An alternative view of the Divine

My last three blog posts compared and contrasted the portrayal of God I grew up with in a small, charismatic fundamentalist church with the “deity figure” presented through the main character in “Doctor Who.” The God I grew up worshipping and fearing- was demanding, perfect bloodthirsty, and cruel. He had no need for human relationships and I often grew up learning about how weak and sinful we humans were. The Doctor, on the other hand, is compassionate, is hesitant to kill others, flawed, and not only desires friendship but needs it.  The Doctor needs friends who can share the burdens of time traveling with him and who can ease his loneliness even if only for a while. The Doctor seems to be a much more sympathetic figure than the egotistical and angry Judeo-Christian God I grew up believing in as a child.   Nevertheless, while fundamentalists and some evangelicals might assert that there is only one way to interpret the Bible, the reality is that the Bible presents a variety of viewpoints with varying portrayals of God. While there are verses and books in the Bible that present an angry, wrathful, and bloodthirsty God,  the Bible also presents-sometimes within the same book-a deity figure that is more humane, that struggles with loneliness, who can make mistakes and who is subject to changing His mind.

Traditional theology, even amongst the more “liberal or mainline” traditions posits that God is completely transcendent. Meaning there is little overlap between God and his creation. He is completely and utterly separate from humanity and the natural world. In her book, To Work and to Love: a Theology of Creation.  Theologian Dortothee Soelle (With Shirley A. Cloyes) explicates:

If God is absolutely transcendent, then God is rendered invisible as the Creator for whom there can be no human analogies. There is no interaction between such a creator and us. He creates the world out of his own free will; he does not need to create it…Absolute transcendence literally means unrelatedness. Classical theology viewed the opposite of unrelatedness-relationality as the weakness of being bound through passion and suffering to other beings.  (Soelle 14)

Classical theology views the need for relationships as being weak, and God, a perfect supreme being is anything but weak. God’s perfection is demonstrated via his separation  from humanity and the natural environment. Some might argue, “what about Jesus? Jesus is God in human form.” Philippians 2:6-8 states:  (Jesus Christ) who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born into human likeliness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and become obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross.”

However, the Christology that became canon or “law” within Christianity states that while Jesus is both completely divine and completely human he is perfect and sinless.  He is one of us while still belonging to the Divine other. He is too be worshipped and praised. Jesus, at least, the one that is found in traditional and fundamentalist understandings of Jesus looks like us but his sinlessness, his perfect obedience sets him at odd with humanity in general. Jesus is distinct from humanity, he had to be, only a perfect divine figure would be able to redeem humanity. While the classical notion of the incarnation tries to hold onto Jesus’ divinity and humanity, logically it does not make much sense. If humanity is defined just as much by our flaws and failures as it is by our success, then a perfect, divine being cannot be human.

Nevertheless, not everyone accepts the absolute otherness of the Divine. Soelle and Clayes in their book quote black poet and activist James Weldon Johnson, who provides an alternative view of the divine and of creation:

And God stepped out on space

And he looked around and said

I’m lonely

I’ll make me a world…

Then God walked around,

And God looked around

On all that he had made.

He looked at his sun,

And he looked at his moon,

And he looked at his little stars;

He looked on his world

With all its living things

And God said: I’m lonely still

Then God sat down-

On the side of a hill where he could think,

By a deep, wide river he sat down;

With his head in his hands,

God thought and thought,

Till he thought: I’ll make me a man

Johnson presents a God in deep need of relationship. He creates humanity and nature not because he can and he has the power to do so, but because he is lonely. He needs a relationship with others. God is presented as having to think; what could he do; what else can he create that would assuage his deep loneliness?

Portions of the Biblical text present a God who deeply feels pain and anguish and who experiences regret and love. The Bible presents a God who is able to relate and have a relationship with humanity.

For example, contrary to popular belief, the flood story is a combination of two narratives the P version and the J version. It is in the J version, where God is portrayed as feeling remorse. Genesis 6:5-7: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”  (Emphasis mine)

The priestly version is more detached. In Genesis 6:13 God tells Noah: “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them, now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.” He then proceeds to give Noah instructions on how to build an ark.  No mention of any regret or anguish, God simply sees the wickedness of humanity and makes the decision to destroy them.

Some verses and books portray an angry, wrathful God intent on destroy the ancient Israelites and/or humanity in general, for their idolatry. Nevertheless, there are other verses begging the ancient Israleites/humanity to repent. Said verses offer love and forgiveness as well as detailing God’s anguish at ancient Israel’s/humanity’s betrayal.  Isaiah 49: 14-16 details God’s love for his people:

“But Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palm of my hand, your walls are continually before me.”  (NRSV)

Jeremiah 31: 20 God refers to Ephraim as a child that He delights in:

“Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in? As often as I speak against him, I still remember him, therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him’ says the LORD. (NRSV)

Even in Hosea 11:8-9 where God specifically says that He is not human, his ability to change his mind and feel compassion demonstrates a kinship to humanity. God is not simply a being who watches humanity with detachment, but he interacts with humanity and feels love, compassion, and longing.

“…How can I give up on you, Ephraim? How can I turn you loose, Israel?…I can’t bear even to think such thoughts. My insides churn in protest. And so I’m not going to act on my anger. I am not going to destroy Ephraim. And why? Because I am God and not human. I’m the Holy one and I’m here-in your midst.”

In Matthew 23: 37 Jesus cries out: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing!”

The God I grew up fearing-is present in the Biblical Text, nevertheless, the Bible is complex and presents various images of the deity figure. The images we choose to embrace says more about us then it does about any divine figure. If we choose to embrace a wrathful, vengeful, other-worldly God with a very low view of humanity and nature we will treat each other and nature in a dismissive harmful manner.  However, embracing a God that is vulnerable-that can love deeply, that experiences anger at injustice and anguish, t hat embraces messy relationships-that can experience regret- can enable us to fully embrace the messiness and painfulness that is life. While an other-worldly, perfect God promises to “save” us from the pain and suffering in the world in the afterlife-a God that is part of creation and embraces a relationship with creation is a deity figure that will be with us during the painful and dark times.

That is why the Doctor provides such a compelling deity figure for me. He is not human-though he does look it, he is imperfect, he is passionate, he is not all powerful-but he desires a relationship with humanity. He also shares in the pain and suffering-when people lose a loved one, or things do not go as planned. Yet the Biblical narrative, as conflicting and various as it is, has room for a God that suffers, that gets angry, and that loves deeply.

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