I am about to begin a series of sermons that focus on God? Why am I doing this? Shouldn't I assume that we're all on the same page when we come to church and talk about God? Well, the fact is, we don't all come with the same conceptions of God. We bring to church a variety of conceptions, many of which we developed when we were children, perhaps inheriting from our parents. There is a reason why I'm starting out my series of sermons with a reflection on Jonathan Edwards's infamous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" -- you'll have to check that out tomorrow after it's posted. There is also a reason why we'll sing the hymns "Immortal, Invisible, Only Wise God" (I thought about "A Mighty Fortress") and Ruth Duck's "Womb of Life, and Source of Being."
In preparing for this series I've been reading a variety of books, including Catherine Mowry LaCunga's God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life and Elizabeth A. Johnson's She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. Both authors are Catholic theologians, though LaCunga died some years back and Johnson has had her ability to teach as a Catholic theologian stripped away (though she remains extremely influential). Both seek to build a bridge between feminist and classical theological categories. And both are proving helpful as I expand my own sense of the mystery that is God, a mystery that transcends our ability to put in words the mystery, but not beyond God's ability to be made known to us.
Early in her book Johnson writes about the importance of our God-talk, especially its implications for our lives in the world.
What is the right way to speak about God? This is a question of unsurpassed importance, for speech to and about the mystery that surrounds human lives and the universe itself is a key activity of a community of faith. In that speech the symbol of God functions as the primary symbol of the whole religious system, the ultimate point of reference for understanding experience, life, and the world. Hence the way in which a faith community shapes language about God implicitly represents what it takes to be the highest good, the profoundest truth, the most appealing beauty. Such speaking, in turn, powerfully molds the corporate identity of the community and directs its praxis. (pp. 3-4)
Note that Johnson suggests that language about God helps form the community. It also "directs its praxis," that is its activity in the world. There is a tendency among Progressives to distinguish "orthopraxy," right practices from "orthodoxy," which is understood to be right belief. Perhaps we should not be too quick in our judgment, for our language and conceptions have important implications for behavior.
Johnson continues on with her point:
A religion, for example, that would speak about a warlike god and extol the way he smashes his enemies to bits would promote aggressive group behavior. A community that would acclaim God as an arbitrary tyrant would inspire its members to acts of impatience and disrespect toward their fellow creatures. On the other hand, speech about a beneficent and loving God who forgives offenses would turn the faith community toward care for the neighbor and mutual forgiveness. (p. 4)
Now, when we read Scripture we will find images/descriptions of God that reflect both love and wrath. When we read texts that speak of anger, it may seem as if the anger arbitrary, but other times it seems appropriate. After all, when Jesus stormed the Temple and overturned the tables of the money changers, he wasn't the picture of "Jesus meek and mild." Nonetheless, the question ultimately concerns the defining symbol of God that forms our community.
Who is this God we proclaim? Let us continue the journey of discovery.