans for instance, I have discovered how negatively, generally, they react to the word ‘evangelical’. A good number would argue that many of the problems they are dealing with in the USA are as a result of the behaviour of the evangelical constituency within their nation. Hearing them talk I can sympathise with much of their anger – but my perception of the term ‘evangelical‘ is totally different, in my own cultural context, from theirs. What this means for the cause of true Christianity in that nation I cannot begin to imagine.
However – this is just one example among many that ultimately forms, for millions of people, a perception of the ‘god’ those who call themselves ‘evangelical’ claim to believe in. Millions are rejecting this god.
This issue becomes even more acute when we ask, and I will restrict our considerations for the moment to the Christian community, whether the perception of God among Protestants differs from that of the Roman Catholic, and again if that perception differs from the Eastern Orthodox tradition? Let us narrow the field even further and ask if Christians within the Protestant Reformed Presbyterian tradition perceive God in the same way as someone from the Protestant Baptist (although some Baptist would object to being labeled Protestant) or Protestant Wesleyan tradition, to name but two of the many variations within what we call Protestantism? And even within my own cultural background in the Highland of Scotland – the Reformed Presbyterian tradition, the truth is that there is no definitive clarity on this issue. Some see God as a kind of heartless judge, and preach terror and wrath while others see him a being of mercy, love and grace. So the question remains which perception of God is the true one? And on the answer to that question rests your life, behaviour and future – if in fact you believe in any God at all. And if you don’t, because of all the confusion we have already spoken about, or for some other reason – who am I to judge you? I don’t. But please hang about for a few moments all the same to see if we can make some sense of all this.
So here is the low down for me when the rubber hits the road. I cannot not believe in a Creator God. Even if someone proved beyond doubt that the Bible was a fabrication of some kind – still I could not believe in accidental design. You may disagree and that is your prerogative. Furthermore, I cannot not believe that the Creator created humanity in some cosmic act of love and passion. Nature alone convinces me of this. But something somewhere has gone far wrong – because beside beauty, love, and compassion, I see decay, suffering and hatred.
When I turn then to the oldest of religious writings I discover, and I do not claim to be some expert here, but simply someone looking for some answers, I discover the story of a Creator creating in love. I also discover a Being of immense power, a power beyond my imagination, seeking a relationship, intimacy and fellowship with the those he has created. Now whether you take this story, as it is recorded in the book of Genesis, literally or metaphorically, the point of it is the same – there has been a junction in our history where that relationship has been fractured and that fracture resulted in separation. So the being that was created for fellowship and intimacy with the Creator is now, tragically, separated from the source of its life. Put simply separation from life means death – and that death/separation is the paramount problem in life.
For me everything I have discovered, in what we call the Bible, at its most fundamental level, metaphorically, spiritually and intellectually appears to be a journey, a striving, a story, whose ultimate goal is the restoration of that most vital of relationships with the Creator/Lover. I hear and have heard, throughout my life, so many preachers focusing on ‘sin’, whatever that really means to those who use the word, and alleging that this is the fundamental issue. Personally, I have come to question this notion – it is not sin I see as my primary problem (although a problem it no doubt is) – the real issue is of a broken relationship between me and the Creator/Lover – alienation! Sin, and, as we have suggested that word means so many different things to different people – but seen in its essence as our failure to live in pure love, is as a result of alienation from the Creator/Lover. If I start in any other place I will put the cart before the horse and nothing will make sense! Again, following on from what we have said, I hear so often of the need to be ‘forgiven for my sin’ – but it appears to me the central story of the Bible, and particularly the life and death of Jesus, are related primarily to restoration. Think of his parable of lost things (Luke 15) as only one example. Yes, of course forgiveness is an important and integral part of all this – but I would suggest that the restoration of fellowship with the Creator/Father is the primary and necessary goal. Otherwise it would be possible to experience forgiveness apart from restoration – something totally alien to biblical thinking – but a place, nonetheless, so many people, in my experience at least , seem content to settle for.
When the loving father, in Jesus story of the lost son, one of the stories mentioned above, sees him returning home, even although the motivation of the son is questionable, his father does not even mention, far less focus, on his ‘sin’ but rejoices in the restoration of his son to the family. If anything it is his unconditional acceptance of restoration that leads the ‘lost‘ son to repentance. And this is seen in so many of Jesus stories, teaching and actions.
The failure to appreciate what have outlined above – and where ‘sin’ is the focus and is seen as the main issue, leads to all kinds of problems and abuses – for, by hook or by crook, the aim then is the eradication of ‘sin’, or what is perceived as such, and the drive is towards a morality based religion and culture. This has been seen here in Scotland at least since the time of the Reformation and is still with us today. We have looked at this before here a number of times. However, where these things are prominent, ‘sin’ very often goes underground – and the mere appearance of a moral life replaces the fundamental need of the restoration of relationship based on love. This kind of morality is the curse of true Christianity – because beneath its surface lurks hypocrisy, pride and every form of evil and corruption. Real religion – religion of the heart is not promoted and as a result withers and dies. We are living in such a time. No wonder so many reject Christianity or are turning to alternative religions.
So what, if not sin, as some perceive it, was at the root of the problem between the loving Creator and his creation – in other words where did it all go wrong?
Again, it matters not at this point whether or not we see the story of Eden as metaphorical or literal. Indeed, many who prioritise literalism miss the point completely. The issue contained within the conundrum of Eden was, as it is today, the choice, rooted in egotism and pride – to usurp God. Adam and Eve became, from that moment on, as we still are today, predominantly dominated by self love and self aggrandisement. But the cost of all this independence was and is the fracturing of relationship, the abandonment of self giving Love himself and the death spiral that inevitably follows. The road back home would be long and precarious. However, at one level it was no more, it is no more, than a heartbeat away!
If you ask most Evangelical Christians why Jesus came – I guarantee most of them will answer – ‘to save us from our sin.’ However, when unselfish Love came in the form of humanity in the person of Jesus – he was subsequently presented to the early Church as ‘The second Adam’ (1 Corinthians 15:47). The early church also taught that in the coming of the second Adam – ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself’ (2 Cor. 5:19). Furthermore, the Cross, which most associate with the forgiveness of sin is also presented primarily as the place of reconciliation – ‘Now he (God) has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence.’ (Colossians 1:22). The picture being painted here is of a relationship restored, a new and fresh welcome to the Father’s house. Forgiveness is, if we can say without being accused of being flippant, an added bonus freely offered and bestowed on those who turn away from pride, and self love in surrender to the One who is in essence self giving Love himself. In so doing we are caught up in the dance of the Divine love which exists in the Person of God.
‘We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.’
John Donne (1572 – 1631)
But to come full circle. The terrible danger in all of this is that a god who is presented, preached and then perceived as anything less than He is revealed in the life of Jesus and the pages of the New Testament, leads to disaster for genuine Christianity. Well did one time Archbishop of York, William Temple, say – ‘If you’re concept of God is radically false, the more devoted you are the worse off you will be.’ I shudder for those who teach and preach a God who is anything less than the loving, gracious and merciful Father portrayed by Jesus.
To any who have followed us thus far who have no belief or faith in a loving God, let me say – just as the loving father in Jesus story threw his arms around his lost and rebellious son and, in unexpected, unconditional, and unquestioning love, welcomed him home – so the Father/God of Creation longs to do for you. Salvation – if it is anything, is simply unconditional surrender to unconditional Love.