I once wrote a very bad poem, in which I included the line: “To talk of God is to talk of talk”. I have since destroyed all evidence of the poetic enterprise (Hugh Trevor-Roper famously warned against “purple pas- sages, lest they rise up to shame ye in thine old age”), but I’m rather more attached to the theological kernel I unwittingly unearthed. With reference to a very short word (G-O-D), one draws upon an overwhelming history of conversation and conflict, as well as a series of questions – big ones.
The St Andrews Christian Union recently held a mission week under the heading of ‘Big Questions’. The CU initiative prompted a heated dinner conversation, which subsequently caused me to reflect on the ‘holistic’ Christian experience. ‘Big Questions’ seems a promising place to start. After all, religions have been asking questions for hundreds of years, in a world never quite ready to give convenient answers.
What do you do if you’re culturally Jewish, intellectually Greek, politically Roman and now bound up with a marginalised personality cult that gets, at best, the sort of attention most people give nowadays to Greenpeace (infrequent but reliably disapproving)? The Christian claim recognising Jesus Christ as God incarnate is hardly a small one, as circa 2,000 years of theologising show. Yet it seems that nowadays few are interested in investigating that claim, or in asking the myriad questions it raises.
“To talk of God is to talk of talk”. A central claim in each of the Abrahamic faiths is the radical otherness of God. God can’t simply be a bigger, more powerful version of you or me. God can’t be just another actor amongst many actors within the universal system. Calling God ‘Father’ doesn’t make a claim about celestial masculinity.
To put it bluntly, the so-called apophatic tradition in theology makes the point that there is nothing we can say that has real purchase on who or what God is, or is like. Try as you might, you won’t get there. That doesn’t mean language about God is utterly futile; rather, it brings into focus the role of scripture in reflecting upon countless generations of diverse communities grappling with the poverty of our linguistic coffers. The Bible, in other words, is a history of Big Questions asked and explored, never closed and confined.
In using the word ‘God’, the Christian is invoking generations of narrative and a chorus of voices bound up in the enterprise of faith. ‘Religious’ speech is poetic. It invites ‘trying on’ other people’s phrases and frames of reference, and exploring the subterranean textures and rhythms of strange speech within the context of our own mental universes. Poetry involves the terrifying realisation that our carefully manicured, neat processions of thought are superficial, perhaps even false. An encounter with beauty, love or even mathematics instantly lays bare our reductive metaphors and reveals them as rudimentary and parochial.
All of this needs to be at the forefront of our minds when we consider ‘evangelisation’. If the beginning and end of that term is to prescribe others a dose of the ‘Jesus pill’ – ‘just read the Bible’ – then we run a very serious risk of pushing God out of the picture. ‘Read the Bible’ all too often means ‘agree with me’. Suddenly, we’re back to fictional attempts at mental control. The problem is that God has a habit of upsetting them.
None of this will appeal to anyone who is looking to the Bible for easy answers (or even straightforward ones) to questions we’d rather not think about. Yet for Christians, the scripture is divinely inspired not because of belief in celestial authorship but because through its narrative Christians have encountered the disarming and chaotic ‘total context’ of God. We miss something crucial to scripture if we do not reflect on how the act of reading changes universal possibilities, and how through its layers of metaphor, poetry and myth we can grasp in our hearts the reality that, Christians believe, holds us all in being.
Perhaps these Big Questions require the search for bigger answers.