Unspoken Sermons: The Higher Faith

Early in college my life was dominated by doctrine, what people believed or didn't believe about God, church and religion generally. But in college two things happened. First, I began working through the implications of the various doctrinal positions I held. Mainly I struggled with the problem of evil in light of classic doctrines regarding the nature of hell. The conclusion I reached was that, if the various doctrines of my childhood were true, God was mean, petty, callous and irascible.

This view of God clashed sharply with the second important theological experience of my college years: A prolonged engagement with the gospels. In college I began to read the gospels over and over again. I'd start with Matthew and read through to the end of John. I'd read Matthew-Mark-Luke-John, Matthew-Mark-Luke-John, over and over and over. And as I read I just couldn't square the God of my doctrine with the person of Jesus I encountered in the gospels.

My encounter with George MacDonald around this time gave me the courage to jettison the God of my doctrine and to embrace the God of Jesus Christ I found in the gospels. Basically, MacDonald got me to the point where I said, "Screw it, God is like Jesus. End of story."

In one sense, that conclusion is completely bland and banal. Of course God is like Jesus.

But on the other hand, if you've really internalized this truth, you know just how revolutionary and seismic that claim truly is.

Practically, what this meant was that when I faced two rival interpretations of God I'd always go with the interpretation that revealed God to be more loving, more merciful, more fair, more "for us." Basically, I'd side with the interpretation where God looked more like Jesus. If a view of God moved in the other direction--God as petty, mean, cold, unjust, grumpy, vindictive--then I'd reject this god. In short, MacDonald convinced me that I couldn't think too highly of God. I became free to imagine the most noble, kind, generous, loving and self-sacrificing person who ever lived and know, with ironclad certainty, that God was way, way, way better than that. Humans can't be more loving than God. In fact, the most loving humans who have ever lived--think Gandhi, a loving grandparent, St. Francis, or Mother Teresa--are but pale shadows of God's own love and justice.

God is, simply, better than you can imagine.

Not that God is some kind of sweet, cotton candy pushover. Just that even God's wrath and judgment, in its steely harshness, is always noble, generous, merciful and, ultimately, "for us."

Here are some of the passages in Unspoken Sermons that gave me the courage to risk thinking the very best about God. From the sermon The Higher Faith:

...the dull disciple [says]--"God has said nothing about that in his word, therefore we have no right to believe anything about it. It is better not to speculate on such matters. However desirable it may seem to us, we have nothing to do with it. It is not revealed." ...For [the dull disciple] all revelation has ceased with and been buried in the Bible, to be with difficulty exhumed, and, with much questioning of the decayed form, re-united into a rigid skeleton of metaphysical and legal contrivance for letting the love of God have its way unchecked by the other perfections of his being.

Sad, indeed, would the whole matter be, if the Bible had hold us everything God meant for us to believe. But herein is the Bible itself greatly wronged. It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth. The Bible leads us to Jesus...The one use of the Bible is to make us look at Jesus, that through him we might know his Father and our Father, his God and our God. Till we thus know Him, let us hold the Bible dear as the moon of our darkness, by which we travel towards the east; not dear as the sun whence her light cometh, and toward which we haste, that, walking in the sun himself, we may no more need the mirror that reflected his absent brightness.

"But is not this dangerous doctrine? Will not a man be taught thus to believe the things he likes best, even to pray for that which he likes best? And will be not grow arrogant in his confidence?"

If it be true that the Spirit strives with our spirit; if it be true that God teaches men, we may safely leave those dreaded results to him. If the man is of the Lord's company, he is safer with him than with those who would secure their safety by hanging on the outskirts and daring nothing. If he is not taught of God in that which he hopes for, God will let him know it. He will receive something else than he prays for. If he can pray to God for anything not good, the answer will come in the flames of the consuming fire. These will soon bring him to some of his spiritual senses. But it will be far better for him to be thus sharply tutored, than to go on a snail's pace in the journey of the spiritual life. And for arrogance, I have seen nothing breed it faster or in more offensive forms than the worship of the letter.

[God] is not afraid of your presumptuous approach to him. It is you who are afraid to come near him. He is not watching over his dignity...
From the sermon It Shall Not Be Forgiven:
To accept as the will of our Lord which to us is inconsistent with what we have learned to worship in him already, is to introduce discord into that harmony whose end is to unite our hearts, and make them whole.

"Is it for us," says the objector who, by some sleight of will, believes in the word apart from the meaning for which it stands, "to judge the character of our Lord?" I answer, "This very thing he requires of us." He requires of us that we should do him no injustice. He would come and dwell with us, if we would but open our chambers to receive him. How shall we receive him if, avoiding judgment, we hold this or that daub of authority or tradition hanging upon our wall to be the real likeness of our Lord?...

...To mistake the meaning of the Son of man may well fill a man with sadness. But to care so little for him as to receive as his what the noblest part of our nature rejects as low and poor, or selfish and wrong, that surely is more like the sin against the Holy Ghost that can never be forgiven; for it is a sin against the truth itself, not the embodiment of him.
This notion ("But to care so little for him as to receive as his what the noblest part of our nature rejects as low and poor, or selfish and wrong") is what finally set me free. I could no longer accept a vision of God that was low, poor, selfish and wrong. A view of God that violated the noblest part of my character, and not just my character, the noblest part of humanity.

Am I, then, in danger of pride, of making God into human likeness? Yes, and MacDonald well admits this as you saw above. But his response is clear. You cannot help but make God into your image. So you have a choice. Will you imagine the most noble, merciful, and loving person alive (Jesus, for example) and posit that God is like that? And more than that?

Or will you believe that humans are more forgiving, more loving, and more just than God himself? That humans are better than God? That while I might forgive the wrongs against me (as Jesus forgave those who crucified him) God cannot? That while I recoil at the thought of torturing my child God will torture his children for all eternity?

No, the answer has to be no. God is better than me. Better than you. Better than we can possibly imagine.

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9 thoughts on “Unspoken Sermons: The Higher Faith”

  1. I think the view of Jesus/God you adopt really depends on the Gospel you read. Jesus in Mark strikes me as more aloof. Less human, more Godlike.
    Speaking of Mark, even as impassive as Jesus comes across in places, Bart Ehrman makes the point that Mark was clearly tampered with in places to make Jesus seem nicer than the oldest manuscripts of Mark portrayed him. I think historians operate under the assumption that the oldest sources are those most close to the truth. So I guess I'm wondering, if you just read Mark and assuming that its depiction of Jesus is closest to the truth, would that change your view of God?

  2. Professor Beck,

    What do you make of the Binding of Isaac? As someone teetering on the verge of a MacDonald-esque Christianity, I always remember that story, and wonder if George MacDonald would have done what Abraham did.

  3. What if the Old Testament paints a different picture of God though? Why should we prefer our impression of Jesus in the NT to our impression of the Lord in the OT?

  4. Richard,

    you're opening yourself up to accusations or marcionite leanings . . . you know, there are plenty of people who will run hard and long with that particular tarring-brush.

  5. Regarding the Akedah.

    I think it fine to read the story from a parent's perspective (e.g., how could God ask a parent to do that?) but I tend to read the story sociologically. That is, there is good biblical and extra-biblical evidence that the Israelites (or some of them) practiced child sacrifice. Many scholars consider the Akedah to have played an important role in criticizing that activity. So I consider the Akedah to be the beginning of a long and sustained criticism (reaching a peak in the prophets) within the Old Testament regarding human sacrifice initially and, later, animal sacrifice. The culmination, of course, is Jesus' death which ends sacrifice altogether.

  6. I don't have a problem with such a sociological reading. The question for me is how to reconcile MacDonald's injunction not to accept anything as from God which strikes us as dark ("I love the light, and will not believe at the word of any man, or upon the conviction of any man, that that which seems to me darkness is in God") with the injunction to submit our wills to God. On the one hand, I would not commit genocide if "God" commanded me to do so; on the other hand, I would not want to modify (say) my sexual ethics simply because my intuitions about sexual ethics do not align entirely with what I perceive to be God's commands concerning sex.

  7. Dr. Beck,
    you couldn't have brought this up at a better
    time (for me anyway). That's where I'm currently at - the same conflict between the God presented to me in my upbringing (but also
    much of Scripture itself) vs. Jesus HIMSELF and the SPIRIT in which He went about everything He
    did while here on earth.

    I'm 70% convinced of UR, because I've had the rebellious audacity to ask dirty questions about (and TO) God/Christ concerning His alleged eternal condemnation for most of mankind. I am still vexed by the remaining 30% of doubt or misgiving. I'm continuing to work out this conflict in the same manner - as if yearning to hear His voice, His tone, His mood, see His facial expression in everything He said, as if to wish to hear Him and see Him operate LIVE and in person.

    Matthew 7:11
    "If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!"

    I've literally argued TO God/Christ (shamed to
    admit with rage and cussing) that He's a liar if eternal torment in hell is true for MOST of

    My arguement - if we being evil would NOT throw
    our own children/grandchildren alive into a fire for something bad they did, then how much
    LESS should God want to torture/punish His own children/creation?"

    However, even Jesus has some hard sayings implying exclusive salvation and physical fiery
    punishment for those who are ... "excluded".

    Lot's of work, and much of the cognitive dissonance won't be resolved by reading scripture alone (kind of sad to say).

    Gary Y.

  8. Relax, Gary Y., there is no such thing as "reading scripture alone." It's not possible. You always bring some sort of extra baggage to the enterprise anyway. So feel free to engage all sorts of voices instead of pretending to achieve the "objective ideal" in your study of the Bible.



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