Weekly Edgework #66 - October 6, 2005

Rescuing God

There are, classically, two movements: the liberation of God from our projections and projects, and our liberation from the God of those projections and projects. We need both. “God” needs to be set free from human prejudices and limitations, and we need to be liberated from allegiance to that God (Reimagining Christianity, Alan Jones, p. 5-6).

What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For the workman trusts in his own creation when he makes dumb idols! (Habakkuk 2:18)

I remember how I laughed in Sunday School as a child when the teacher told the class about people in Bible times making idols with their hands and then bowing down to worship them. Wasn’t it obvious to them, like it was to the prophets of old and the enlightened children in my class, that you can’t make a god of material and expect it to answer your prayers? And when missionaries showed slides of contemporary idols the heathen still made in far away lands, my friends and I were glad that we knew better. How silly can people be, we thought! And then we laughed some more.

But I have stopped laughing. Gradually, throughout my short life, I have come to understand that idolatry is as alive today as it was in the days of Habakkuk. In my younger years I was confident that projecting wishes and pet projects onto an image of “God” was something that only happened in days of old or in lands far from my comfortable, rural, Mennonite church. Today I see idols wherever I look, and sometimes to my own dismay, I catch myself bowing down to some of them.

According to the biblical record, idolatry was an almost continual temptation for the Israelites. When Jacob fled from his father-in-law, Laban, he stole his gods, assuming I imagine that they would be helpful to him. When God appeared to be silent for a few weeks while the Israelites were camped at the base of Mount Sinai, a golden calf appeared with relative ease – endowed with the aspirations of the people and the object of their worship. Once in the land of Canaan, idolatry became one of the predominant threads woven throughout the story of God’s people. The main job of the prophets was to rescue God, as it were, from being locked up in the projected imaginations of the people.

By the time of Jesus, while not worshiping idols made of wood, stone or metal, the Israelites had projected a messianic image onto God. They worshipped a “God” whose main agenda was to liberate his people from political oppression and restore the glory of the good old days of King David. Even Jesus’ disciples kept this vision alive right to the end of his life. Only in retrospect did the disciples come to understand that God, as represented in Christ, was something other than their own political projections.

Alan Jones suggests that “God” must be set free from our human prejudices and limitations. In other words we must let God be God, not a projection of our fantasies. If we don’t we are attempting to put God into boxes of various shapes and sizes. Of course we know that God can not be put into boxes of human imagination. But in a sense we are limiting God – at least with respect to how God can influence our lives – especially if we worship the gods of our own making. So in a sense it is right to suggest that God needs to be set free, and so do we.

There is a philosophy of religion that holds that all “gods” are projections of human aspirations, pure and simple. When one takes a broad look at the state of religion in the world, one is tempted to agree with this line of thinking. In by-gone days when we were cloistered more securely in our religious ghettos it was quite easy to think we alone were worshipping God as he in fact was, and all others were creating gods that were projections of their fantasies. But I am beginning to think that all of us – in all religions or sub-categories of religions – participate to one degree or another in the production and worship of idols. At least in projecting our prejudices and longings onto a real God whose image becomes distorted in the process.

Even if we stay within the world of Christianity, how many images of God do we have? There is a sense in which every denomination bows down to its own image of God. If that were not the case, why are we so hesitant to blur denominational lines and so ready to equate the Kingdom of God with “our” programs and “our” kind of people”? Is the “God” of the fundamentalists in America who drive so much of the political, protectionist agenda that much different from the tribal gods missionaries encountered in “heathen” lands two centuries ago? In both cases a specific “god” or “God” was and is seen to be favoring a particular tribe and warring against all others who are different from them.

Is the “God” of Irish Protestants also the “God” of Irish Catholics? If so, why does this God have such conflicting agendas? Or are they two different “Gods” fabricated from the political and cultural aspirations of two different people groups? How is it, that according to some recent letters to the editor in our local newspaper the right-wing “God” is seen as the champion of unfettered capitalism and private property. That, in spite of the fact that both continue to be used to suppress the poor and marginalized peoples of the world? And why is it that my prayers to “God” are so often related only to my agenda and those whom I know personally?

We would all do well to re-read the biblical record to try to catch a glimpse of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. We need to rescue God from the provincial and parochial images we have created and then liberate ourselves from the worship of these “Gods”.