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