For Evangelical Christians, there is really no more important question than “Who do we worship?” If you were to ask the average evangelical who they worshipped, we would more than likely give you a list of definite attributes and names. Things like the eternal, unchanging, immovable, holy, just, loving, righteous, creator of the Universe whose name is Jesus, Yahweh, and/or Jehovah. As evangelicals, we believe there is nothing more important in life than a personal relationship with this God. We claim to know him deeply and intimately. But as I have progressed in my faith journey, I have begun to question whether these pat answers that we all have been taught to give are actually true. Because in my experience, if you dig a little bit deeper into the question, “Who do you worship?” or better yet, “Who do you picture when you think about God?”, you will find a plethora of responses, many of which contradict one another and are inconsistent with a “proper” evangelical understanding and conception of God.
This first became clear to me one day during a conversation with Brian McLaren. I was going through a difficult period and had a lot of questions I was wrestling through, and Brian as the lovely man that he is, was more than willing to help me out. One of the questions I was wrestling with was Christianities relationship to Islam. I had just asked Brian if he thought that Christians and Muslims worshipped the same God. His response shocked me. It went something like:
“Well Brandan, the better question is do me and you worship the same God?”
Brian went on to explain that each and every human being, evangelical or not, has unique image of God in their minds. When we bow our knees to pray, each of us picture a completely different (and often time contrasting) image of who we know to be God. Some people see God as a loving Father, others as an abusive Tyrant. Some think of God as Mother and others thing of God as the animating Spirit behind all life. And funny enough, all of these images can even be justified using the Bible! Brian’s response to me that day began me on a fascinating journey in my own relationship with God. I began to interact with other Christians (and people of faith in general) and began to realize that what Brian had said was true. The face I see when I close my eyes to pray is indeed different than the one you see. One of my friends here at college told me that when he switched from his image of God from being a Father to a Mother, he felt liberated and able to connect much more deeply with the Divine.
You see, our personalities and experiences are the keys to what shape our conception of God. In this sense, God is subjective. (Or rather, our perspectives of God) We all make God in our image. This has been typically demonized as a negative thing, even called idolatry. However, as bearers of God’s divine image, we are simply reflecting back to God, God’s own image. We aren’t creating a new god or a false god at all. It is in the midst of this realization that the question of revelation arises: Isn’t there Objective things about God that God has revealed to us all? As Christians, we affirm the Bible as God’s Word and the Creeds as universal standards of Christian faith- both of which give us descriptions of who God is. Is there a balance between the God that we experience and imagine ourselves and the attributes and personality of God revealed to us in Scripture?
Rob Bell has recently written a book on this very topic. When asked about this question, he says:
“I don’t have any problem with those two things being true (God being personally experienced and defined and God being revealed objectively in Scripture) -you are putting your finger on a tension that if you lose it, you lose something central to who God is as we understand God. If it’s all a giant hairball of nebulous divine mystery then what is there to talk about? But if things are too defined and there’s too much certainty and definition we’ve lost the plot in the other direction. The more interesting question to me is: how has this God been revealed to you? What is this God like? How have your encounters with this God shaped you? Have they made you a better person-more loving, generous, courageous and forgiving? Because that’s how Jesus talked about God. The God he comes to show us meets us where we’re at and loves us exactly as we are and yet loves us too much to let us stay that way…”
Tension. That seems to be God’s favorite thing to create. The more and more I journey on in faith, the more and more tension I find. God is indeed the universal life force and the personal, unique, and subjective experience that each of us has in our Spiritual life. But God is also the objectively revealed Spirit that is incarnated in Jesus. In Christ, the invisible, immaterial, indefinable God becomes visible, material, and definable- all while remaining immaterial, invisible, and indefinable! (Headache alert!!) The reality is that whoever you talk about when you talk about God is true to your experience. That part of our relationship with God will always look different. We will all, therefore, always have differing images, names, and attributes that we imagine when we interact with God, and those attributes are true. But alongside of that, in Jesus, we do have some definable and objective things that we can say, believe, and imagine about God. That was Jesus’ whole purpose- to reveal God and His Kingdom to us so that we could all become partakers and participants with and in them both.
How can this tension (including contradiction) possibly exist? I think we have to settle on two answers- faith and eternity. Faith is believing in that which cannot be seen, explained, or reasoned. God doesn’t always “make sense”. God isn’t always (or most of the time) “reasonable”. That’s all part of being God. So when we have contradicting encounters with God, we cannot say that someone is wrong (unless their encounter of God fundamentally goes against the image of God in Jesus Christ- ie, God is a vengeful, hateful, monster.) Which brings me to point two, eternity. God is so big and so creative and so totally eternal that it makes sense that there is great diversity within the being of God. God is a father to the fatherless and a mother to the motherless. God is the one who rebukes and the one who gives grace. God is the one who brings clarity and the one who causes confusion. God is eternally expanding and eternally finite. God is so wholly other that any and all the boxes we try to put God in will be instantly destroyed. And yet, God has defined Gods self in the person of Jesus.
So the question stands, do we all worship the same God? No we don’t. But yes, we do. It’s the eternal tension that we all have to live with. Or rather, the exciting tension of an awesome creative God that we get to live with. The God who is knowable and unknowable all at the same time.
When it comes to talking about God, that which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom we must never stop talking.- Peter Rollins
Brandan Robertson is an Evangelical Christian blogger, podcaster, aspiring minister, and the dreamer behind the Revangelical Movement. He is currently a student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and the host of the Revangelical Connection vodcast.