However carefully formulated, our written doctrines, theologies and moral codes don’t and can’t convey the fullness of Christian truth.
That’s partly because words aren’t up to the job, as I said last time. But even more it’s because Christian truth is never abstract or merely intellectual, and neither is Christian love merely a general principle. Both truth and love have to be made concrete in real lives, real situations, real communities. They have to be incarnated and enculturated (if that’s a word).
So God is love, but that love is never merely some grand idea that we look up to and try to fathom intellectually. Rather it’s a reality that may not be fathomable, but that we still can (and need to) receive and live and breathe and become.
And God is truth, but that truth isn’t merely a set of propositions or laws that we learn and promulgate. Rather it’s a truth that only becomes meaningful within real relationships and encounters and the mundane situations of our everyday lives.
Through a Bible darkly
In the same way, the Bible (and the understanding of God it presents) is rooted not so much in abstract philosophy and ideology as in real events, people and history. And of course this is primarily the history of the Jewish people and the person Jesus, who lived and died in a specific way at a particular time and place.
The Bible is such a troubling mix – profound wisdom and revelatory insight embedded in the cultural sexism, racism and barbarism of a different time. But it’s not that we can always simply extract the nuggets of good ‘truth’ from the dead rock; often the two are too mixed for that. Rather we have to accept it all as it is, and learn to see God through the dark glass – just as it is in our own lives.
There’s much in the Bible that I’m deeply uncomfortable with; lots in the story of the Israelites struggling with God (and vice versa) that I would personally prefer wasn’t there, or was very different. But perhaps it’s important that it’s as it is, not because everything in the Bible is necessarily perfect or ‘God’s Eternal Truth’ in the way Christians sometimes think, but because it is (and has to be) God’s love and truth made real in the mess and muck of actual human society. That’s simply how it works.
So we might prefer a more abstract view or idea of God as pure love, mercy, goodness or whatever (I certainly would) – but that wouldn’t really mean very much.
Over-interpreting the Bible
Similarly, I wonder if we sometimes get a bit too hung up on over-interpreting specific events and words reported in the Bible, reading too much into them. Perhaps we needn’t always treat them as perfect or ideal examples, as how things should be or the only way they could have been – as God’s unchanging Truth and God’s unquestionable Will.
Because again, I don’t think the Bible works like that. It doesn’t record how everything should have been, but simply how things were and are (broadly speaking, allowing for poetic licence, non-literal interpretations and perhaps the odd bit of misremembering).
So perhaps even with something as central and crucial as (say) the crucifixion, there’s a danger that we may get a bit carried away reading complex theological theories into the specific details as the only way God could have worked redemption. Whereas all we know for sure is that this is how God did work, under these circumstances, with these people and at this time.
I suggest this tentatively; perhaps this was the only way God could have achieved his eternal purposes; perhaps it was all minutely planned from before time began. But maybe what matters more is simply that God did choose this particular way at this particular time, for reasons we may never fully understand.
And I think all this does tie in with the practical-symbolic understanding of Christian ideas I talked about last time. The point is that we don’t have to know the full, exact or technical meanings or workings of sin, salvation or atonement; the precise definitions of Christian truth.
Rather we experience these realities incarnationally as we on-goingly welcome Jesus to dwell in us by his Spirit. We struggle with actual sin (whatever it is) within ourselves with Jesus’ help; we receive his actual life and power within us, making real his atonement and salvation in us (whatever those are exactly).
We don’t need to know exactly what these terms mean or how they work; only that they represent realities that are at work in us despite being mysterious. We experience them empirically and participate in them practically, even if we don’t understand them intellectually.
In other words Christian truth has to be expressed and incarnated in concrete words that aren’t up to the job, just as (more importantly) it also has to be made actual in real situations and lives, however non-ideal and imperfect those are.
Theory and experience
I love theology and find the theoretical side of belief endlessly fascinating. But at heart and above all I’m a worshipper, and that’s what I really feel that I’m here for; that meeting and knowing God personally is the crux and nub of my faith.
It’s a bit like the difference between studying musical theory and getting completely caught up in a performance of your favourite music. The musical theory is good, useful and may even be vital if you’re trying to write, perform or analyse music. But in the end it’s the experience of the music itself that’s what it’s all about, what it’s for.
So it is with Christian truth, I believe. The theory and logic are important, but it’s only when these are made real in actual experience and relationship that they really come alive in all their beauty, glory and power.
So I sometimes feel I have two sets of understandings of God, a head one and a heart one, and they don’t always sit well together. The head one is logical and scriptural and strives to be ‘correct’; but the heart one is free and personal and poetic and uncontained and sometimes not scriptural or correct at all. And this is the one that really matters to me.
Different people will have different ways of approaching their faith of course, and that’s fine. If a more cerebral or more scripturally literal way work better for you, fine. But for me at the moment a more symbolic and mysterious approach, a way of the heart rather than primarily the mind, is what I find leads me most into the inexplicable, inexpressible and irreplaceable reality and beauty of God’s presence.