David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.
Pastor, Silverside Church
Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation
Sermon Series Fall 2006
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September 17, 2006 Sermon #2
A History of God
When I was in graduate school, a most important theological work that fed perfectly into the growing emphasis on narrative in several aspects of study in the country’s universities as well as the divinity schools was published; it carried the title, God Has a Story Too (Fortress Press, 1979). Its author, Professor James Saunders, presented an overview chapter followed by several sermons to challenge the notion of a “static God.”
- Some would say, of course, that God is, in fact, static–the same yesterday, today, and forever–and that the only changes have been the efforts of human beings to grasp the Reality called God. This is one understanding of so-called “progressive revelation.”
- Another take on progressive revelation says that while God may indeed be static, it has not been human efforts to understand God that have helped mortals gain clearer perceptions of God, but rather God’s intentionally gradual self-revelation of Godself to humanity.
- Still others would say that there never has been and never will be anything “static” about God. In this group are the proponents of process theology. Process theologians believe, among many core tenets, that God has always been changing because God is impacted by and affected by human responses to God. God does not change God’s essential purpose or God’s essence, but it is still incorrect to assume that God is unchangeable. It is a humbling thought, is it not, to imagine that the Life-force, Life-source some of us call God can be affected by our human behaviors? But it certainly seems to me that if God has a story–even a history–that the potential changeability of the Deity is highly probable. In what way that might occur, I couldn’t begin to describe any more than I could tell you what, precisely, about God our linguistic metaphors most correctly capture.
The sermon topic for today, “A History of God,” technically and formally only takes us back as far as the beginning of monotheism since, before anyone ever used a singular noun or pronoun to refer to ONE deity as the ONLY ONE, there obviously were multiple deities in all known ancient cultures. I say this knowing full well that there are some Hindus, for example, who say that what seems to outsiders like multiple deities are and always have been ways of describing and understanding the many aspects of a singular deity; similarly, there are Indigenous Americans and scholars of Indigenous American spirituality who would say that what may have seemed like multiple deities to outsiders were in fact various expressions of the one Great Spirit. I certainly cannot speak for modern Hindus or American Indians, but in ancient times I believe that they, like all known ancient cultures prior to the ancient Hebrews, were polytheistic in outlook.
Before Abram/Abraham–that historical or legendary or fictional character in Hebrew tradition who was the first human being to affirm monotheism–all cultures about which we know anything were polytheistic. Go to any ancient culture you want, and you will find veneration of the people to various god-objects whether they are items found in the natural world, invisible spirits of all sorts, or the souls of dearly departed loved ones that never die. And in plenty of those ancient cultures, you will also find human beings who make themselves or are made by their devotees to be gods-in-flesh worthy of the worship of their subjects.
Not all cultures, much less individuals within those cultures, moved from polytheism in a monotheistically-direction. Some would become convinced that there were no deities at all; others would be perfectly content with their polytheism with no reason whatsoever to give it up. Others, and these were in the distinct minority early on, would move into the direction of believing in one God/god or Goddess/goddess alone.
Among those cultures that did move from polytheism to monotheism in outlook–the Hebrews, again, being the first–the arrival in the realm of monotheism wasn’t either sudden or instantaneous. There was a long and persistent passage through a perspective known as HENOTHEISM. “Henotheism” refers to a belief in the supremacy of one god/goddess without the denial of the existence of other deities.
This shift is evident in the Hebrew scripture collection as we have it passed on to us today. Even though the collection of books we have in the so-called “Old Testament” is not in chronological order–not at all!–Jewish and Christian scholars can give approximate dates to the various books and strands within various books (as many of them were compilations of the work of several writers) giving us a sense what came first in time. And such information will help us see in a very broad way what was going on in some Hebrew thought progressively. Polytheism, henotheism, and monotheism are all clearly represented in these books that are the foundational spiritual writings of the first monotheistic movement in human history. No, there isn’t a steady and consistent progress in thought, but there is an overall indication of an unmistakable, discernable change of theological position from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism. We can presume that generally other cultures who came to embrace monotheism moved through similar thought-processes.
Plenty of scholars believe editors of the oral traditions that finally came to be written down made a conscious effort, in retrospect, to edit out references to polytheism, but they weren’t completely successful. For example, when Moses was atop Mt. Sinai getting the words from God that would later be called “the ten commandments,” the people waiting for him at the base of the Mount, even at that moment of presumed high spirituality, crafted an idol to a god other than the one Moses was talking to, and they worshiped that idol. It is also worth noting in this context that one of the many Hebrew description-words for God (I contend that the God of the Hebrews, Christians, and Muslims never gave anyone God’s name) was “Elohim.” Though translators have rendered it as a singular form, the truth is that it is a plural word in Hebrew.
As far as henotheism is concerned, it’s all over the place. One of the most-impossible-to-overlook references is within the ten commandments themselves where the people are told by Moses that God insisted, “You will have no other gods besides me.” Now, God does NOT say that there are no other gods; that affirmation indeed will come, but it is not affirmable as of the time of the ten commandments.
The clearest avowal of monotheism is in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (NRSV). It’s a beautiful affirmation, and many of us concur with it today; but what I want you to remember is: it took a long, long time for any human group to get to this point!
Having made the gradual shift to monotheism–beginning in the Hebrew culture and moving out from there–the one God of early monotheism had a fascinating personality–depending, of course, on who said what about God. Not surprisingly, I suppose, the God of early monotheism had a conglomerate personality essentially made up of all the many personalities of the families and pantheons of gods and goddesses who had preceded the newly-recognized one and only God. Not making light, in any way, of those who suffer from the complicated and painful emotional/mental illnesses known as “dissociative disorders,” the God of early monotheism had multiple personality syndrome! You had no idea what to expect from this god: “Love you in the mornin’; hate you in the evenin’; kill you at super time!”
This god created the planet, the cosmos even, and all human, animal, and plant life. Yet, this same god wanted people who desired to please the deity constantly to kill off a portion of what had been so lovingly created and given; this deity wanted sacrifice. This deity loved the smell of burning things, which is where the use of incense in worship came from: animal sacrifice, plant sacrifice, and there were whispers here there about human sacrifice.
In the one of the remaining stories of blatant human sacrifice, the one God of ancient Israel asks Abraham–the founder of the faith, no less–to sacrifice the son from his primary wife for whom he’d waited so long that he almost died before the son, Isaac, was born. Then the same deity who created human life and called it good, the same deity who gave Sarah and Abraham a child together after a literal lifetime of waiting, the same deity who ordered Abraham to kill his beloved son, this same deity stopped Abraham’s arm in midair to prevent his knife from slitting Isaac’s throat.
This tale, I think it is fair to say, confounded the Christian philosopher/theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, all of his life. There are no heroes in this tale–unless, perhaps, it is the young boy, Isaac, who evidently braces bravely and obediently for complete submission to his father’s will. The God of this story is no god we want to know or serve, and Patriarch Abraham is no person of faith whose blind devotion we should emulate. A parent today who kills off her or his child or children, saying that God commanded her or him to do it, belongs in some kind of custody–or out having and working with other children in the event of an insanity defense.
We would have wished that because of progressive revelation Jesus, for Christians at the very least, would have clarified God’s true loving nature–even though we must recognize that plenty of writers and thinkers in Hebrew scripture knew about God’s love, and this is precisely where Jesus himself first learned of it. It’s actually a fact that the God of the Old Testament is both judgmental as well as loving, and the God of the New Testament is both loving as well as judgmental. However, it seems–maybe because there’s so much more of it–that, on balance, the God of the ancient Hebrews was much more angry and bloody than the God of the New Testament. In any case, it has often seemed–and to a significant number of people, including very smart people–that there is such a profound and tragic discrepancy between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament that a choice must be made about which one to honor, which one to affirm, which one to believe in.
One of the most famous advocates for choosing one over the other–and it happens that he chose to affirm the God of PARTS of the New Testament–was a gent named Marcion. Marcion was a major second century Christian theologian who was compelled by reason and conscience to seek the “true gospel” of Jesus. Well, when he started whittling away at what he had to work with, he tossed the whole of what he knew as “Hebrew scripture,” and we have to point out that part of what motivated him, beyond his belief that God couldn’t have been nearly so angry and judgmental as the Deity portrayed there, was his anti-Semitism. He didn’t stop there! He also tossed all the Gospels except a “heavily edited version of” Luke, and he hung onto ten of Paul’s letters. That was it. We can’t be certain what he had available to him, since the Christian canon was set until the late 300's, but presumably he knew or knew about most of the documents that would later make the canonical cut.
Not surprisingly, he was officially declared a heretic. A heretic can always be accused and convicted based on a majority vote of any group who wants to get together and vote on who is and who is not a heretic. There have been some great heretics in the history of the Church. Marcion was one of them. Arius was another. Brent Grant and TRU-DEE Burrell must be included in the list as well.
As far as I know, no group has ever officially voted to declare me a heretic–as hard as I’ve worked to upset institutionally theological apple carts wherein theology is always determined by majority vote; that’s a really dumb way to either establish or clarify theology. I would be highly honored, however, if that affirmation could be awarded to me some day before I retire at the age of 80 or 85. This time-frame gives some person or group plenty of opportunity to get the plaque appropriately engraved!
Some Southern Baptists once declared my dear mentor and friend, Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, to be a heretic. Glenn preached a wonderfully sermonic retort entitled, “Am I a Heretic?” Well, that all depends on who says so, right? A heretic might very well be the only person in a religious movement or an era brave enough to challenge prevailing views of God, which are out of step with reason and/or good sense.
- Several of his fellow Jews, certainly not all, declared Jesus a heretic. Good heretic.
- The Roman Catholic Church declared its own faithful priest, Martin Luther, a heretic because he dared to base his views of God on scripture rather than upon the voted-in theology of the Roman Catholic Church and all its Councils. Was Herr Doktor Luther a heretic? I would have to say yes. And I say this not because he wanted to appeal to scripture to shape his understanding of the one great God, but because despite what he knew about scripture as a professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg, he followed Marcion in a hatred of the Jews. Bad heretic.
If an acceptable view of God is to be determined by the majority vote of a group–any group at any time or place in history–where does that leave the God who evidently communes and perhaps communicates uniquely with sincere and serious seekers? And ultimately, because God is spirit and has chosen to remain hidden from humanity in any physical sense, ultimately we’re all left to speculation, at least to some degree. Even those who think the written and voted-in canon of Hebrew and Christian scripture has the last word on who God is, are in a bind since there are constant contradictions in how the key figures in ancient Israel and the key figures in the early Christian movement thought of God.
You and I can be heretics if we want to be, and our lives will never officially be in danger (which is not to say that liberals, if that is what you are, have forever been unthreatened by fundamentalists in all monotheistic traditions!). Well, I guess I shouldn’t say “never.” Our freedom to think about God as we wish and act upon our views as we are so led isn’t a permanent guarantee. There are plenty of people in our country today who would have no qualms whatsoever with having theology fully legislated and using it to condemn heretics, those who didn’t believe things the way they legislated them, to imprisonment or death. Never sell short those who think that they know all about God there is to know and, in addition, have a special relationship with God making them privy to God’s absolute word and will!
Now, let me be QUICK to point out that progressive, liberal theology hasn’t solved all the problems of God-thinking or God-talk. Even many of us don’t want to let God be the Mystery that God must, in the end, always be to human beings. There have been, and there are, two major responses to this reality of God as Mystery.
One, in determination not to be satisfied with God as merely Mystery, we humans have so anthropomorphized God that our god is little more than one of us–maybe kicked up a notch. The anthropomorphized god has a voice, has hands, walks in Gardens, makes mountaintop appearances, and, while never allowing anyone to see the fullness of the divine image physically, does float by Moses once upon a time in such a way that Moses alone saw the divine “hindquarters,” as the ancient Hebrew story teller put it.
That’s not the half of it! The bodily images of the deity ancients and moderns have constructed are relatively harmless, really. But the emotions we humans project onto our anthropomorphized god, in effect, destroy “god”–make God anything but God. The emotions we project onto our human-made god, if you’ve noticed, make the resulting god the worst that humanity can envision; every now and again our human-made god looks pretty good, but rarely for the welfare of anyone other than the person or group who feels benefitted at the moment.
In eras and cultures of polytheism, henotheism, and monotheism–as if humans hadn’t made any progress at all in understanding God–god has been credited with hatred, rage, frustration, confusion, pettiness, jealousy, anxiety, vindictiveness, and an out and out sociopathic attitude about wiping out women, children, and men who don’t suit at the moment. The emotions that have been projected upon God make the god of our projections a terrorist, an unpredictable tyrant, and an entity to be feared in every way. This has made worship, prayer, and almost everything else we do–including our deeds supposedly on behalf of others–efforts at appeasement because we have a profound fear of the god we have collectively created over the centuries. And we should!
That god is to be feared–just as were many of the gods and goddesses in the most ancient of times. An arbitrary god. A capricious God. I’m talking no progress whatsoever, my dear friends. I’m talking an end-result-god who is nothing more than a repository of the misunderstandings and bad theology from all of human history. And that’s not the worst. The worst is that people are still willing to kill others who don’t understand their god as they do and to die in defense of the god of their own misunderstanding.
The alternative response to the frustrating reality of God as Mystery is to make a god who is so innocuous that, for all practical purposes, god doesn’t exist. A god who won’t show the divine self and keep our investments and our relationships healthy is of no consequence. Besides, we don’t have time for games so if this god wants us, let’s see a dramatic visitation of some sort!
In God’s history, God has done a lot of moving around–at least in the thinking of those who thought they knew God best. It depends on which myth you wish to embrace, but the God of the Hebrews anyway started out in the skies or heavens, just above the clouds you can see and the firmament you can’t see. Then God began to have personal visits with people where they were–in a Garden or in the desert or on a mountain, on a boat or in a God-denigrating “foreign” country, in places of power for God’s people and in places of enslavement for God’s people. “Even if I make my bed in Sheol–the abode of all the dead,” said Job, “God is there with me.”
The presence of God came to be associated with certain holy objects or places. The ark of the covenant, the holy of holies in the great Temple, and, honestly, any place anyone claimed to have had a personal visitation from God. Unlike lightening, God COULD visit the same place twice.
That was way too limiting of God just as making the one God the private possession of one cult or community or country has been. At this moment in the history of understanding God–and remember that the history of God is separate from the history of understanding God–most people in the world today who affirm monotheism believe that the one God is either their private possession or, at the very least, that the one God likes them better than any others in the world.
The god believed to be alive and at work in the world today is either doing the same old evil, destructive, capricious, warlike things as always, OR has become such an intensely private possession that this god has become the best buddy of anyone who will just give this god a little attention. “My buddy, my buddy, nobody quite so true.”
Those of us who have tossed an ancient cosmology and as many anthropomorphisms of God as we can, those of us who understand that God is Mystery, we have not solved the problem of understanding God either. Even if we recognize that God is within us, we can’t make a mysterious inner force operative in every human who allows it to be all of God there is. If God is only our best thoughts and no more, if God is only what our individual minds can ponder and our individual hearts feel, then we have only created a new kind of idol. Of course, I like this kind of idol better than the old kind. This one is free; there are no costs for construction materials, and this God hates the smell of burning flesh and incense. But if I allow myself to imagine for one minute that the great God of Creation and Life can never be anything more than I can envision, feel, and/or articulate, then all I’ve done is buy into a neo-polytheism. You have your god, and I have mine.
God is within us. I believe that. But I also have to believe that God is beyond us. Most of all, I believe that the Mystery we call God has never been and can never be the prisoner of human thoughts.
The history of God doesn’t stop here. Not with this era in history. Not with the progressive Christian movement. Not EVEN with this sermon. The history of God goes on and on, into infinity, certainly transcending our finest thoughts as well as this present realm limited by what we call time. The greatest gift we can give to our generation and especially to those who come after us is the freedom and the challenge to continue to seeking the Mystery, the Reality that is God. Amen.