This is a repost of a blog written on August 31, 2011.
A couple of thoughts this morning while walking the dogs on the great lawn at Zilker Park – Redbud Island was closed due to what appeared to be parking lot maintenance. I thought about God’s user interface.
In a conversation with a friend yesterday I mentioned an experience I had in 2003 at the Emergent Summer Institute in Maryland. During a Morning Prayer exercise we were encouraged to imagine Jesus walking toward us; to imagine how he looked, what he would say, etc. I had been through this exercise several times and how I imagine Jesus is always the same. I imagine him in Mediterranean street scene, wearing traditional first century garb, but wearing a baseball cap, and eating fresh fruit. In this guided meditation, as Jesus walked up to me he asked, “Why do you always put me in a baseball cap and eating fruit?” The question was rhetorical since he already knew the answer, but I realized as I considered the question that this “user interface” best enabled me to have a conversation with God. As soon as this thought came to mind Jesus nodded, smiled, and said, “Okay then, baseball cap and fruit it is!”
God allows me to imaginatively create how He appears and relates to me such that I can best be in his presence. William Berry in “Paying attention to God” writes, “. . . all our affirmations about God are anthropomorphic. The only way human beings can receive God’s revelation of himself is through human minds and hearts and viscera.” Even Jesus could express who God was only through his humanity. Jesus, himself, is humanity’s best “user interface” with the unknowable mystery of God. This reminded me of the audio material that a friend keeps trying to get me to listen to. The teaching is given by an Episcopal priest who goes into the similarities between the Jesus story and Middle Eastern messiah myths; born of virgin, died and resurrected, ascended to heaven, etc. Because of these similarities, this particular teaching asserts, the deity of Jesus should be suspect. This is not a new teaching and isn’t something that the church has been conspiratorially hiding for lo these many centuries only now to slip out and thereby debunking the myth propagated by the church. This information was part of my theological training in college. This morning, though, it became a puzzle piece that fell into place with the others already mentioned.
It’s all a question of user interface. God has appeared to humanity in a variety of forms in Scripture; burning bush, disembodied voice, bright light, pillar of cloud and fire, as well as several creatures right out of science fiction. These are all examples of culturally appropriate user interfaces. But all share the limitation of being so completely “other” that genuine relationship is impossible. For collaborative, reciprocal relationship to be possible humanity needed a theophany (visible manifestation of God) like us enough, but still within the culturally accepted expectations of deity. Jesus is the anthroporphisation of God. While it is true that the incarnation allowed God to have a human experience from the inside, it is also true that it allowed, and allows, humans to experience God. Jesus really did close the experience gap between God and humanity.
So, if God were going to allow humanity to create the user interface with him in the same way that He allows me to create my own specific user interface, what would that look like? If God were committed to making this happen in the historic era in which it did happen, we would expect God incarnate to be male, to be born of a virgin, to perform various signs and wonders, to teach with remarkable authority and wisdom, to be killed unjustly, to rise from the dead, and to ascend to heaven. These cultural markers would say, loudly and clearly, to humanity of that era, “God incarnate”. This, in fact, was exactly what it said to the religious leadership in first century Palestine during Jesus time, even before the final markers of deity were in place; his death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus was not fulfilling the Jewish, cultural markers for messiah. He was fulfilling the global, cultural markers for God come in human form. He was not killed by those same religious leaders for claiming to be messiah, but for claiming to be God. I am reminded of how God appeared to MacKenzie, the main character in the The Shack by William Young. MacKenzie asks God why he appears to him as a large African-American woman. God responds that, given MacKenzie’s negative associations with his biological father, appearing as an African-American and as a woman was the least offensive and most effective way for him to connect with God. In the story, MacKenzie’s experience and personality dictated the way God appeared to him, his user interface. In the same way; the history, culture, and personality of humanity dictated the best theophany or appearance or user interface with God. We did not create Jesus, but how God chose to relate to humanity was God’s creative, imaginative collaboration with human history and culture.
One blogger posed the question, “How could Christianity spread so quickly through the Roman empire and beyond even though the cultures it moved into and through had little or no cultural connection with the Jewish concept of messiah?” The blogger answers his own question, but then draws a faulty conclusion from it. The answer is that, while none of those first century cultures had a Jewish-like messiah concept, they all had a “resurrected God/man” myth. So, when the story of the resurrected savior Jesus erupted into the culture it was instantly recognizable culturally and fit easily into the thought and belief structure of many otherwise dissimilar cultures. The blogger concludes that because of this, the Christian story should be given no more credibility than we give any other historical resurrected savior myth. But he misses the point. If God intended to relate to the immense diversity of human cultures in the most effective way possible He would create and then fulfill a set of historical, cultural markers held in common by nearly all cultures that would have the cultural effect of announcing, “God is among us!” Of course, this argument presupposes that God exists as a personal entity and desires relationship with humanity in general and human beings individually. If that presupposition is rejected then all myths related to such a God must be rejected as false without any further consideration.
But, if there is such a God, and that God wanted to relate personally and intimately with human beings across history and culture, then one would expect to happen exactly what happened. God created humans. Humans created a variety of cultural “resurrected God/man” stories, myths, and legends. God used that set of cultural markers to create a pan-cultural user interface by which he could best relate personally and intimately with humanity. And in my personal, cultural user interface God allows me to dress him in a baseball cap and put a nice, red, juicy strawberry in his hand on which he munches as we talk; friend to friend.