Esther O’Reilly…. I mean Bethel McGrew, as she is wont to be known now, writes in her Essay Preview: Missing God of Jordan Peterson’s interview with Sam Harris in which Harris prodded Peterson to commit to conclusions on his flirtation with God. Harris teased Peterson into grappling with the idea of a personal God, but Peterson characteristically sidestepped the invitation.
Jordan Peterson is far more popular, or notorious, a subject than my extraneous musings, but Peterson isn’t the focus of my thoughts today. It isn’t Sam Harris either, though I have written about him before. Rather, the trajectory of my own past flirtations with the idea of a less personal God now prods me forward.
McGrew observes in Harris’s questions that he unwittingly, if not then crassly, “makes the same point C. S. Lewis makes in his fictional Letters to Malcolm, writing on the problem with trying to depersonalize God’s anger. Lewis’s hypothetical young correspondent suggests that we might reframe our experience of this anger as ‘what inevitably happens to us if we behave inappropriately towards a reality of immense power.’ A live wire doesn’t feel angry when it shocks us, but we know we will be shocked if we brush up against it.”
Before getting to the point, I must confess that I have played with a similar analogy out of a similar desire, I suspect, to make God seem less unpopularly angry. A God who is not wont to anger (or wrath as the Bible unabashedly puts it) seems more palatable to the modern mind, and, perhaps, safer,
Only my analogy, which I have thought to be rather clever, is of two magnets. The magnet signifying God is of immense proportion, of course, compared to the little magnet the size of humans. It doesn’t matter the size of the magnets, though; if we are orientated opposite to God, we are repelled by God.
It’s science. Like the laws of nature. It has nothing to do with God being angry.
I have toyed with the same human affinity to depersonalize an angry God. I admit the temptation to subscribe to the idea that primitive, Bronze Age people are less sophisticated than us and got it wrong to think that a loving God might get angry.
I rather like my analogy, honestly. It neatly dodges the discomfort of “the God of the Old Testament” in our collective faces. Discounting God’s wrath as primitive imagery is, perhaps, convenient, if not a dead end as I now consider.
The temptation to gloss over biblical truths is no less compelling in our time than in Lewis’s time, and, perhaps, with the same unwitting results:
“But ‘My dear Malcolm,’ Lewis writes, ‘what do you suppose you have gained by substituting the image of a live wire for that of angered majesty? You have shut us all up in despair; for the angry can forgive, and electricity can’t.’”
On my analogy, a magnet cannot do other than to repel a magnet orientated with its same pole forward. Of course, a tiny magnet opposing a larger magnet can always reorient itself! Right?
Of course, analogies always break done at some point. Have you ever tried holding two magnets with their north poles facing each other? The lesser magnet tends to want to flip and go the other direction. If the magnet were a person, the “attraction” might be described as unstoppable.
But that doesn’t seem to be the way we operate in our orientation to God. We seem to have this sticky business of free will milling about within us, and a real tendency toward sin that requires us to choose God’s way over our ways (if we want to be orientated in God’s direction). We don’t naturally align with God.
It isn’t quite like science. It’s messier than we like to think of science (not that science doesn’t have its own messiness with sticky things like quantum entanglement and such). We can no more remove God’s personhood than our own from the “equation”.
I am a bit embarrassed that I have fixated on this tangent to McGrew’s point in writing about Jordan Peterson, but it’s what caught my attention and held it. It gave my a springboard for my own thoughts. I have taken her work afield, but it’s the path I am on, so I will continue.
I am reminded as I engage in a little self-awareness that my favorite thinker and writer penned the words, “He is no tame Lion!” Speaking of Aslan, the unapologetically Christ-like figure in his Narnian tale. I realize, now, Lewis sauntered like a ballerina into the eye of a hurricane to confront such a wildly unpopular notion about God as His wrath, but not without some reason for his brash faith.
In his Letter to Malcom, the affectation is unmasked in the insistence that we connect wrath with the personhood of God, the Almighty. No “law like gravity” can pull us away from the conclusion that wrath emanates from God as He is in the Scriptures. Like it or not, we must take Him as He is.
I admit, freely, that I find myself squirming still against the idea of the wrath of God. I wish to protest that we cannot, should not, associate God with human emotions. And maybe I am partially right in that, as all analogies break down at some point!
I am consciously uneasy as I tip toe forward, like a child with his hand caught in the cookie jar, wishing too late that I wasn’t found out. I find myself confronted by my own waywardness, if not foolishness, in abandoning Bronze Age sensibilities’ for my seemingly more appealing, sophisticated, comfortable and palatably progressive ideas.
The brilliance of Lewis, who long ago earned my undying favor, urges me forward. A live wire can do nothing but surge with electricity into the unfortunate hand that touches it. Magnets have no personal relationship with each other, and no choice in the matter of their repulsion or attraction, such as is required for the element of love.
As events are often wont to do in a world designed for our personal benefit, and repentance, I recall the words of a song by David Ramirez I heard earlier today: Rock and a Hard Place. The chorus now haunts me:
“But for all the things I lost
There are a few I have gained
Most came between a rock
and a hard place.”
So I find myself squirming between two immutable ideas: the Bronze Age thought that God is wont to be wrathful and angry at human sin and rebellion and the more palatably modern idea that “it’s just science” – like a live wire or magnets orientated in opposition to each other.
Neither one suffices to provide us the right image of God, a God who is not conceived in our own minds. Live wires have no mercy. They do not relent. They do their damage as they are wont to do by brute force without thought or regard to consequences. Magnets are similarly unrelenting. They simply do what they do.
A wrathful God is a God who may love us. A wrathful God is a God who may have mercy on us. A wrathful God is a personal God who can change course, and change our course.
More poignantly, the God of the Bible, Old and New Testament, is a God who relates to us, because He chose to become like us – to enter into and become like His own creation. He is a God who knows us better than we know ourselves, Who is intimate with our sorrows, our hopes, our loves, and our heartaches – because He tasted what it means to be human.
I am reminded, further still, that God’s wrath is not without purpose. Everything God does, from the moment of creation, to the incarnation, to the ultimate redemption of heaven and earth and all the people who chose to turn toward God, rather than to oppose Him, is designed for our benefit.
The choice God gave us in the matter of our relationship to Him is reflective of God’s choice in creating us. A personal God chooses, and has always chosen, and always will choose to love us because God is not unwavering in His purposes, as we are. We can trust ourselves to a wrathful, loving God.
God is no live wire, no magnet, and no lion. The God of the universe, who created electricity, magnetism and lions, is a God who can sap the electricity out of the wire, demagnetize the pole and tame the lion. God is an agent in His universe who desires relationship with human beings He created in His own image.
Such a God desires to be our Father, the Lover and Savior of our souls, and the Redeemer of our lives. A God who “feels” anger is a God who “feels” love, a personal God with Whom we can have intimate relationship.
Such a God can be trusted where we cannot trust ourselves. A personal God who knows wrath is also a God who forgives and a God who offers mercy and grace to those who repent and turn toward Him.
When we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, when we have nowhere to turn, we find that a God of wrath is also, and foremost, a God of mercy and grace.
For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
I would much rather take my chances with a personal God than a live wire, magnets or even lions! Sometimes the things that make us most uncomfortable are better off being faced head on, and sometimes God leads us between a rock and hard place to show us something we would not learn any other way.