Everything can be an object of theological trial and theological assessment except God. God is, by definition and after a widespread religious understanding, beyond any rational experimental attempt. Everybody who breaks this basic religious rule would immediately incur in a kind of unforgivable theological temerity, into a rough religious insolence and finally into pure blasphemy. Yet, seen from another perspective, trying to think God is the first task of any theology and of any healthy religious experience. Not only the so called false religions but particularly those that pretend to be true (in fact all, Adventism included) need a continuous critical assessment of their presupposed understanding of God. Theology can’t be just a phenomenology of the current faith or the innocuous synopsis of the believer's religious attitudes or the accurate description of a binding strategy for Christian living. In fact, the great movements of reform and renewal in and out of the Bible have always started right there, daring to think God differently. Since we’ll never have God himself but only pictures of him, the big risk is, after finding a true picture of God, to make it, unilaterally, absolute, universal and eternal. “Our God” becomes an idol not only when he reveals himself to be false but also when he is just partially true or remains a limited God of the past. Very often “our God” (our image of God) reveals more of ourselves than of God himself.
In this perspective, let’s try briefly a new experimental reading of Psalm 23; the psalm of the “Good Shepherd”. The first image of God, in this text, is the ABC of every theology. God is a kind God, in this text, because he makes easy what is difficult, accessible what is un-reachable, beautiful what is repulsive, soft what is hard. “He makes you lie down in green pastures”. “He leads you beside quiet waters”. This fact implies two important characteristics in God’s being. First, this is not just a pure formal strategy of his part to control the situation or to control our lives. He is like this essentially. This is his being. He can’t be differently. At the centre of what he is, deep inside, he is kind and gentle. Second, he is kind not only when everything is ok, when life becomes what we programmed it to be or the result of our best expectations. He is kind in the worst situation, when all around is cloudy and challenging, when everything in and out has failed. There, he never loses his kindness. He never ceases to be happy even when, in addition to our worries, he has his own worries. When all these unsettled matters of our world put a lot of pressure upon his shoulders and when all these contradictory expectations can easily trigger stress and the anxiety at the most. Even then he, the “Good Shepherd” succeeds in being always the same soft and kind shepherd, always at our side, always refreshing us with his presence.
But this beautiful image of God as a kind shepherd has obscured the force and deep meaning of this first metaphor of God. Behind the kind shepherd we actually find a courageous, valiant, adventurous, risking, daring and fearless shepherd. No shepherd could be a good shepherd if he behaves outside home, in the forest, in the desert or in the mountains, as he behaves at home. At home you relax with slippers and pyjamas. All is familiar and quiet. Outside home is another story. You need to be well dressed, to have the appropriate shoes, the necessary instruments to protect your sheep. A different attitude is required now: full attention, constant alertness, big reactivity, determined leadership. But the most important fact in this, is that all these daring and surprising characteristics the shepherd uses to defend us. To attack, to limit and to stop all those who dare to menace and threaten us. He defends us with all he has, with fingers and nails. He is not that naïve, subdued and anonymous shepherd, sitting fearfully there in the corner but rather the fighting Shepherd at the centre of life taking care of his loved ones amid the demanding and drastic risks and challenges of our daily experience. The shepherd appears here heroic and majestic. He is the protagonist. The sheep must just follow. He is the Hero.
But the chapter does not end here. It proposes us a second contrasting metaphor of God: the metaphor of God as a housewife. The strong, visible and heroic male role of the first metaphor is limited and substituted here by the discrete, generous and anonymous female role attributed to God. In fact he dedicates the best of his time to prepare an inviting table following his spontaneity, instinct and creativity. He is able, in contrast to many of us males who extend at home the work mentality of efficiency and profit from the outside, to invest energy and time without wanting anything back. A radical non-profit attitude. A kind of pro-bono generosity. He doesn’t care about losing time in preparing delicious food that will be devoured in seconds and may be even received without a thanks as it usually happens in our homes today. He chooses new colours, plants, precious objects to make pleasant and magic the atmosphere and the sharing. And particularly he is not concentrated and self-centred, in his heroic act of cooking but in an anonymous and unnoticed attitude of giving, he just desires to make full and abundant the satisfaction of the persons around his table. God in this second metaphor is not the main protagonist but he is rather happy to make others protagonists in his feast, at his home. God, after this psalm, is not monolithic. He has not a unique visage. A uni-dimensional God, even if strong and powerful, would be a poor, a minor God. This is the complexity, the paradox and even the mysterious positive contra-diction of God himself that our theology and our religious experience shouldn’t ever kill and erase.
But this psalm in speaking of a new God speaks also of a new human being using two parallel anthropological metaphors. We humans are sheep, says the first metaphor. It doesn’t belong to us to choose the way, the strategy, the place where to rest. All this is the shepherd’s job. We need just to listen and follow without even understanding. Just by blind trust. This may sound even scandalous and shocking for a rationalist and autonomous modern or post-modern mind. Sheep are not characterized by their reasoning capacity but by their instinctive reaction of trust. But the second metaphor demands of the sheep a radical transformation. Believers must learn to be sheep but not to remain only sheep. In fact, the sheep lives a metamorphosis, a radical transfiguration. Sheep become persons in the second metaphor; honourable guests who are demanded to dare to speak, to think, to share, to celebrate. They are asked to go beyond an attitude of obedience to become creative through imagination. The transformed sheep start talking, proposing, creating. They are the protagonists now, in God and by God’s presence. God listens and is enriched by what his children create. Humans, after this psalm, are not monolithic. They don’t have ever a unique visage. Often theology and churches by trying to make religious experience simple and immediate, end trivializing what God has made complex and heterogeneous. This psalm underlines also the complexity, the paradox and contradiction of every human reality, culture and society our theology and our mission shouldn’t ever kill and erase.
But this psalm reminds us also that theology itself is not monolithic. A healthy theology must have a differentiated spectrum of tools, categories, perspectives, languages. While the first metaphor is theocentric the second one is anthropocentric. In fact, in the second metaphor, as much as with a chef at work in preparing food for others, the assessment of God is given to humans, to the guest themselves. The talent and capacity of the chef in cooking can’t be said and expressed by the chef himself but rather by the people who taste his food and his dishes. So with this second metaphor, God as housewife gives each of us the assessment and the evaluation of his love and care.
This complexity of God, of humans and of theology that this psalm presents is also well expressed in a parallel modern metaphor about food, table, home and religion: “The Babette’s Feast” of Karen Blixen. The story essentially centers around the preparation and consumption of an extravagant meal and it takes place in a small fishing village, Berlevaag, on the Jutland coast of Denmark, where a man and his two daughters live. The father is the leader and faithful Protestant Pastor over a small Lutheran community. He gave his daughters the names of Martine and Philippa in honor to the reformers Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. In the past, the daughters were courted by attractive suitors desiring marriage, but their father expected them to be married only to the religion. After the father's death, the sisters continue the father's legacy and never marry. They choose to stay and live in perpetuating asceticism. In the story, a stranger (Babette) lands on shore during a storm. She had fled the revolution in France that had taken away her husband and child. Babette becomes the cook for the group, providing their daily bread and salt cod. Unknown to the group, Babette is a renowned chef from “Cafe Anglais” in Paris. After winning, to her surprise, a big fortune with the lottery, Babette generously decides to give all her money to prepare a French feast for the two sisters and their religious community. The feast is Babbette's gift to a group unwilling or unable to accept. The parishioners eventually surrender to the moment and finally accept the meal for what it is; an artistic gift of love and sacrifice. Babette's feast becomes the generous and meticulously prepared French meal that changes the lives and faith of the people who take part in it.
We can never be better than “our God” but it’s also true that “our God” (our image of God) is usually not better than what we ourselves are.
Hanz Gutierrez, “Villa Aurora”
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5264