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Understanding the Trinity
By Alister E. McGrath
ZondervanCopyright © 1990 Zondervan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGod and His Critics
Every newspaper dreads publishing an obituary before its subject has actually died! The story is told of a famous London newspaper which published the obituary of a noted politician. Later that morning, the editor received an outraged phone call from the man himself. 'I've just read my own obituary in your paper,' he told the unfortunate editor. 'I see,' came the reply. 'And may I ask where you are speaking from?' And we all know of Mark Twain's famous cable from Europe to the Associated Press: 'The report of my death was an exaggeration.'
In the 1960s a whole host of articles and books appeared, announcing that 'God was dead'. Looking back on those days, it rather looks as if this death was an event engineered by the media. The power of the media-both press and television-to change, rather than just report, what happens is legendary. For instance, a well-known newspaper editor is once alleged to have told his staff to get busy covering the war in Cuba. 'But there isn't a war in Cuba!' his astonished staff replied. 'Well,' he riposted, 'we can soon change that.' Publicizing John Robinson's book Honest to God (S.C.M. 1963), the Sunday Observer declared, 'our image of God must go'. Robinson's book was little more than a confused sketch of what he thought some modern theologians were saying-but by the time the Observer had finished with it, the very existence of Christianity seemed overnight to depend upon it. A similar situation developed in the United States. Time Magazine, soon to be followed by The New Yorker and the New York Times, looking for a suitable headline to a report in its religion section on the ideas of a few angry young theologians, reached for the nearest cliché and declared the existence of the 'death of God' school. The curious American public were treated to intense, sombre discussion of the course theology would take 'after the death of God'.
These reports of the death of God, however, turned out to be a little premature. The 'death' was, in fact, something of a non-event, and the whole 'death of God' debate is now generally regarded as telling us much more about North American and European society in the 1960s than about God. 'God is dead'-the slogan so familiar to those who lived in the 1960s -really means 'I don't find God a personal reality any more', or 'the society in which I live doesn't need God any more'. But if this is the criterion which determines whether God is 'dead' or not, it is obvious from the expansion of Christianity since then that God is very much alive. The talk about 'a world come of age' which doesn't need God any more, seems strange and out of place in the sober realism of today, so different from the optimism of the 1960s. Similarly, we hear much from the 'death of God' school about the inability of 'modern man' to make sense of the word 'God'. But just who is this 'modern man'? All too often he seems to be some Oxford don pontificating over a glass of port in his senior common room about the meaninglessness of words-someone who has never experienced God at first-hand, but just reads about him at second-hand in books. It is remarkably difficult for anyone who has first-hand experience of the living God to think of him as being 'dead'.
God obstinately refuses to show any signs of rigor mortis. There is just no way that the church can be described as finding itself stuck with the corpse of God on its hands: indeed, the resurgence and growth of faith throughout the world-wide church points to his vitality. God is living-he is alive. God's obituary has been frequently penned since the dawn of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century by those who believed that they had finally killed him off. But just like the boy who cried 'Wolf!' so often that everyone stopped listening to him, so we need to be more than a little sceptical about these declarations of God's demise. 'What-is God dead again?' we might well ask. In reply we are assured that God is really dead this time round-that is, until the next time. The impression given is that God is in some sort of coma, so that it's just a matter of time before he dies-but the reality is that God gives every indication of being very much alive. In fact, the indications are that the obituary of the 'death of God' school has already been written and published, while a far from dead God continues to excite and arouse a new generation of believers. 'God is dead' is dead.
What do we mean when we talk about 'God' anyway? There is a tendency on the part of many-especially those of a more philosophical inclination-to talk about God as if he was some sort of concept. But it is much more accurate to think of God as someone we experience or encounter. God isn't an idea we can kick about in seminar rooms-he is a living reality who enters into our experience and transforms it. Our experience of God is something which we talk about with others, and our encounter with him is something which we can try to put into words, but behind our ideas and words lies the greater reality of God himself. A visitor to the Taj Mahal may try and describe what he saw, putting it into words, however, what is important to him is not so much the words he uses but what he is trying to describe in those words. Let's develop this point a little.
Suppose you were with Napoleon Bonaparte as he began his triumphant Hundred Days in France, after escaping from exile in Elba. From all the accounts we possess of that remarkable period in modern French history, it is clear that Napoleon exercised a remarkable influence over all whom he encountered. It is probable that he would have made an equally deep impression upon you. You then try to put that experience, that encounter, into words, and-like so many biographers-find yourself constantly unable to express fully the greatness of that person. Although you try, you are always painfully aware that you are unable to describe adequately your experience of the personal reality of Napoleon. Words can neither capture nor convey your experience in a complete and satisfactory way. But let us suppose you then meet someone else who had also been with Napoleon during those eventful Hundred Days. Now, suddenly, you are able to share a common experience. No longer do you need to describe it to each other, because you both share the experience of the encounter with this individual. You can develop what you already have, swapping stories about what happened and helping each other further to understand what went on at the time. Now words can recapture that experience-an experience they couldn't really capture in the first place.
It's the same with all the great experiences of life-the experiences that really matter, that change people. You can share them with others, but it is very difficult to describe them. I remember once asking an older friend what it was like living in London during the blitz in the Second World War. After several attempts to describe what it was like, he gave up, saying, 'It's no use-unless you actually lived through it, you can't understand what it was like.' Encountering and experiencing God is exactly like this: it is something exceptionally difficult to describe, but it is something which is very easy to share with someone who has already had that experience. It is for this reason that talking about God is so difficult. Christians find it difficult to describe their experience of God to their non-Christian friends simply because there is no point of contact, no common ground, on which they can build.
Excerpted from Understanding the Trinity by Alister E. McGrath Copyright © 1990 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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