Reimagine the Divine

Imagining the Divine – God in the 21st Century

Evensong – March 1, St John’s Cathedral

Marian Free


May my spoken word, lead us through the written Word, to encounter the Living Word, even Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.


If you were in church this morning you would have heard a reading from Genesis 16: 1-7, 15-16. Unless you were at Hamilton, you will not have heard how the story continues. Verse 17 says: “Abraham fell on his face and laughed.” He fell on his face and laughed. God tells Abraham that he will have a son and this is Abraham’s response. He doesn’t show his disbelief by rolling his eyes or snickering behind his hand. He doesn’t wait till God is out of earshot and share the joke with his friend. There is nothing subtle or discreet about Abraham’s incredulity. This is a laugh from the depths of his being, he is so overcome by the ridiculous nature of God’s promise that he laughs out right out loud, he guffaws. Abraham is so overcome with mirth that he bends over double, falls to the ground. This is rib-tickling, thigh slapping, laugh until you are ill amusement – and it is directed at God.

Perhaps you are thinking that this is an odd place to begin a discussion on God in the 21st century – to choose a story, which if it is historical is something like 4,000 years old. You are right – what do miracles and Hebrew characters have to do with imagining the divine today. Haven’t we moved past the view of God presented in what we know as the Old Testament? Don’t we need a new and refreshing vision?

Obviously, I’m not sure. We neglect the Old Testament at our peril. Our best imaginings cannot imagine the God depicted here. In fact, I would go so far as to say that our imaginations have been severely limited, even impoverished by our distrust of the God of the Old Testament. God, as envisioned by the writers of the Old Testament is at once approachable and remote, passionate and compassionate, loving and firm, constant and unpredictable. There is almost no limit to the imagery that is called into use to try to capture something of the experience of God. God is described and imagined as breasts, as a mother bear, as an eagle, a fortress, a rock, a tree, a king and a shepherd. In order to try to capture something of the nature of God imagery from the real world – both animate and inanimate are used.

Unfortunately, the New Testament does not provide us with such a wealth of imagery. Apart from the Gospel of John which provides us with images such as light and life, the predominant way of thinking about and addressing God in the New Testament was Father. This, until the feminist objections of the 1980’s is, with some notable exceptions how God has been addressed and imagined ever since.

Language is a powerful tool, it describes our reality and defines our reality. For good and for ill our language for God determines the way in which we understand and relate to God. I would contend that for two thousand years, with some notable exceptions there has been a failure of imagination, a limit to the ways in which the institution speaks of God and therefore in the way that many people think of God. Just to give one example, the stereotype of God that is rejected by the new atheists, is a God whom we might recognise from our Sunday School days, but that is a God whom most of us (along with them) have firmly renounced and rejected.

Where to go then in the twenty-first century? How might we imagine God anew? Why are we imagining God – for ourselves or for others? Imagining the divine in the twenty-first century is a much more profound issue than I had realised when I agreed to preach this evening and has given me much pause for thought – not least that a response to the topic required a great deal more research than I allowed for. What language could begin to express the extraordinary, miraculous, ever-present nature of God? If I/we were going to try to find images to which the twenty-first century mind could relate, what would they be? Some of the biblical language might be able to be put to good use, but a great deal has become obsolete. Few of us have direct experience of a shepherd, let alone a mother bear. In today’s language of kingship conjures up ideas of, at best paternalism and at worst oppression and rocks are simply that – geological formations.

I found myself wondering what, in terms of modern experience, would be the most amazing, most indescribable, the most pervasive and the most impossible reality of today’s world? What in today’s world knows all about me, and knows where I am at any one time?

In other words, apart from God what is it about the twenty-first century that absolutely astounds me. My answer – the mobile phone. With this phone I can speak to anyone at anytime. I can even speak face-to-face with someone in another country. I can check my emails and read my bible (in whatever language I choose). I can get directions to anywhere that I wish to go and ask the phone to take me there. I can book air tickets. I can take photos and look at photos, find out what the weather is going to be – here, in Hamburg, in London or anywhere else that I choose. I can point it at the night sky and it will tell me what I am looking at. I can buy books or borrow books from the library and read them. I can draw, write, play games, listen to music, make music, watch TV. I can write my sermons and upload them to my website. If the screen is too small, I can attach a device to my television and use it as the screen. If the sound is too poor I can connect to my amplifier and my fancy speakers. AND because my devices are synched, all of this is possible on my iPad and my computer. In fact, I can do almost anything that I would wish to do – the limit is only someone else’s imagination.

All this is possible because of something that is diffuse and incomprehensible and completely invisible to me – the internet and “the cloud”.

The world is changing so rapidly that most of us cannot keep up. WE are living in a world of radical change and radical personal transformation. In fact, Prof Anthony Elliott [1] in a lecture aired on Big Ideas during the week, suggests that as a result of what he calls the “reinvention revolution” there is an increasing cultural anxiety. Women and men, he says, feel that they need to undertake a process of recalibration in order to confront the challenges of everyday living, to keep up with the latest changes. The problem is that there is always the worry that that won’t be enough for them to face the challenges of tomorrow. It is no wonder that the transformation industry is a multi-billion dollar industry.

While men and women are anxious about change and the need to keep up, they also seem to find it strangely liberating. Elliott, reporting on the work of Thrift, a British sociologist, says “women and men today are no longer blindly just following customs and traditions and pre-ordained ways of doing things. They are trying things out and trying things on as never before. They are not waiting for permission in either their personal or professional life as to how to get on to what they need to do. They are embracing reinvention societies in such a way as to engage in ongoing, incessant experimentation. These are not random, but are associated with various socio-technical systems – touch screens, virtual landscapes, location tagging, augmented realities and so on. iPhones and other things we carry strapped to our bodies are rearranging the whole social cartography.”

Reimagining God in this ever changing, inter-connected, over-anxious, app driven world is no easy task. The story of Abraham with which I began suggests that we can afford to lighten up. As we begin to explore the divine in the twenty first century, perhaps one of the things we can do is to take ourselves less seriously, stop over-thinking things. Maybe it is time to relax a bit, to allow images to form and re-form, to give ourselves some freedom to listen to and engage with the world around us and, instead of thinking so much, simply open ourselves to what is utterly other and see how that otherness is being revealed in the world today.

In a world that embraces change and yet finds the need to do so a source of anxiety, perhaps we can help women and men imagine a God who is both stable and ever-changing, both at the centre and at the periphery, who loves us as we are and yet challenges to be all that we can be. In a world driven by socio-technology it may be that we need to imagine God as personal and relational, as always present and accessible, as a source of strength and a well-spring of creativity. A God who extends us and enables us to do more than we thought possible.

In the final analysis, God simply is, and as such God always has and always will define all our attempts to reimagine.

[1] Lecture presented at ANU, aired on Big Ideas (Radio National) Tuesday 24th February, 2015.


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