Sunday 8th February, morning
Proverbs 8:1, 22-31; John 1:1-14
Revd Kate Tuckett
I like Stephen Fry a lot. He is someone who comes over as someone who is articulate, kind, compassionate and much cleverer than me. And so as an admirer I am one of the 3 million people who viewed his recent rant against God which has been all over the internet. ‘Why should I’, he asks, respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is full of injustice and pain?’ It’s a sensible question. And the answer is of course that he shouldn’t, he mustn’t, respect such a deity and neither do I. Let’s not leap to defend a god we don’t believe in. We have a name for a capricious, mean-minded, stupid being, but it isn’t God.
We have two readings today that seem to be about aspects of God, and wisdom in Proverbs is personified as a woman, and the word, in John 1, as a man. The two passages echo each other: wisdom is described as having been with God in creation, and in fact created or conceived before creation. The Word, too, is there, in the beginning. And we may read from these passages that God exhibits male and female characteristics, which to a point is probably true, but becomes problematic if we use this as an end and assert that God is part male and part female, because of course when we talk about God we talk about something that is beyond language and beyond words.
We use language in different ways. If my computer breaks, and I take it to be repaired, I don’t want someone to tell me that it’s in a bad mood and has some issues to work out. I want someone to be able to diagnose exactly what is wrong with it and sort the problem out. There is a need for language that is clear and unambiguous, with nothing to lead somebody to think you were talking about something else. Without it, we wouldn’t get the right doses of medicine, planes couldn’t take off and land, and my computer wouldn’t get fixed.
But say someone tells you they have just got engaged and you ask what their partner is like, and they tell you that he’s 6 foot 1, wears size 8 shoes , is left-handed, was born in Yorkshire, drives a red Citroen, and doesn’t like tomatoes, you might think to yourself that this is a bit strange. Technical language can describe some things very well. But in other situations, like love, or great pain or anguish, or unspeakable joy or ecstasy, it falls flat. It’s inadequate. It fails. Sometimes language describes accurately and completely complex and detailed concepts and mechanisms and processes and sometimes language isn’t enough. And sometimes there aren’t words. Sometimes sentences and phrases can’t do the moment justice. Sometimes we are speechless.
And when we talk about God, we’re using language that employs a vast array of words and phrases and forms to describe a reality that is fundamentally beyond words and phrases and forms. They can help us to point to God and to understand the divine. But they are not God.
Our conceptions of God and the images we use to shape and explain these conceptions are deeply influenced by the patterns, technologies and customs of the world we live in. In the ancient world, it was observed that a woman become pregnant only after having been together with a man. It was assumed, based on limited understandings of human biology, that man’s contribution must be the essence of the life force, and a woman’s, the place where that life force was carried and held and nurtured. God, it was believed, was the life force of the world, and so God must be like a father.
There is a balance of images of male and female: word and wisdom, God is the farmer who plants the mustard seed and God is the woman working yeast into a lump of dough; Jesus prays to his father in heaven; the prophet Isaiah gives the analogy of God like a feeding mother.
When God is described as father or mother, wisdom or word, judge or potter, rock or fortress, warrior or refuge, strength or friend or lawgiver or lover, those writers are taking something they’ve seen, something they have experienced, and saying God is like that. It’s an attempt to put that which is beyond language into a frame or form we can grasp. An image or a word or a doctrine or a dogma doesn’t contain God. It isn’t God. It only points to what God might be.
Two people discussing God may well be talking about two extraordinarily different realities while using the same word. When we hear views such as the ones that Stephen Fry puts forwards that seem to make God intellectually or morally inconceivable we may say that don’t believe in this God either. But if we’re honest, somewhere in our psyches, we may hold some variant on this image of God too. God as a cross between a megalomaniac and the tooth fairy. God as a disapproving parent. God as the ultimate control-freak, trying to impose his will on the world. He is a despot crushing the joy and pleasure out of life. And this is a crucial controlling factor in our lives. I suspect that our images of God are determined by the world around us, but also determined by our images of ourselves.
We all project our images of ourselves onto God and Jesus. Writer and broadcaster Giles Fraser spoke on Thought for the Day a couple of years ago about an exercise where a number of people had to take the Myers Briggs personality test – many of you will know it – it’s a basic way of characterising personality based on Jungian analysis. Before receiving their own categorisation, this group were asked to try and decide what personality type they thought Jesus was. And there was a high degree of convergence between their own type and the type assigned to him. Extroverts thought Jesus was an extrovert, introverts thought Jesus was an introvert and so on.
We can easily construct a mental image of God and Jesus in our own image. Christian tradition has at times seemed far too certain of itself and its affirmation of the names and nature of God. When we worship God and Jesus, it is very easy for us to worship ourselves or a projection of ourselves.
We’ve left Christmas well behind us and are starting to look towards Lent. This is a time to get beyond those distortions of me, beyond projecting my fears, needs and desires onto the world. There’s a leaflet in your service sheets setting out several ways we’re inviting you to engage with this as a church.
God in Jesus was probably a lot stranger than we think. Stephen Fry, in his rant against God, referred to bone cancer in children and to a particular kind of East African worm that burrows into the human eye. The Bible goes further. Genesis wrestles with familiar questions about the existence of evil in the world, describing a cataclysmic moment at which somewhere tragedy took root; illness developed, the East African eye worm gradually evolved in horrible ways unintended by its creator. We see a catalogue of unmerited suffering in the book of Job. And the crux of the Christian faith is the cross, a moment of unimaginable and undeserved suffering. The gospels writers didn’t believe in the god Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in either. They believed in a god of such humility, such love, such strangeness that he allowed himself to be put to death by the ruling forces of the world, and broke the cycle of violence in which he found himself, offering peace and forgiveness to those who killed him.
We’re bound to misunderstand what God is like. We don’t have the language. But if we are to use words, the best image Christians have been able to come up with and the one that Christian experience seems to bear out is that God is love. This is what the great story of the Bible is about, a loving God trying to restore and reconcile the world and to draw everything into harmony with Godself. It’s a love story, expressed poignantly and beautifully in a man who ended up on a cross. But in this life, this man gave us the image of a God with a strange love more profound and passionate, more extravagant and unconditional than anything anyone had ever grasped.
‘Atheism’, says Stephen Fry, isn’t just about disbelieving in God, but asking what kind of God is he? It’s a good question. With a picture of the utterly evil monster he rejects, I can only utter a heartfelt Amen to the atheism he puts forward.
This sermon uses resources from:
Bell, R. (2013), What We Talk About When We Talk About God, London: Harper Collins
Pritchard, J. (2006), How to Explain Your Faith, London: SPCK