Wednesday, September 12, 2007

We Believe in the Triune God

Early next year we will be having a Conference wide celebration on the Joy of Wesleyan Believing. Our Lay Ministry Team will be asking every church and pastor to join in a study of United Methodist Beliefs. The text for the study will be a little book that I recently published, United Methodist Beliefs (John Knox Westminster Press, 2007). In the next few weeks, I’ll be using some excerpts from that book as a way of initiating our study of United Methodist Believing:


We Believe in the Triune God

United Methodists profess the historic Christian faith in God, incarnate in Jesus Christ for our salvation and ever at work in human history in the Holy Spirit. (Boldface quotes are from the Theological Statement of the Book of Discipline.)

“In the beginning God,…” (Gen. 1:1). That’s the way the Bible begins. Our story starts with God. In fact, if God had not said, “Let there be….” we would have had no story to tell. We have been conditioned by our culture to think that our life stories begin with us, with our initiative, our hard work, our own intellectual searching. We are heirs of the story that is modernity, the story that tells us that we are in control, gods unto ourselves. Knowledge is power. We think in order to gain control, to have power over ourselves and the world, to use the world and everyone in it for our egoistical ends. It is therefore somewhat of an offense to hear of a God whose love desires to control us for God’s purposes, rather than the other way around.

The modern world teaches us that we are masters of our fate, captains of our souls. Rather than see ourselves as creatures, we like to think of ourselves as sovereign, free creators. We construct ourselves through our astute choices and heroic decisions. What a shock to learn, through the testimony of Israel and the church, that the lives we are living may not be our own. As the psalmist puts it, “It is he who made us and not we ourselves” (Psalm 100:2). God made us before we had the opportunity to make up God.

That assertion, that God makes us, rather than we make God, flies in the face of what we have been taught to think about human thinking by modern cosmologists like Kant and Feuerbach. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) put into our heads that the world is a chaotic, disorganized affair that assaults our senses with confusing phenomena. Our minds go to work on this mess of data and impose categories of space and time, arranging the world in a way that we find to be coherent and controllable.

See what’s happened in Kant? The primal story of God creating and giving a good world in Genesis 1 has been exchanged for a counter narrative about our construction and constitution of a world that is better understood by us in order to be better controlled by us. The voice that now speaks, bringing something out of nothing, order out of chaos, light out of darkness is no longer the voice of God (Gen. 1 and 2) but rather our own voices emanating from our own vaunted reason as we make a world to suit ourselves.

It was not too great a step from Kant’s notion of the world constructed by our minds to Feuerbach’s “god” as a sometimes helpful, sometimes hurtful human construction. Having been made “in the image of God,” as Genesis puts it, we returned the compliment.

Forgive me for boring you with Kant and Feuerbach. I do so only to remind you that when we think about God, we tend to do so within the limited confines of the modern world view. So it is always a reach for people who live in a world like ours to think theologically, if by “theology” you mean to think about God in a way that is fully open to the possibility that God may be a living, sovereign, free and active reality beyond the bounds of human construction and imagination.

The story that we are gods unto ourselves, autonomous, relatively powerful free agents - indeed, the only active agents in the world -- is the story that holds us captive. We believe the lie that we are our own authors. This is the story that made possible many of the triumphs of the modern world and just about all of our truly great, bloody, contemporary tragedies. It is the officially sanctioned, governmentally subsidized story that makes our nation both powerful and violent, that makes many of us Americans so driven and so lonely, the story that has led to the ecological devastation of our planet and the plethora of false godlets who enslave and demand many of our lives.

To be a Christian means gradually, Sunday after Sunday, to be subsumed into another story, a different account of where we have come from and where we are going, a story that is called “gospel.” You are properly called a “Christian” when it’s obvious that the story told in Scripture is your story above all other stories that the world tries to impose upon you and the God who is rendered in Scripture is the God who has got you.

William H. Willimon

10 comments:

Larry W. in NE District, NALACONF said...

I'm forwarding this to a mom and her second-grade daughter, both of whom visited me yesterday. The child told of how she and her 2 cousins whom she often plays with had gotten into a quarrel recently when they informed her that they didn't believe in God anymore. Their mother, who recently declared herself to be an atheist to her family, had taught her children there is no God. This greatly upset our little second grader, so much so that she had cried throughout the weekend. She also told me she had prayed that God would "talk to my cousins and tell them he's real." I believe with all my heart God will honor her prayer somehow, and right soon.
Thanks for sharing this important word on our foundational belief in the eternal God.
LW

William H. Willimon said...

Thanks Larry
Will

dimlamp said...

A thoughful post. Better be careful, it sounds to me like you're reading too much Martin Luther! :-)

I think Feuerbach may be ranked among the postmodernists in that he, like some of the postmoderns construct a convenient god/goddess after their own image. I'm surprised you didn't say much about the postmoderns.

Looking forward to the next few posts.
Blessings,
dimlamp

The Catholic Atheist said...

Great post, enjoyed reading it.

I like your crtique of Kant and Feuerbach. Not need to apologize. Too often we fall into F. univocity that is unduly makes humanity the author and not God.

I think dimlamp has something to the suggestion of adding some pomo. After breaking apart the false promise of the modern project I think doctrine can move into some more helpful writers in pomo (but with caution).

Again, thanks for the post.

qb said...

"Ecological devastation" as applied to the United States is [more than] a bit of a stretch, but qb takes your point anyway. qb

Todd Wright said...

Great words...much needed!

Matt O'Reilly said...

Bishop Willimon,

Thanks for your emphasis on this distinctively Christian doctrine. I am sometimes concerned about the future of strong theological thinking in our denomination. I'm taking a doctrine of God class called Triune Theism at Asbury in which only six students are enrolled. How will our denomination remain theologically rigorous if few take doctrine serious enough to wrestle with it. So, thanks for keeping theology on the table.

Grace and peace,

Matt

Psalm 73:26 said...

I miss it when you don't write for a long time. It has been my joy to pray for you. I hope to meet you some day, God willing.

The Tartski said...

Hello,

I wanted to add my own, more critical perspective on this issue.

Having once taken a similar road in justifying my belief in God, I have since recognized that it is the very pinnacle of egotism.

Rather than admitting that I am irretrievably finite, I posit my beliefs to be synonymous to God's beliefs. However, I say, "God believed them first, and therefore I believe them." In a word, revelation.

Kant effectively began the critical era, where "knowledge" is properly located on the one who knows, that is, the ego. So rather than thinking that the all the thoughts of my tradition are sacred and therefore unchallengeable, I properly recognize my own role in gaining knowledge, whether it be about "God" or about a Black & Decker toaster. In a word, self-consciousness.

At this point I will have to restrain myself, but I urge you to take Kant seriously (i.e. read him!), and to consider him as the epitomy of humility, rather than the epitomy of the divinization of humanity. He is not guilty of the latter, for he properly realizes that everything is questionable, and every human being has the responsibility of THINKING FOR THEMSELVES.

Jesus promised that the truth would set us free. We need not be afraid of the truth, and we need not be afraid to seek, for indeed we shall find.

Tartski

Psalm 73:26 said...

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served by to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:43-45)

Colossians 1:3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you.......