The following essay is a work in progress. Readers are invited to add thoughtful responses

And Now My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen ….. presenting…… Ta rah!….. The God Who Limps!!

Saying “God” as if it has always meant the same, and as if it still means the same to all, regardless of the speaker’s culture, background and religious affiliation, disguises the fact that the term is variously reserved for any of a regular pantheon of Gods accepted by different people, or even the same people at different times, and in effect Gods acknowledged and even worshipped with varying degrees of adulation and certainty.

If I were to accept the mental pictures of God offered to me by the array of religious missionaries who have approached me over the years, I would have to say I have been offered very different Gods …and for the most part Gods justified by a variety of proof texts from an array of Bibles or venerated tracts. I have been offered the male God of the Genesis story, the tribal God favouring a particular Middle Eastern tribe who apparently spurns all others, the God of Wrath who must be appeased by sacrifice, the God who appears in human form, the God of Love, or the vengeful God who will get you in the Hereafter which is reportedly a very painful place to be got, God the disembodied spirit, the God who seeks justice… but only for humans born into the right culture and faith, and of course the God very popular among the door to door neighbour botherers, a version of God who only favours those who use exactly the correct spoken list of beliefs. . The less sophisticated would prefer me to believe they are on intimate terms with Jesus’ Dad, or Father Christmas type God, who evidently, like more than one of my visitors, knows who is naughty or nice with his punishment sights firmly set on those who don’t happen to share the views of the missionary of the moment.

At the other end of the scale, some mystics favour Einstein’s tantalising “music of the spheres” while the scientists with their latest toy to accelerate particles to incredible speeds for high energy collisions appear to be more interested in God particles and the description of creation.

Many claim to have a direct line to a God who can be cajoled into changing his mind about the continued existence of Mrs Mabb’s gallstones or the approaching rain front threatening the annual Church picnic – assuming of course that this God listens to prayers where a chorus of fellow petitioners use terms like: “yes Lord Jesus” and “thank you Jesus”. Perhaps this malleable God is related to the God whose list of enemies coincides with those of the doorstep evangelist and whose doomed categories clearly include all homosexuals, liberal Christians, evolutionists and people who permit abortions. Alternately we can choose between feminist and female Mother God, or for that matter the God who only favours Roman Catholics…or Muslims….or Jehovah’s Witnesses, who may in the end be inferior to God who only works through hierarchies like the ordained Priests, or the God who can only speak with authority through a Pope (or should that be the Archbishop of Canterbury?) or by singular good fortune through his only current enlightened prophet who coincidentally just happens to have started a warehouse Church down town in this very town….or….or…..or……

In the same way that the scientists are still trying to come to terms with new understandings of how creation happened, even assuming that one day the nature of the creation force might be described, to make the leap to assume we can ever get one definitive picture that does any more than suggest what the God behind all is like, or even that a humanly comprehensible and accurate understanding of a single God of the Universe is possible, is a very tall order. Yet the selection of God pictures is important if only because through the centuries so much damage can occur when dissenting groups insist on universal acceptance of competing claims. As Richard Holloway recently observed in his book Looking in the Distance (p 9)

“The root of the difficulty lies in the nature of the claims religions make about matters that are beyond verification. This uncertainty which lies at the heart of all religious systems, famously produces compensating protestations of absolute certainty about matters that are intrinsically unknowable.”

The first step then is to admit that competing models with the intention to help the human understanding of God have been proposed, and the next is to choose among them to find a model that is both helpful and consistent with what we believe is the best in religion.

But there is a warning. Given the wide choice, the ancient Greeks almost appear rational and modern in their descriptions of gods with gods matching the needs of virtually every likely character trait and possibility. Yet I want to suggest the further similarity between the Greek pantheon and the current versions of God is that the one real god who was of any genuine use to the Greeks was severely handicapped. Hephaestus, the Greek God of fire and metal working, had a pronounced limp. His portfolio included dealing with reality, keeping society running smoothly and as well, keeping the appropriate technologies well maintained, yet this handicap of the limp put him at a distinct disadvantage when compared with the other more popular Gods.

It may just be that even assuming we can find the helpful model that moves us towards understanding the best of the Christian God, that the best might seem handicapped to most who might otherwise follow.

Presumably a God who would be most useful to the human species today would be helpful to a wide range of people and therefore unlike most of today’s pantheon not particularly tied to any version of religion. This is unhelpful to those who want to retain exclusive access. Such a God would presumably be concerned to make sure all got a fair share of the bounty of the earth, to see that no one nation had more rights than any other and see beyond the exclusive needs of the human race among the other living species of creation. Again this may seem a handicap to those who wish to improve their lot at the expense of others. Even if one made the assumption that Jesus relationship with God showed the ideal relationship, such a God would not be under human direction. If Jesus had to pray “My God, My God why has thou forsaken me”, lesser mortals might be expected to have even less say in what might be achieved with the aid of God. One further substantial handicap such a God might suffer in attracting admirers and followers is that there appears something in human nature which makes us prefer being spectators rather than genuine participants in faith based endeavour. Bertrand Russell for example once claimed to his immediate post second world war readers, that had Jesus told his Good Samaritan story using Japanese or German as the hypothetical identity of the neighbour, the story would have caused great offence since it would have brought home to contemporary readers the hypocrisy of just how far their so called Christian practice had moved from Christ’s original message.

John Pridmore reminds us of the haunting image in the gospel of Mark (Mark 10.32) where he says. “Jesus was walking ahead of them” and Mark adds, “they were amazed and those who followed were afraid.” Stumbling along some distance behind, trying our best to understand and learn from such truths as we can dimly comprehend is not a bad summary for the lived Christian life, but as it was for the Greeks, an image of the very one we know we ought to follow may be flawed, and it may well be that a notion of a somewhat unpopular God with a limp contains more truth for the human condition than we might prefer to acknowledge.

19 Responses to THE GOD WHO LIMPS

  1. flockofone says:

    Why bother with images of god at all. No two people will ever draw the same thing. A picture is no substitute

    • peddiebill says:

      The fact is that people do have images of God implied in the way they talk about God. The real question is – Do any of the images about God help us with our thinking in a constructive way?

  2. Hilda Bak says:

    The Creator existed before humans. Our faiths, temples, synagogues, cathedrals etc are products of man’s search for meaning and are man-made. Who can then say which is the better? Since there is, in my belief, something of the Creator in each of us, our thinking may, at it’s best, derive from the Creator. Or can it be from the Shadow side? Presumably we can judge that from the ‘fruits’, the results of our deeds. Acceptance of the something of God in all people should help us to live together on this overcrowded planet.

  3. dave says:

    How the god (or God) is visualized depends on the cultural context. I suggest that those cultures that were more authoritarian in nature tended to visualize the ‘one true god’ who controlled all below him – while the more diversified cultures could visualize a multitude of gods, much like a specialization of labor in a community. Each god was good at one thing while the other gods had their own specialties. I find the story about Hephaestus interesting but no doubt he was never really in a race with other gods; each was assumed to fulfill their role in the pantheon of gods. A god (or gods) will perform the ‘man behind the curtain’ actions that cannot be explained. Some people can accept that at the moment science cannot explain everything; others cannot accept that and instead assume there must be a hidden force at work.

  4. paxterrarum says:

    Can we agree that there is one God – a First Cause? In that case, he/she/it remains One, regardless of the perceptions or claims of humans. So, people aren’t presenting “this god” as opposed to “that god;” rather, they are presenting their perception of God. One of my college psychology professors made a statement that I’ll never forget. He said, “Religion isn’t sick, but sick people will have a sick religion.” Somehow, somewhere, sometime, we need to get back to a healthy relationship with our Creator, who happens to love all of his creation very, very much.

    • peddiebill says:

      Your College professor was very perceptive. Unfortunately in my exerience those who have mental illness are rarely in a position to know it. But to your question. The jury is still out on what is meant by first cause. My understanding of Jesus is that he taught some impressive truths for living but I hesitate to set myself up as an authority on what that tells us about the mysteries of creation – or even the nature of the Creative force behind all. Even the astronomers cant tell us much about what is out there, still less about how it got there or what it means. I am astounded that so many profess to know! For example, that so many call God “He” and tell me he loves the Universe sounds good, but if I am honest I dont know what it means. For now I will be content in doing what Albert Einstein used to call “listening to the music of the spheres”

    • dave says:

      We cannot agree on a First Cause. That is built on the illusion that the universe is built much like the childhood toy, the Erector Set. There is nothing in nature observed to be built. Everything in nature is dynamic, spontaneous and interrelated.

      A human being is not built but begins with the merging of chromosomes from the sperm and egg, then rapidly the cells multiply and specialize. The sperm or the egg do not cause a person but are part of the natural process for the growth of life (not the creation of life; both the sperm and egg are ‘alive’ and the fetus is a combination of them). A person could be said to come out of the universe as a union of part of the mother with part of the father, rather than coming ‘into the world’ (which incorrectly implies an unnatural intrusion starting from ‘outside’).

      A cloud is not built and rain does not have a single cause. Clouds often form and dissipate without rain so a cloud does not cause rain but a cloud is part of the weather conditions when rain occurs.

      A light bulb is on only when there is electrical current present; a switch does not cause its illumination. Flipping a switch in a hardware store bin does not turn on lights. Only while there is a voltage source and a complete path for electrical current does a light bulb emit energy. Does the wire cause the light bulb to light?

      When there is continuity there is current. When there are two bodies of matter near there is a force of gravity between them. One does not cause gravity on the other.

      Cause and effect is just an attempt to place an artificial dividing line between conditions before and conditions after some event – and then based on this time relationship claiming one is the cause of the other. It is only a simple way to describe the time sequence of events. Alan Watts in his book ‘The Book’ tells the simple story of someone who has never seen a cat but happens to see one through a narrow slit in a fence. As the cat walks back and forth, the head is always seen before the tail. He never sees a deviation from the consistent sequence. Therefore he makes the simple claim that the head is the cause of the tail. One part of the cat does not cause the other part. Cause and effect is only an attempt to divide nature by time.

      This technique is very important for academic studies but it does not mean it truly explains nature. The claim of a First Cause is simply the claim that in time there must always be something before something else and so there must be something that came first. Unfortunately that claim really has a metaphysical dead end. There is no difference in claiming the universe always existed or God always existed – and one of these must be this supposed First Cause that came before everything else. There is no way to prove either so it must remain a personal belief in this apparent need for a First Cause.

      Not everyone has this need to believe in a First Cause. Urban religions like Christianity tend toward an erector set creation (much as a building is constructed by pieces) while rural religions tend toward dynamic, continuing universal evolution.

      I wish humanity could get back to a healthy appreciation of our social nature, how we depend on each other. A family is based on the love between the parents and later with the children. Communities are founded on families working together. Any religion must help that part of our human nature, never divide it.

  5. Cherel says:

    “There is no difference in claiming the universe always existed or God always existed”

    Romans 1:18-22,28,32
    18 But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. 19They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. 20 For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. 21Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. 22 Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools.

    28 Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. … Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.

    Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, forbearing, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin? Romans 2:4

    • dave says:

      I can see from your various comments to a number of articles on this site that you just don’t get it. Everyone has their own worldview based on how they were raised on their cultural environment. A percentage of people are quite dependent on their religion, even clinging so tightly that they wholly commit to the Bible being the literal word of God, to be revered and to be defended against all who find the many faults in a collection of ancient writings, edited and interpreted over many years. Another percentage of people get their morals and values from their family and community; after all human beings are a social creature and we are an inseparable part of our social context. Another percentage of people are in the middle, shaped by their community but always feeling there must be ‘someone or something out there’ and so they maintain a loose connection to whatever religion they were raised with, or with whatever religion they discovered made sense to them.

      ‘Through everything God made, they can clearly see …’ is the perspective of someone that cannot tolerate chaos but must rely on there always being ‘someone in charge of it all.’ Not everyone has that particular attribute; not everyone has such an authoritarian view of life. Some cultures are inherently dispersed, with distributed responsibilities, even with their deities (as in the above article).

      The ‘everything God made’ view is the worldview that sounds like this, a universe that is manufactured, not dynamic and not natural. Each person is born into the doll house. The mistress of the doll house tends to the needs of all the dolls living in the doll house. When the time comes, the doll will be removed from the doll house, hopefully to doll heaven (wherever that is) to be rejoined with the other dolls that had been in the house earlier. Many find comfort in knowing the mistress is always in charge while others cannot fathom such a limited context for their life.

      The initial Christchurch earthquake shook the ground for about 40 seconds. The recent earthquake in Japan shook so long (about five minutes) that some sediments began to liquify over large areas, causing more damage than expected in a country that has quakes often enough. This trembling was followed by a wave, measured at 8.5 meters at one location, with enough force to wash away nearly everything in its path. Cyclone Yasi was one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in Australia.

      These events are all part of the natural processes on Earth. The earth shifts and the weather causes storms. Sometimes both can reach extreme proportions and we have certainly witnessed several recent extremes.

      A person’s religion is a part of how such extremes are dealt with. Those that do not depend on the wizard behind the curtain are going to concentrate immediately on helping those in need because that is what people do. Those that depend on the wizard behind the curtain can be thrown into confusion since the wizard apparently was not on duty at the time or perhaps the event is part of the wizard’s plan – but without the wizard telling everyone of his plan there is always uncertainty. Some (Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, the Tokyo governor) have claimed Japan was being punished with the quake, just as some (John Hagee) had claimed New Orleans was being punished by Katrina or some (Pat Robertson) had claimed Haiti was being punished by its 2009 quake. If an event was divine retribution then perhaps helping those in need after this particular event is not part of the divine plan.

      Not everyone is so firmly convinced that the Bible is the answer to every question. A number of authors (and comedians) have noted the God in the Old Testament seemed to have quite the belligerent attitude (Noah’s Flood) while the Jesus in the New Testament seemed quite the opposite (turn the other cheek; the meek shall inherit the earth). (I think Bill also noted:) A Bible is a repository for a quote about just about anything, whether it be rational behavior or extreme intolerance. For many, that is NOT a suitable guide when taken literally, which is why Christianity in its many flavors will always have ups and downs in membership. The more a parish focuses on a literal interpretation the more likely a number of members will be alienated by the intolerance. Be careful criticizing other religions; is the religion you hold so clearly above reproach?

      Religious tolerance is important in human society. The wonder of humanity is its diversity and its diversity contributes to the strength of humanity to weather the storms of everyday living on this planet.

  6. peddiebill says:

    Good reply….care to take a wager on whether it will work?

  7. dave says:

    I thought it worth a try. Religious tolerance can be difficult when one is absolutely certain of one’s position. I was a bit put off by the vitriol in another comment about Islam. The irony here is that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all share common roots in the Old Testament. I am in the middle of reading The New Testament Code by Robert Eisenman and now I gather all three also share a number of stories surrounding James the Just, the brother of Jesus. I was aware of the common importance of Abraham but now I see more commonality. The enmity among these three religions must arise due to the recognition that each is a departure from the other.

  8. Richard says:

    It seems to me that the central point of disagreement in the above discussion seems to be whether or not the bible was (as theologian Huston Smith put it) ‘dictated’ by God. Many ‘fundamentalist’ Christians believe that it was and because of this believe that it is ‘inerrant’.

    The history of Christian bible literalism is littered with terrible examples of intolerance, violence in the extreme, war, oppression, hatred and genocide. Crimes perpetrated by ‘Christians’ in the name of God against Moslems (The Crusades) the gnostic Cathars (Catholic popes) Jews throughout history (The Inquisition ….Martin Luther) are too numerous to recall here. Just the kind of historical events that turn non-believers against Christianity. I feel for God! Would these events have occurred if Christians had not so completely pinned their beliefs on the absolutely ‘inerrant’ writing of well-intentioned, inspired but essentially ‘human’ writers? Many think not.

    The eminent bible translator Bruce Metzger (NRSV) wrote in his ‘The Causes of Error in the Transmission of the Text of the New Testament’ that texts “should not be read as history”. He cautioned readers to be “aware of the variety of literary forms found in the bible”, and warned against reading the bible ” with a dull, prosaic and literalistic mind”. His contention was that the
    gospel writing evangelists had preserved “not a photographic reproduction of the words and deeds of Jesus but an interpretative portrait delineated in accord with the special needs of the early church.”

    Jesus himself chose the teaching tool of parables to explain what a kingdom of God on earth
    might look like. Never meant to be literal (or simply understood) they were designed to make people think- and think hard! A little bit like this blog ! The books of the bible it seems to me reflect this method. I wonder how many overly literalistic Christians ever stop to consider the power of the bible to shine a torchlight into our own hearts (Christian hearts) and reveal narrow-mindedness, hatred and self-righteousness.

    Referring to the above discussion but also a previous discussion on this blog on the subject of ‘hell’, I can’t help thinking that some Christians are quite at home with the idea of fellow
    Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, Jews, Mormons, Jesus-believing Gnostics or even misguided
    members of first century Jesus Movement suffering eternal torment.

    Theologian Russel Pregeant recently wrote about what he referred to as “bible abuse” which he described as ” the violation of biblical writings …..(being used as a) tool of abuse to browbeat opponents who disagree”. He added: “All too often it is used to oppress rather than to liberate….to strike fear into the human heart rather than banish fear.” The author of John’s gospel argues that one cannot know God if one does not know love (4:8). The only way any of us can completely abide in God is by abiding in love (4:13). And importantly, humans will only be able to truly spread God’s word of love if there is no fear in this love because “perfect love casts out fear” (4:18). ” I have given you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”. (13: 34,35)

    Over- dependence on the bible to control thought rather than cause thought is over-dependence on an idol. It is idolising in the same way that the inhumanly over-zealous Jewish priests who Jesus referred to as “vipers” idolised and so abused the holy texts. It stems from the kind of fear that ultimately leads to violence and oppression when the one who fears feels a deep need to defend his or her hard worked-for territory. The episcopalian preacher and theologian Margaret Guenther warns Christians against the “carefully maintained identities” that can become “possessions”.

    Commenting on the the Book of Job, theologian Professor Tim Beal similarly warns Christians against the belief that an understanding of God’s purpose is readily accessible from orthodox ‘accepted’ norms of religious belief. When the voice of God rebukes Job’s two religiously-correct ‘friends’ recounting what they wrongly believe is God’s purpose, Beal writes ” God seems to be saying to Job’s friends ” Who are you to answer for me? Who do you think you are? Who asked you? Look who I have to defend me. How pathetic are my defendents..”

    I prefer to listen for the still small voice of God. This voice is not to be found in amongst the shouting of fundamentalists, evangelicals and bible bashers. It is to be found in the divine
    mystery that is God. Margaret Guenther quotes Rilke: ” Love the questions. To love the questions is to engage in them ever more deeply. Let go and risk….. love the struggle (and) persevere.” It takes courage to let go of preconceived ideas. It takes courage.

    God hates evil. But are all Christians fully aware of the extent to which evils have been perpetrated in the name of God and that this is linked to an gross over-simplification of the sacred texts because of an over-literal ‘reading’? Is this what God would want?

    ” I have had enough of the burnt offering of rams. I do not delight in the blood of goats. Incense is an abomination to me. When you spread forth your hands, I will lift my eyes from you. Even though you make many prayers I will not listen” (Isaiah 1 11-15)

    In the words of John Shelby Spong :” The human desire to control other people’s behaviour re-inforces the usual theological wisdom that expresses itself in a reward and punishment mentality. Religion almost inevitably creates God in the image of the human being and then tries to force all of reality into that frame of reference.” Re-thinking this out-of-date approach can
    produce “emancipation from …religious oppression ….and the building of a new understanding.
    This struggle …..also stretches our consciousness into new dimensions of what it means to be human and that is where hope is born”.

    • peddiebill says:

      Thanks for this thoughtful and detailed response. May I also suggest you take a look at my rather more detailed post “The Shaping of God” which looks specifically at the attitude of inerrancy. I would be interested in your reaction. My problem is not so much with agreeing with you (which I do!) but rather with finding a way of presenting the material so that it is convincing to a fundamentalist. I am even wondering if that position is non negotiable because it has more to do with the conservative grouping the fundamentalist finds themselves agreeing with than the logic of the debate.

  9. sugruerm says:

    Those of us who are labelled ‘disabled’ have no interest in creating images of a beautiful narcissistic God who controls the universe. In prayer my disabled community appreciates images of God who holds with wounded hands and walks on wounded feet. Even so most thinking Christians know all images of God are human creations. But this does not mean the Divine does not exist. Human descriptions and constructions are inadequate but some are profoundly helpful and some profoundly destructive. I believe that we are by nature spiritual beings living in a world divinely skewed towards good. Despite living in the 21st century our vast accumulated knowledge has not made us better people. Spiritually sensitive people have lived in all eras. Those who are interested in the Divine need to sort out for themselves who God is for them. If this contributes to being a happier and better person this is enough. The ancient scriptures present many suggestions as to what God is like and we are free to individually select what is helpful, or consider other insights. I claim the description that ‘God is Good’ and God loves each of us with the unconditional parental love. I relate to ‘the fruits of the spirit’ and do not believe that we are alone. I can also relate to ‘the music of the spheres’ along with God as a symbol for our highest values and that which is ‘awesome’ in the true meaning of the word. Arguments about Creation and God gender seem pretty irrelevant to the nitty-gritty of living as a loved person.

    • peddiebill says:

      I suspect on balance that individuals who understand that is just as important to show love to ones fellows (including the ones we dont much like!) as it is to feel that one is a loved person are the ones most likely to make positive contributions to human society. Whether or not we can move the next step from being dimly aware of a sense of awe for creation and accordingly find optimum ways of living responsibly in the natural world is more of a challenge.

  10. peddiebill says:

    fair comment!

  11. Irving Letto says:

    I’m familiar with your reference to the “Father Christmas type God.” For several years I’ve been talking about the “Santa Claus” God that so many people in the pews seem to believe in. Even Canada Post gets involved in trying to make children believe that Santa Claus receives the letters they send and is likely to give them what they requested. When I was a child we wrote our letters to Santa Clause and put them in the stove to burn. We believed they went up the chimney and Santa received them. The way many people pray to God for success in their work or healing for their cancer is not very different than putting Santa’s letter in the stove. This doesn’t mean that prayer is not effective. I believe it is. But not in a simplistic way like writing a letter to Santa Claus. In the movie “Shadowlands” C. S. Lewis says something like this. “I do not pray because my prayers change God. My prayers change me. I pray because the desire arises in me to do so.”

    I’ve not read all your essay yet, but what I’ve read I find to be very meaningful. Keep going.

  12. peddiebill says:

    Thanks Irving
    I sometimes wonder if we should make it compulsory for all clergy to read William Barclay’s comment on prayer when he suggested something to the effect that prayers prayed with no intention of getting involved with the answers get stuck at the ceiling.

    Your comment is appreciated and deserves a wider audience.

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