(James 1, 17- end. Mark 7, 1-8,14-15, 21-23)
How do you imagine God?
When you worship, when you pray, what picture do you have in your mind of the Being you are addressing?
I have spoken before about a book by Marcus J Borg, called “The God We Never Knew”, which has had an influence on the way I think about God. It is all about how Borg moved from the image of God he was taught in his childhood, which became increasingly unsatisfactory as he grew up and studied, to a way of thinking about God and living with God that he never knew as a child, a way that was consistent with the Bible and the tradition, but which made sense to a 21st century mind.
The concept of God with which Borg (and perhaps many of us) grew up was of a supernatural being ‘out there’ far away, who created the world a long time ago. The best metaphors for this being are an authoritarian patriarchal father, or King or Judge, totally different and separate from us, all knowing and all powerful. Sometimes, he (this being was always thought of as masculine) intervened in the world, in the sort of events described in the Bible. But essentially this God was not here, but somewhere else. If we were good enough, and believed strongly enough, we might be allowed to be with this being after death.
Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘supernatural theism’ or ‘the monarchical model’. Because human beings need something concrete to speak to, when he worshipped or prayed, his picture of God was based on the Lutheran pastor who led the services in his church each Sunday – a big man, with grey hair and a black robe, who always shook his finger as he preached. So Borg saw God as the big eye-in-the-sky, always watching, always disapproving, always judging.
But as he grew older, and studied theology and read the works of theologians such as John Robinson and Paul Tillich, Borg came to a different understanding of God, panentheisim. This thinks of God as all around us, within us, but also more than everything. What is more, we are within God. God is constantly creating, constantly nurturing, constantly present in the world, but is infinitely more than the world. In this model, the best metaphors for God are Abba/Daddy, lover, mother, Wisdom, companion on the journey. Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘The Spirit model’. The concrete image which sums up this picture of God for him is of his wife, a priest, bending down to give a small child who is kneeling at the altar rail the consecrated bread. He wrote: “I was struck by the difference: an image of God as a male authority figure, shaking his finger at us versus the image of God as a beautiful loving woman bending down to feed us”.(p.71)
Our image of God matters! It affects not only what we believe about God, but also what we think the Christian life is all about, how we think about sin and how we think we achieve salvation. Borg emphasises that both the monarchical model of God and the Spirit model are true to the Bible and to the tradition, and have nurtured Christian belief and worship through the ages; but he also says that supernatural theism is becoming more and more difficult to maintain alongside a modern world view.
In our readings today, from the Epistle of James and from the Gospel of Mark, we get two different pictures of the requirements of the religious life, of what constitutes sin, and how we achieve salvation.
For the Pharisees who challenge Jesus in the Mark passage, the religious life is about keeping the rules. Over time, the basic rules of the 10 Commandments and the Torah had expanded into a multiplicity of rules about every aspect of life and worship. Salvation is only possible for those who manage to keep all of these rules, or who make proper sacrifice to appease the ‘finger-shaking God’. This view of the religious life became one which was adopted by Christianity, with the added refinement that salvation was possible for many who couldn’t manage to keep all the rules, because the sacrifice of Jesus had been provided to make up for their disobedience – but this was only possible if they acknowledged their sinfulness, and believed all the precepts of the Christian faith without doubt or question.
For the writer of the Epistle of James, the Christian life is less about keeping the rules, and more about living in the right relationship with God and with each other. It is not beliefs that are important but actions. People can study religion and think themselves holy, but unless that results in a life lived for others, their religion is worthless. James ends with a statement that echoes the prophets Micah and Isaiah, saying that what God requires of us is to care for the weak and vulnerable, and not to adopt worldly values. James indicates that the way to salvation is to live a life of compassion, in imitation of the God who gives us birth and who nurtures us with gifts.
There is a danger in taking this view of the Christian life, which is that we can end up believing that we earn our place in heaven ourselves through our good works. It is what Luther seemed to be arguing against when he condemned the idea of justification by works. The counter balance to this is the teaching that our salvation comes as a gracious gift from God, regardless of how good we are. All we have to do is to accept that, and to demonstrate that we are ‘doers of the word, not just hearers’, by living in the light of that belief. This puts us in a right relationship with ourselves and with our neighbours and with God, such that we begin to experience salvation in this world.
With the monarchical model of God, religion is all about sin. Sin is disobedience to God and breaking his rules. In this model, Jesus came and died so that we could escape punishment for our sin. Our part is to believe that, to acknowledge ourselves as miserable sinners, to feel guilty and to repent.
The problem is that the dynamic of that way of religion is hard to live with. It just becomes impossible to keep all the rules, or even to decide which rules we ought to be keeping in different circumstances. We end up not loving ourselves, and so cannot love others, The only way to escape the overwhelming sense of our own unworthiness is to project the nasty bits of ourselves onto others, usually those who are somehow different from ourselves, people of another race, religion, culture, class, gender or sexuality. This results in a fracturing of society and church, and to the blame culture, which seeks to apportion responsibility for our own unhappiness to others. It can also lead to a conviction that everyone needs follows our particular way to God if they are to be saved.
With the Spirit model of God, sin is about unfaithfulness, or idolatry in Old Testament-speak, putting other things like the desire for money, power, prestige, possessions, food or physical gratification before our desire for God. Sin is also failure in compassion and inflicting harm on God’s creatures (human and other species) and on God’s world. Sin is not breaking laws, it is betraying relationships, and what it results in is not punishment but estrangement – from our fellow beings and from God. As such, we feel the consequences not in the life to come after death, but in this world.
The central dynamic is not guilt and blame with the Spirit model, but nurturing relationships. If we do not say sorry, and do something to mend the hurt and show our change of heart, the relationship will be harmed.
One element in every service of Christian worship is the Confession and Absolution, when we say sorry as individuals and as a congregation. Some confessions are difficult to say. I always disliked leading the confession in the Prayer Book Evensong service, in which we called ourselves ‘miserable sinners’ and asserted that ‘there is no health in us’ – largely because I just didn’t believe that was true. God made us, God’s Spirit lives in us, so of course there is health in us! I remember the priest who was my tutor when I trained as a Reader, disapproved strongly of what he called ‘grovelling before God’ and sometimes omitted the Confession from services altogether, in the belief it was unhealthy!
I agree, confession can be unhealthy if you are working with the model of the ‘finger-wagging God’, if you are trying to earn God’s approval and avert punishment by wallowing in a sense of unworthiness and guilt.
But if you are working with the Spirit model of God, then reflecting regularly on where we have fallen short of reflecting the image of God within us, as individuals and society, saying sorry and resolving to do better, can only be good for us and for our relationships. And hearing what Methodist liturgy calls ‘the Word of Grace’: “Your sins are forgiven” does, I believe, make a real difference to our ability to live the Christian life. This assures us that, no matter what we do, we are loved the way we are, by a God who is with us, around us and within us; and that makes a real difference to the way we see the world and other people. This model of confession and absolution is not a power relationship, but a dynamic of mutual support, expressed most obviously in the confession of the Iona Community, where both minister and congregation confess and are absolved by each other.
Knowing we are forgiven and accepted enables us to forgive and accept others. Knowing that our failures do not condemn us enables us to be less quick to condemn others. Experiencing the compassion of God prompts us to be compassionate to others.
There is a great deal in the media over the past weeks that demands that we don’t just hear this message but live it. At the moment, the allegations about abuse by former politicians and celebrities; the actions of terrorists in Syria and Europe, and people traffickers across the world; the enquiry into the runaway refuse lorry in Glasgow, all face us with the question: do we believe and trust, and live our lives in the Spirit of the God who is all compassion; or do we continue to be representatives of the finger-wagging God?
Which image of God drives your life?
(The God We Never Knew. Marcus J Borg. Harper One. 1998.)