Tonight our study group at Bethany will begin a 13 week exploration of the big questions we Christians wrestle with on a daily basis. Our first topic is the sovereignty of God, what God does, who God is, what we can expect from our God. I read the chapter, written by United Church historian and academic John Young and renowned preacher and scholar Catherine MacLean, and what came to mind was the different ways various religious people use the word “deep”. To my academic friends the word “deep” is reserved for ideas and arguments that are put forward by learned thinkers, concepts that take the simple and add layers of complexity so that we can make sense of our lives. For example if I feel wronged by an experience and want to understand why the experience was unjust and unfair I need to articulate what exactly justice is. And if I want to be to have this conversation with others we need a common vocabulary when it comes to the word justice. Scholars help us to find language so we can get to the crux of what a prophet would mean by, “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.”
But other fine religious people find this definition of “deep” to be abstract, distant and ultimately distracting from their task to make sense out of their lives and the place God occupies in that journey. For these folks academic exploration of justice and the role of God in our lives is like arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It may be intellectually satisfying but what does it say to the one whose husband is slipping into dementia, or the mother who visits her son in prison or the family that lives with the knowledge that an uncle sexually abused his niece? Where is God in those situations? The academic conversation would feel to these persons as “surface”, not getting at the “deep” emotions of loss, pain and forgiveness.
For folks who want and need to know a God who is involved in their personal struggles the most obvious route to take is an all-powerful God who is completely in control, who knows the outcome of every decision and is directing those decisions in a very specific way. This personal all-knowing and all-directing God is a great comfort and getting in touch with that feeling is “deep”. For these folks what is deep has roots in our lives and roots in the grounding that faith makes sense of the chaos and gives assurance that all will be well.
MacLean and Young acknowledge the comfort and reassurance that comes from a definition of a sovereign God who is completely in charge. Yet as good United Church clergy who value education and critical thinking they also know that questions arise from such a worldview, questions like “if God is in charge of everything, why does God allow such horrors to continue?” And, “if God is making all these connections for me, where are the connections for the person who lives next door and struggles with challenges that seem to make no sense at all?” It’s simply not good enough for many of us to hear that God “spoke to you yesterday and told you to thus and so and it all worked out…” That kind of worldview begs so many questions that we need to find other language to make sense of our faith.
What MacLean and Young do is to focus on what faith-filled people generally find satisfying intellectually and emotionally, namely that 1) we have access to God at all times and all places, 2) we have a “north star” in God who can direct us to where we need to go, provide direction in a chaotic world, our world and 3) that before we were born and long after we are dead God is, God is before us, in the midst of us and after our earthy life has ended. God is. These three things are “deep” ideas that can appeal to those who need some sense of consistency and yet at the same time can feel very real and personal in a moment of crisis and emotional vulnerability.
I look forward to sharing all of this tonight.