taking the words of Jesus seriously

Recently, I heard a speaker who referred to God as SHE! My initial reaction was surprise. Just when I began reflecting on why he referred to God as SHE, he reverted back to using HE for God. For the rest of his talk, he went on alternating by first using the feminine pronoun and then the masculine pronoun for God.

It took me awhile, but I finally got what he was trying to say. He was letting the audience know that neither pronoun communicated what could or should be said about God, because God, as he thought, transcends our culturally determined understandings of masculinity and femininity so that neither pronoun was sufficient in referring to God. In the words of Soren Kierkegaard, “God is totally other.”

Society provides us with various meanings of masculinity. Such concepts as strength, assertiveness, and principled judgments often come to mind, but God is so much more than that. Femininity conjures up concepts such as grace, nurture, empathy, and sensitivity. Yet again, God is so much more than that. God transcends all such culturally defined categories as male and female and cannot be put into such objective terms. God can only be known subjectively.

We humans are prone to project onto God characteristics which we find in ourselves. We were created in the image of God and, sadly, we are prone to return the favor. God, however, will not fit into our socially or psychologically generated structures and can only be known in personal encounters. What is known objectively either was or will be.

God, as we all realize, is not limited by past and future and refuses to be in any objective concept of time. Instead God is offered up to us for subjective encounters in the NOW! Of course NOW doesn’t exist in the lineal succession of events in which we apprehend time. For instance, we cannot say that the next second is not NOW, nor can we say that the next millionth second is NOW. Now is that non-existent point where the past touches the future, but itself has no extension in the near time.

Consider the reality that I cannot tell you what I am thinking right now, because if I stop to reflect on what I am thinking right now, in that reflection, I am no longer thinking it. What I am thinking now becomes past tense when I reflect upon it. I can only tell you what I was thinking when asked what I am thinking NOW. NOW, however, is where “I AM” and where God is. That is why God cannot be known objectively but can only be known in subjective encounters in the NOW.

The religious phenomenologist Rudolf Otto, in order to tell us about his encounters with God, used the words “the mysterium tremendum.” I don’t know exactly what that means, but those words do convey something of what I have felt in my own subjective encounters with the God who is “totally other.”

Maybe this kind of thinking helps us understand why Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I AM!” He was expressing something of His transcendence to our categories of time.

To be Christian is to encounter Jesus as He is right NOW. Information about the historical Jesus, while important, only tells us who He was, and that will not save you. You can know all that the theologians and Bible scholars can tell you about the historical Jesus — and not really know Him at all. Only through a subjective surrender to the Jesus who wants to know you right NOW can Jesus really be known. Kierkegaard said, “Jesus can only be known subjectively because the knower is a subject.”

Of course there is still the historical Jesus, and whenever I am asked what I know about God I answer, “All I know objectively about God is what I learned from the historical Jesus as revealed in scripture and examined under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But it is in subjective encounters with the ever living, resurrected Jesus, that I gain a sense that I am experiencing the fullness of God.”

Even then, God is so much more than that.

About The Author


Tony Campolo is Professor of Sociology at Eastern University, and was formerly on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. For 40 years, he founded and led the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, an organization that created and supported programs serving needy communities in the Third World as well as in “at risk” neighborhoods across North America. More recently, Dr. Campolo has provided leadership for the Red Letter Christians movement. He blogs regularly at his own website. Tony and his wife Peggy live near Philadelphia, and have two children and four grandchildren.

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