God of Many Names:

An Introduction to Dialogue with Other Religions

Robert C. Brow

Commitment and Witness

"You have compared and analysed long enough. Please get off your objective fence, and tell us what you yourself believe. Why are you so certain you are on the right track?" I agree it is now time to do that. And in addition to satisfying the reader's curiosity, this should enable us to try out some conclusions of the previous chapters.

We can assume there are typical experiences which characterise those who call themselves Muslims, Vedantists, Nazis, Sikhs, Existentialists, Buddhists, etc. Each of them could work at the moral implications of what they experience and how they explain it. I hope they will forgive me for choosing to show the moral implications of what I know best. I nourish myself every day from the Bible. I belong to a denomination which is committed to baptism in the name of the Trinity, and to creeds that express a trinitarian explanation of the nature of God. I have also spent much of my life trying to develop an explanatory model of what I believe.

At this point I abandon the objective method of the previous chapters. The heart is notoriously deceitful, but I hope that my ultimate value in life is love. Being a genuinely loving person is what I most appreciate in others. And that is the kind of person I would myself like to be. I admit that I often do not live up to what I value, but I sense that if I was free from the frailties and selfishness which bother me, I would want to treat every person with respect and love. I hope that my love might even reach out to enemies and those who disagree with me. On occasion I find myself caring and praying for those whom I find obnoxious.

Admittedly the exact content of what love would mean in many different kinds of circumstance is still not defined. But at least I can conclude that love is my supreme value, and I am prepared to build my life on this bedrock moral certainty. Even if it could be proved to me that Jesus Christ never existed, there is no life after death, and the Bible was nonsense, I can't see any reason why I would want to change my commitment. That encourages me to believe that my very personal moral choice of love as my supreme value is not the result of some logical proof, or ulterior motive, or evidence from the Bible. It seems to be a free choice at the very heart of my being.

Now, having recognised love as my supreme value, I cannot believe that I myself invented this ability to choose among other alternatives. I therefore assume that my ability to commit myself to loving is derived from whatever brought this world into being. In English the usual name for whatever brought this world into being is "God." In French it would be "Dieu." As we saw in the first chapter, such a name still has very little content except for being anchored in whatever originated my freedom to love.

My first metaphor or defining name for God must be the word creator. The creation of machines and even robots is possible for humans. To create beings who are free to choose love requires supreme creativity. I therefore choose to name God as the creator of this world and my astonishing freedom within it. As creator I assume that he or she cares about my personality. And surely God can't be less personal than I am. Which means that the idea of personality must be included in the metaphor of creation. I have therefore narrowed my logical options considerably, and several kinds of religious and ideological explanation are now unthinkable as expressions of what I believe. [See the chart in chapter 3]

I first turned to what I assumed was a loving creator at the age of twenty-three when I went to study economics at Cambridge University. After calling myself an atheist, and giving various atheistic explanations of my faith during five years in the army, I suddenly found myself talking to God as a very personal creator. The next day I bought a Bible. And in the first three chapters I found metaphors that clarified my faith in God. He is the artist who brought this world into being. Using a vast canvas he mixed his paints from light, sketched in the land and sea, put in vegetation, set the sun and moon in the sky, added in the fish and birds, and then the mammals. At each stage he stepped back and liked the progress of his masterpiece.

What was still lacking was a creature like himself with whom he could converse as a moral being. He therefore made men and women in his own moral image, and apparently wanted to walk with them in the original garden. But they had the freedom to hide from him and blame each other for what had gone wrong between them. That incredible panoply of story and metaphors beautifully expressed what I had already guessed about God. So I found myself eager to explore all the other metaphors of God's dealing with man in the Bible.

Having begun with my own commitment to love as my supreme value, I could not conceive of God being less loving than I am. I did not find the metaphor that God is love until the first epistle of John. "We have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them." [1 John 4:16] That expressed what I am committed to in a nutshell.

But I had already found references to the steadfast love of God from the time of the patriarchs, and in the life of Moses. And when I came to the Psalms there were seventy direct references and appeals to the steadfast love of God. [e.g. Genesis 32:10, 39:21, Exodus 15:13, 34:6,8, Numbers 14:18-19, Deuteronomy 7:8. Psalms 5:7, 6:4, 18:50, 25:6,10, 32:10, 33:5, 18, 22, 36:5, 40:10,11, 42:8, 44:26, 48:9, 52:8, 57:3, 10, 59:10, 16-17, 62:12, 63:3, 66:20, 69:13, 16, 77:8, 85:7, 10, 86:13, 89:1,2, 14, 24, 33, 49, 90:14, 92:2, 94:18, 98:3, 100:5, 103:4, 8, 11, 17, 106:1, 7, 45, 107:1, 8, 15, 21, 31, 43, 108:4, 109:21, 26, 117:2, 118:2, 119:41, 76, 88, 149, 159, 130:7, 138:2, 8, 143:8,12, 145:8. Every verse of Psalm 136 celebrates "his steadfast love endures for ever."]

If I added in the indirect references to forgiveness, mercy, and caring concern it was quite obvious that the writer of such psalms three thousand years ago had a very personal experience of that love.

In the life of Jesus I found the love of God took on a very bodily form. My favourite parable was the one about the constant love of the father for the son in the far country. The father's unconditional love for one who has behaved so abominably filled out much of the meaning of love that was previously imprecise. That is the kind of love I admire most in others, and that is how I would want to love my children and friends. It seems to be the kind of love that Jesus recommended in the story of the good Samaritan. He also explained it in the sermon on the mount as reaching out to neighbours and even to enemies. This fleshed out the terse statement that God is love, and indicated that in some sense Jesus had come from and revealed that love.

Meanwhile I studied the Christian creeds which declared that God had a Trinitarian nature. He is three persons but one God. At first that sounded paradoxical. But obviously if God is love, he was love before this world was created. And how can a solitary being love alone? It was Leonard Hodgson's book on The Doctrine of the Trinity, 1943 that had first given me a satisfactory explanation of how the one God could have, and in fact needed, an inner relational unity.

So I noticed my own experience of talking as a little child to God as loving parent, to the Son of God as my friend and leader and forgiver, and to the Holy Spirit inspiring, praying, and empowering me from my deepest being. As I travelled in other countries I again and again found this same trinitarian experience of God among Christians of many different denominations. In chapter 4 and chapter 5 we identified this as a very common experience of those who are most keen to nourish themselves from the Bible. And this Trinitarian experience gave me a reason why Christians baptise and bless in the name of God as Father, God as Son, and God as Holy Spirit. It is also the common factor in the creeds and statements of faith of all the main denominations that nourish themselves from the same scriptures. I could distinguish again and again this common experience from the explanatory models which differed in every denomination.

This distinction became supremely important if I was to cope with some very difficult parts of the Christian scriptures. Throughout the Bible there were metaphors that seemed to contradict my first impression of the love of God. God was judge, God was angry, God inflicted wrath. One way of dealing with these is to excise them.

[Marcion (died c. 160 AD) first rejected the whole Old Testament and then found he also had to cut out offending parts of the Gospels.]

There were however Christian books and teachers that offered me a model to arrange the logic of the more difficult metaphors. They said that because of the original sin of Adam God as judge has to condemn everyone to hell. God the Son came and died on the cross, and took this condemnation upon himself. Now anyone who hears about what the Son has done, repents, and accepts that payment is thereby forgiven, receives the Holy Spirit, and is accepted into God's family. All others deserve to go to hell.

For a time that logic seemed compelling, and it was the agreed tradition of those whom I enjoyed as Christian friends. What seemed puzzling and very upsetting was that in that model God only began relating to us when we heard about the Son and responded in the right way. When I went to teach in the Ganges basin of India, where Christians of any kind hardly numbered one in a hundred thousand, the idea that all who had never heard the good news were condemned to hell soon became untenable. Surely a loving God must have some exceptions? And what about children who died too young to hear? And retarded persons who could not understand the logic of salvation? And Paul himself declared that Abraham was justified by faith long before he ever heard of Jesus, and our faith is no different from his. [Romans 4:12-22]

I think it was C.S. Lewis' Great Divorce that showed me how the metaphors of God as Love, and God as the assigner of wrath, could be structured in a quite different logical form. God as love loves everyone without exception. But there are wrath consequences for certain kinds of behavior in this life. Murderers get hanged, adulterers break up their family, the mean and selfish have no friends. But the very worse of behaviours can be forgiven by a loving God. The one thing that must exclude us from the city of God is a final heart rejection of love and a preference for the hellish grey city that Lewis pictured as the alternative.

There was an immediate change in my structuring of the metaphors I used to think about God. It was as if the atoms in a complex molecule were now rearranged in a different configuration. But by then I was so used to feeding on the Bible as the very word of God that I had to find a logic that retained the power of its metaphors, parables, and stories. What seemed obvious was that God had to be at least as loving as I am. The idea of excluding anyone from my love because they failed to understand it or respond to it was in any case unthinkable.

One day I discovered a quite different meaning of the metaphor of God as judge. In the Book of Judges people like Deborah and Gideon fought for and delivered their people from oppressive enemies. I could therefore change the metaphor of judging. I could explain that the Son of God is not a Roman judge who sits impassively sentencing people to hell. He loves his people, however bad and unbelieving they are, fights for them, frees them, shepherds them like the ideal king David. A loving father may need to assign consequences to train his children, he may need to settle quarrels between them, but his judging is never ultimately condemning.. That proves there is at least one other way of structuring the metaphors of judgment to yield quite different moral implications, and still take the Bible seriously.

Obviously Jesus in some sense died as a sacrifice, and I needed to work at a satisfactory model of the meaning of the cross. The Old Testament metaphors of sacrifice did not seem to belong to a law court, but rather to the death of an animal so a family could eat. Similarly the emphasis in the metaphors of saving others by ransoming and redeeming was not on the amount of the payment but rather on the resultant freedom from bondage. [e.g. Exodus 15:2, 13] This suggested the New Testament ideas of a living sacrifice so that others can be freed, and lovingly absorbing their sin instead of rejecting them from one's love.

I now find it easier to picture the eternal Son of God loving and absorbing our sin from the day of the first humans on earth. That suggests that the Son did not become sacrificial lamb on the first Good Friday. Rather the cross was a visible expression in space and time of his eternal lambness. Evidently that is again a different structuring of biblical metaphors from much of our western church tradition. But all the metaphors suggested in the Bible are important to me, and I cannot avoid ordering them, and comparing their moral implications.

By this process of struggling with the logic of more and more difficult metaphors I slowly gained confidence that many other parts of the Bible would fit into a consistent model of the love of God. Eventually a point came where I determined to struggle with the most difficult and obscure parts of the Bible rather than dismiss those I did not understand. Such an assumption of self- consistency cannot be based on any external proof. It can only be proved to one's satisfaction by using it as a challenge to struggle with all the metaphors and stories of the Bible.

I had to face the difficult questions of the inspiration and authority of the Bible. When we use the word infallible we have to ask "infallible for what purpose?" I am comfortable with the term infallible to indicate that every day I find the Bible never fails me as a source of nourishment for what I want to do. I believe it is also infallible for God's purposes in bringing the Bible into being. And those purposes are that humans should discover the mind of God in bringing many children to glory. That is a rather different meaning of infallible from the idea that the Bible is infallible as a means of dating the dinosaurs.

The purpose of recounting my faith pilgrimage is not to prove that I have finally found the perfect explanatory model. In view of the incredible wealth of metaphor in the Bible, that would be ignorant presumption. I have illustrated the fact that in my own experience there is a constant interaction between the scriptures that nourish me, the metaphors and parables that make sense of my experience, the models that organise those metaphors to explain my experience, the life and worship of my denomination, and what I learn from other believers and other denominations. I have to be constantly open to the creativity of the Spirit or condemn myself to a dead tradition. My model or anyone else's model can never offer a logical proof that this or that way of structuring the metaphors is correct.

Some readers will still be objecting. "Your opinions are relative. How can you be certain you have found the right way?" I can only review my very personal seven strands of certainty. I am certain that love is my supreme value, and I would be committed to loving if all my explanations were proved wrong. Since I love, I am certain that God must be love, and loves me and all people unconditionally. I am certain that I experience God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that is confirmed by the common experience of millions of Christians from all denominations. I am certain that I find myself reading the Bible every day, and no other book nourishes me in my faith and commitment. This Bible tells me that the man Jesus, who lived among us for thirty years, was previously and still is now the eternal Son of God. His life and teaching and death on the cross makes me absolutely certain that no amount of my sin and failure will stop God loving me. It also makes me certain that I will be resurrected, as Jesus was, with a resurrection body totally suited for the city of God.

That seems to me sufficient certainty for my pilgrimage. And my experienced certainties seem to me very good news. I naturally want to share that good news with others and that is the topic of our final chapter.

Chapter 8...