This blog post is taken, more or less as is, from my book How The Bible Actually Works. You can learn more by reading the book or by purchasing the new 6 week course on the material.
Should we be the least bit surprised when we, along with some biblical writers, find ourselves wandering beyond the words in the Bible as we think about what God is like, sensing that the God we see there made sense for that time but not necessarily for ours, and that the God we were introduced to in the Bible is not in every way the God we believe in here and now?
My answer to that rather convoluted question is, “No, we should not be surprised.” God is relentlessly reimagined all around us.
American Christians have imagined God as feminist, environmentalist, capitalist, refugee, soldier, Republican, Democrat, socialist, and on and on. Some portraits of God I agree with more than others (and let the debates begin), but
the act of reimagining God in ways that reflect our time and place is self-evident, unavoidable, and necessary.
When the situation was dire, the ancient Israelites expressed their hope in God in ways that needed to be heard at the time—in pleas for economic justice, integrity of their leaders, success against their enemies. The questions for us, as they have been for all generations, are:
What is our hope?
How do we yearn for God to show up here and now?
What urgent thing is happening right now to us, our families, and our world?
What new thing will the God of old do now?
These are the questions driven by wisdom that we ask ourselves as the biblical writers did ages ago.
When I see God presented today as a champion of the full equality of women, people of color, refugees, or the environment, I say, “Yes, this is my God too. This is the God I believe in.”
But this is a reimagined God.
As hard as it might be to hear, the God of the Bible, strictly speaking, doesn’t actually champion these causes, however important they might be to us. If biblical writers could listen in to our God-talk, they might not recognize their God in what we say, at least not without some prompting.
Sure, we might see hints in the biblical story where something like “God sides with refugees” can find a hook, and for some issues that hook is bigger than others (the justice and fairness hooks are huge, for example). But the biblical hook is brought in after the fact. The actual feeling of compassion for refugees doesn’t begin by reading the Bible.
Rather, the Bible comes into the picture afterward as a way of grounding that compassion in our faith tradition.
We find in the Bible ways of anchoring our experience of God—even if that means reading the Bible in fresh and creative ways, which is exactly how we see the New Testament writers engaging their Bible when they talk about Jesus.
We’re getting a little bit ahead of ourselves, and we’ll come back to this later in the book. For now, let me just repeat that this process of reimagining God is not a problem to be overcome, but an invitation to meet the always active, always present God here and now, where we are, and to trust that God is with us in that process.
By saying, “This is my God,” I am accepting the responsibility of our inevitable task of finding those sacred places where God and our world meet.
This is why I disagree with Christians who say, for example, that women are not permitted to have leadership roles in churches or Christian organizations. I understand that there are Bible verses that precluded women from preaching or teaching men (which we’ll come back to).
But simply lifting those verses out of the Bible without further ado is in my opinion to relinquish the sacred responsibility of reimagining God for our here and now.
I can certainly understand why some might say that Christian faith and practice should not depend on the demands of our current pagan, secular, very unchristian culture. But if you throw down that card too quickly, it will backfire. (Mixed metaphor. Just seeing if you’re paying attention.) The ancient world, after all, gave us warring gods and heavenly board meetings. If that doesn’t fit the definition of “pagan influence,” I don’t know what does. And yet ancient Israelites imagined God within that world—and those images became part of our sacred scripture.
I think that is worth sitting with that last point and pondering it for a while.
The Creator is being reimagined all the time and can be reimagined through the lens of any culture, of any time and place.
No one culture, and certainly not the (largely white male affluent) Western culture I inhabit, can claim superior status for reimagining God once and for all. The Creator does not need any of us to sit atop the mountain and speak down to everyone else.
Perhaps this is at least one reason why the Christian faith has had such staying power and spread broad and wide—different people living in different times and places can connect with this God in ways that engage their world and make sense to them.
We are not the first, prompted by the time and place of our existence, to ask “What is God like?” But the question remains whether we will accept the responsibility to answer that question. And we are not turning away from scripture (or God) when we do so, but turning toward scripture as it models that very process.
All of which is to say, God is, as always, out ahead of us leading us on. We only need to follow.
This is the God I choose to believe in, the one I imagine, a God who is quite aware of the fact that we cannot help when and where we were born, but remains with us just the same and encourages us to accept the challenge of owning our faith here and now rather than relinquishing that sacred responsibility by expecting others to have done it for us.
And when we do that, we are joining an ancient conversation, and once we hear it, we’ll wonder how we hadn’t noticed it before.
Looking for more? Grab a group of friends for videos and discussion questions–you’ll get 6 work-at-your-own-pace sessions in our new course, How the Bible Actually Works.