Concepts of God

Posted: March 3, 2021 in Uncategorized

Luke 13:1-9

Concepts of God

Today’s sermon is an attempt to continue our alternative look at Lent as a reminding period within a lectionary that seeks to take the reader through the gospel claims and revelations. It continues the look at Lent as a time for a new look at discipleship and what it means and today, we attempt to look at the need for another look at our unspoken traditional assumptions.

I am thankful one again to Rex Hunt of whose website I read on regular occasion. He reminds us that many of the Jews in Jesus’ day, can be said to have believed in a God who punished the bad people and rewarded the good. He goes on to say that they went so far as to say:

  • if you live in poverty or have a bad accident or disease, you are revealed by God as a sinner;
  • if you are healthy and prosper you are revealed by God as a righteous person.

He also suggests that while that interpretation was in vogue back then it no longer is, despite the fact that many today still fall back on such a view.

He tells a modern story to try to give us focus.

A minister… he gives the name Diana, rushed around to the home of friends
where a small child has suddenly died. She was met at the door by the distraught father, who was a senior lecturer in mathematics at the local university, who usually was most composed.

“Thanks for coming, he said.  It’s a nightmare. You know, I have not been reading my Bible much these days.” At first Diana was confused by her friend’s opening remark. What had reading the Bible to do with a little child’s death?

Later, after she had thought the issue through, she was able to help untangle the poor father’s anguish. The father’s first reaction had been to feel guilty.  Years before, when he had been confirmed, he had promised to ‘diligently study the scriptures.’ And he hadn’t.

In the anguish of the new grief, the ancient fear that the death was for him a punishment from God, had broken loose. Someone had to be at fault. And it must be him. His mind came up with a broken vow to justify that question. Normally, that man would have logically dismissed the idea of a child’s death as divine retribution, as rubbish. All, he had learned and knew was that it was not right yet in the grief crisis, the ancient superstition had got the jump on him. It gave him answers.

His reaction is not unique nor is it confined to church goers. In all of us, primitive stuff like that lies semi-hidden. It’s like the ghosts of old gods that refuse to completely go away. In all of us, hidden away in the murkier parts of our psyche,
are irrational fears and superstitions that need a scapegoat when we are hurting or confused or simply afraid of thinking. These are a hangover from the not so ancient, primitive past of homo sapiens.

One of these superstitions is that we may be the guilty cause of accidents and disease to ourselves or those whom we love dearly. This is rooted it seems in a simplistic reliance on the belief that we are responsible for the problems we face and while that is true? we need to have the bigger context of evolution and the living evolving planet and also our own evolutionary reality. A fixed doctrine and concept of who are what God is and how God does or does not work is tied to our understanding of what our planet is and how it is a planet. The mathematics lecturer knew this yet when it came to an unexpected event he fell back on an old interpretation. Further proving that God or the energy of deity we call God is intimately apart of the evolving creativity that gives and sustains life. Not as an old man who created the creation and then stepped back to police it but as part of its evolving living reality. If it is language and our energy that can alter the trajectory of our planet then a retributive God is no longer viable. We need a distributive cosmic approach to who are how our God works.

There are of course some religious people in the world today who are still committed to that ancient concept of God. Their God is one of anger and retribution for the unrighteous, and of the reward of good health and prosperity for the righteous. Bruce Prewer, a retired Uniting Church minister and author of many books which help shape an Australian spirituality, considered this situation in one of his sermons a few years back He said:“One of the most recent statements of this unhappy dogma, was exhibited recently by an evangelist (so called!).  It was offering time at a big gathering and the announcement was made before the offering: ‘We all know bad economic times are coming.  There will be a great collapse of the markets and people will lose everything they own. But those who give well to God this day will be among the few who will do well and prosper in the bad times that must come.’” And to quote Bruce Prewer at the end he said: “Yuk!” (Prewer web site 2004)

Others, such as John Shelby Spong and John Dominic Crossan and Sallie McFague, are also at the forefront of putting old theological superstitions a bed.

One of the interesting learnings that we might consider is that with the coming together of science and religion the use of old outdated concepts for God are pushing many to reject the church and religion. Not because of its marriage with science but because the marriage is forcing us to change our understanding of God. The church in the past rejected science and now that is no longer possible, In science an assertion that cannot be proven wrong is an assertion of interest whereas one that can be is false. A concept of God that can be proven wrong is not worth repeating. Remember I am not saying that God needs to be proven right just that one that can be proven wrong is worthless. This is an argument that demands our concepts be credible, scientifically as well as psychologically and biologically. There was an interesting fictional movie I was watching recently that explored this phenomenon so the questions are out there.

The truth is that happiness or misery cannot be simply equated with goodness and badness. Reality is not like that. The old superstition is a lie. And the old gods of retribution and reward who lurk in the dark corners of our minds, are false gods. We are called to dismiss the superstition, and in face if we think about it we seem to have Jesus’ word on it. When he is attributed as saying: ‘Do not pretend that the good or evil that we do does not matter’. Both actions by human beings changes things. Of course accidents, massacres, disease, are not God’s punishments. But if we don’t watch our step, we can all end up with another kind of disaster… you will likewise perish. Not as bodies, but as persons we can decay and perish. This approach to God and to evolution and mathematics and science is also part of the current ‘climate change’ debate.

Theologian Sallie McFague writes: “Global warming is not just another important issue that human beings need to deal with; rather, it is the demand that we live differently.  We cannot solve it, deal with it, given our current anthropology. We do not understand culture and society as our  forebears did, we do not understand the cosmos or our planet as the ancients did? This concentration on climate change is not simply an issue of management; rather, it demands a paradigm shift in who we think we are and who or what we think God is.  This is certainly not the only thing that is needed, but it is a central one, for without it we cannot expect ourselves or others to undertake the radical behavioral change that is necessary to address our planetary crisis.” (McFague 2008:44).

As individuals, as a world, we are all capable of perishng… disintegrating as persons. None of us are exempt. I was talking with my scientist son just the other day about the sustainability of the planet and our anthropological wellbeing.

He reminded me that we seem to be making some small changes in the overpopulation crisis and what it is important is that the change is coming from freely taken responsible people. The figures show that as wellbeing increases in a population the birthrate diminishes. Suggesting that we need to address the global questions of economic equity and the fact that the few are getting richer and the poor poorer. Despiite the flattening out of the middle class the gap at the extremes is getting out of hand. This will affect our sustainability. And what’s more important is that a retributive God will not be able to address the issues we face.

So, what does this have to do with Lent? Well maybe Lent might be a good time for us to do a couple of ‘life-affirming’ things. One might be to update the thinking which shapes our faith and beliefs. and change our minds and hearts about God and the other might be to look for the life-affirming clues all around us – the tender care that is being distributed without reward, without recompense, without payback. Maybe we can start a trend where the wellbeing of all people regardless of their status, contribution, culture, social acceptability etc etc, is our calling. Maybe life is always a vocation and the social, economic, political and cultural concerns are about equity for the givers as opposed to the earners. Sounds radical left socialistic rubbish but remember, politics is not about taking sides good and bad left or right but rather about the good of all.

Notes: McFague, S. A New Climate for Theology. God, the world, and global warming. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2008.

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