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Changing perceptions of God

The Changing Face of God – Edited by Frederick W. Schmidt (Moorehouse Publishing, 2000)

DOES the face of God change? Tradition tells us that God never changes. But our perception of God changes.

Our views of God change in relationship to time, place and circumstance. Our education and our experiences shape our perception of God. Especially in times of crisis we are compelled to re-examine our beliefs in the nature of God.

From diverse approaches there is the “new quest for God”. Frederick Schmidt, in his introductory chapter, says that “our pictures of God are and should be forever provisional, shifting to meet both narrower and larger needs, grasping more of the nature of God on some level, while at the same time acknowledging that they are less than can ever be known”.

It must be recognised that the Biblical presentation of God began with Jewish categories and later with Roman-Graeco which communicates more adequately to the Gentiles. Subsequently theologians from the West and now increasingly from Latin America, Asia and Africa continue the process of shaping our perceptions of God.

This book is a compilation of the public lectures by prominent contemporary theologians delivered at Washington National Cathedral. They come from different social, cultural and theological horizons. They are regarded as the “paradigm testers” in contemporary theology.

Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun, is well-known for her best-seller “A History of God”. Her lecture is entitled “The God of Imaginative Compassion”. In her scholarly research she discovered that much of the dogma of the Church is man-made and it was hard for her to it accept as authentic revelation. She could not square the teaching of the omnipotent and benevolent God with the suffering of the people, i.e. in Auschwitz and Bosnia.

Marcus J Borg is the author of the book “The God We Never Knew”. In his own spiritual journey, the most important issue is the question of God. The older understanding of Christianity is literalistic, doctrinal, moralistic, exclusivistic, and after-life oriented. He has moved from “the monarchical model of God to a spirit-lover model of God”. The title of his lecture is “The God Who is Spirit.”

God is often conceptualised as a God “out there” separated from the universe who from time to time intervenes in the natural order. Such a God is rather remote and is not seen to intervene all the time resulting in evil and suffering on earth. Borg prefers panentheism which literally means everything is within God. It is contrasted with pantheism where everything is God.

Panentheism looks at “God not as a being separate from the universe but sees the universe and everything that is as being in God. God is the encompassing spirit in which everything that is, is. And that means that God is all around us and not somewhere else”. God is also transcendent and it means that “God is right here, as well as more than right here”.

James Cone is the author of the book “A Black Theology of Liberation”. The title of his lecture is “God is the Colour of Suffering”. The major themes of the African-American religion from slavery days are justice, hope and love. These themes emerged from “the black people’s search for meaning in a white society that did not acknowledge their humanity”.

The Exodus event gave them the belief that God is the liberator of the oppressed. It was Martin Luther King who later took “the American democratic tradition of freedom and combined it with the biblical tradition of liberation and justice as found in the Exodus and the prophets. Then he integrated both traditions with the New Testament idea of love and hope as disclosed in Jesus’ cross and resurrection”.

Jack Miles is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “God: A Biography”. His title of the lecture is “A Complicated God”. He reminds us that preachers are required to speak from the pulpit “as if their relationship with God is deep and real”. They are the designated believers.

Andrew Sung Park wrote “The Wounded Heart of God”. He draws from his Korean experience of suffering or the concept of “han”. We are being reminded that “the church has paid a great deal of attention to the spiritual well-being of sinners, while generally neglecting the healing of the sinned-against”. We are not able to acknowledge the meaning of the suffering of God as victim. The title of his lecture is “The God who Needs our Salvation”.

We often wonder why God does not use power to prevent evil and suffering. “In the face of evil, then, God does not handle world events with a remote control but is involved in human suffering, sorrow and grief, enduring the evil consequences of our sin … Our God is not the aloof one who does not want to prevent evil but the passionate one who endures unbearable evil with the victims, not because God is not powerful, but because God is strong enough to love the sinned-against and to forgive sinners”.

What is your perception of God? The face of God that you see helps you to find meaning and purpose in life and enables you to live in trust and hope.

The Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao, a member of the Methodist Message Editorial Board, was the first Asian
Bishop of The Methodist Church in Malaysia and Singapore.