Since many churches are constantly searching for ways to attract new members and an increasing number of Americans are claiming to be religiously uncommitted, even calling themselves agnostics or atheists, it is worth asking what image of God they may perceive when they worship with us.
According to a spiritual leader of the last century, Emmet Fox, our view of God could be summed up in the first words of the Lord’s Prayer (“Around the Year With Emmet Fox, A Book of Daily Readings,” Harper San Francisco, 1952, 1992). Fox points out two critical aspects — that God exists as “Our Father” and is also “Eternal, All-Powerful, and All-Present.”
The first aspect, what could be called the intimate or relational portrait of God, is present in most of our churches. We know that Jesus and Paul used “Abba” (Mark 14:36; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4.6), an Aramaic name indicating that God is as close to us as a loving father, and that we can ask this parent for help on a daily basis. As Fox says, this makes sense, because “the majority of men and women are at their best in dealing with their children.” Paul often uses the word “Lord” in a way that takes it beyond the concept of master or boss to one of real closeness and intimacy, and I John 4 reminds us that God is really found in our loving relationships with each other, since God basically is love.
In our churches, however, we often carry this aspect of worship too far. Visitors to many congregations may conclude from the way we pray and preach that God is more than father, but a close friend, a buddy, a pal, almost like someone we may slap on the back at the gym or a sports bar. In so doing we may project a somewhat shallow image of God and lose touch with one that is significant in today’s world.
Fox identifies this second image with the God of the heavens, the Father Almighty of the Apostles’ Creed. This God is not only one who simply stands beside us but is also the creator of the universe, all that is, the One who amazes the psalmist in Psalm 8. Recently astronomers reported that our Milky Way galaxy is so unfathomably huge that, traveling at the speed of light, it would take us 100,000 years to cross it. And studies with the Hubble and Hershel space telescopes demonstrate that there may be more than 500 billion other galaxies we can observe! To repeat that we believe in “God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth” gives our worship a cosmic and eternal perspective that is often lacking.
Recently I have rediscovered language that helps express the wonder and astonishment that we should rightly have. In his book written in the midst of the carnage of World War I (The Idea of the Holy, 1917), Rudolf Otto argues that the first response to God is not relational, but one of amazement, fear, dread, even trembling. He struggles to find words to describe the overwhelming amazement the worshipper experiences: “a clear overplus” … “the numinous” … “strong ebullitions” … “mysterium tremendum.” Recognition of this reality is not static, he writes, and can be awakened, can mature and evolve.
If we fail to express our belief in God as Creator, we run the risk of forgetting our origins in the stars and beyond. We are in danger of losing touch with the full reality of the Wholly Other who supports us in our challenges and problems. And we certainly could fail to imagine the possibilities of where we might be going.
EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is a retired pastor living in Johnstown, N.Y., and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.