Noting that progressive Christians have some trouble with God-talk, Tony Jones has challenged progressive bloggers to write something substantive about God. Here is my response.
A few weeks ago, during week 5 of the Montreat Youth Conference, Margaret Aymer preached on Paul’s statement in Romans 8:38-39—“For I have been convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” She memorably challenged us to consider what it is that we have been convinced of. Here’s what I took this to mean: what is it that I am most sure of in the midst of all my doubts and fears?
The next day the conference focused on Jeremiah 18 and pottery imagery. Thinking about broken pottery and the one statement of faith that I am absolutely sure about made me think of an archaeological dig I participated in many years ago in Israel. On these digs, you unearth buckets upon buckets of broken pottery, most of which is thrown out. Every now and then, you are lucky enough to find a pottery sherd that still has an intact handle. I have a piece like this in my office.
This intact handle of a broken jar suggests a powerful image: in a broken world, when everything else around you is falling apart, what is the one thing you can hold on to?
For me, it is this: God is love. (1 John 4:16)
All of the language we use to speak about God is by necessity metaphorical. I don’t take much (if any) of it in a literal or ontological way. Even some foundational statements like “God is creator” seem primarily metaphorical to me. The framework of salvation through which we often talk about God also seems essentially symbolic—I’m influenced, no doubt, by the theology of Paul Tillich. Like Tillich, I would prefer to think of God as beyond being as we know it: God is being itself or the ground of being. The symbols we typically use to talk about God only point us to the ground of being, and should not be confused with the God that is beyond being.
I am less and less convinced that God intercedes in human history in an interventionist way. Unless God is radically capricious or God’s ways are completely beyond human understanding, I cannot reconcile human suffering with the notion of a loving God that could prevent suffering but chooses not to do so. Whatever prayer means—and I certainly believe that prayer plays an important role in our spiritual lives—I do not think of prayer as a way to change the outcome of events in human history. I don’t think that prayer changes God’s mind or influences God’s actions. God and humanity intersect in some other way than this.
Through the years, during times of profound loneliness and sadness, the one conviction about God that has brought me comfort—the one thing about which I am absolutely certain—is that God is love. God is the love that binds us together. God is the love we share for each other. God is the love that inspires us to care for others. God is the love that gives our lives meaning. God is the love that comforts us when everything else is breaking to pieces.
When we talk about humanity as the image of God (Genesis 1:27), this says as much about God as it does about humanity. Somehow, humanity (as a whole) is a reflection of God. Like love, this conception of God is radically relational. To me, this indicates that one way to think about God is to think about the collective human community and the intangible things that bind us together. (I’m trying really hard not to reference the Force.)
“God is love” is a metaphor, like all others, and is therefore an imperfect, relative, and provisional way to talk about God. But this is the most substantive statement about God I can make without referencing a metanarrative I consider an essentially symbolic description of existential reality.
“God is love” is the one thing I can always hold on to.