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.