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THE CHANGING FACE OF GOD
Frederick W. Schmidt
Does the face of God change? Years ago I would have said, "No." Countless hymns, passages of Scripture, and confessions of faith assert or imply the changelessness of God. To take issue with traditions that are centuries, if not millennia old, seemed to be both daunting and misguided.
I eventually realized, however, that many of these great professions of faith were bent on underlining the reliability of God. Both their theological and social function was to reassure believers of divine trustworthiness. To take them as flat assertions of fact would be as wrongheaded as the attempt to take the words of a poet in literal terms.
Nonetheless, it is true that some of those great statements of faith are meant to convey just exactly what they appear to convey. God never changes. So why the question?
Well, for one thing, there is a difference between the assertion that God never changes and the assertion that our perception of God—our view of God's "face"—never changes. The former is an assertion that God's nature has a permanence about it that nothing else around us can claim, an "immutability," theologians call it. The latter is a very different kind of statement. Like the elephant of the great Indian proverb that each blind man touches, our perceptions alter as we move from leg to trunk and from trunk to ear. In other words, the reality of God is large enough that, even in traditional terms, one could argue that God's face changes as we learn more, seeing now this feature and then another.
But then when the great professions of confidence in God harden into philosophical propositions, one is bound to ask, "What difference would it make to say that God has only one face?" Even if true in some sense, the fact of the matter is that the features each of us would count as necessary and changeless would be a matter of considerable debate. In fact, much of the history of both theology and the life of the church is about those differences. We could even say that the conversation about the changing face of God is not only under way, the church has actually embraced and memorialized the conversation in stone.
The Church of the Annunciation in northern Galilee is an excellent example of the potential diversity. It sits atop the remains of the hamlet that was once biblical Nazareth. Devoted to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the church boasts a series of Madonnas donated by Christians from around the world. Mother and child are sharply distinguished by the culture, aesthetic, and skin color of each donor-nation. The Madonna and Child given by Sierra Leone features costumes and iconography of one kind. The figures designed in Japan feature another, drawing on an artistic style characteristic of an earlier century. And the image of Mary donated by the United States is dressed in a flowing, metallic robe that has prompted some visitors to draw comparison with aluminum foil!
It takes very little time to realize that even the diversity of these interpretations obscures the endless variety that lies behind the representative work of the artists. Not all Americans would choose to evoke the associations that accompany the heavy folds of Mary's metallic dress, and we can safely say that the aesthetic assumptions that shape the faith and imagination of all Japanese Christians are hardly captured in the work of their own artist.
What is undeniably true, although difficult to remember, is that the same assumptions shape more than our canons of beauty. They shape and define our understanding of the truth, they determine what we believe to be important, and as a consequence, those assumptions give each of our lives a radically different shape.
Not all of even the most important differences arise out of our national identity. Race, socioeconomic status, education, and the vagaries of life give an added shape and texture to our view of the world around us.
In the final analysis, the resulting diversity is not the surprise. The surprise is the extent to which we share a common bond or manage to communicate around, through, and over the differences. I can still remember a dear Jamaican friend of mine who studied for a time in Chicago noting that theologians there regularly debated issues that were of little or no significance for his own country. The space that wealth created for one kind of dialogue was all but impossible in a country laboring under the burden of poverty.
This, then, is why the assertion that the face of God is unchanging has limited utility, even though it might have philosophical merit. And yet, it has held sway, lending our conversation about God a "given-ness" that we are rarely willing to probe. As a result, we overlook, ignore, and suppress the vital role that our education and experience play in shaping our view of God. And, yet, if we probed them, I suspect that the differences would far outnumber our personal pictures of Madonna and Child!
There are a number of reasons for our failure to confront this reality. For some of us the task of examining the differences is simply too demanding. Modern life makes demands on our time and energies that exceed the ability of those who do not specialize in theology, just as surely as the demands of still other disciplines (e.g., quantum physics) exceed the theologian's. So in our frantic search for at least a few fixed assumptions (or ones that we just don't examine), our assumptions about God are as good or better than any others. They appear to impinge less immediately on our lives, and frankly, it's comforting to make assumptions about God.
But it's that last observation about comfort that hints at still another obstacle: the structure of our faith itself. Years ago, as I began teaching biblical studies, I attempted to understand the almost violent reaction that a few of my students had to any of my attempts to teach them—almost anything—about the biblical text. Even my deliberate attempts to pick the simplest illustration of a point failed to win concessions from them on which I could base my larger observations.
I soon realized that in large part their resistance to any new information rested on the structure of their faith. Convinced that this or that assumption about the Bible was true, they believed that faith in God was also viable. In other words, they entertained faith in an ultimate authority because they had faith in proximate authorities. However gently you challenged their assumptions about the Bible, you effectively challenged their ability to believe in God at all. Now imagine asking anyone more directly to grapple with their understanding of God—the changing face of God. The level of resistance is predictable.
Finally, I think it's also fair to say that we grow up with a number of assumptions about God and our world that are left unexamined unless circumstances demand that we take a second look. I can still remember a dear friend's note when I landed my first stateside teaching job: "Dear Fred, Congratulations on securing a teaching post. I hope you have time to read and reflect!" We live in what one writer has described as an "unconscious civilization," and the pace of life has narrowed the number of basic questions we are willing to ask ourselves as we hurry along to meet the latest challenge. The acquisition of wisdom has given way to the acquisition of apparently necessary, but also readily disposable knowledge. And it is often only in moments of crisis that we reexamine something like our assumptions about the nature of God.
Having said that, if you have the energy, I'd like to suggest that there is still another very good reason for raising the opening question: the changing shape of the world in which we live.
Trace the realization to our relative place in the scheme of things, or trace it to the sheer speed with which our world is changing, there is little doubt that we are living in an era marked by new intellectual and spiritual demands. If the world we have inherited was ruled by a God who reigned over an era marked by "the domination of nature, the primacy of method, and the sovereignty of the individual," today that is no longer the case. If God ruled that world in a certain degree of splendid isolation from the gods of other religions, that too is a matter of history. And if science seemed to allow for a clock-maker-God who was deeply involved in the world's creation and remote from its day-to-day maintenance, the modern version of the same scientific endeavor now seems to call for a God who is both more removed from the world and more intimately involved in it than we once thought.
And so, the opening question. What is stunning is that the question is being asked by so many people. There was a time not too long ago when theologians were in a hasty retreat from the genuinely big, synthetic questions. The sociology of graduate education wed with the demise of (often German) schools of thought drove scholars back to the narrow specializations that had earned them their highest academic honors. Even those explicitly charged with the big, synthetic task preferred to write "overtures" to one kind of theology or another, rather than tackle theology itself.
Now, however, a growing number of scholars are addressing the biggest question of all: who is God? Some of them are members of the guild, some of them live on its fringes. Some of them are deeply involved in the life of the church, some are not. But all of them are writing for audiences beyond the walls of the academy.
Borrowing a term from the study of the historical Jesus, one could almost speak of "the new quest for God." But it would be a mistake to describe that quest in narrow terms. The architects of this new quest are as diverse in their approach to the subject as they are in their experience and expertise.
Some, like Marcus Borg, are engaged in recapturing emphases that have their origins in Christian theology, but which have slipped (or were pushed!) from the theological bandwagon as it made its way over the centuries. As familiar as she is with this material, Karen Armstrong searches the deepest commonalties that Christianity shares with Judaism and Islam. Singling out the Jewish experience, Jack Miles probes the complex picture offered by the Hebrew Bible, allowing each element to be seen on its own terms, resisting the temptation to homogenize the whole in a way that dispels the differences and tensions. No less familiar with the theological heritage of the church, James Cone begins with the black experience, arguing that there is something seminal in the experience of oppression that cannot be omitted from the theological equation. And drawing on a completely different set of experiences, Andrew Sung Park draws on the fresh voice of Asian and, specifically, Korean Christianity as a means of supplying nuances largely missing from Western theological vocabulary.
Their work and the work of others constitutes a new theological and intellectual movement that takes up where the so-called Death of God discussion left off and can be seen as a part of the unfinished theological agenda of the twentieth century. Even then it was quite clear that there was a growing consensus that our theological categories required careful scrutiny and candid dialogue. Unfortunately the debate was popularized at the expense of nuance (as it so often is) and what had been advanced as a call for judicious review was cast instead in a choice for or against faith in God's existence, just as the phrase "Death of God" suggests. The conversation was quickly reduced to the length of a bumper sticker ("My God is alive, sorry to hear about yours!") and the opportunity was largely, though not completely, lost.
Where the current round of contributions and others like it will take us is difficult to say. The process of popularization continues to be among the greatest enemies of nuance and the closing decade of the last century was marked by growing incivility that suggests the dialogue may not be any easier to sustain now than it was then.
As the German theologian Hans Küng has observed, however, "New models of theological interpretation do not simply come into existence because individual theologians tackle heated issues or sit down at their desks to construct new models, but because the traditional interpretive model has failed, because the 'problem solvers' of normal theology, in the face of a changed historical horizon, can find no satisfying answers for new major questions, and 'paradigm testers' set in motion a 'extra-ordinary theology' alongside the normal variety." Borg, Armstrong, Miles, Cone, and Park are among the "paradigm testers."
Just exactly what theological change will look like in the future, however, is now in considerable debate. At one point in history, the church in the West was the architect of theological pronouncements for the Latin and Protestant traditions. The content of faith was something that European and American churches largely "exported" to other parts of the world. For that reason changes in the West dictated the shape of theology for much of the church, and although theology has always been subject to more than simply the intellectual forces requisite for its change, change remained a simpler process because it engaged people on a smaller social and cultural front.
That is no longer the case, and recent encounters between the church of the northern and southern hemispheres have brought the differences in our social, cultural, and theological horizons into sharp relief. Witness, for example, the debate at Lambeth between the bishops of the larger Anglican communion and the bishops of North America.
The changes are not all abroad, however. New complexities exist here in the United States as well. The old formulations that served as a map for much of what we took as the theological world in which we live will hardly serve the purpose any longer. Driving through America's heartland between Detroit, Michigan, and Dayton, Ohio, you will pass churches of every known denomination, but you will also pass independent churches, each with a different and idiosyncratic name. And then, on an otherwise rural horizon a minaret will rise above the flatlands of Ohio. Add to this the increasingly individualistic and eclectic character of American spiritual pursuits that are without attachment to an institution of any kind and it becomes clear that theological consensus is a far harder thing to achieve than it was in the first half of the twentieth century.
The European and American scenes, are not so deeply connected as they once were. There was a time when the leading theologians in the United States were trained in England and Germany. A common vocabulary and, to some extent, a common theological agenda existed as a result. That is no longer the case, and American theology has assumed an indigenous character all its own, while European theologians have continued to go their own way.
The point is this: If theological change has always been dependent on more than the intellectual requirements for transformation, that process is now imbedded in a far more complex setting in which the intellectual requirements are even less decisive than they once were. As a result, change is likely to be a disparate, regional process that responds as much to social, cultural, and economic differences as almost anything else.
In addition, theological dialogue over, around, and through those differences is likely to be sporadic, disconnected, and awkward. Indeed, the key to any success in attempting to move collectively along a given front will rest heavily on the ability of all parties to move beyond the language of colonialism and imperialism, acknowledging that the theological agendas of each hemisphere, if not each country, are likely to be radically different for some time to come.
If theology is a quest for the "truth," however, then the quest itself cannot wait for either regional or global transformations. Nor will anyone alive to the issues outlined above find it appealing to wait for the larger consensus that may or may not be in the making. Theology requires personal appropriation; and if the highly individual character of American religious life has made the development of consensus more difficult, the same individualistic bent has made the personal discovery of a satisfactory vision of God all the more imperative.
Exactly the shape this process of discovery will take is, of course, equally difficult to say. And, as I've already noted, it is a process that can engender enormous fear and misgiving among far more than just college freshmen. Nonetheless, it should be a task that we embrace more self-consciously—building a bigger conceptual box—discovering a vision of God that is marked by greater adequacy. Call the results a theology of God, a paradigm, or a mental model, our pictures of God are and should be forever provisional, shifting to meet both narrower and larger needs, grasping more of the nature of God on some level, while at the same time acknowledging that they are less than can ever be known.
Excerpted from THE CHANGING FACE OF GOD by Karen Armstrong, MARCUS J. BORG, James H. Cone, Jack Miles, Andrew Sung Park, Frederick W. Schmidt. Copyright © 2000 The Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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CHAPTER ONE THE CHANGING FACE OF GOD Frederick W. Schmidt
CHAPTER TWO THE GOD OF IMAGINATIVE COMPASSION Karen Armstrong
CHAPTER THREE THE GOD WHO IS SPIRIT Marcus J. Borg
CHAPTER FOUR GOD IS THE COLOR OF SUFFERING James H. Cone
CHAPTER FIVE A COMPLICATED GOD Jack Miles
CHAPTER SIX THE GOD WHO NEEDS OUR SALVATION Andrew Sung Park
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