Effing with the Ineffable - Making Room for Debate
Ask someone about an artwork and their response will always tell you more about them than the piece in question. It is impossible to convey objectively, and indeed, its purpose is to elicit a subjective response that challenges the viewer to interpret, analyse and convey their own determination on the statement that is being made. So it is with God. The moment we speak of God, we speak of less than God. And so our conversations, our writings, our artful imaginings always take on a subjective approach, filtered by life experiences, circumstances and belief systems that we were raised with. God is bigger than we can imagine, infinitely more complex, intricate, loving, and satisfying than our puny finite minds can handle or hope to get a grasp of. What does God mean to you? Does he exist? Or doesn’t he? Is he all-powerful or is he unable to stop bad things from happening? Does he suffer with us or is he excluding certain people from his presence? Is he faithful to all people, or only to the faithful few? Is God even a he?
You may not even be close Chances are, whatever you believe about God, you are wrong. Or at best, not even close to being totally correct. This then, raises the question of the Bible, or any other religious texts (if we are going to be truly encompassing on the matter), being infallible or inerrant, or even the 100%, total revealed word of God. Could it ever possibly hope to fully encapsulate God and his character, with every word accurately conveying who God is and what he desires from us? But even making allowances for parable and poetry, obvious allegory and dream interpretation, is the rest of scripture truly able to be taken literally? When scripture tells us “Thus sayeth the Lord”, can we honestly take this literally as a divine word from the sky, or is it possible that the writer is only able to convey his own limited interpretation of God and his character, and the divine message being delivered, if it even was a divine message in the first place? If we can agree that no one has a monopoly on divine understanding in its totality, why do we so blindly accept ancient scriptures as having the be-all and end-all of divine truth?
Discussion and disagreement Even the ancient prophets disagreed on what the “word of the Lord” was, arguing with each other over hundreds of years on God’s nature and his desire for the Jews and the rest of the ancient world. All of them spoke as one who spoke for the divine. So who was right? All of them? Any of them? None of them? Or did their interpretation of God speak more of their own subjective experiences of who they saw God as being or who they needed God to be in their specific circumstances? And even if we believe that God spoke to them directly, giving the prophets a direct download of his will to be passed on to the people, can we say with total honesty and accuracy that their human minds could and did completely comprehend such an infinitely immersive divinity? It follows that Jewish history with scripture has been one of the acceptance of discussion and disagreement, and a pride in questioning everything, even their own sacred scriptures. The Talmud is a collection of differing opinions on what scripture means, gathered over hundreds of years in itself. It often seems that Jewish culture is more comfortable with discourse and argument than in coming to a general consensus on the nature of most anything. This occurs often in the Gospels, with religious leaders coming to question Jesus on a number of topics related to God and to life generally as interpreted by scripture. Jesus responds with more questions and a back and forth that is the common practice of the day ensues.
Correct belief or the art of theological debate The Western Church, generally speaking (and outside of the academic world), has lost the art of the theological debate. From Constantinian times until now, the West has sought unity through “correct belief” and snuffed out every dissenting thought. Until recently, this has often been achieved through violence, but now with the advent of the internet, differing views are disseminated much more quickly than can be quashed. Because we have lost the art of debate, disagreements today quickly tend towards accusations of “Heresy!”, rather than wrestling with different interpretations of scripture or taking time to understand the opponent’s position and weighing up the pros and cons of their argument. This importance placed in “Correct Belief” fades when one considers that God is so much more than we can ever hope to imagine. How can we possibly attest to professing the total and true fullness of God when we can’t even imagine what that entails? Perhaps instead, we would be better served viewing God as an artwork, with each of us sharing our responses and experiences and choosing instead to listen and to learn from each other rather than to demand submission to a particular point of view; an artwork that is able to speak on so many different levels, depending on where a viewer is at and making no judgment on the place that they currently find themselves. An artwork that gently commands an inner transformation in everyone, from every walk and stage of life.
Russell Croft has a heart for community and reaching out to the marginalised and forgotten. He is getting to know the God of infinite goodness and is living a joy-filled life with his wife Belinda and three children in South-East Queensland, Australia.
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