All Saints, Benhilton
Sunday, 19th August 2001
How do we know what God is like?
This Sunday and next we shall look at two questions often asked by The Man (or Woman!) in the Pew. Todayís question is: How do we know what God is like? Next week we shall ask ourselves why comparatively few people come regularly to church.
So, just how do we know what God is like?
Thereís certainly no lack of information. If you search for the word "God" on the Internet, and, even if you search only for "Christian God" you will find that there are no less than fifteen hundred references to look up! Add to that the widely-held belief that all religions are the same and it's just a matter of choosing the one which suits you best, and the amount of information becomes overwhelming.
Well, you might think that it would be simpler to go to a church and listen to what the preacher has to say. No such luck! At one church the preacher tells you that God is Love which suggests that heís something warm and comfortable, like a hot-water bottle. In another church, however, the preacher insists that God both infinite and incomprehensible, which suggests (to me at any rate) the very opposite of the idea of a hot-water bottle Ė something like the Antarctic desert in the middle of winter: dark, cold and inhospitable.
Letís not be too sweeping in our dismissal of these apparently contradictory ideas about God. Each of them has a bit of truth about it. Many religions, especially the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam worship one and the same God; St John tells us that indeed "God is love" though thatís by no means all he tells us Ė he uses other words, Light, Father or Word to describe him as well; as for Godís infinitude, one of our creeds insists that God is both infinite and incomprehensible.
Itís hardly surprising then if people get into a right old muddle, especially if they accept uncritically everything said in pub or pulpit. However, if bring our intelligence to bear on what is being read and said and preached, we can and indeed we shall, find out a great deal about what God is like. And this we can do for one reason only, namely because God has chosen to reveal himself to us.
We donít hear the word "reveal" much today, unless itís a newspaper "revealing all" about some personal scandal. But "revealing" and "revelation" are both important words which describe some of the most exciting experiences in human life.
Here are some examples of revelation:, if you draw back the curtains in the morning and discover that the sun is shining Ė thatís a revelation; or imagine youíre looking through a pile of old papers in the attic and come across some long-lost letter or photograph Ė thatís a revelation. If a teacher discovers your child has an unsuspected skill Ė music, or carpentry or acting maybe Ė thatís a revelation. In each example the thing revealed Ė the sunshine, the photograph, and the ability Ė was always there. Revelation is what makes us become aware of them.
Thatís how we come to know God by revelation. God reveals something about himself, although that "something" has been true about him from all eternity. God, so to speak, "draws back the curtain" on himself, or (like the lost letter) helps us rediscover something about him weíd lost sight of; or (like the teacher with the gifted child)., reveals a quality that nobody had spotted. The truth in each case was there all the time; itís Godís revelation that enables us to become aware of it.
Such experiences are common. A beautiful landscape, "turns us on"; a painting or other work of art "speaks to us"; or we meet someone who radiates the holiness or the love of God. God reveals himself to us in prayer, through our ability to think and reason, through the Laws he has given us. "God", as the opening words of the Letter to the Hebrews says "has spoken to our fathers in times past through the Prophets" to encourage us, warn us, or remind us of truths we have forgotten. Such revelations are the common property of Christian Jews and Muslims.
But Hebrews goes on to say that in these last times [he] has finally and completely revealed himself through his Son. Jesus, he goes on to say "is the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person who upholds all things by the word of his power". Thatís what makes Christianity differs from all other religions. God became man, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Moreover, as the same writer says later, because he is unchangeable, the truth about him remains the same from generation to generation.
All of which is in complete contrast to the popular idea that God changes or becomes different from one generation to another. That's a serious mistake. It comes about when people confuse the truth about God with the images we use to help us understand those truths. The images can, and should, change as we grow in faith and knowledge; they are necessarily imperfect. But the truth about God does not change for he is perfection itself.
This misunderstanding is so widespread today that itís worth taking trouble to see how it has arisen. Letís consider a similar example: the way our scientific understanding of everyday, material things has developed over the course of history.
Think of the pew you're sitting on. What itís made of? Well, of course, itís made of wood with metal screws and brackets to hold it together. Whether you ask someone today, or a hundred or two thousand years ago the answer would be the same.
But now letís ask a second question. "What are wood or metal made of?" The answer from a scientist today would be very different from his counterpart two hundred, even more so two thousand years ago.
A scientifically-minded person in our Lordís day, who would be called a Philosopher, would say that wood and nails, like all other material things are made up of four elements, earth, air, fire and water in different combinations. Because wood catches fire and metal doesnít they would say that wood contained more of the "fiery element" (or "phlogiston" as it was called) than metal does.
But by 1800 people began to realised that the whole earth/air/fire/water business was mistaken. They began to think of matter as made up of "atoms", tiny, indestructible bits of stuff grouped together in a particular way. So Daltonís Atomic Theory, as it was called, represented a great leap forward in our understanding of material things like wood and metal.
But science didnít stop there: people went on to ask "What are atoms made of, then?" And it turned out that, atoms so far from being indivisible little particles like tiny marbles, were themselves made up of something much smaller, protons, neutrons, electrons, positrons and the rest. Scientists like Albert Einstein went on to say that matter really isn't the solid hard thing that it seems to be, but is more like energy than anything else, most accurately expressed in the famous equation E=mc2
Do you see whatís happened? The pew youíre sitting on hasnít changed from the day it was made, and the wood and metal in it are the same substance that carpenters have used for thousands of years. For everyday purposes your pew may be can be thought of as wood and metal. But if you want to understand what wood and metal are really like you must be prepared for a more complex answer.
Thatís also true of our understanding of God. Since creation God has revealed himself to man using ideas which we can understand: Father, Creator, Judge, King, Lord, Spirit, Wind, Fire and Wisdom to name but a few. But these are all simplifications of the truth. We have the same problem as scientists do with material things. Simple answers to questions will satisfy most people most of the time. But: the harder the questions we ask about God, the harder become the answers. As with nuclear physics, the deeper we delve into Godís revelation the less in proportion to the whole truth we find we know about him: the most accurate definitions of God (for example "Three in One and One in Three") sound more and more like that formula E=mc2.
But thereís one all-important difference between natural science, which is about pews and screws and the science of God which is called theology. The difference is that God has chosen to reveal himself finally and perfectly by becoming a man like us. Not a theory, not a definition, not an analogy but a person, namely Jesus Christ our Lord. Heís a person we can know, and love and obey and follow, but far more than this: heís someone we can actually receive into ourselves through the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion and therefore a person we can know at first hand and by personal experience.
God, in other words, has given us an answer to the question What is he like? which we can really begin to understand. For practical purposes the answer to our question, like the question about what pews are made of is the simple one. "Wood and screws" in the case of the pews, "Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith" in the case of God. "This is my beloved Son" says God, "listen to him". "Follow me", says Jesus.
For Jesus Christ alone is the Way the Truth and the Life. Nobody comes to the Father except through him. Thereís something altogether more exciting and terrifying about having to deal with a person rather than a idea or a definition. Definitions and ideas donít answer back. Jesus Christ can and does. Thatís why so few people want to have anything to do with him today. "Our God is a consuming fire" says the writer to the Hebrews. Those who play with fire are in serious danger of getting their fingers burnt Ė and not just their fingers!. But to understand that youíll need to come back next week to hear the second part!
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