Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Challenge: Who Is God? (Introduction)

Yesterday, a fellow blogger linked to an intriguing challenge.  It seems that somewhere in recent debates concerning the vitality (or lack thereof) of the mainline church, someone has raised the matter of the reluctance of progressive Christians to talk about who God is. Lots of intellectual theological talk, lots of conversation about social justice and politics, but little about encounter with God. And so this person has posted a challenge: write a post about God.

He has a point.  I recall a young pastor preaching about having failed a seminary exam in which the sole question was, "Who is God?" She had filled a bluebook with a narrative of God's activity from the first page of Genesis to the last of Revelation, and at the end of her last page was that awesome "F."

I wasn't surprised, as she was profoundly uncomfortable talking about God in private conversation.  Her sermon represented an effort to rectify that situation, and I applauded her for it.

Second point: One of the books I've read recently is entitled Kindling Desire for God: Preaching As Spiritual Direction by Kay Northcutt, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution.  Her argument, based on years of reading and listening to student sermons, is that our seminaries fail to teach preachers how to talk about God, how to convey any of the 2,000 years of Christian history of engagement in contemplation, spiritual direction, in discernment.  She may be right about that.  I think that I do many of the things in my sermons that she thinks we don't do ~ I talk about the desert fathers and mothers, about the great contemplatives, about spiritual practices; I talk about who God is! ~ but I can't claim to have learned much of any of that in seminary.  I know for certain that none of it came up in my homiletics course.

I am relieved to say that I picked up quite a bit of it from my own Presbyterian pastors, who talk and preach all the time about who God is.  And some of it from a few wonderful theology courses in which we explored the ways in which others have wrestled with God.  But most of it from my own reading and my work in spiritual direction.

And from lots of conversation with people who love to talk about God, about who God might be and who God might not be, and about our experiences of God.  But . . . 

Third point: It is hard to learn to do.  I think that most of us mainliners struggle to develop an ability to talk directly about God, and my Catholic friends tell me that the same is true for them and those in their communities.  

I clearly remember that when I first started spiritual direction, I felt so inarticulate in my efforts to speak about my life of prayer with my eloquent and knowledgeable spiritual director that I hit upon the idea of plagiarizing the life of someone like Catherine of Sienna or Teresa of Avila.  I thought that I'd just read one of their biographies and report the experiences therein as my own. 

It occurred to me, however, that my director was probably well aware of their stories and would recognize my ploy for what it was.  And so making the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises turned out to be, among many other things, a year-long course in learning to talk about God.

All of this is to say, I'm going to attempt the challenge at issue.  How about you?

Image: Michelangelo's ~ the one with which so many of us begin.


  1. Oh boy. You have gotten me started. It's hard for mainliners to talk about God because we don't have a simplistic view of God as a father with a white beard ready to love us and rain down eternal torment on others. Because we're honest to struggle with the question of who God is in our lives when we feel God's absence. And Footprints just doesn't work for us. Because we're honest enough to know that we doubt more often than we think others would understand a pastor doubting. Because to define God, to talk about God is to limit God. Because maybe we know we can never see the face of God. Because God is ultimately unknowable by humans.

    1. You mean the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel doesn't do it for you? ;)

  2. I'm up for it! Although it may be easier to speak about who/what God is not rather than talk about who God is ( you know, I don't think God is this old white guy with a beard sitting on a throne way up in the sky....I suppose that might be one expression of God's self?)

  3. What an interesting topic! The challenge is that God meets each person in a unique way so it isn't possible to "define" who God is; also defining God is limiting because how does a human define the mystery of God. I am so interested in reading these posts for we learn of God from each other and we see God in other people. I have no words to define God; I only know that God offers Godself to each of us as God wants to be in relationship with each person because we are God's creation.

  4. Wonderful post, especially in light of this Sunday's gospel, "I am..." At the risk of sounding too evangelical, I think we are uncomfortable talking about who God is because we do not have any experiences of our own fellowship and communion with God. If we don't make the faith our own, we can't talk about it. How can we talk about that which is simply theory and not life. That being said, I'm a Lutheran who truly believes that we cannot by our own efforts do anything to come to God.

    BTW, I greatly enjoy spiritual direction and am looking for a spiritual director in the Olean/Portville, NY area. I've been in touch with one of the priests at nearby St. Bonaventure University, but am seriously missing that relationship of someone asking me what God is doing and where is God in various circumstances.


  5. I love the way you characterize the Exercises as lessons in talking about God!

  6. During my NT gospels class our professor said something which profoundly hit a light-bulb...kind of way. My theocentricity draws me to talk/preach/teach much more about God. It was a relevatory event. I remember writing about it for my last integration paper.

    1. I am more God-centered than Jesus-centered.

    2. OK, got it.

      I'm probably the opposite, though I'm sticking to God for this one.