No One Owns God

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This tweet from Richard Rohr says God is accessible to every person on the planet, that no one owns God, regardless of religion or lack thereof. What does it mean to believe no one owns God?

Once upon a time, there was no writing. There was no printing press. There were no books. There was, however, God — moving and working in history and in human lives. I don’t know any Christian who would deny this. Without religion, without writing, books, and certainly without churches and theology, this God made himself known in the world and was available to those who called on him (unless you believe God has been asleep at the wheel for 99.999% of all history, in which case you are more Deist than Christian). We see in the New Testament that Jesus complimented the faith of non-Jews, people considered to be godless, and probably incapable of real faith. Indeed, we see in the words of the Bible itself that it is not primarily through knowledge of that book, nor the procedures, beliefs, and systems it lays out, but rather through faith, that we are able to know God. The Apostle Paul affirms that we actually live by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). This is to say, our journey forward in God is made up primarily of what we do not know.

That means everything that comes after faith is “extra.” This, then, naturally includes all that we can and do know. That is not to say that some of these extras do not serve very important purposes. If I believed they were unimportant I could not find any reason to be a pastor in a particular denomination and religion. They are important, perhaps extremely so in some cases, but they are, in fact, extra, because they come after faith itself.

Think of God as a big, juicy steak on a plate. The extras are everything — absolutely everything — that is on and around the plate. This includes healthy vegetables (important doctrines such as the Trinity, without which our understanding of God cannot be fully whole), the silverware (understood as the most elegant means by which we can enjoy the steak), steak sauce (particular denominational flavors we add to the steak), refreshing drinks (the type of preaching that helps us get the steak down without choking on it), even the manner in which the steak is served (religion itself). The steak is central, it is “the reason,” so to speak (John 1:1). Everything else in the meal is there to serve the steak, to complement it, to make it more enjoyable, or richer, or to help us get it down better. “In the beginning, God…” (Genesis 1:1). God was accessible and available from the start.

This is what I believer Rohr means by this tweet. God is moving everywhere. God cannot be restricted to one religion. God is even active in the lives of some people who don’t consciously believe in God, yet whose lives regularly manifest the beautiful fruit religious people already know is fruit of God’s Spirit. Don’t you think it’s pretty valuable to know this? That’s why religion matters, and why our particular choice of religion is important. Formal religious instruction helps us identify characteristic ways God may work in our lives. But Rohr again is correct, in that no religion/denomination will prescribe for God how he MUST move. If we think it does, we’re drinking the steak sauce straight, and leaving out the steak!  No one owns God, or will prescribe to him what he must do and what rules he must follow. Indeed, I believe the meaning of this parable of Jesus’ is that no one owns God, that he will give his grace to absolutely anyone he pleases, at any time, and under whatever conditions he chooses.

As a Christian pastor, I believe the Christian religion helps us understand God in ways no other religion does. Without those contributions we would be impoverished in our thinking about God. There are a few particularly potent ideas Christianity brings to the table, and I will discuss those in my next post.

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  • Wow, David. I visited here to see what is up with your blog. Though in your reply to Gerhard you didn’t explicitly mention straw man arguments and imputing to you thoughts and underlying assumptions that were not in your original post … I will. And, thank you for being so informative in your reply to his post.

    Gerhard: One of my favorite themes is asserting that God is endowed with free will and capable of … dare I say it, changing His mind. (See the discourse between The Lord and Abraham overlooking the plains of Sodom and Gomorrah and the haggling over the possibility of righteous men being found there.) So, if God is a free will being and supreme and in control … unfortunately, we on the other hand are flawed. Therefore, I agree with David that finding God should not rely solely on scripture, because it was transcribed by flawed human beings, capable of injecting their own preconceived notions into the discussion. But, Gerhard, do not be dismayed, for I agree with you that giving too much credence to other faiths is dangerous for a Christian who is even remotely concerned with helping bring others to Christ. Though righteous women and men can be found in all faiths, I prefer to offer the “straight stuff” and be “high on Jesus” … and I personally reject other faiths.

  • Hey, I never post responses and critiques to issues on blogs (I don’t want to be that guy), but a friend of mine asked me to read your post and wanted my thoughts. I thought, for further clarification, and if somehow I might offer any humble, helpful critique, I’d send it to you also. Not sending it seemed like a bit of a waste. What are your thoughts? The following text is copy-and-pasted completely unedited from my response to him.

    Yeah, I think he makes some good points, but he has a very vital and glaring hole in his thought: no one owns God, except, of course, God.

    First, I think he’s absolutely right in his statement that God will be whoever he wants to be, no matter what Presbyterians or Catholics or Southern Baptists or Muslims demand that he be. No matter what the next Southern Baptist vote on women’s role in the church is, that will not alter God’s opinion of human sexuality and function. No matter what the next Catholic ex-cathedra statement is, God will not change his mind about the ethics of stem-cell research or the global debt crisis. I 100% agree. But…

    “Without religion, without writing, books, and certainly without churches and theology, this God made himself known in the world and was available to those who called on him (unless you believe God has been asleep at the wheel for 99.999% of all history, in which case you are more Deist than Christian).” He absolutely did, and he’s been narrowing down our picture of him ever since. In Seth’s time people began to call on the name of the LORD, which developed and grew polytheistically until Abraham. Abraham began to be a monosebite (I just made that word up because I couldn’t think of a word that meant “worshipper of one god” without implying strict monotheism), which intensified until the law of Moses, which was still monosebistic and (granted, arguably) polytheistic. This intensified until Isaiah’s universal declaration that idols are just wood, and there is no god except Yahweh. In all of those instances God was restricting his own worship to more align with his preferences. For whatever reason, God has been refining humanity out of ambiguous spiritualism culminating in monotheistic worship explicitly through the god-man Jesus. I don’t know any way to understand his statement, and the implications he must have wanted to accompany it, “God is moving everywhere. God cannot be restricted to one religion” except that God is relatively pleased with any deity worship universally (though, again, Christianity being the truth behind the misty Areopagite, “unknown god” religion).

    My second problem, which is really a branch of the first, is more of a request for clarification than a forthright issue. In his “Once upon a time, there was no writing. There was no printing press. There were no books. There was, however, God — moving and working in history and in human lives”, does that include the Bible as a simple book which is unessential to knowing God? I would assume (though assuming is dangerous) that this is the case by another statement in the paragraph “Indeed, we see in the words of the Bible itself that it is not primarily through knowledge of that book, nor the procedures, beliefs, and systems it lays out, but rather through faith, that we are able to know God.” While I agree that knowing God is different than knowing the Bible (especially since he is correct that the Bible has not existed as long as true worship!), since relating to God well is, as he put it, by faith, this line of thinking would cause problems in a marriage. Say I have a habit of never looking at my wife, never talking to her, say I don’t even know her name. I could love this unknown, mystical being known only as “wife”, but it would be very odd for me to say that love (faith, in my analogy contra Flowers) is the only essential element to a healthy marriage. Love is the steak, knowing her name is just the (very important, but dispensable) vegetables. Say “wife” tried her best to narrow down her husband’s perception of herself, “I’m not Sarah, my name is Stephanie” or “I’m Mexican, not Russian” or “It really bothers me when you have sex with other women, you shall sex the Stephanie your wife and serve her only”. I would think that a very odd man who would call that sort of basic knowledge unessential. In the last case, I’d say divorce was called for! In some sense is faith in a god more essential than knowing that god is Jesus? Yeah, but is arsenic more poisonous than bleach? (I don’t really know, but for illustration’s sake…) God has indeed said “My name is Yahweh, not Baal” and “If you do not worship me through Jesus you are not worshipping me. In fact, the sort of idolatry (as in, the worship of a god through idols, not the “worship of illegitimate gods” that it’s developed into) you practice feels to me like people having sex with other people.” Is Christianity saying “Only those who worship through Jesus worship legitimately” boxing God? It may seem like it, but that’s not really what’s going on. It’s not that man is boxing God, but that God is boxing man. “My name is Stephanie. Don’t call me any other name than Stephanie.” Who is the one being restricted in that situation? It’s certainly not Stephanie. So, is the Bible unessential to knowing God? Yes and no. It is unessential to worshipping God at all, but it (more specifically, the worldview it presents) is essential to worshipping God in a way that is acceptable to him, This acceptable way is a certain belief, which Flowers notes (quoted above) as things which do not bring us to God as “faith” does. This belief, specifically certain beliefs about the person Jesus, were essential to the Apostles. John (in 1 John 2) said that no one has the Father who does not have (believe certain theological statements about) the Son. He later says that denying another theological point about the Son shows that you have the spirit of the anti-christ (1 John 4). Such faith, to the Apostles, is not acceptable because it is not specifically the Christian sort of faith.

    Lastly, a word about the New Testament’s view of idolatrous religion. “We see in the New Testament that Jesus complimented the faith of non-Jews, people considered to be godless, and probably incapable of real faith.” Is the reference here to the Samaritan woman at the well? Or perhaps the Syrophoenician woman with a demon possessed daughter? I can’t think of any other cases where Jesus was worshipped by a gentile who was not also a “god-fearer” (a Jewish convert without certain surgeries). The Syrophoenician woman had faith specifically in Jesus and Jesus’ power, so I don’t think that is the example Flowers is thinking of. My guess would then be the Samaritan woman.”You worship what you do not know”, says Jesus. There were god-fearers who worshipped God more-or-less illegitimately, which was not a huge problem for Jesus here. Jesus, in fact, revolutionizes the way everyone worships! Even the Jews, who worshipped according to the God given Mosaic code must now worship “in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” (Now, is the reference to “truth” a reference contra Flowers’ point? I wouldn’t die on that hill, but the observation is interesting…) Further, let’s talk about Paul. Paul walks through Athens and notes “in every way you are very religious… What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Why did he do this? “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” While the desire to worship is natural and good and God ordained, idolatrous worship, and all illegitimate worship (which, in John, means all worship not through Jesus), should “provoke” us painfully to missional action, like it did Paul, because that sort of worship is so incomplete as to be illegitimate.

    So, the article is mixed. Some good, some very vital bad. My conclusion: God is owned by no one except himself. “[No] one owns God… he will give his grace to absolutely anyone he pleases, at any time, and under whatever conditions he chooses.” Totally true, but he has, in fact, already chosen and told us what that choice was.

    • Thanks for posting this. You are in rare company, as I will almost never approve a reply to one of my posts that is longer than the original post! I posted it because I think the issues you raise are important, and because I really loved the spirit in which you posted it.

      To be honest, just knowing that my post got a conversation going is good enough for me. But I will address a few issues.

      The first is that, considering your main point is no one owns God but God himself, you didn’t really explain exactly how that is relevant, except in a couple of small places. Is it the idea that God himself has told us who he is and how he will act? I both agree and disagree with this and will explain why later.

      Second, perhaps there’s a flaw in my writing somehow, but on a basic level you misunderstand where I’m coming from. The fact that I point out that once upon a time God moved even when there were no books, etc., is not meant to indicate that I favor spiritual chaos, or that animism is equivalent to Buddhism is equivalent to Christianity. My point is that I believe most Christians relate not to God through faith (what is not known is the only object of faith), but to the Bible and its words, through sight. I definitely lean toward mystical ideas, insofar as I believe no book — not even the Bible — trumps personal experience of God, which I believe is available to every human being on the planet. But because I say it is available, do not think I am suggesting a false equivalency. I have stated nothing of the kind.

      In my work as a pastor, I stand outside hospital rooms with people who are losing loved ones. They occasionally comment that their loved one isn’t a Christian, and worry about what will happen to them after they die. I tell them they simply do not and cannot know either a) what happens in those mysterious final moments; or b) how God will choose to move in the inner recesses of that person’s heart. It also just makes perfect sense to me that the God who we can trust to care for us in life will certainly do so in death. If God proves inept, or unable, right in the exact moment when he is most needed, then I’m not interested in God.

      “[No] one owns God… he will give his grace to absolutely anyone he pleases, at any time, and under whatever conditions he chooses.” Totally true, but he has, in fact, already chosen and told us what that choice was.

      You might just as well deny the former when you assert the latter. You reduce it to a mere philosophical possibility, like the possibility of God not being omniscient, “Yes, God COULD do whatever he wants, but he has already told us what he’s going to do and that is that.” It’s utter denial that God WILL be God, that God WILL “have compassion on whom he will have compassion.” It also reduces the parable of the workers in the vineyard either to meaninglessness, or to mere symbolism. I’m saying that because God is God, and because Jesus told us clearly that God will do as God pleases, God will in fact do as he pleases, in reality. You affirm the possibility, but negate it in reality.

      From the way you quote scripture, it seems that you are one of the many who believe (wrongly in my opinion) that all scripture can be reconciled to paint a unitive picture of THE Christian message. I do not accept this. If I were to accept it, I could perhaps do so better with Eastern than with Western theology (although the work of Clark Pinnock and Greg Boyd has been helpful), which I think is severely in error about the nature of God, God’s presence in and among us, and the nature of worship. To boot, I believe the severity of the error is evident constantly in the church and in the lives of its people. Bad theology leads to bad living. The second is even easier to see than the first.

      This, to me, is the problem with your analogy “my name is Stephanie.” In order for that to apply, what you have to do is say that Stephanie has made her name clear, but there are approximately 35,000 different ways (based on 35,000 Protestant denominations) to pronounce “Stephanie” depending on who you talk to. You write as if the church speaks with one voice, and it doesn’t and never really has, all the way back to the apostles. Having asserted that Stephanie has told us her name, you then say we’re responsible for pronouncing it properly which, based on the history of the church to date, can mean nothing other than “however I think it should be pronounced in my particular tradition.”

      I don’t know any way to understand his statement, and the implications he must have wanted to accompany it, “God is moving everywhere. God cannot be restricted to one religion” except that God is relatively pleased with any deity worship universally (though, again, Christianity being the truth behind the misty Areopagite, “unknown god” religion).

      This is not my intention at all. While my conservative Free Methodist tradition and the Catholic church have both affirmed that truth does exist in other religions and should be affirmed as such where it is found, it would be awfully hard (as I state in my post) to get up and work as a Christian pastor every day if I didn’t indeed believe there are some vastly compelling things about Christianity. Do I believe any of those compelling things are mandatory? It depends on what you mean by that. I preach Christ and the Christian gospel. That’s my job and it’s what I know. I would never preach that someone should be Buddhist, or Hindu, or nothing at all, and I certainly do not believe it doesn’t make any difference, so in that sense, the answer is yes. On the other hand, I don’t believe ANY of this countermands God from doing as God pleases, and I don’t believe we have yet comprehended how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. In that sense, the answer is no.

      Think of a drowning man. As he is flailing around, someone throws him a life ring. He grabs it and is pulled to shore, gasping and choking. He looks up to thank his savior, but he is gone. He never saw his face and has no idea who saved him. But one thing is clear. He owes that man his life. The other scenario is that the savior sticks around, converses with the man, and gets to know him. Either way, the same man did the saving. The first scenario is a Buddhist who eventually meets God, and the second is a Christian. They are both saved through Christ, only one knows it and one does not. I believe Christ, the Logos, is the saving agent in all the world, the one who brings all to God. Some say this is a lower view of Christ, but I think it is a much, much higher one.

      I do not live in fear of what will happen to my atheist friends. I do not worry about my worship leader’s wife’s best friend whose whole family is Muslim. On the other hand, I share happily what I know and believe with whoever will hear it, convinced that it is God who changes hearts and lives, and believing deeply and absolutely in the words of Jesus that “the one who seeks will find.” This is either true, or it is not. If it is true, we are very hard pressed to explain why some people search incredibly hard and never come to faith in Christ. You then have to discount their search, which puts you in a domain in which you do not belong (questioning the validity of someone else’s spiritual search). Or you can believe that perhaps they in fact DID find, Christ DID meet them, in ways we do not and cannot comprehend.

      There are many mysteries in this life. You seem to believe that there are mysteries, but God has already solved the biggest and most important ones and we can have much certainty. I don’t believe we’re even close. Even to the most orthodox person on earth, God is ultimately known through faith and if not through faith, then God is not known at all.

      Thanks again for your comments. Thought-provoking, and I responded mainly because I realize perhaps my writing was not as clear as it should have been in the first place. You are a great thinker.