Anglican bishop N. T. Wright tells of the frequent exchanges he had with students while serving as chaplain at Worcester College, Oxford. Upon meeting Wright, many undergraduates would say, “You won’t be seeing much of me; you see, I don’t believe in god.” Wright’s standard response was this: “Oh, that’s interesting; which god is it you don’t believe in?”
Wright’s response runs counter to conventional thinking about “god”. Most assume there is but one “god” and that when we use that term, we all mean about the same thing. Wright states that after undergrads had described the god they didn’t believe in, he would reply: “Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god. I don’t believe in that god either. I believe in the god revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.”
This vignette came to mind this summer as my Sunday school class worked through the Adult Bible Study, “God’s People Worship” (Menno Media 2013). Commentator Michael Zehr emphasized that for the Jews worshipping in their newly built temple, God was not a bundle of propositions and abstractions. Instead, God was the One who had done and was doing specific things in their collective history. Their worship often included a recitation of such events.
I find this teaching to be challenging in two ways.
First, when we speak of God as the One who seeks “peace” and “shalom”, are we sliding toward the sort of abstract, propositional thinking the Bible teaches us to avoid?
Second, might we more clearly describe the God revealed by Jesus of Nazareth as” the One who is saving the world”?
Popular Christian piety says the god revealed by Jesus of Nazareth is the one who is guarding our souls and taking them to heaven. I can’t say such a view is totally false, but I do find its disengagement with human history to be dangerously misleading.
To say we worship the One who is saving the world, on the other hand, engages us in life at the critical points of our communal despair.
Do we see little chance human civilization will survive the warming of earth’s atmosphere? No, because we believe in the One who is saving the world.
Have we lost hope in loosening the stranglehold Wall Street and Pentagon contractors have placed on our political leaders? No, because we believe in the One who is saving the world.
Are we discouraged by the cynical partnership the U.S. government has forged with terrorists to escalate violence in the Muslim world? No, because we believe in the One who is saving the world.
Or perhaps we don’t believe in that God; that’s why we acquiesce to the oil executives, hedge fund investors and military officers as they pillage the earth. Perhaps we believe instead in the god who is guarding our souls and will someday take them to “a better place” than the place Jesus came to save.