An Enigmatic God

A week ago a USA church denomination led by progressives changed its stance on a big social issue. In reading jubilant news responses I thought of God. Why is he so slow to change, even when visionaries offer to coach him?

The question reaches back over many centuries. Some leaders in Genesis, for instance, realized that God’s call to spread out and fill the earth was misguided. So they pursued Babel’s Heavenly Tower project instead. And their courageous vision was nothing new. Years before even Adam needed to confront God by defending our human right to choose good and evil.

Later in Genesis we read of Abram rescuing God when the Lord lost track of his promise to give Abram a son. Abram solved things by taking one of his house ladies—Hagar—to be a surrogate mother for Sarah. Bold leaders always find a way.

Then there was Moses who killed Egyptians who abused God’s people. His strategy didn’t work so well, but years later God called him to a proper rescue mission. At that time, when Moses was away meeting with God, his brother and aide, Aaron, brought more creative leadership to the nation. Aaron’s golden calf initiative was a wild success, offering a more tangible vision of Yahweh and a better focus for major worship events.

Other progressive figures emerge over time. There were Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus who improved God’s unimaginative incense formula. In Numbers we read of Balaam who realized ministry could be turned into moneymaking opportunities. Later we read of Saul who was bold enough to question God’s kingdom vision. Saul, instead, adopted a bigger idea: the goal of a dynastic heritage. David, who replaced Saul, was by comparison rather ordinary in his vision—mostly winning wars, writing poetic prayers, and designing a temple—but his son did better.

Solomon, David’s son, adopted a more progressive strategy of kingdom-building. He married the daughters of regional kings—in standard ‘bridal-treaty’ arrangements—and allowed the wives to keep their homegrown deities. His only rule was that foreign gods were to be restricted to his wives’ homes—with all these mini-palaces built well away from God’s Temple. So when Solomon visited a given queen he only worshipped her god as a courtesy and didn’t stay for long.

As we go on to other progressive figures in the Bible, King Jeroboam was a remarkable visionary. In Israel’s civil war he captured most of the nation and, as victor, he realized that politics and religion work best when blended.

His problem was that he hadn’t captured Jerusalem and its temple. So he revived Aaron’s golden calf strategy. First he cast two golden calves as Yahweh-icons—one for the northern region and one for the south—and then he set up a new priesthood. Anyone who wanted to be a priest and had the money could buy the position!

The biblical pantheon of progressives goes on and on. There was King Ahab who recognized that by worshipping a variety of gods at the same time he could please more people and not have to defend the divine vision of Bible-thumpers like Elijah.

In Jeremiah’s era gender equality got a boost from the “Queen of Heaven” religion. And in Ezekiel’s day—in the years of captivity—there were those who assumed Israel could only be restored by accommodating herself to the religions of the Babylonians who conquered her. So the Jerusalem priests—while still maintaining some features of Yahweh worship—added a bit of sun-god worship and the option of worshipping Tammuz.

There were many other brilliant figures of course. But we need return to God’s enigmatic role. We would expect him to be excited about the strong and effective leaders in history but that’s not always the case. Instead he’s often silent; and when he does speak up he often seems misinformed.

Take Elijah, for instance. He actually thought he was the only man left in all Israel who still stood with God. But as a reactionary—always looking back and not ahead—he was sure to find other laggards no matter how many of their friends and neighbors are aligned with the times.

So how did God answer Elijah? He sided with the prophet! And told him that 7,000 people were still aligned with them. This is where God’s myopia shows up: Israel had a population of millions by then. So God, Elijah, and a small remnant showed their lack of social progress when any of the polls of that era could have corrected them.

There’s more. God the Son was similarly out of step during his earthly ministry. His short career only achieved a ghastly crucifixion and 120 followers by the time he returned to heaven.

To be frank, God—at least the God portrayed in the Bible—always seems out of touch.

Yet religious progressives know not to be bothered. In the 19th century as the Enlightenment was in full swing many religious leaders—the “modernists”—dismissed all the miracles of the Bible. Many argued that God is simply a human superstition who should be re-envisioned in order to meet human needs.

More steps of progress followed. Major advances in sexuality now allow people to break free from the lifelong marriages and fetus fixations of the past. Marriage has been re-envisioned.

And even the Christian faith is now free to be a therapeutic project in place of the older ambition to know and love God for his own sake. Love and heartfelt devotion can be left to the backward-looking enthusiasts who probably don’t number more than 7,000 in any big city by now.

Despite such progress there are still major divisions among Christians. For instance I’m still an old school enthusiast and still embrace many of the reactionaries of the past like Jesus.

Yet wherever we are in our progress we may want to ask why the biblical God is so out of touch. The Bible offers some amazing answers.

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6 Comments

  1. Gretchen

    This post reminded me of a quote I saw from C.S. Lewis from his book, The Problem of Pain, (HarperOne,2001, pg 46), “When we want to be something other than the thing God wants us to be, we must be wanting what, in fact, will not make us happy. Those Divine demands which sound to our natural ears most like those of a despot and least like those of a lover, in fact marshal us where we should want to go if we knew what we wanted.” The examples you’ve given here certainly punctuate his point! Thanks, Ron.

  2. R N Frost

    Yes, that’s a great quote. And, as may be obvious, my bit of backwardness in this blog reflected my having read C. S. Lewis and his Screwtape Letters where all the values of ‘progress’ were upside-down. He was on to something!

  3. Alan

    Is the progressive position always wrong? Have reactionaries been on the right side of every division?

  4. R N Frost

    Thanks, Alan: a fair question.

    I’m not sure who the reactionaries are. No groups I’m aware of use that label for themselves. Yet there have been self-labeled progressives through the centuries: ‘progress’ is a golden concept. And such camps tend to treat those who disagree with them as reactionary. So it can be a pejorative bit of attack language.

    In other words it’s not the tag that matters. I vote for progress too. My computer today is much better than the first one I bought decades ago: I like that. But it’s different than thinking God may have changed his view on marriage since he first posted his thoughts in Genesis 2:24.

    So there’s another question in what I’ve written here. What is God’s point of view in these various debates? Does he ever offer his thoughts on moral issues? And is it possible that some of us don’t like his point of view? After all, we’re all sinners; and maybe our sin represents a resistance to God’s heart on some issues.

    So I’m really insisting we need to keep God’s heart in view, with a high confidence that he’s a great communicator. So if we use labels maybe ‘faithful’ is our best tag. And whether someone wants to be called progressive, or reactionary (it could happen, I suppose), or anything else the real question is, indeed, about being “right” – the question you raised. Paul gave us an ultimate answer in Romans 14:12, a chapter that addressed debates among Christians: “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.”

  5. Alan

    Thanks for clarifying that. In your original post, you referred to progressives in a pejorative way, leading me to the impression that you were equating progressive with sinful. However, we see progressives today calling for some things that are contrary to God’s heart, and others things that are more aligned with His kingdom than the kingdom of this world, including heinous sins perpetrated by people who would call themselves Christians. That’s what prompted my question. Thanks!

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