There have been many ways throughout history that humans have attempted to describe their relationship with the Divine. In ancient worlds, mother/goddesses and father/warriors along with multiple minor gods populated the heavens and human beings both loved and feared them. Pantheons of Greek and Roman gods, ruling over heavenly realms, were variously benevolent or treacherous toward humans, often meddlesome, and always capricious. Men and women struggled to appease these gods through ritual worship and propitiatory sacrifices, navigating with difficulty the volatile human/divine relationship.
Later attempts to describe God in philosophical terms resulted in conceptual images where God was the “Unmoved Mover,” the “ontological Ground of Being” and even the anonymous clock-work maker in the sky. The philosopher’s god was distant, abstract and indifferent to the human plight.
Not so the Judaeo/Christian revelation where God is not one unpredictable figure amongst many, nor a remote sky-dweller. The God revealed in the Judaeo-Christian dispensation is one who draws near to humankind in a relationship of love, inviting each person into a personal encounter. It is a relationship characterized by intimacy and solicitude — both of which can be hard for us to believe.
That an infinite, powerful God might desire intimacy with us seems far-fetched. I recall a conversation with one of my nieces several years ago. She is a young woman who grew up without any faith tradition and was attending a Christian college where she had been recruited to play on the basketball team. She was bemused to discover that not only did each school day begin with prayer, so did each basketball practice and game. “They prayed,” she said with astonishment, “about everything!”
“I doubt if God, the Creator of everything, is really interested in the everyday details of our lives — and whether or not we win or lose a game!” she said.
People have often not encountered the God of the psalmists and the prophets. Their God is, after all, the God who knits us together in our mother’s womb, has carved us in the palm of God’s hand, and counted the hairs on our head. This is the God who, if we go as far as the east is from the west, descend to the deepest ocean or ascend highest mountain, will still be there, as lover, companion and saviour.
The God of Jesus Christ invites us into the same intimate relationship that he has with his “Abba.” Naming us as beloved sons and daughters of the one God, Jesus promises to be with us in everything, to the extent that he can say that the Father and he actually come to dwell within us.
And far from being capricious or malevolent, the God portrayed by Old Testament prophets and psalmists and incarnated in the figure of Jesus, is described by the words steadfast, compassionate and rich in mercy. “For God so loved the world,” John’s Gospel tells us, that we are given his only son for our salvation.
It is actually a stunning claim, that we are created in love, held in love and destined for the fullness of love in union with the Divine. We could never have come up with it on our own. It is revelation — the pulling back of the veil between the sacred and the mundane — that shows us this. It is God’s own doing, revealing God’s very heart and God’s purposes for God’s creation.
Such newness begins with Israel’s experience of God and unfolds across generations. Israel’s understanding developed in contradistinction to the surrounding polytheistic cultures, which presented unclear and contradictory versions of warring gods where creation and humankind were unwanted children. Israel’s understanding, reflected in the “Shema,” “Hear O Israel,” proclaimed the sovereignty of God as the one Creator of heaven and earth in whom all power resided. Most significantly, there were no other gods and all that existed had its origin in this one God, who created out of love. One of Israel’s unique contributions was to affirm that God alone was the Creator and that God loves God’s creation.
Such a view also stands in contrast with later Greek philosophical thought. Aristotle affirms that human beings do seek to know and love God, but that God is an object of love, not a lover. The God of the Greek philosophers lacks nothing and is in itself complete, meaning that love will always and can only be a one-way street.
Gradually, Israel comes to understand more about this God who invites them into a covenant relationship. Surprisingly, God desires to be their personal God: “I will be your God and you will be my people,” runs like a refrain through the Old Testament. Not only is God’s love elective, choosing Israel from among all other nations, it is characterized by passion and compassion. “Hesed,” wombish-compassion, is the chosen word of the prophets to describe God’s feelings toward Israel.
The beautiful Song of Songs is further given to Israel as a metaphor, a love song describing God’s relationship to humankind and ours to God. It invites us to mystical knowledge and experience, holding forth the promise that we can enter into union with God and it will be not a sinking into oblivion, but a unity of love whereby God and the person become one.
The revelation of God’s unbounded love culminates and becomes visible in Jesus. We need no further proof than this: the God-man becomes human to make us divine. In every word and every deed, in his living and dying, Jesus’ love is personal, intimate, tender and fierce. Furthermore, it is there for our taking.
“I doubt if the all-powerful God cares about a basketball game,” my niece said. Perhaps not so much about the score, I think, but about the players — I have no doubt. My entire faith rests upon it.
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.