Wednesday, June 18, 2014

There Is No Unmoved Mover

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’”And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Exodus 32:11-14

In response to self-righteous right wing Christians, the late film critic Roger Ebert is credited with saying, “The problem with being sure that God is on your side is that you can't change your mind, because God sure isn't going to change His.” It is a clever double put-down. It makes fun of the right wing zealots while simultaneously ridiculing the whole idea of God.

I have no problem with the first part. Self-righteous and rigid biblical literalists have done more harm to Christianity than all of the atheists combined.

But I take issue with the second part of the statement.

As we see in the passage from Exodus, God is quite capable of “changing his mind.” When God declares that because the people of Israel have worshiped a golden calf, God will destroy them and let Moses start over with another group of people that God will create, Moses argues with him. And eventually, his argument prevails. “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

There are plenty of places in the Bible where God “changes His mind.”

We need to be clear that in Exodus, the Bible is speaking symbolically. God is not a being like other beings, making threats and entering into arguments, and then finally “changing His mind” like a person deciding what pair of shoes to wear. In biblical terms, God is the great “I AM.” God is not a being like other beings. God is not even a Supreme Being. God is, as Paul Tillich said so well, the Ground of Being. God is being itself. As Jesus said, “God is Spirit.”

The Bible is speaking symbolically, but my guess is that Ebert was speaking literally.

The larger point is that the One we meet in the Bible is not the “unmoved mover.” When the people of Israel were freed from captivity in Egypt, “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night” (Exodus 13:21). It is the nature of God to lead. God is the One who goes before us.

And God is continually “doing a new thing.” We speak of faith as a journey, because it continually calls us to new places and new ways of thinking.

Jesus calls his disciples to “come and follow me.” When we listen to some so-called Christians, they seem to think that what he meant by “follow,” was “Stay where you are. Keep doing what you are doing. Don’t change. Don’t grow. Don’t learn.” It is not surprising that they are treated with scorn. What they don't realize is that in their rigid self-righteousness they totally miss the point of biblical faith.

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