The Unimaginable God?

I am frequently asked by students how best to talk about God with atheist friends. Atheists, of course, come in all shapes and sizes, and from every direction. Some have not thought seriously about what the claims of Christian faith really are, and are happy to dismiss them as insufficiently sophisticated for people as bright as they; some have given a more serious hearing to the real claims, but have difficulty connecting the god they hear about with the unpleasantness of the real world. Some simply do not want there to be a god, thereby removing the daunting presence of one who might judge their attitudes and conduct. One of my customary responses to the question is suggest asking the atheist to tell them about the god in whom they do not believe; almost without fail, the answer can then be given: I don’t believe in that god either; let me tell you about the I do believe in.

But where would you begin with that descriptive task? It’s a question theologians/apologists have debated for a very long time: where does God-talk begin. Sometimes it’s with the philosophical arguments that appeal to the mind, hoping to demonstrate that God is the only sufficient explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. At other times one might point experiences which only an all-wise, all-powerful, yet loving God could possibly have arranged. While these may have their time and place, along with other approaches, the Passion of Christ suggests something else.

On two occasions during that holy week, Jesus invited people to interpret God on the basis of what they saw in him. The first time (John 12:44-46) was to those wavering between intellectual assent and life investment into the claims of Jesus. “When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me.” Later, in the privacy of his small group of close friends, he declared again, “anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). So what is it someone sees when looking at Jesus? What does that glance do when one asks who God really is?

I would suggest that what is recorded between these two statements of Jesus has much to do with the answer. And it is related to yesterday’s post about the centrality of Holy Week for grasping authentic Christian faith. After his more public description of his relation to God, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, announces the betrayal he will soon experience, and then humbles the boastful Peter with the unthinkable idea that he, too, will deny his Lord. As the next few days would unfold, the glance at Jesus would be enough to turn the heads of virtually anyone in any other direction; it would be too ugly to behold. Do you want to know who God really is? Look at Jesus. Here. Now. Stooping. Washing. Accepting betrayal. Then dying.

It is often suggested in today’s world that while the idea of God is useful to us, in grounding morality, in providing some measure of hope and purpose, the supposed truth is that every construction of what God is really like is nothing more than God made in our image. We imagined Him as we would like to think He is, or so it is alleged. And it would be difficult to deny that there are ways we prefer to think about God, all of which are irrelevant to who he truly is. But it is very difficult to pretend that any of us would imagine the God revealed by looking at Jesus, particularly the Jesus portrayed in the climax of every gospel account. And when we find ourselves among the betrayers, as all of us must at times, we’d rather turn our heads, as Isaiah predicted centuries earlier. Maybe we don’t pay as much attention to Holy Week because we don’t want to have to look at this suffering God. To think that this is “the real” is, well, unimaginable.

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