This month Abingdon Press published my book Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven and Earth. This is the first installment in my new series on theology for the church. Future writers in the series will be Stanley Hauerwas and Fleming Rutledge, friends of mine who have great talent for talking about the glories of Christian theology. Below is a selection from my book on Incarnation.
God Revealing God
My first summer of college, bumming around Europe, I sprawled with other students in the middle of the night, near Amsterdam’s Dam Square. A student whispered, “Want to see God? Take this.”
I awoke the next morning at the base of the queen’s statue with a bad headache, without a vision of God. Who doesn’t want to see God? Atheists and theists alike are able to read human history as a long search for, and often a wild fantasizing about, God. However, the atheist’s, Is there a God? is a less interesting question than the biblical, Who is the God who is there? Ninety-five percent of us already believe God is. But there are contentions among us: What does God look like? What does God expect of us?
And the most pointed question of all: Does God care about me?
It’s fine to ask big questions about us and God. Trouble is there are reasons having to do with the great gap between who God is and who we are that make it impossible for us, on our own, to give answer. How can creatures accurately conceive of their Creator? Can finite minds grasp the infinite?
Lost in the wilds of Alabama, trying to find my way to a little church, I stopped and asked a man leaning back in his chair before a rural gas station, “How do I get to Bangor?”
He scratched his chin, thought a moment, and declared, “Friend, there ain’t no way to get there from here.”
Thought about God is of the same order – no way to get to God from here. Impressive reasoning, invigorating spiritual experience, devout practices, even deeply religious upbringing, cannot enable us to ascend to God. There’s a word for a God who is accessible through our intellectual efforts – idol. An idol is a reasonable, believable, conceivable – but alas, fake — godlet we set up as substitute for the God we are unable to reach from here.
Every religion offers to help us finite creatures climb up to or dig deep into the infinite. Only Christianity contends that the infinite descended, taking the form of our finitude ─ Incarnation. This book is the good news that we need not climb up to God; in Jesus Christ, God comes down to us. I’m using “up” and “down” here figuratively. God is inaccessible to us not only because (as we have traditionally conceived) God reigns in highest heaven and we are down here in the muck and mire of earth. God is inaccessible not only to human sight but also to human reason. Incarnation is the counter-intuitive, not-believed-by-nine-out-of-ten-Americans assertion that even though we could not avail ourselves of God, God lovingly became available. God condescended to be God with us.