There are no unbelievers: everyone believes in God or in some other god.  In Italy I met an anarchist who wanted, he said, to flatten everything that stood; Anarchy was his passion, his god.  In another country I talked with a man who had killed “about twenty” people: his god’s name was Liberation.  There is also an international god called Mammon, and there is a cruel relentless god whose name is Pursuit of Pleasure.  There are the gods of Power and Fame.  And there is the god of atheists whose name is No-God.  The world, said an ancient Greek, is full of gods. 

The early Christians were accused of being atheists: they did not believe in the local gods.  To believe in God is the way to disbelieve in any gods.  But it can be embarrassing when they ask you, as they asked the psalmist, “Where is your God?” (Psalm 41)  The other gods are quite definite and concrete, or at least appear to be; but God is “great beyond our understanding,” a phrase that must sound to others like big talk, empty and pretentious.  When pressed, all we can say is that God is the Father of Jesus Christ.  It is like answering a question by saying: I don't know, but my big brother does. 

So, where is your God?  Unlike others who follow gods that are limited and located, and who can therefore point precisely and talk with total assurance, you are embarrassed.... You don't know very well how to begin or what to say.  Good!  It is a healthy sign.  We often speak about God in a way that is far too facile, showing no sense of being face to face with ultimate mystery.  Christian fundamentalists, who speak with such fluency and aggression, are only imitating the methods of commercial advertising.  There is a shallow fluency that is right only for gods.  But it is right to be divinely embarrassed.

In the old days, when there were no microphones, preachers had to speak at the top of their voices, belting out their sermons in short phrases to allow time for the echo to finish.  It was impossible to express hesitation – or to probe the truth gently or to be divinely embarrassed.  But microphones enable preachers to be tentative, to whisper out all their secret hesitations, to qualify their own qualifications, to become introspective, and to finish by sharing their doubts rather than their faith.  I have seen many up there talking to themselves, and no doubt I have often done the same myself.  It seems humbler and quieter than in the past, and perhaps more honest.  But where is the power and the urgency?  Are we like people caught in the glare of a television camera, squirming under interrogation, ashamed that they can only stammer?

But stammering has a good pedigree in religion!  Moses was a poor speaker and tried to use this as an excuse for not speaking God’s word (Exodus 6:12; 6:30).  Isaiah tried to get out of it too with a somewhat similar excuse: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).  Later he came around to thinking that even God would use “the stammering lip and the alien tongue” of foreigners to speak to his people (28:11), and St Paul was to quote this in 1 Corinthians 14:21.  Gregory the Great wrote, “Though our lips can only stammer, we yet chant the high things of God.”  This was quoted centuries later by Aquinas. 

Yet the very subject of God seems to exclude qualification.  It would be hard to think of God as tenuously existing, or just about surviving, or displaying symptoms of self-doubt.  Perhaps this is why so many now avoid speaking directly about God.  We go into every psychological nook and cranny of religious consciousness but seldom speak of God; or when we do, God is more like an aspect of our consciousness, a fact about us, a flower growing in our garden.  This is not God but another of the many gods, of which the world is full.  This god is easy to put into words without embarrassment.  In the warm climate of this god we can relax and minister to ourselves. 

But when we begin to feel uneasy with this, what do we return to?  We Not the thunderbolt God, the Zeus of the old preachers.  When you remember what they used to say you realise it was mostly moralism and catechism.  But when we sicken of that moral bludgeoning, is there anything strong left to say?  We are as embarrassed by the new preaching as by the old.  Is there any strength left?  Are there any full-bodied images of God?  What images of God can engage us directly as adults and challenge us to go beyond ourselves? 
There is one, “the image of the invisible God,” the one “in whom all things hold together,” the Word made flesh who lived among us and called God “Abba, Father,” the one who is “like us in all things but sin.”

So are we back in our own territory again?  We are able to say a great many definite things about Jesus.  Are we then back to the old pulpit-thumping fluency?   

I don't think so, because you notice that the expressions used above – “the image of the invisible God,” etc. – are Christological; they are not empirical statements about Jesus.  Jesus shorn of Christology is only another moral figure on the landscape.  If he reveals the mystery of the Trinity, it is likewise the Trinity that reveals the mystery of Jesus.  He does not take us out of the mystery; he brings us into the heart of it. 

We would love to speak “with the tongues of mortals and of angels,” but the stammering will still go on.  Love is known to give rise to wonderful poetry, but very little logic, and most people become a little embarrassed and tongue-tied when they go into the subject.  As for fluency, it will pass away, St Paul said, and tongues will cease, and knowledge will come to an end.  But love will remain.  And even now, when we face God, fluency doesn’t matter at all.  But “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).  God’s Spirit stammers in us.  Our embarrassment may be our best quality.

Donagh O’Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.