Journey Post 37: The Mundane God and the Words We Use to Describe Him
Mundane. It’s a vanilla-flavored word (read: common or ordinary). God mundane? I’ll wait while you catch a breath. “That’s an audacious statement! … Is this a trick? … Is this … blasphemy?”
If you’re looking, you’ll find two basic definitions, depending on the dictionary. One definition deals with the common or ordinary things of life in this world. A second speaks to things dull, unimaginative, banal, uninteresting; this one (no surprise) is often used as a dismissive put-down.
But God? Mundane? If you believe in him at all, you know that he is the very definition of imagination. To say that he is common, ordinary, this worldly—it doesn’t fit. He’s up there on his majestic throne, after all, surrounded by angels and all his … glory, right? Not mundane.
I wanted to provoke you into some serious thinking about what God is like. We’ll get back to the word “mundane” and why I’m using it. Believe me, I mean it in a good way. There is something very important about God that is mundane, but not on the conscious radar of most.
First, I want to help you think through your own idea of God. I often quote this, from A.W. Tozer: “What comes to mind when you think of God is the most important thing about you.” That statement is true for all, bar none. It’s as true for the religious, the non-religious, the atheist, the agnostic. What you think of him is important because it’s a statement about ultimate reality and power in the universe, how you relate to that power, how you live out your life in light of it.
This is not an essay about how you should think of God, but how you do think of him. Your response to Tozer’s statement may initially be something like mine was ten or more years ago: I would have recited—with no little pride—the Westminster Catechism statement that I memorized when I was thirteen: “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power … etc.”
The problem with statements like that is not that they aren’t true, but that they have little to do with how most of us—even the most religious—live daily life. So, whatever you might say in a Sunday school class or on some test, or even what you might tell your kids, is not what we’re looking for here. We’re concerned with your “functional theology.” “Functional,” because it’s what you really think inside—in the recesses of your mind—and how you live it out (i.e., function). You may be a devoted church-goer, but your functional theology will undoubtedly look much different from the church’s doctrine statement.
Our initial idea of God (or not-God) is formed in the context of our relationship with parents, our first God-figure. This is intuitively correct; it’s even born out by social research. Some peoples’ actual idea of God lie very close to the surface; these might hate him or have little use for him. Some dread him; many of these fill the pews. Consciously or not, we are all influenced by parents, and they (especially fathers) are models to us, the lifetime filter through which we process information about God. Even if not abusive, parents are often uninvolved or not accepting and caring in the way we long for.
You may not be surprised to learn what surveys show: two-thirds to three-quarters of people (including Christians and other religious people) have an essentially negative view of God. This was true of me as well. That negative view sees him primarily as judge, the one who is never satisfied with our efforts, and anyway, has more important concerns than me. For Christians, this often comes out as: “Jesus is my savior and friend. God is my judge.”
Contrast: Jesus and God
Most religion is based on fear. That may be easy to see in others’ systems of belief. Since my experience is mostly with Christians, (who profess that God is love, that he is gracious and merciful, that we are made right with him by faith and not by our own good works), let me run this by you: Suppose you know that God is waiting out in the hall right now and wants to see you. Your first thought is probably not that he is waiting out there with a big smile and open arms.
Until a few years ago, I—like many of you—would have first peered out the door to try and get a sense of what I might be in for, to make sure that it was safe. I’ve recounted before how this changed for me, how I had a crisis of understanding about what God really thought of me, and I came to realize that he delights in me, not because I was so good, but simply because I was his child. This change did not happen all at once. As I sought a way to verify that I was truly safe with God, I was challenged to immerse myself in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
I read the Gospels over and over. As I did, various assumptions and the encrusted interpretations of thirty-five years of teaching and study went to background, and I was left focused on Jesus: who he is, how he thought, what he wanted me to know. I realized was that his main agenda was not to prove himself messiah (though he did) or deity (though it shows throughout). Asked why Jesus came, we often say he came to die for our sins (true), to live a perfect life and fulfill the law (true), or to confront and correct the legalistic conformity of the Pharisees (true). Somehow, we’ve lost sight of the fact that he also came—perhaps most importantly—to show us what God is really like, to put his Father on display.
I can’t explain the Trinity, though I’ve been thinking about it a lot the last couple months. But I do know that to know the Son is to know the Father. They are not divided. It can never be true that one is my friend while the other is my judge. I’m learning (by faith) to say this as well of the Spirit.
In the beginning, God created the mundane. As marvelous and beautiful as the earth is (still, in spite of how poorly we’ve performed our stewardship), the earth is, by definition, mundane. The plants, animals, and people are mundane. The mundane is who we are and is our habitat.
When John wrote his Gospel account, he spoke of “the word” and how the word was in the beginning with God and was God. Then he states that the word “became flesh and dwelt among us.” A poetic way to say that God became incarnate. Another way to say this is that God took on the mundane, and lived among the mundane. He loves the mundane. He created it and even, so Scripture says, created a portion of the mundane in his image and likeness—that is, all human beings. He plans to spend eternity with the mundane. He wants that and likes that.
One last thing. Why mundane? Let me answer that by what I believe to be right from Scripture, from getting to know God, from life experience. One of the best ways humans learn is by analogy, from something we already know. If we ever only think of God as sovereign majesty seated upon a glorious throne and use only religious God-words to describe him, there is little likelihood that we’ll ever get to know him in the way he intends. After all, we have no personal experience of the heavenly. We do know mundane. When God chose to show us himself, he chose to send Jesus. We get Jesus because we get mundane. Jesus told his disciple Philip: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). God gets the mundane, not only because he created it, but because he walked in our mundane shoes.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so threatening, after all, to venture out into the hall….