by Ed Dickerson
It’s become a pretty constant refrain. “I believe in a God, but not in . . .”
The blank is most often filled with “the God of the Old Testament,” or one of its variants, such as, “the God who ordered the extinction of the Canaanites,” but there are other alternatives, such as, “the God who left such deceptive evidence in the fossil record if He really created the Earth less than (x millions) of years ago.”
I’m always bemused by such statements. It’s as though we find ourselves at the “God Buffet,” taking the offerings we like, and leaving those we don’t care for. We all have different meals, but we all have what we choose. “My God, your God,” fits right in with the postmodern view of “my truth” and “your truth.” When it comes to God, we’re all like George H.W. Bush: if we don’t like broccoli, we don’t have to eat it.
And frankly, there’s a lot to not like. Pacifists don’t like the God who commands war and violence. Those concerned with standards aren’t fond of the God who accepts sinners and eats with them. “Social Justice” advocates don’t like the picture of a God who negotiates different pay rates for the same work. I could go on. There’s something for nearly everyone to object to. But this is nothing new. The God pictured in the Bible was always “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).
But what kind of God does that leave us with? I mean, if you don’t like the God of the Old Testament, then you reject the God of the Jews, and of Muslims, for that matter. Not that their ideas of God are identical, but if violence and judgment cause you to reject Yahweh, you’re not going to be any happier with Allah—and vice versa.
Unfortunately, you also don’t like the God of Jesus, because he repeatedly cites the Old Testament as authoritative concerning the nature of God. In fact, on several occasions, Jesus clearly claims to be that God. In John 8:58, he said, “’Very truly I tell you,’ Jesus answered, ‘before Abraham was born, I am!’” Showing that his audience understood his claim exactly that way, the next verse says, “At this, they picked up stones to stone him,” for blasphemy.
So, if you don’t like the God of the Old Testament, then you have to edit Jesus’ life and teachings to eliminate those Old Testament roots and trappings, and his own approving references.
Now, I’m not particularly fond of OT passages commanding the extermination of certain groups, or when Samuel hacks Agag to pieces in accordance, so he says, with God’s will. When it comes to that, there are a number of things Jesus said which challenge my understanding. At the very least, he could have left out Lazarus and the Rich Man. Throughout the scriptures there are passages which disturb my desired tidy theology. So I understand the impulse to edit out passages that cause difficulties. But that gives me a different problem.
In “How to Think About God,” which deals with natural theology rather than sacred theology, the late Mortimer Adler tackled the problem of how to describe God. We cannot have a definition of God, because a definition is a limitation, and we cannot limit God. So he comes up with a “definite description,” a description that can apply only to God. And he comes up with “that which nothing greater can be thought of.”
And, as he goes through his book, it becomes clear that definite description serves its purpose very well. Just as one example, he says that God must be personal, because persons are greater than mere forces. Persons have consciousness, have wills, purposes, and intentions, whereas forces are unconscious and purposeless. Since consciousness is superior to unconsciousness, God must be a person rather than a force.
Similarly, God must be a creator, since creativity is superior to non-creativity. The Judge is greater than the one judged. And obviously, the Maker is superior to the thing made. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, his “definite description” is useful.
And that brings us back to the God Buffet, where everyone can have the God they choose. If you don’t accept the God of the OT, it is because you have decided he is not “that which nothing greater can be thought of.” Ditto with Jesus hard sayings.
It reminds me of a story a friend told me. A parishioner where my friend taught school admonished the pastor that he should preach more sermons on vegetarianism. The pastor replied that Jesus ate lamb at Passover and fish in the Gospel of John. Unphased, the parishioner explained, “We have more light now.” More light than the Son of God?
Actually, that’s exactly the same thought that lies behind our selections at the God Buffet. We select some things and reject others because “we have more light.” But Jesus affirmed the scriptures. If we believe in him, the Buffet is closed. We’re stuck with the whole Bible, as it is, ‘hard sayings’ and all. Otherwise, whether we realize it or not, we have fallen for the oldest temptation. We have become the final arbiter of what God is and what He is not. In that case, to see “the God we believe in” only requires a glance in the mirror.