Chapter 8: Christian Faith in God

The Lure of Divine Love: Human Experience and Christian Faith in a Process Perspective
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 8: Christian Faith in God

Many definitions of Christianity have been proposed, both in scholarly theological volumes and in books of more popular appeal. Christianity has been described as a set of beliefs about God and humankind and as a way of life; or attention has been centered on the worship of God through Christ. For our purposes, the most satisfactory definition would be: Christianity is the total life of the community of men and women who respond to what they know about God -- along with their neighbors, who are caught up into the social movement or process we call "the church" (however this may be understood) -- in terms of the socially remembered event of Jesus Christ. Each person who wishes to be called Christian has a share in this community. Christianity is thus a great movement in history, from the first preaching of Jesus as Lord continuing on through the ages, enriched by the insight and experience of countless people who have taken part in the process. It is a dynamic and living community, whose members are united in a common allegiance and common response to Jesus as the community both remembers him and proclaims his significance.

That dynamic and living fellowship has always been marked by certain distinctive characteristics. It has explained its allegiance and response to Jesus as Lord by talking about his significance in relation to the supreme reality we call God and to the humanity that Jesus shared with us. It has found its central expressive action in a specific kind of worship -- the eucharistic remembrance of Jesus’ life and death and continuing activity in the world. It has made possible for the members of the fellowship a "life in Christ," as the New Testament calls it, in which the presence and work of that Lord are still felt to be active in the world. Basically, Christianity is a social movement that follows from a relationship to the divine reality, mediated by and made available through Jesus Christ as in some vitalizing fashion he is experienced and served in the society that bears his name.

Thus Christianity is a faith. It is not essentially a philosophy or an ordered system of ideas; neither is it merely a kind of behavior that imitates the earthly life and teaching of a historical figure. It is a commitment of men and women to the supremely worshipful reality called God, as this reality is believed to disclose itself to us, but it is not an individualistic commitment, since it demands full participation, to a greater or lesser degree, in a corporate experience conveyed through the ages by a community of men and women drawn from the most varied backgrounds and races, classes, nations, and cultures. In a sense one might say that the corporate faith of the fellowship is more important than that of any individual in it, yet that is not quite true, for each of those individuals -- or, better, persons -- makes his or her own contribution to the total community of faith, while the community’s faith deepens, enriches, develops, and corrects the faith of the believer. That is why we rightly say "We believe," rather than rest content with "I believe." I do indeed believe, but I believe as one of a great company of men and women, from many ages, of all races and classes, rich and poor, simple and learned, who in one way or another have been drawn to find the truest key to the meaning and purpose of human existence given focal expression in Jesus Christ.

This also is the reason that every Christian must of necessity be "high church," not in any denominational sense, not with any ecclesiastical overtones, but simply because to be a Christian at all -- as we have defined it -- means to be a member of that great community of Christian life and worship and faith which has come to be known as "the church." The fellowship, properly understood, is part of the total Christian "thing" because it is the essential carrier of the Christian way; nobody can be a Christian entirely on his or her own, although every Christian who is at all serious about the profession of the name of Christ must exert every effort to be a loyal disciple and a faithful member of the fellowship.

The faith of a Christian is essentially faith in Jesus Christ -- a commitment to him and a trust in him. But as we have just seen, a Christian’s faith is also the faith of the Christian community. It would be better to say that the basic faith of a Christian is faith in God apprehended and available in Jesus Christ, for it is God, the divine reality we shall speak about in this chapter, who is at the center. Yet it is also true that Christianity is unique in its conviction that God and Jesus are inextricably linked together: God in Christ, Christ manifesting God, God made real to us in the man Jesus. Here are the enduring affirmations of the specifically Christian way of faith.

Faith means commitment to God. To say "we believe" is to say that for all eternity we put our whole trust, our complete confidence, our final reliance, in the divine reality made available to us in Jesus Christ. Such faith is "the master light of all our seeing," the sheet anchor of our lives, the dominant element in the whole existence of the Christian person. But it is not contrary to our knowledge, it is not believing what is not so. There is nothing irrational about being a Christian and placing one’s trust in God manifested in Christ. Of course, the Christian’s faith goes beyond the merely rational; there is a "leap," to use Kierkegaard’s word, but it is not a blind leap. Someone has defined faith as "reason grown courageous, ‘and this apt phrase gives us the clue to the relationship between human rational powers and the act of belief.

There is, in fact, plenty of evidence that points toward the reality of God and that makes reasonable the Christian claim about Jesus Christ. The universe would make no sense if there were not some chief causative agency, some source of novelty, some final destiny, some creative and energizing activity striving for the accomplishment of great ends. And the impact of Jesus Christ upon history, his continuing influence and power in the world, the very wonder of his person itself that we read about in the New Testament -- all point to his being more than the best of men, making credible the conviction stated in a hymn, that in Jesus we have "God in man made manifest." But we can no more say that this is the case than we can say that God is active and living Love, without going beyond what "reason alone" (to use Kant’s phrase) can tell us.

Yet once the venture of faith has been made, in company with the great band of men and women who have held that faith, we can find that the venture is confirmed in experience. Stability, purpose, empowering of life, a sense of release and acceptance -- all follow upon the venture. As the old Latin saying has it, solvitur ambulando: it is proved to us and for us in the very act of accepting it and living by it. So much of pragmatism is inevitable and essential. "You will know them by their fruits," said Jesus, and the fruits of continuing acts of self-commitment are plain in lives made whole and right, given purpose and meaning.

One of the tragedies of Christian history has been the way in which some in positions of leadership have sought to turn the great dynamic movement of Christian faith and living into an ignorant obscurantism. They have fought advances of thought, they have tried to defeat the efforts of men and women to know more about the world, they have denied the validity of scientific truth, they have called into question the freedom and responsibility, as well as the dignity, of human life. But despite their unhappy efforts, the Christian fellowship has never finally been willing to remain in some outworn position or rest content in some backwater, for there have always been those who pushed forward in the certain confidence that God is the God of truth and that nothing that is true can deny the disclosure of the divine self given in Jesus Christ. It is and always has been possible to be a modern person, living the life of one’s own time, and also a convinced Christian. This reverent modernism is the only true orthodoxy; the other variety of orthodoxy is a dead and ineffective traditionalism, in the worst sense of that much-abused and yet invaluable word.

None of us knows the whole truth; we humans will never know it, short of seeing God, who is Truth. We know in part, yet that which we know, as honest and reverent Christian believers, is right and sound. It needs, however, constantly to be related to the rest of our knowledge, in the many human fields of research, study, and experience. The task of the thoughtful Christian is found precisely at this point. That Christian must see all life in light of this central vision and, conversely, must see this central vision in the light of all the rest that is known and seen. Constant rethinking, constant reinterpretation, and never-ending restatement are involved in this task. Yet the basic certainties stand sure; they concern the dynamic reality who is God, God’s pervasive action in the world, God’s self-manifestation through the whole range of creation, God’s focal self-expression in Jesus Christ, the effecting of God’s purpose through loving activity in the world and in human existence, and the assurance that our human life is not an end in itself but finds its fulfillment through reception into the divine life.

When one thinks of the great Christian community, in its long history and its wide reach, in all its variety and inclusiveness, one is filled with reverence and a sense of the mystery of corporate faith, worship, and life. Every parish and every mission, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem, no matter how picayune and narrow its concerns may appear, has its part in this historical movement. And when one is despondent about one’s own St. John’s-by-the-Sea, one can turn again and again from that congregation and its apparent failure to the great fellowship through the ages and find in the thought of that fellowship a cordial for drooping spirits. There is more here than meets the eye, and one’s local congregation is a participant in that family of faith which endures through the centuries as what Paul called the Body of Christ.

But the only way in which one can be a participant in that great tradition is through a willing sharing in the small cell of the Body in the place where one happens to live -- and such willing sharing will have the double effect of strengthening both one’s own faith and the community of faith. It will make more effectual the witness of the apparently insignificant and ineffective local congregation, at which it is easy enough to sneer if one is so inclined. However, if we are humbly though critically ready to put up with the fellowship in its particular local manifestation, where and as we find it, we shall help to renew and strengthen it, at the same time discovering for ourselves the deepening of Christian discipleship and finding that we are enriched by other men and women who, like ourselves, are seeking to live in the Christian way, informed by the Christian faith, and supported by Christian worship.

We have said that the faith of a Christian is a shared self-commitment to God in utter trust and confidence. And we have noted that such a definition must at once be qualified by the addition of the phrase "revealed in Jesus Christ" after the word God. For Christianity is no bare theism. Even the modern Unitarian, insofar as he or she would make claim to the Christian name whatever may be thought about theological definitions of Jesus Christ’s significance, will say that his or her religion is toward God as God is defined by Jesus Christ -- which is to say that the specifically Christian understanding of God must be in terms of what Whitehead styled "the Galilean vision.

In much conventional Christian thinking, preaching, and teaching, God has been presented in ways that are far different from "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." There has been a presentation of God as the Absolute in a sense that God becomes an almost static being. There has been teaching about God which so emphasizes omnipotence that God seems above good and evil and in any event simply pushes things and people around in an entirely arbitrary manner. There has been talk of God as a moral tyrant, ready to descend with punishment upon those who violate what is supposed to be divine law. There has been a presentation in which a biblical symbol has been pushed to the exclusion of the rest, so that the resultant picture is not adequate to the richness of the biblical witness as it has been developed and modified through centuries of Jewish history. The models used to point to God have often been in horrible apostasy from the vision of pure unbounded love given in the event of Jesus Christ as it has been received and found significant.

What model, then, is the right one? That there must be some model is plain enough, since for us humans it is inevitable that we grasp the invisible, supreme, worshipful, divine reality in terms drawn from our own experience as humans. The distinctively Christian model -- although anticipations of it, intimations and hints, and sometimes fairly vivid representations are found elsewhere -- can be stated very simply: God is the cosmic Lover. So the basic Christian affirmation is that God is both the creative energy in all things, whose sovereign rule includes the whole world in its sweep, and also the living God who can and does enter into relationship with creation. But above all God is Love, Love-in-act, loving Action. God is the divine reality without whom there would be no world such as we know. God is also the one who communicates in love something of the divine self to that world, identifying with it, disclosing the divine self in many ways to men and women, working to bring them to the knowledge and love of God that is their own wholeness and their true life.

This picture of God is central to the scriptural picture, as Old Testament understanding comes to fulfillment in New Testament discernment. And as we have seen in Part One, the modem conceptuality known as process thought adds rational confirmation to just that picture. But if such be the case, this means that the conventional list of divine attributes is in need of thorough revision, or at the least careful reinterpretation.

Take as an example the word omnipotence. It is not in itself descriptive of God as God is portrayed in the Bible. Years ago, a friend of mine ventured to write an illuminating essay in which he urged -- and I believe with complete success -- that the power of God, as it is envisaged in Scripture, is properly defined as "ability to accomplish that which God purposes" and not as "ability to do anything whatsoever. Hence we shall do well to think of the divine omnipotence as meaning cosmic Love’s supreme capacity to work in and through, as well as with, the world, indefatigably and indefeasibly. In other words, God as Love is the only genuinely strong reality. God is pantocrator, as the Greek has it, "all-ruler" -- and "all-ruler" in divine sovereign love. The divine omnipresence means the divine Love’s universal action; the divine omniscience means the divine Love’s awareness of the depths and heights of possibility; the divine transcendence means the divine Love’s utter inexhaustibility; the divine immanence means the divine Love’s unfailing presence. And to call God infinite is not to say that God is absolutely unlimited or to think of God as entirely beyond our knowing. Rather, it is to say that God’s Love knows no limit and that God reveals the divine self to creation as precisely Love, but does this out of that limitless Love which is the divine self.

By saying "God," religion intends to point toward the divine reality, the chief causative agency in the world, the supreme responsive agency to the world’s ongoing process, the ultimate recipient of what is accomplished in the world. As supreme, and as supremely Love, God is altogether worshipful and adorable. But the adjectives that must be used to describe this divine reality are "living," "responsive," "communicative," "related," and (as I have urged) above all "loving." God is alive with a fullness of life and vibrancy of selfhood that far exceed anything we know in our own experience. God is the Life which moves through all that is not the divine self. God is a rich unity capable of getting in touch with what is not the divine self while possessing the freedom to be the divine self. Our own meager understanding of personality is not adequate to describe this truth about God. We could, and perhaps we should, speak of God as "super-personal," were it not that such a term might suggest that God is impersonal rather than more-than-personal-as-we-know-it.

To speak about God is to speak of the eternal Goodness, in the phrase from the Theologica Germanica, which Luther loved so much. God is not neutral about the issues of life. The divine righteousness is the capacity, the power, and the will to set right what is wrong; to bring good out of evil, right out of wrong; to establish the right conditions in the world and thus to accomplish God’s loving intention. God’s sovereign rule over creation is such that this intention cannot in the long run suffer defeat, however much evil, wrong, and sin there may be in the world as we now see and experience it.

But God is not responsible for that evil, wrong, and sin. God neither directly wills it nor permissively allows it. To talk in that fashion, as have many theologians over the centuries, is to misunderstand two things. First, it is to fail to see that the creatures, including you and me and whatever else is not God, have their own degree of freedom and their own capacity for choices that may be good or bad, upbuilding or destructive. God is chief cause, to be sure, but God is not the only cause. And created causes are genuine causes, not imitation ones; as such, they have consequences. Second, God deals with the evil, wrong, and sin by the suffering love that can mysteriously transmute it into good. Of this the cross of Jesus Christ is the sign and symbol. What is more, God calls humanity to be co-workers with God in overcoming evil, wrong, and sin by our devotion, vigorous effort, and willing response to what we know of God’s love and God’s purpose for us.

God is no remote deity. As living and personal, God is in the world. We might even also say that the world is in God. This position is to be distinguished from pantheism, in which God and the world are practically identical. Professor Charles Hartshorne has suggested that the right word for God’s relation to the creation is "panentheism," a term first used in the mid-nineteenth century and taken up by Baron Friedrich von Hügel fifty years ago. "Everything-in-God" tells us that God is not so exalted that he becomes meaningless to human life, but rather is operative in the whole creation at every level, moving through it, working upon it, accomplishing the divine goodwill in it. God is "closer to us than breathing, nearer than hands or feet."

At the same time, God is not exhausted or used up by self-identification with the world. We can draw an analogy from our own experience and see that as we are in our activity but are yet more than any particular action, with reserves of energy upon which we may draw, so God is in the divine operation in creation -- indeed that operation is itself divine -- but God is not lost in it. When we say that God is transcendent, we are affirming just this. If we get away from silly notions of a spatial transcendence, in which God is (so to speak) "out there" and which is in effect the God of eighteenth-century Deism, we shall be able to maintain with the Old Testament that God is "the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity," yet is also near to us, with us, in us, and for us. To put it simply, God is the unexhausted and inexhaustible divine reality who works through all things yet ever remains God.

In the historic passage, as well as in human experience, God is active. In the strange and bewildering complex of human willing and action, God moves through lure and attraction to bring the greatest good out of the confusion of human events. God is accomplishing a purpose there, although there is no reason to assume that there is an inevitable, almost automatic, progress going on. Often, even in the long run, we do not see God’s purpose being fulfilled. But it is precisely faith in God that leads us to believe that God’s ends will be achieved and that God calls humanity to be divine co-workers, to be God’s personal instruments or agents who, in our freedom and with our human dignity, can play a part in the divine sovereign rule. What we do counts, not only for us and for the human future but also for and to God’s self.

Finally, God is self-consistent. God adapts to what goes on in the world through creaturely decision -- the Bible portrays this in pictorial fashion, time and again -- and values those decisions and can use them. But God is faithful. God does not contradict the divine self, is true to the divine intention, loyal to the divine character, acting always in ways that are congruous with the divine final goal of the rule of love.

This is why the popular conception of the miraculous, as divine intrusion into and manipulation of the world, is contrary not only to our modern understanding of how things in fact go there but also to the deepest meaning of the scriptural witness. Doubtless the Bible tells of many miracles, but the basic point of each story is that God is the living God who works to accomplish the divine purposes. The unnatural side of the miracle stories is a reflection not of the basic scriptural witness to God but of the unscientific notions of the several writers. In any event, the biblical words that are translated "miracle" in most of our English versions mean "sign" (semeion), manifestation of divine energy (dunamis), and that which surprises us and makes us wonder (terrha). These are the New Testament Greek words; the Old Testament Hebrew terms are similar in meaning. Everything in the Jewish and Christian understanding of God would be lost if God were thought to be a static and inert being rather than the living deity who acts in nature, history, and human experience. But nothing is lost and much is gained when our grasp of the truth about God’s living action in these areas precludes the thought that God intervenes to violate the internal congruity and consistency of the divine creation with its never-absent divine energizing in and through created entities, events, and happenings. As far as we can see from our own experience and observation, and by analogy in the ongoing of nature, God does not break into and act contrary to the creation’s continuity, although God does lure that creation to produce genuine novelty.

Professor A. E. Taylor wrote many years ago that no living religion could do without the idea of the supernatural, by which he meant God as more than human or created, but that it did not require the idea of the miraculous. Supernatural may not have been a happy word; I think that it was not. But Taylor was correct in rejecting miracle as a necessity in religious thinking. When we have become intellectually mature enough to give up childish notions of divine intrusions and rescue expeditions, even with respect to Jesus himself (about whom we speak in the next chapter), and to trust in God who is revealing the divine self as actively energizing within the world, we shall be able to have a more soundly based and more credible view of the divine reality.

This view of God and God’s ways in the world does not make prayer impossible, as some have said. There is a sub-Christian idea of prayer that thinks we can twist God’s will to our own ends. But prayer is basically the surrender and exposure of ourselves to God, so that God may work the divine way with us and in us: "Not as I will, but as thou wilt." Prayer is the lifting of ourselves to God, so that God may fill us with and use us for the divine self -- and for our own great good. In that experience we are cleansed of distortions in our willing and desiring, and we are made to be the true men and women we are intended to be. Through our surrender to God, God is able to do great things. There is no limit to what our prayer can accomplish, as Dr. W.P. DuBose, the American theologian of the early years of this century, once said; but (he went on to say) it is always in us and through us, not entirely in spite of us or by means that are contrary to the consistency of the divine operation itself.

What has been said in this chapter represents, however briefly and inadequately, what the deepest Christian faith in God is concerned to affirm. It is appropriate that we close the chapter by preparing for what shall be said in the next about him who is taken in that faith to be our clue to the nature of the divine reality as well as the clue to the humanity he shared with us.

From what has been urged above we see that God’s activity in the world is not confined to the historical person of Jesus Christ; incarnation is "the manner and the mode," in Cardinal Bérulle’s words, of all God’s working in the world, which we find vividly disclosed in "the Galilean vision. God is ever incarnating the divine self in creation, ever entering into it. It is not as if God were absent from it and then intervened in it now and again; in the more profound sense, the unexhausted divine self ever energizes in nature and history, and above all in the lives of men and women, expressing that self in such a fashion that the whole created order is in one sense God’s body. It is a matter of the divine reality working in and with created reality. In differing ways, with varying degrees of intensity, God expresses the divine self by activity, which, as we shall see in the next chapter, is nothing other than God in the worldward relationship. Something of God is shown in the natural order, more in living matter, and still more in the movement in history toward righteousness, justice, beauty, and goodness. Above all, in the personalities of men and women and in their concrete historical circumstances, God is at work. God is disclosed as the ground of being, the creative energy that maintains order and provides novelty, the lure toward realizing possibilities. God’s activity in the world is the light that lightens every person. It is all incarnation, but it is not on a uniformitarian level since there are heights and depths, a more or a less, a here and a there, in the ongoing creative process.

In such a context, against such a background, Christian faith sees in Jesus Christ the appearance of a focus, a specific point, a decisive event. In him the entire movement is crowned, so far as humankind is concerned, with an action that shows the meaning of it all as we humans can grasp it and respond to it. In him we see what God is up to in the world. Through that focusing in one of our own kind, we are given the truth about life, the way to live it, and the kind of living which is humanly worthy and divinely desired. This insight of Christian faith has been expressed in the phrase "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Here in Christ is a focal manifestation in human life of God the creative reality, a manifestation in terms of action -- and that action is on our human plane and in our human situation, speaking to our human condition.