As a Christian, I don’t get to talk about God. Or perhaps I should say I don’t get to talk about “God,” as in “In God We trust,” “God bless America,” “It was God’s will,” “Can God create a rock so big that he can’t move it?” “Does God exist?” and so on. All those rambling philosophical conversations in which God shows up from time to time, like the one where you argue that atheists can’t be moral because they don’t believe in God; diverting though they might be, I don’t get to participate in those any more.
Why this conversational embargo? Because I don’t have anything to say about that God. That God, the God of civil religion, cultural relevance, and philosophical speculation, is somebody I don’t know. Oh, I’ve heard a lot about him; people have been talking about that God my whole life. That God is the source of endless conversation, in fact, for a simple reason: you can say anything you want about him, you can make him into anything that suits your purpose–which is exactly what we do. Allow me to explain.
Back in the 19th century a philosopher named Ludwig Feuerbach said something that made him a lot of enemies: He claimed that “God” is nothing more than the sum of human desires, aspirations, and prejudices, projected onto the screen of the universe. In other words, it isn’t we who are made in the image of God, but the other way around. We take whatever is most important to us and imagine a God to whom that is most important, too. We want a God who hates our enemies, loves our friends, and blesses our endeavors. And so, that’s the God we make for ourselves.
The thing is, creating God in our own image isn’t all that hard. Why? Because by definition God is a mystery. God is infinite, beyond our experience. God dwells in inapproachable light. Finite creatures that we are, we simply don’t have the equipment to comprehend this God. Now, what that fact ought to do is make us humble in the face of the divine mystery; it should inspire in us a sense of hushed reverence. But the problem is, in addition to being finite, we are also flawed. Our flaw (the theological word is “sin”) leads us to take the exact opposite course to the one we should take in the face of the divine mystery. Rather than reverence and awe, we respond with idolatry. “Hey,” we say; “if there’s really nothing we can know or say about this God, then I guess we just get to say anything we want, right?” Which is precisely what we do.
And that is precisely why God chose to act. Rather than allow us to continue in our ignorance and idolatry, God chose to reveal the divine self in a couple of stories (that are, from a Christian point of view, really just one big story): the stories of Israel and Jesus. In those stories, the character of God takes on a definite shape; we learn from them what kind of God we’re dealing with. In those stories, and most especially in the Cross (what Christians consider to be the culmination and climax of the story), we discover first and foremost that God defines power differently than we do . We think power comes from coercive force, the ability to make someone else do what we want. At the Cross God shows us that true power resides in sacrificial love.
Everything else we know about God flows outward from what we learn about God in Israel and (for Christians), at the Cross. Everything we say about God must be tested against this reality. This is why the God of civil religion or philosophical speculation is, in the end, not only an idol, but frankly a boring one as well. That God is a human creation, interesting only to the extent that we humans find ourselves endlessly fascinating. But compared to the God we see in Israel and Jesus, the culturally-relevant, nationalistic, philosophical God of human devising is no big deal. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; that God calls us , challenges us, judges us, finds us wanting, and loves anyway, all while heading out into another adventure and telling us to follow. That God expects us to love people we don’t know, forgive people we don’t like, and tell the world a story it doesn’t want to hear.
Follow this God for a while and you’ll realize pretty quickly why we prefer to follow our own personal (in other words, idolatrous) Gods instead; our Gods, the ones we make for ourselves, never really ask anything of us other than that we congratulate ourselves for our prejudices every now and then. The God of Israel and Jesus, on the other hand, asks stuff of us all the time, hard stuff in fact–which is probably why following that God provides us with the truest sense of fulfillment we’ve ever felt.
This is why we say that, for Christians, it all starts with Jesus. As the culmination of God’s story in Israel, the Jesus story shows us who God really is. Apart from that story, we just don’t have that much to say about God. But say “Jesus,” and you’ve said the most important thing about God you’re ever going to say.