“When a scientist brings a bottle of sea water back to his laboratory, it is still essentially sea.” This analogy is sometimes used to explain how Jesus in human form was still actually God himself. Yet, it also illustrates how we can sometimes have too limited a view of God.
Suppose an exchange teacher took a bottle of seawater with him to a landlocked country, showed it to a class of children and told them that they had now seen the sea. Would this really give them a full appreciation of the nature of the sea?
Even those who have dived into the depths or sailed single-handed around Cape Horn only have a partial knowledge of the oceans. South Sea islanders may spend most of their lives by, in or on the sea but they have no appreciation of what the sea can be like for the crew on an Icelandic trawler in a winter storm. Even oceanographers would not claim to know everything that goes on in the great deeps. On Boxing Day 2004 the world was shocked at the power contained within one wave.
How much more beyond our understanding then is the creative force that produced the oceans on this minor planet which orbits one of trillions of stars? Yet we too often think that we can encapsulate God in definitions and doctrines. Some even have the effrontery to claim that they have the only truth about God and all other experiences of God are invalid. It is like telling people that unless they have ridden the waves on a surfboard, they have no real experience of the sea. No such attempt to present the “the simple truth” about God as a neat package of ideas is going to come even close to doing him justice. He is far more wonderful and multi-dimensional than we can ever imagine. When we insist that people see God as we do, we attempt to contain God within our own faith-shaped bottle.
Too often we project onto God our own understandings of unlimited power and complete knowledge. This is why God is so often depicted very much like a benevolent medieval king on his throne – who listens to the petitions of his subjects, is munificent to those who submit to him but executes terrible justice on those who disobey him. Just what we would do, in fact, if we were in his place. Some even claim to know how God thinks and attribute to God motives from their own speculation, such as “God must always act against sin” or “God can only forgive people if they believe the church’s teaching.” This measures their own level of compassion rather than the depth of God’s love and mercy. This kind of thinking puts God in a bottle shaped in our own image.
Some believe that God is perfectly revealed in scripture. They forget that God cannot be contained in words, particularly in the pre-scientific and often poetic descriptions of people’s experiences of God contained in most sacred books. That is why we find such different pictures in the bible as a God who orders genocide and joins in battles by hurling great hailstones and one who is the good shepherd going to great lengths to find the one lost sheep. Also, whenever we read or discuss scripture, we apply our personal interpretations to the words. Unfortunately, we too often use scripture more to condemn others’ lifestyles and to exclude their beliefs rather than to challenge ourselves. These books can inspire but they only become the word of God when they are lived out and so change people’s lives. God does not fit into a book-shaped bottle.
We can also oversimplify perceptions of God, if we make unqualified statements such as “Jesus is God”, and sing hymns like “Jesus, you are the only one”, or “Jesus is my God.” This can lead people to think that we share the Oneness Pentecostalists’ belief that our God = Jesus. If we lose sight of the manifold ways we can experience God, symbolised in the Trinity, and of Jesus’ humanity, our perception of God can then resemble the figure of Christ on Mormon temples. Of course, it is easier for most people to relate to the human figure of Jesus than to a vast, intangible God. That is why some popular televangelists, with millions of viewers, talk about the Father and the Son in human terms, almost as if Jesus were a kind of superhero. However, this is God in a human-shaped bottle.
Faith is about relationships, love and commitment. Therefore we should encourage people to develop their own personal growing faith through their individual experience of God rather than try to impose our own faith upon them by telling them what they must believe. How many people have we lost because we insisted that their faith must be a particular shape and their experience of God did not fit into that bottle? Jesus compared the attempt to contain the power and vibrancy of a living and dynamic faith within inflexible religious traditions with the folly of putting new wine into old bottles. Indeed, attempts by church leaders to constrain new experiences of God and new Christian movements within the bottle of orthodoxy have led to many denominational splits in the past and to young people leaking out of the church in huge numbers in recent decades.
Albert Schweitzer only fulfilled his potential in God’s service when he stopped trying to shape and contain God with definitions and dogma and allowed God to shape him. His doubts over orthodox doctrine about Jesus caused him to give up preaching and to respond to the call to live out his faith in Jesus by setting up a hospital and leper colony in Africa. He concluded The Quest of the Historical Jesus: with these words:
“He comes to us as One unknown without a name, as of old by the lake-side He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He Is.”
Philip Sudworth © 2006