No “God Talk” Please
I completely understand the reason the secular west attempts to exclude “god talk” from public conversation. “God talk” is problematic.
Katy Perry was raised in a Pentecostal Christian home, loves speaking in tongues and sees her spirituality more as evolving rather than being confined by the Christianity she grew up with (list of links).
Before her Superbowl performance she heard God reassuring her “you got this and I got you.” She knows enough to know that every feeling you have isn’t necessarily God talking so she looked around for confirmation so when random guy who looked her in the eye and said “you got this” she knew it was a word from the LORD.
How does one approach this?
We tend to approach based on our biases and worldview.
- Secular: this is an example of superstitious god talk that causes religious conflict, violence, discrimination. At best it’s foolish and in bad taste. At worst it encourages religious people to justify their own action with divine authority.
- Spiritual but not religious: God is everywhere, always giving us encouragement to do our best and to be our best. It’s so cool that Katy received this word and except for the left shark gave a great performance. God is there to help us have a good time and realize our dreams.
- Sectarian (Christian or other religions): God speaks through authorized parties. “By their fruits you shall know them.” According to how we judge Katy Perry’s life and expressed beliefs we will determine whether this word from God is “authentic” or not.
When God Talks Back
This is a fairly rational approach to the question. The reason the “God talk” question is so difficult is because God is ultimate and so we imagine that anything God might say ought to be privileged above all other speech and elevated to the highest level of authority.
If God said it, then people will just believe it and obey it. Right? This just makes good rational, structured sense. If God says “no shell fish” then we shouldn’t eat them. If God says “having sex with your sister is wrong” then no sex, and on we go.
The difficulty with this flat approach, however, is that it tends to open up lots of holes. If God says “no shell fish” by the same authority that he says “you shall not kill” one my doubt the second because we’ve rejected the first. This seems reasonable. No?
For many who grew up in a secular society, one in which the height of obviousness is that there is no God because we can’t point to a dude with a gray beard on a throne in the sky, this practice of conversations with God is strange indeed, bordering on mental illness if you listen to the new atheists. Someone should send an anthropologist out to study these strange creatures.
Fortunately TM Luhrmann has done must that. In his study she noted that this rational grip that divine speech reasonably should dictate doesn’t seem to bind the Vineyard Christian community she studied. For God to say one thing today and another tomorrow may be inscrutable but not necessarily troubling. What we see is not an engagement of the question of how to regard divine speech, but rather a fundamental shift in who God is.
The post– Civil War Jesus is divine, but barely, and he is no madcap magician breaking loose. He doesn’t giggle. He doesn’t tease. And no barely contained supernatural force strains at his edges. In fact, this Jesus becomes the Jesus of the liberal Christian church: a kind man of great love who taught wisely and who may or may not have been divine. There are references to friendship with God and with Jesus in the Bible, but this friendship is not the free and easy companionship of two boys swinging their feet on a bridge over a stream.
The remarkable shift in the understanding of God and of Jesus in the new paradigm churches of modern American Christianity is the shift that the counterculture made: toward a deeply human, even vulnerable God who loves us unconditionally and wants nothing more than to be our friend, our best friend, as loving and personal and responsive as a best friend in America should be; and toward a God who is so supernaturally present, it is as if he does magic and as if our friendship with him gives us magic, too. God retains his holy majesty, but he has become a companion, even a buddy to play with, and the most ordinary man can go to the corner church and learn how to hear him speak. What we have seen in the last four or five decades is the democratization of God— I and thou into you and me—and the democratization of intense spiritual experience, arguably more deeply than ever before in our country’s history.
Luhrmann, T.M. (2012-03-27). When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (p. 35). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
The Availability of God
While claims of unique divine relationship offend or annoy the secular, they bear more in common with the god-conversant in this democratization. To the degree that any god is available to the secular that God must be available commonly and equally for that God to be just. We hear this assumption repeatedly when someone trots out the contra-Christian protest “God can’t judge the heathen in the jungle for not knowing Jesus”.
The assumption of course is that a just God would not condemn someone for information they didn’t have access to. It’s a good assumption, but it also reveals the assumptions of the God of reason. If someone has reason, they can find God (or the gods).
What we see is that the post-counter-culture shift to democratizing God is just the counterpart to the God of reason. Both are democratic, the path to them, however, is different. One finds God through reason, the other through intuitive, imaginative (read “spiritual”) experience. Luhrmann nails the contrast.
When appealing to “God” holds political, economic or relational sway the quest to certify one’s bona fides will normally result in “God talk”.
Numbers 11, as we saw last week, introduces a section in the book of numbers where the murmuring propensity of the children of Israel is explored and cataloged, along with its usual miserable results. In numbers 12 the very top of the desert community is exposed as susceptible to envy and the desire to use “God talk” to secure status and power.
The conversation begins with a discussion about Moses’ wife. We are by no means sure why it begins there.
- Did Moses take a second Cushite wife?
- Was Zipporah being referred to because sometimes Mideonites were called Cushites?
- Was this an example of racism?
- Was Moses’ wife given status that Miriam and Aaron were envious of?
We can’t answer these questions but we do know that in the wake of some of Moses’ spirit being divided between the elders they declared “Has the LORD only spoken through Moses? Hasn’t he also spoken through us?”
The LORD hears this and calls them in for a meeting. He then lays a poem on them that basically says “There’s what I do in normal prophets and prophesy, with riddles and rhymes, then there’s what I do with Moses. Seeing what you’ve seen (plagues and miracles) is this really a fight you want to pick?”
Moses is seen in this moment to be remarkably meek and passive. He isn’t defensive. This echoes the previous scene when Joshua assumes Moses will be more possessive of his status and the potential threat to it that Joshua sees in Medad and Eldad prophesying in the camp.
The LORD then leaves with the cloud and Miriam is revealed to have the dreaded defiling skin disease. Aaron pleads to Moses and Moses pleads to the LORD and Miriam is given a seven day sentence for her rebellion. She gets off easy compared to the fire and the quail of chapter 11.
Is God Democratic or Not?
This chapter is a wonderful example of how often the Bible wants to have things both ways, and then some. Miriam is referred to as a prophet in other passages. Aaron is the mouthpiece of God. Their claim has legitimacy, but what did making the claim reveal about themselves and about how God reveals himself.
The Bible seems rather inconsistent with the answers we wish to bring to it. Is God democratic in how he deals with us or not?
- Through Reason: Various passages talk about God revealing himself to us through what Christian theology calls “general revelation”. “The heavens declare the glory of God” Psalm 8. God reveals himself to us but we suppress the truth. Romans 1. God has revealed himself to us and has overlooked our ignorance. Acts 17. Learned pagans contribute to Old Testament wisdom literature and magi leave gifts for the newborn Jesus.
- Through more intuitive, unauthorized means: All over the Bible we find prophets outside of the authorized lines who sometimes do right and sometimes don’t. Melchizedek, Baalam, and others. There sometimes seems a fuzziness when it comes to prophesy and God. Sometimes the lines are firm and bright, other times fuzzy and vague. There is the unauthorized exorcist in Mark that the disciples wish to denounce but Jesus leaves him alone. In other places like Acts the seven sons of Sceva get trounced for being unauthorized.
- Broad and Narrow: Jesus himself seems notoriously difficult to pin down on these things. On one hand he tells parables about people appealing to him and he says “depart from me I never knew you” while on the other he says things like “everyone who seeks finds…” Sinners and prostitutes get into the kingdom before Pharisees and teachers of the law.
Given all of this it seems wrong to paint God as being narrow, unreasonable and petty when it comes to people from many places who seek him and reach out to him. Again and again God shows himself to be listening to the cries of hurting, the meek and the oppressed. Again and again it seems the only thing that can really come between us and God is our pride. The difficulty of course, is that pride is no small or uncommon thing.
The Undemocratic, Sovereign God
While God is portrayed as available to our cries he is also not portrayed as being necessarily beholden to them. While God can be very democratic, communicating broadly and sometimes even indiscriminately he is also portrayed as being absolutely free in terms of what he wishes to do and who and how he wishes to use people. This comes through clearly in the Numbers 12 story. If God chooses to use Moses in a special way, and invest him with authority, no one else really has any way of stopping God from doing this. If we wish to form moral judgments about God and his behavior in this way, well, we are free to do so but might face his own moral judgment concerning our own.
This is always the most offensive thing about God. When it comes to our standing and his we are always outgunned. This reality too, however, has ample treatment in the Bible. Job plays with it as well as Abraham and Hezekiah. What is central to all of these stories is that God is seen as undemocratic in that he is a person and reserves the right to act like a person, just as we claim the similar right.
- God is not a government in the sense that we experience modern governments supposedly of laws and not men.
- God is not a law of nature or of karma that mindlessly never chooses between persons.
- God is also not chaos that acts without will or intention.
In this story God quickly and simply does Miriam and Aaron the honor of getting to the immediately (unlike Job) and settling the score. “Although you and your brother may dabble in common prophesy my relationship with Moses is special and you would do well to respect this reality.”
Again, this is offensive to us. It is God using power to violate our demands and claims on him and his arrangement of the universe.
The Un-democratic God in Nature
We might protest and say that this is simply a story in a religious book. This book talks of God prohibiting shellfish and clothing of multiple layers and same sex love. Why honor a story like this rather than dismissing it as the ruminations of a bronze age tribe as we dismiss all others such things? The very nature of God’s “choosing” seems immoral and offensive.
CS Lewis in a sermon called “The Grand Miracle” sheds some interesting light on the undemocratic God as we see in nature.
We, with our modern democratic and arithmetical presuppositions would so have liked and expected all men to start equal in their search for God. One has the picture of great centripetal roads coming from all directions, with well-disposed people, all meaning the same thing, and getting closer and closer together. How shockingly opposite to that is the Christian story! One people picked out of the whole earth; that people purged and proved again and again. Some are lost in the desert before they reach Palestine; some stay in Babylon; some becoming indifferent. The whole thing narrows and narrows, until at last it comes down to a little point, small as the point of a spear— a Jewish girl at her prayers. That is what the whole of human nature has narrowed down to before the Incarnation takes place. Very unlike what we expected , but, of course, not in the least unlike what seems, in general, as shown by nature, to be God’s way of working. The universe is quite a shockingly selective, undemocratic place out of apparently infinite space, a relatively tiny proportion occupied by matter of any kind. Of the stars perhaps only one has planets: of the planets only one is at all likely to sustain organic life. Of the animals only one species is rational. Selection as seen in nature, and the appalling waste which it involves, appears a horrible and an unjust thing by human standards. But the selectiveness in the Christian story is not quite like that. The people who are selected are, in a sense, unfairly selected for a supreme honour; but it is also a supreme burden. The People of Israel come to realize that it is their woes which are saving the world. Even in human society, though, one sees how this inequality furnishes an opportunity for every kind of tyranny and servility. Yet, on the other hand , one also sees that it furnishes an opportunity for some of the very best things we can think of—humility, and kindness, and the immense pleasures of admiration. (I cannot conceive how one would get through the boredom of a world in which you never met anyone more clever, or more beautiful, or stronger than yourself. The very crowds who go after the football celebrities and film-stars know better than to desire that kind of equality!) What the story of the Incarnation seems to be doing is to flash a new light on a principle in nature, and to show for the first time that this principle of inequality in nature is neither good nor bad. It is a common theme running through both the goodness and badness of the natural world, and I begin to see how it can survive as a supreme beauty in a redeemed universe.
Lewis, C. S. (2014-05-20). God in the Dock (p. 85). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Seeing Moses, Understanding Jesus
Now we see Moses and have a glimpse of understanding about his actions. He was not defensive about his portion of God’s spirit being given to the elders. He was not jealous for his reputation. He did not defend his position against the challenge of Miriam and Aaron. In Numbers 11 he was frustrated enough by his calling that he wished God would end it at the cost of his life. God did not accept his request for authorized suicide.
The pattern we see in Moses is the pattern we see in Jesus. They are humble, secure, understanding that the privilege is at the same moment a burden.
How “God Talk” is Authenticated
We see Jesus on a cross being mocked by his executioners on this very point. “He saved others but he cannot save himself.”
No, he saved others by not saving himself. The authenticity of divinity is revealed in the costliness of love. Yes, God demonstrated the truth of his unique relationship with Moses by Miriam’s skin disease. God has every right to demonstrate his prerogative through power. It is only through self-sacrifice that the intention of God’s heart is understood.
Our inability to lay claim on God exposes what we are. Our offense at this inability exposes our aspirations. We wish to be the center of the universe but we are not. When we are weak we demand that God be perfectly democratic. When we are strong we demand privilege and exclusivity justified by perceived exceptionalism and enforced by power.
As we saw earlier the only thing that keeps us from God is our pride but it is precisely our pride that demands that God bow to us.
When someone else claims God spoke to them we are offended that we were not informed and we demand that if God speak to anyone he do so in no more special way that he would do to all, or at least to me. We demand an end to the freedom of God in the name of justice, unless of course we are allowed in the inner ring.
What is alarming is that the one who had all power, who WAS ITSELF the most exclusive community in existence, would become no one and nothing, the victim of his own creation’s abuse. That he would become so non-defensive and non-jealous of status and privilege, that he would hang naked, exposed to mockery and ridicule beside the democratic sidewalk to make himself available to the undeserving. That this would become the center of the human story, that struggle for claiming authority and power in the search for vainglory and exclusivism is for many literally beyond belief.
The Christian embraces the elements of Moses in Numbers 12
- We relinquish any claim on democratizing God. He is free to do what he wants and we recognize we have no power to change this. Just as the atheist resigns herself to her lack of significance, the Christian resigns herself from any claim to privilege or exceptionalism.
- Any relationship with the divine is received not merited. Though we might confuse the voice of God with voices in the world or voices in our head God is free to speak with whomever he chooses and say whatever he wills. If he chooses us, and what he chooses us for, is his alone. We find in Moses both the hunger to have more of God. After having tasted him to want him more, the only safe ultimate desire. Yet also the full knowledge of the cost of this love in the midst of a community of God competitors filled with demand but little generosity.
Speaking for God
So how do we live in a world filled with claims of God talk?
To say “God doesn’t speak” is really the same as saying “God said to this to me”. To gag God and to put words in God’s mouth are both subtle ways of playing God. They are both ways of asserting his non-existence or existence, his agency or neglect.
Wrangling over what God said supports the implicit assertion that people at heart are simple, obedient, straight-forward and behave based on a flat model of human behavior similar to your computer and its programming. While influence within religious traditions certainly shapes belief and behavior what people actually do is usually far more complex.
Every Christian I know with the highest professed belief in the authority of the Bible maintains their own implicit canon within it. When Luhrmann notes in the Vineyard community how one day God says specifically this and the next day he says another, contradictory thing, and no one seems all that bothered about it we should all recognize that this is simply how human beings operate.
Divine speech whether it come from fiery Mount Sinai or from Jesus’ mouth is always subject to all verbal or experiential input when it comes to our response. We imagine the flat world where the Blue Sky God talks and all the universe obeys and agrees but we have never known this world nor seen it in action. Things may have proceeded like that in Genesis one but once we hit the sixth day things get far more complex. We tend more to see Isaiah 55 where like the rain falling to earth takes many paths, often unseen before the flowers pop up and California gold becomes green again. Where we process “God told me this” is the same place we processes “All who ask receive and all who seek find.”
We live in a world filled with claims. For most of these claims we have insufficient information, opportunity or capacity to properly evaluate. What this means is that it is a very good thing that we are not gods because we would be poor ones. The Christian story asserts that God is democratic enough that those who seek find. He is also undemocratic enough that our democratic claims do not limit his capacity to relate to us as individuals in the ways he finds fit.