Jane Williams examines how our vision of God shapes who we are, how we live and what we think the world is for
This article was published in the January to April 2019 issue of Rapport magazine.
Coming to Lee Abbey is always a refreshment. It’s a glorious combination of things: the beauty, that lifts our hearts; the good food, that expresses such care for us; the congenial company, where we don’t need to apologise for our faith; the worship, the fun, all of it enables us to breathe in again the life and love of God. But one of the things we know about God is that the gifts He gives are always for sharing. When we leave Lee Abbey again, we take something with us to give to others. And the most fundamental thing Lee Abbey offers is a chance to reconnect with God at a deep level, for our sake, but also for the sake of the people we go home to.
What we believe about God shapes who we are, how we live, and what we think the world is for. Yet many of us have largely unexamined pictures of God, most of them sound and wholesome, but some of them distorting and damaging.
For example, in the first few centuries of the Christian faith, there was a huge amount of controversy about how Jesus Christ relates to God and to humanity. At the time, some people thought that Jesus was essentially just a particularly good and faithful human being, whom God chose to be a particular revelation of His will and nature. Others thought that Jesus’ humanity was just a kind of disguise, and that the main thing we need to know about Jesus is that He is God. In the end, the church leaders and theologians came up with the formula that is still standard orthodoxy: Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.
In practice, then and now, most of us still operate with either a ‘basically human’ or a ‘basically God’ concept of Jesus, sometimes vacillating between the two at different times. But the reason why the early church expended so much sweat on the question is that it makes a difference. If we think that Jesus is just human, then we are saying that God cannot or will not demean himself to come and live in the physical world, and that means that the physical world can never truly carry the presence of God to us. It also means that Jesus cannot be the full revelation of God, because there is always a gap between the human being and the divine. And it means that, however special and significant Jesus may be, He is still just a human being; He may be even more important than the greatest of the Hebrew prophets but, like them, He can only speak of God; he cannot ultimately change our situation, because He has nothing to offer that is not already part of the human experience.
On the other hand, if we think that Jesus is just God, disguised as a human being, then some of the same things apply: there is still a sense that God cannot truly enter into the human condition and live and suffer and die with us; the created world and our physical being is not valuable to God in itself, but must have some external divinity added to it before it can be saved.
What starts out, then, as a dull technical discussion turns out to have massive implications for our sharing of the gospel and for our life of discipleship. Jesus is fully human, and so we can be confident that He has shared our birth, our life and our death to be with us; Jesus is fully God, so as He shares our birth, life and death, He brings the eternal and undying life and love of God into our world, so that new possibilities of forgiveness, renewal and resurrection open up.
This is what theologians call ‘Christology’, and most of us think it is something best left to academics. But we can all see the cost of a world that does not know how to value physical creation. Think of the ecological crisis; or of the cult of celebrity looks; or of the heart-breaking debates about dying with dignity; or of the crises of starvation and obesity existing side by side. This looks like a world that does not know how to live with its physicality. For such a world, the good news is that ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may
not perish but may have eternal life’ (John 3:16).
In times of personal fear, pain or bereavement, it makes a difference to know that God the Son has made a way to come and walk with us through all these things. We can be assured of Jesus’ presence and companionship, but because Jesus is God as well as human, we can also know that the love, life and resourcefulness of God are present, when all our own resources are exhausted.
Paul writes in Romans 8:38–39, ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life … nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ This is not blind optimism on Paul’s part – it is the result of his Christology. We know this because Jesus is fully human and fully God.
Many of us are embarrassed or fearful about sharing our faith, and that is perhaps partly because we are not very sure what we believe or why. As we explore the nature of God, we begin to see again why this is good news, and how it changes everything.
In the sessions on ‘Knowing God’ that I am leading at Lee Abbey, my hope is that together we will reclaim and deepen our understanding of God, who gets bigger and more exciting the more we think about Him and worship Him. God does not belong just in books and lecture halls; most importantly, God is in our hearts, in our words, in our lives, flowing out in all we do and to all whom we meet.
Dr Jane Williams
Dr Jane Williams is Assistant Dean and Lecturer in Systematic Theology at St Mellitus College.