thoughts on faith, justice, politics and philosophy

Month: January 2012

The (un)changing God

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My housemate was recently asked to write an essay for her theology course on the following topic: “Can it be inferred from the Bible that God changes?”. We got in to a discussion about the essay and I thought it would be fun to have a go myself as I had been thinking about it a bit recently. Here’s what I wrote (and submitted, and ‘would have been given a pass’ for!)

I should add that this is deliberately over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek. In case you were wondering.

There are two polar theories on the changing of the will of God: firstly that God’s will cannot and does not change and that all choices he has made are therefore in some way predestined. The other is that God allows his mind to be changed by outside forces such as our prayers of petition to Himself.

A classic example of this debate is the story of Abraham pleading with God for the city of Sodom. The story, found in Genesis 18, includes a dialogue between God and the patriarch whereby Abraham pleads that if there should be 50, 45, 40, 20 and then 10 righteous people in the city, for God not to destroy it. At each point, God agrees to Abraham’s terms.

There are of course two interpretations of this: the first is that God already knew he would not find any, and so the point was irrelevant and God was instead focusing on Abraham’s heart and to encourage him to persevere.

There are several flaws in this perspective. Primarily, it appears somewhat obscure to suggest that God would trick Abraham into playing this game with him. It also seems odd that God would allow Abraham to think that his perseverance was a virtue only to then disregard it as fruitless with the eventual destruction of the city.

The alternative viewpoint is that God was genuinely moved by Abraham’s pleas. This seems to suit the character of God far better. We are created to be in relationship with God (Leviticus 26:12). To argue that God treats our prayers as an opportunity to simply teach us lessons about our own character, rather than to actually accomplish his will, is to reduce the human-divine relationship to that of student-teacher.

Yet God does have an overarching will – but it must be done in partnership with us. God made that choice when he gave us the freedom to choose (Genesis 2:16-17) between good and evil. So it seems that the will of God is something that does change in accordance with our will, and so we are responsible for allowing God through the presence of His Holy Spirit in us to guide us (John 14:16-18) to be in alignment with His will.

The other often debated way in which God supposedly does or does not change is His character. The debate surrounding this is infinitely more one sided than the discussion around His will.

There is significantly more consensus around the opinion that the character of God does not change. Jesus mirrors the words of God when he infers Deuteronomy 6:5 and then expands on it. He himself claimed not to do away with the law but to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17). God is described as judge in both the old and new testaments, God shows love – both tough and caring, in both the old and new testaments.  Every aspect of Gods character appears on first glance to be mirrored between the two.

The counter argument to this is that God can be seen to hold consistent characteristics throughout the story of God told in the Bible, but that there are also changes – these changes include God’s attitude to war (the Old Testament is rife with examples of God appearing to even sanction genocide, whilst the New Testament teaches that we must ‘turn the other cheek’ and that even speaking ill of others leads us on the path to destruction (Matthew 5:22).

This however falls down at the suggestion of continual revelation. God’s character is not fully revealed to us except when we are confronted face to face with the divine-in-human-form, Jesus. As such, we can view the teachings of Jesus as expanding on the Law to a point where the Law can be summed up with Deuteronomy 6:5. God never desired war, but it was a necessity, and we must now aspire to avoid war if we can, being an example of this fulfilment and expansion.

It is at this point we reach a crossroads in the debate – we can see that the will of God may change in accordance with our own will. If we make choice A rather than B (even if both A and B are in accordance with the will of God) then we partner with God in the ongoing unfolding of creation and we cause his will to be changed.

Yet we also aid it in being unchanged, as both choices A and B were the will of God. Similarly with the character of God, whilst He maintains characteristics throughout the Bible, there is something subtly different about the post-resurrection God. It is this difference that truly alters our view of the God who (doesn’t) change.

The very core of history, the event of the crucifixion of Christ is a transcendence of change itself. The last words of Jesus before his death are recorded as, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Whilst this is (perhaps even correctly) attributed to the quoting of a psalm it hardly seems appropriate to simply infer that Jesus was sympathising with the psalmist in his expression of angst and pain from his  crucifixion experience.

Indeed the very experience of crucifixion caused Christ to become separated from God. The separation – a forsaking of God (as Christ) by God (as Father) is at the very core of the Bible and indeed history itself. It is the event that defines God as the God who both changes and does not – the God who transcends change.

Throughout the Bible we know that God wants to reconcile the earth to himself. We see this in creation (where the world and God are in relationship), the flood (where God feels he must start again), in Israel (where God elects a people as chosen to share him with the world) and ultimately in Christ (who calls us to go and make disciples of all nations [Matthew 28:19]).

This God wants to do away with the forsaken nature of man and God. Man has forsaken God. God has not, however, forsaken any being. It is simply not in God’s character. Time and time again God returns to Israel and gives them another chance at redemption and relationship, Time and time again; Israel forsakes God and turns towards another path. Indeed the very message of Christ’s death and resurrection is that man and God are now to be reconciled (Colossians 1:20-22).

Yet in order to achieve this act of reconciliation the God who does not forsake chooses to forsake his very self. This act of forsaking transcends our feeble notions of change as it implies a change at the very core of God’s character whilst at the same time affirming that very characteristic of the divine. In the crucifixion, God becomes what God is not, in order that God might be exactly who God is.

Furthermore, this transcendence of change brings about a new form of change not anticipated by the age old debates. The change occurs in a third form (above and beyond change of character or change of will) in that the very experience of God changes dramatically. God goes from experiencing the world he has created sympathetically to experiencing the world he has created empathetically. Of course, this only applies when questions of pantheism are put aside. But the God who was able to understand our pain took part in the very same physical pain that we took part in. People he knew died, he was physically hurt, he was rejected, and he experienced the world through the eyes of humankind. Could there possibly be a greater change than that?

We can see that God transcends change, does not change and does change, all in unison, and for the purposes of each of the three. He changes in order that he might not have to change (in order to make permanent the forsaken nature of the human-divine relationship), he becomes empathetic that he might come closer to us in the relationship and aid our understanding of him and thus further his unchanging nature of reconciliation, and finally he transcends change by encompassing all of this in a way in which only God can.

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Desiring God

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I wonder sometimes, if we are true to ourselves, do our theologies come from our mind or our heart? we would like to say neither – we would like to claim some sort of divine inspiration but the unavoidable truth is that theology has been and will always be interpreted through the lenses of our own senses, minds, experiences, hearts, gut instincts and so on.

Take for example the theology of war. I recently took part in a debate on war, and was on the side of  ‘christians may not engage in warfare’. The debate itself was on the tame side – arguments concerning the way we choose to interpret scripture – which I found difficult to forumlate with a view of scripture that many would shallowly percieve as ‘low’ or ‘disrespectful’.

Having reflected upon the debate itself, the thing that has struck me the most is where people’s hearts could be at.

What I mean to say is this: often our theology is constructed that it might be true (orthodox). We frequently pursue this at the cost of relationship. We choose to believe something about God, thus instantaneously adding that ‘truth’ to the prism through which we view the almighty. The truth then becomes self defining and self evident because we ourselves have chosen to define it as a truth.

If however we were to take an experiential view of theology – trying to believe in the right way, we would perhaps find ourselves more closely aligned with the Christ whom we hunger so greatly to understand.  But is not the important thing to be like Christ, rather than to know what it looks like to be like Christ? How can we know what it looks like if we do not ourselves experience the very same thoughts that were, and indeed are, in the mind of Christ?

Is our theology constructed from words, from concepts, from (il)logic, perhaps emotion? Or is our theology – that which we would say about God – constructed from experiential knowledge? Have we ever experienced God in war? Has anyone fired a bullet and genuinely felt Christ call out ‘amen’?

Furthermore, our theology reveals our heart. There are two polar reactions to war: to embrace it as necessary and to reject it outright. These were the two sides of the debate. To reject it outright would seem to chime with God’s original plan and with the future glory we await – few can doubt or argue with that, if they choose to argue from scripture. What is interesting is when we consider the call to inaugurate God’s kingdom nowwith Christ, instead of waiting for some magical rapture that will change everything.

If we want to live in a world where we live out what we pray – your Kingdom come, your will be done [now] on Earth as it is [now] in heaven, then we must desire the things of that Kingdom. Jesus teaches us that ‘blessed are the peacemakers’. Surely then our hearts should hunger for peace? And if our hearts hunger for peace, why do we not feel undiluted, intense anguish at the mere thought of a violent conflict?Why does our soul not reject outright the very possibility of war?

That’s not to say that war is or is not permissible – that is in itself a different debate, a debate of faith against reason, of pragmatism against idealism – depending of course on your exegetical interpretation.

The real question for me is, are we (not) desiring God?

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