|July 9, 2012
The God Question
Human beings are incurably religious! Even in the basically secularized scientific West most of us still ponder the ultimate God question: what is it that God, if God there be, expects of me? This question has many permutations depending on your stage and situation in life. At bottom, however, the question is intensely personal and concerns the viability of what traditionally religious people think of as the soul (i.e., some eternal aspect of our Being): what can we do to ensure that at our inevitable end God will have been pleased enough with us to issue the invitation: “well done, good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your Master” (Matt 25:21, 23).
Those who find the Judeo-Christian Writings helpful for answering religious questions (i.e., both those writings affirmed by the Synagogue and Church, as well as the writings they rejected) also find that the literature is contradictory. Even in the Bible there are contradictory answers to the question “what does God expect of me?” For example, the ancient Israelites were a cultic priestly society. Their life was regulated by laws mandating temple sacrifices and identifying what was and what was not acceptable behavior. According to the divine law (Torah), among other things, sin (i.e., what displeases God) was forgiven by blood sacrifices (Leviticus 4:1-6:7)—it seems the God of the ancient Israelites enjoyed “the pleasing odor” of burning flesh (Genesis 8:20-22). My point here is that the ancient Israelites trusted and dutifully followed the law to receive God’s “well done.” Psalm 1 and 119 reflect a deep appreciation for the Law.
Israel’s ethical prophets, however, did not agree, and argued instead that God hated the temple cult and paid no attention to it (Amos 5:21-23; Micah 6:6-8). What God actually wanted was justice and righteousness and not temple sacrifices (Amos 5:24): “what does God require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). The prophets believed that the way of justice and righteousness was the exclusive way to please God and the temple cult was misguided.
In the New Testament Paul rejected the Jewish law as incapable of producing lives that pleased God, even though he had a profound respect for the law (Romans 7:7-12; Galatians 3:19-29). Paul concluded that faith alone was the answer to the ultimate God question (Romans 4:1-5:2): “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). “A person is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16).
The writer of the book of James, however, disagrees with Paul’s idea that faith alone is the answer to the ultimate God question. God expects ethical behavior (James 2:14-26) in addition to faith: “religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). Citing the example of Abraham, James said “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
Every Christian group has a way of resolving these conflicting answers to the God question. For example, the populist Baptist response to the disagreement between Paul and James is that they are supplementary: a person of faith will naturally perform ethical deeds. Paul and James, so the populist response goes, are focusing on complementary aspects of the same answer. The reason the obvious contradiction between Paul and James is ignored is that the Bible must be consistent; otherwise it threatens the Bible’s status as “Word of God.” Disagreements in the Bible make it an imperfect instrument, and hence untrustworthy.
When I was in a Baptist seminary in the early sixties, the theologians’ solution to such disagreements in the Bible was to argue “progressive revelation”: God’s self revelation was progressively made as people were prepared to receive it. The difficulty is that the Bible itself is simply inconsistent. A historical explanation is far more reasonable: religious ideas and practices evolve out of a flawed human condition, and people come to different conclusions depending on their situation in life. Change is the way the world works, and it is no less true with religion; we humans invent our gods and religions, and modify them as seemed best to us at the time.
We must each answer the God question for ourselves, using the most responsible balanced information we can find, evaluating it with the best judgment of which we are capable. The answer is far too important to be left to religious professionals, who will insist on their own doctrinaire answers. If I must live and die by the answer, it must make sense to me. As the poet William Henley put it: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul” (Invictus). Paul puts it more appropriately—“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 1:44pm
Your columns are so profound, I am sending them to my sister (age 89) who continues to question any faith but somehow finds a reason to pray. I would love for you to write about the significance of prayer in our lives, the types of prayer, the helpful ways some people pray, and what there is for us who simply do not pray anymore. (We think about God and God's presence but no longer sense it.)