God does not conform to human understanding

  • May 21, 2008

Trinity Sunday (Year A), May 18 (Exodus 34:4-6, 8-9; Daniel 3; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; John 3:16-18)

A sudden change in perspective or a new view of reality can be shocking and unsettling for many. Suddenly the conventional wisdom is no longer so wise, and reality is far more complicated than we ever imagined.

One such intellectual earthquake was the evolutionary view of life proposed by Charles Darwin in the 19th century. This is well-presented in the current exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The challenge of Darwin taught us that the created order is not static and unchanging but always evolving. The creatures of the earth — humans included — were not always as they are now, but they are always in a process of becoming. His “grand vision” of reality, as he called it, stretched our minds to appreciate the beautiful creative process of God.

In a similar fashion, our understanding of God evolves in response to experience and changed circumstances. Many want to “freeze-frame’”their vision of God in the distant past, but images of God that no longer speak to the human condition wither and lose their power to inspire and enlighten.

The reading from Exodus portrays God as merciful, gracious, slow to anger, faithful and abounding in steadfast love. But the omitted verse presents a darker side of God: “visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” Suddenly God seems rather ambiguous and scary. But that is only the portrayal of God in Exodus, a book that stresses God’s terrifying power.

It was the prophet Ezekiel (chapter 18) who proclaimed a new vision of God’s dealings with His people. Everyone is responsible for their own sins; no one will die for the sins of another. Even then, Ezekiel narrates a fair amount of divine violence. God’s image continued to evolve, and the experience of the exile in Babylon was a good theological teacher. Isaiah’s God was one who chastised but also healed and restored. God also intended the redemption and inclusion of all the peoples of the earth.

In each new vision, God becomes more universal and stretches ever further into the future. The entire sweep of salvation history is for our benefit, to form us and draw us home to God. But as Moses laments in the first reading, his people — as well as all of us — are stiff-necked and stubborn and very slow to get it. Paul gets it: the God of love and peace — and that is how God is defined — will dwell with the Christian community. But this can happen only when their own willingness to live in love and peace creates an opening. We in a sense create our own experience of God by our attitudes and expectations.

God’s intentions are crystal clear in the reading from John, arguably one of the most famous passages in the entire New Testament. So intense is God’s love for the world that God is willing to give what is most precious to Him — His only Son — in order to provide eternal life to all who believe in Him. This is very distant from God who punishes several generations of children for the sins of their ancestors.

Condemnation or punishment is far from God’s mind; salvation is His only concern and life rather than death is what God is about. Those who do not believe are not condemned by God, they merely deny themselves the gift that Jesus intended for them. They prefer to walk their own path, even if the path wanders through some very dark valleys.

These words were initially intended for the first generation of Christians, and as such they can seem rather exclusive. What about the many holy and good people who are not Christians? But our understanding of God continues to evolve. Today our increasing global awareness, our experience of the consequences of religious bigotry and exclusivism, and our appreciation for people of other faiths can stretch our minds and hearts even more. Although the gift of life is offered to those who believe in Christ there might be many ways to approach Him.

Jesus is love incarnate, so love itself is the norm by which we are measured. All human attempts to control, define, or limit God will be outdone by the grandeur and immensity of God’s love. We have barely begun to understand.