From “The Preached God:
Proclamation in Word and Sacrament”
by Gerhard O. Forde, 1927-2005
We suffer today from what might be called decadent pietism. It can be called a pietism because it is very sincere, religious and heartfelt. Its decadence appears, however, when the question is asked: “Whatever happened to God?” Traditional pietism thought it important, first and foremost, to “get right with God,” to experience conversion and feel at peace with the ultimate judge. Furthermore, after getting right with God, one sought to live a morally upright life, guided by the law of God. But in a world where God is just a harmless cypher, just love, love, love, no one needs to worry about getting right or coming to peace with God. Our decadent pietists are chiefly interested in getting right with themselves. The language is all too familiar: accept or affirm one’s self-esteem, own one’s feelings. This getting right with oneself includes learning how to affirm others in their self-chosen lifestyle, becoming inclusive, liberated, open and tolerant. We now have what Ludwig Feuerbach said long ago: God is just a projection of the self. This, as Karl Marx already saw, is just pietism gone decadent.
Whatever happened to God? God has been taken to the theological and psychological cleaners. A dominant obsession of most theologies in modernity has been to domesticate God, to explain away everything offensive about God, to absolve God of blame. In terms of Luther's distinction, instead of the preached-God, many theologians today give us all manner of opinions and explanations of the God-not-preached. They give us theodicies, apologies, exonerations, theories, whitewashings and excuses for God. They even attempt to change God's name! God has been cut down to our size: tamed, sanitised and turned into a harmless pet.
I have always liked the scene in C. S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” where Mr and Mrs Beaver prepare the children to meet Asian, Narnia’s God-figure:
“Is, is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!" said Mr Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. ls he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie and no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”'
Later on, when they are being pursued by those whom they perceive to be their enemies, there is Asian, leading the pack.
Whatever happened to this God, the wild one? Whatever happened to the God who spoke to Job out of the whirlwind?
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me if you have understanding?
. . . when the morning stars sang together,
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
. . . Or who shut in the sea with doors. . . .?
. . . Have you commanded the morning since your days began?
and caused the dawn to know its place?
. . . Have you entered the springs of the sea?
. . . Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?
(Job 38:4, 7-8, 12, 16, 31)
In other words, God asks, “Who do you think you are?” Job is confronted with the riddle of the tremendous variety of life in all its forms, that incredible and puzzling menagerie, from the aardvark to the zebra, the elephant, the ostrich, leviathan. He meets all their strange habits, seeing the near-human and the far-from-human, and is forced to ask their staring faces: Who are you? Why are you here? What in the world did God have in mind?
Whatever happened to God, the God of Psalm 8?
O, LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants . . .
You have founded a bulwark because of your foes . . .
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
and mortals that you care for them?
The God of Psalm 19?
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
Whatever happened to the God of Isaiah 45?
I am the LORD, and there is no other,
besides me there is no god;
I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the LORD and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe,
l the LORD do all these things.
Langdon Gilkey speaks of nature as an image of God: the inﬁnite vastness, riddles, and ordered turmoil of the heavens; the vast beauty and power of the big bang; the puzzle of the black holes, the variety and, certainly, the terror of it all. But what about the world’s catastrophes and tragedies? Could they be a part of God’s natural image too? Would not famine and flood be enough to make us shake our fist in the face of God, or indeed, lose faith, or even disbelieve?
Whatever happened to the God of Psalm 139?
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O LORD, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
If l make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,"
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Modern theologies have made us so used to the idea that we are created in the image of God that we have, in effect, turned the original idea all around and imagined that God is made in our image. This is perhaps the biggest, most common and most foolish theological error of our time.
Whatever happened to God? God has fallen victim to explanations, to theology itself, theology about God-not-preached. Explanation replaces proclamation. Lectures about God are substituted for preaching God. Our personal difficulties with God are assuaged with a little theological tinkering, perhaps a new name, a new image, a new theology more to our liking. Americans, George Steiner says, seek to democratise eternity.