Posted by: rogermitchell | April 5, 2011

What can we know about God?

I like the approach to knowing God in the first chapter of John’s gospel. This begins by declaring that we can discover God through the creation “All things came into being through him, and apart from him nothing came into being that has come into being” (Jn 1: 3). It then goes on to affirm that we can encounter him in fellow humans, in this case John the Baptist “There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light” (Jn 1: 6-8).

But then it is made clear that the really decisive factor in our knowledge of God is contained in the coming of Jesus “the word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1: 14). So although we can learn important things through the creation, what the apostle Paul refers to as “his eternal power and divine nature” (Rom 1:20) and through the image of God in our fellow humans, who unless we love we can know nothing, according to John’s epistle (1 Jn 2:11), it is in Jesus that the word became flesh so that we could really understand.

The faith conviction pursued in this blog is that this revelation is vital to everything, including how we understand what we learn from the creation and our fellow humans, and that the testimony of Jesus in the gospels challenges the way that theology has generally understood what Paul describes as eternal power and divine nature. The research I have done confirms this and has brought me to the conclusion that the way western Christianity has understood power and deity has been invaded by empire, and in consequence God has been configured as a sovereign ruler wielding all power, when Jesus reveals him as nothing like that at all. Instead he demonstrates him to be a loving father who empties himself out in love for his children.

Traditional theological arguments and formulations like the Nicaean Creed, for example, have struggled with problems that are non-existent if we configure God from the testimony of Jesus. My attempts to do this, drawing on the growing agreement in other contemporary kenotic theologians but going further than most, convinces me that the God of the incarnation is not sovereign and does not unite two substances, the one sovereign and divine and the other servant and human. Instead he reveals divinity and humanity to be on a single spectrum, with the human proceeding from the divine, which is revealed to be self-giving servant love.

It is from the knowledge of God which we discover in Jesus that we can be sure God really is love, and gives himself to us unconditionally. He desires us to receive him, and ourselves become givers of unconditional love like him. As John again puts it  “But as many as received him, to them he gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in his name” (Jn 1: 12).

I realise that some will be uneasy about jettisoning past theological positions and creeds, but I am persuaded that in order to break off the demonic constructs of hierarchical oppression and control, ideas about God that identify him with empire, and do not fit the gospel Jesus, need to be set aside.

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Responses

  1. I am so impacted by this and frankly untroubled by the theology except as an intellectual curiosity although I’m interested in it for that, as a thinking person.
    No, I’m agreeing wholeheartedly with your statement in divinity and humanity but so so aware I don’t love enough to be anywhere near loving others. My heart tells me God loves me enough to cover my lack by his grace but I so want to love in that self-giving way more…
    Perhaps it is in loving ‘one’ in the face of all odds that we learn…I hope so.

    • Thanks for the positive feedback. When I first started my tentative theological subversions back in my days as an evangelical student leader I got such flack from the thought police that I guess I still expect it something negative to come shooting across my bows!

  2. wow Roger. This is a big way of seeing things. I’m awed. And excited. Keep pushing on this – it gives me hope. c.

    • Thanks for the encouragement Cheryl. It’s good to hear from you. I was beginning to wonder whether my remark about not agreeing with a ‘last angry comment’ with reference to a link to a video of the demonstration against the absurd Westminster council prohibition against feeding the homeless might have seemed to refer to your previous comment about right wing evangelicals! Blessings, Rog

      • No, I don’t think I was confused or miffed. I understood your statement to reference the video not my comments. Honestly, its the end of the term and I’m busy with grades, making up a final exam, and the ongoing but rarely addressed PhD thesis. I’m luckly with mine – while I have yet to begin writing all the research is done. So I just have to sit down and plug in the info. Or at least that is my hopeful theory at the moment. Since no job for the summer has turned up I will spend the next 4 months, head down, seeking to prove that theory. I may be living on beans by September but hopefully will be almost ready to defend.

        I take encouragement from your own almost crossing of the finish line. Of course, now comes all the questions of ‘what next’ for us all!
        c.
        PS. I need to chew on this thinking about divinity and humanity for awhile. My intuition says this is an important shift, a critical one, with profound implications.

      • I’m relieved that the silence was only pressure of work. We have talking so gratefully of your intellectual gift and insight here in Mallorca this very morning. So all strength to you as you press on to completion!

  3. Thanks Roger. Really good.

    It is so vital that we really grasp this paradigm shift in our thinking.

    I’ve been mulling over again (with the help of the brilliant Ched Myers) the stuff in 1 Sam 8 when Israel ask for a king. They are warned that kingship will mean diempowerment of the marginalised and emowerment of the few in the centre, it will mean economic hardship and taxation for the many and enitlement and riches for the few, it will mean militarisation and becoming more concerned about defending one’s own teritory than being a blessing to nations around. God even tells them that they will be like slaves!

    So when Jesus comes to ‘preach the good news to the poor, and bring freedom to the captives’ the political implications are massive. In every way that we are enslaved to the empire system, he came to bring total freedom, knowing him again as provider and protector.

    So when he forms his ekklesia to continue in this same flow from the Trinity to the whole creation, he didn’t mean for us to opt back into a sytem of doing things that relies on an OT understanding of kingship and ruling……….which comes from a poor theology of who God is and what he is like. Once we really get that Jesus IS the revelation of the Father, we can’t understand God from that old paradigm.

    The authority which we now carry, as co-heirs with Christ has to be constantly realigned with the story of the incarnation and the gifts brought to Jesus in a moment of epiphany. Gold – a true understanding of the power of God, Frankincense – intimacy in our relationship with God and a lifestyle of prayer, and Myrrh – a life poured out to death, in love.

    This is why an understanding of the 3 generational move of the HolySpirit in the last century is so vital, that we can be filled to the measure of him who fills all in all, and find again for the sake of the whole creation, what it really means to be the ekklesia of God!

    • Yes to this Andy. I particularly like your take on the wise men, traditionally understood as Eastern astrologer kings. The idea that their gifts indicate the reorientation of wisdom and rulership to a kenotic, gift-based economy is especially attractive. And yes, I agree wholeheartedly that this is what three generations of revival came to restore. The latter gives me particular hope, because just as Jesus’ incarnation coincided with an early subsumption of transcendence by empire, to give the lie to it and bring its structures of law, monarchy and temple to an end, now the timing of Holy Spirit visitation at its culmination in the fulness of Western global empire can end law, sovereignty and temple once again. I will blog more on this shortly.

  4. Okay Roger, I’ve done some chewing on this and I have a big question. To quote: “Instead he reveals divinity and humanity to be on a single spectrum, with the human proceeding from the divine, which is revealed to be self-giving servant love.”

    I think I get that and even agree with it. But it raises the large question of the rest of creation. Does the rest of creation exist on this spectrum? Does it proceed from the divine similarly to humanity? I’ve spent a fair amount of research time on trying to understand what sets humans apart from other species on this planet. And it comes down to very little. Sure we have highly developed language(s) but whales also use language and have names for individuals. We have a family structure but so do elephants (they get Post traumatic stress disorder when a kin elephant is killed). Wolves also have a strong family structure and will devote themselves as a group to caring and protecting the young (sounds like they put the children first). Some monkey species are cooperative breeders like humans. And I could go on. The thing that appears to set up us apart is a self referential brain but since we have limited interaction with other species we really don’t know how different that is. So in your theology where does creation come into things and how are humans related to everything else?
    c.

  5. This is a profound, topical and highly relevant question. For which reason it needs even more collaboration than usual. So I offer two responses that are emphatically only starters.
    i) I believe that the creation is part of God’s own development. That is to say he was completing, revealing, embodying himself through it. This is not the same as pantheism, which as I understand it makes the creation God. Rather it asserts that the creation proceeds from God’s person or spirit, like John’s gospel puts it “All things came into being through him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In him was life, and the life was the light of men (Jn 1:3-4). This linking of the creation and God’s life is very important. It implies that it emanates from God’s life. This makes sense of the later statement “it is the spirit that gives life, the flesh counts for nothing” (Jn 6:63). Not the flesh is worth nothing! As the creation of the spirit it is worth everything. This is clear from the fact that since the incarnation God forever has a body. A resurrected one, but a real created body. There is now a human animal body in the Trinity

    ii) However, genuine care for the creation comes from the spirit, it requires active life-giving, cherishing love to sustain it. While objective scientific information, is good because it is part of creation, and can help us to understand how it works and how to care for it, it is not its inner life. Its inner life is spirit and it requires spiritual beings to nurture it. So the gardening, stewarding role, “having dominion” is nurturing the creation in unconditional love, and this is the job of those human animals who share God’s person or breath in a distinctive way. We most certainly are animals, but we are more than animals. We have had the possibility and the responsibilty of loving the creation with God’s life spoken into us in a way that the rest of creation has not. There is much more to be said and understood. For example I believe that we, like God can speak creation into life, that naming the animals gives them spiritual life in some way that they would not otherwise have, and that without the loving resurrection life of the Holy Spirit we can’t hope to fully heal the planet. Ray Mayhew has some material on this in his footnotes I think, drawing on Balthasar, which is worth searching his site for [on the blogroll]. David Clough, an academic colleague at the University of Chester has written extensively on the subject. But I would maintain a stronger spiritual difference between humans and animals than he does as far as I understand him thus far.

  6. Hello Roger. I was thinking tonight of some of the things you and Sue shared years ago when you ministered here in Western Pennsylvania. I had the thought to look you up and was delighted to find your blog. As I began to read your words, the tears began to flow without my knowing why. The more I read, the more I wept. And though I am still processing, I sense truth here — a spring of crystal clear water — my spirit drinks its in. I have been asking God for the ability to love like this, convinced that when I see Him as He is, I will be like Him. Thank you for this window of grace and truth. Blessings to you and your lovely wife.


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