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Before we have faith, we have to define what to have faith in

This is how much God loves you.
This is how much God loves you.

After many years of study, I have arrived at a realization that I can no longer debate. It is not that I have adopted the teachings of a denomination or individual; it is my personal theology, which has come into focus at last. People of faith who want to believe in something, cannot adopt a lasting faith unless it has a foundation. That foundation is not, and cannot be, Holy Scripture.

We cannot begin with Scripture and arrive at an intelligent faith. The Bible is such an all-encompassing document that we must have a basis to analyze it before we can believe it. I remember sitting in church when I was a child and wondering what was wrong with me when I didn't like some of the weekly readings.

I was somewhat shy as a child, and I never asked any questions of my father, a priest, nor did I know how to go about putting a question into words and talk about it. That did come to me later, and my father's admirable reaction was to introduce me to his theological library, which lived in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in his office.

But in my impressionable childhood, I sat there listening to the story of Noah's Ark and I was appalled. Like many children, I simply felt sorry for the poor animals who must have been swept away in their innocence, never to know why their lives were ending. I thought about children much as I thought about animals, like a baby falling into a swimming pool with no family or good Samaritan to help them. It seemed wrong, but as I sat in church all those years I was repeatedly told that it was a wonderful work of God.

Your children are going through this just as I did in the Fifties. The faith of children isn't hard to undermine, and no "missionaries" have to visit them and plant doubts or conflicts in their minds. The faith of a child is as pure as their emotions, and their concept of God is as simple as "Jesus loves me, this I know..."

So if we want to arrive at a faith, we must first arrive at a concept of what theologians formally call The Nature Of God. By that we mean "what God is like." That is expandable to: "what God has to be like in order for us to worship him in spirit and in truth." So let's answer the question. What does God have to be like in order to be a proper object of worship?

Personally, I believe that one group we can rule out as objects of worship are the old, superhuman gods and goddesses. Divine beauty and power are just fine, but human failings blown up to supernatural proportions are not good at all. There is nothing more admirable in the behavior of Zeus towards human women than there is in an ordinary human "ladies' man." Being a god doesn't make it all right. So we cannot, in all intellectual honesty, worship this kind of being--not if the word "worship" means what we use it to mean.

Nor do I speak of God as an object of fear. You can see the fear of God's anger in countless evangelicals who live in terror of the Old Testament. You see the fear of God in the politicians who pass laws discriminating against LGBT people because they feel that they must demonstrate their compliance with the Book of Leviticus and proof quotes taken out of context, rattled off as is they would answer a question. It is said that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. I don't think so; the fear of God is the beginning of atheism as far as I am concerned.

God may have advantages over human beings, but if even once he uses those advantages to do us wrong, we can no longer find it in our hearts to worship him. The only thing God can do, in perfect fairness, is help us through his powers, following whatever Rules he is subject to. Anything beyond that lowers God to a level of a god.

I speak of God as the proper object of worship, and worship is very much like love. We love but usually do not worship our significant others, and we sometimes idolize public figures who are presented to us as the incarnation of some quality that we admire. But an idol merely shows us what we cannot be: no one can ever be as beautiful as Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe. No one can be as perfect as a celebrity idol, which is why we run into difficulties when we discover that even Marilyn Monroe was not what she seemed to be. In real life she was mentally unstable, dealing with chronic depression until it took her life. Elizabeth Taylor had freckles. Even the heroic celebrity figure Mother Theresa dealt with episodes of self-doubt and being unsure of her vocation.

Should this confuse us? Should we worry about whether we can be as sure of ourselves and as perfect as celebrity idols seem? Or should we forgive everyone for being human, up to and including Jesus?

When we encounter a figure who truly appears to present us with a viable example of how to be, or an example of perfection that we can relate to, we fall into a frame of mind that we call worship. It is not the same as love, because worship involves a self-surrender that gives us impetus to change our lives. Yet there is not that much separation between love and worship.

But there is a vast difference between worship and terror. In fact, I say that it is impossible to conjure up feelings of worship in your soul if you are terrified of the God who is presented to you as a being who can, at any moment, send you calamities, diseases and death--and after that, when you die, send you to everlasting torment no matter how much you suffered in this life. You simply cannot worship that creature.

But that creature is the God of the Old Testament. The Jewish people came to an understanding of the qualities of God, as they understood him, and consequently they encountered the Jewish Existential Predicament: the nature of human beings compared to the supposed nature of an angry, judgmental God. Something had to give.

It was Jesus who ended the intellectual impasse between the Old Testament and his contemporary Jewish culture by proclaiming that God was more than what they could read in the Law and the Prophets. Jesus told them that God was not just lawful, righteous and good--he was also unconditionally loving and compassionate. He did not preach belief in a new faith, but sought rather to enlarge Judaism to include the understanding that a perfect God understands that we, his worshipers, are imperfect human beings.

Contrary to the idea of "justification," we as human beings cannot deserve or earn the salvation that is preached by the Christian Church. No good works, no religious observances and no social action will make us worthy of the revelation that we received from Jesus: that we need no longer fear God. We must choose between fearing God and loving God, and we base that choice on what we read in Scripture and decide to accept. But it doesn't work out in the end if you choose fear.

The fear that is imparted to readers of the Old Testament will make it impossible to love God as Jesus loved God--to love in him in such a way that we can address him as "Daddy," as Jesus did (abba, father, a child's word). We will be trapped in a universe of fear if we do not listen to Jesus--and we will be in a situation that pre-empts the Christian religion of St. Paul, St. Peter, St. James and the early Church. The early Christians were full of joy; their beliefs separated them out of Judaism as the generations went on, through today. Even though the development of the Church was contaminated in some areas by Greek philosophy, the early teachings are there for us to read--but not in the Old Testament. You find these teachings in St. Paul's letters, and you see the evolution of his thought from intolerance to inclusiveness. This is the story of Christianity: a faith that evolved out of Judaism from the concept of being unique and chosen, to the concept of being the children of a loving Father, whom we now understand. He is not the stern figure on his throne ready to rain down fire from the heavens, and he never was. Those ideas in the Old Testament are mistaken.

To realize that the human interpretations of the nature of God are sometimes mistaken is the only way that we can reconcile Scripture with our decision that God has to be unconditionally loving, good and just. That is the God we can worship from--the raging God with a whip in his hand is a creature that we flee from or grovel before. Begging for mercy to forestall punishment is entirely different for begging for mercy out of shame for our sinful nature. The sooner we realize that the Bible was written by fallible human beings, the sooner we can start finding the finger of God sending some thoughts to the writers--but not all their thoughts.

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