The way we imagine God has a long history, from being a faraway and distant figure to being in us and around us
Occasion: Trinity Sunday
Text: Psalm 8
Topic: Rethinking God
The second verse of our Psalm has been called an enigma, a riddle. We hear about God’s adversaries, the enemy and the destroyer. We don’t know who they are. Babes and infants are mentioned as God’s defence against them. It is not immediately clear what is meant.
Starting with God’s enemies, the first part of the riddle is easy to solve. We only have to search the Bible to know who they are: the forces of chaos and evil. Elsewhere in the Bible they are called dragons and referred to as, Leviathan, Rahab, and sea monsters (Isaiah 27:1; 51:9-10; Psalm 74:13-15; Genesis 1:21). When there was a storm at sea, or a devastating fire or a plague, or an oppressive empire, people said the dragons were on the loose. In these contexts, God is portrayed as a dragon slayer. Psalm 74:13-14 tells the story of how God
“cleft the sea monster in two”,
“broke the serpent’s head in the waters”
“crushed the heads of Leviathan and threw him to the sharks for food.”
In Psalm 8 we find none of it. Yes, God is the one doing things: God creates, God empowers, God authorises human beings to rule, God crowns us, God is caring, and God is mindful. However, God does not do combat or make war on the evil monsters. There is only this puzzling reference to
“the mouths of babes and infants.”
In general, human beings are completely passive in our psalm, except for two modest activities. Firstly, human beings see. In verse 3 we read
“When I look at your heavens …”
The result is that humanity appreciates the glory of creation. This leads to the second human activity, human beings speak and declare the praise of God,
“O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
In short, human beings perceive God’s glory in creation, and, because of this, they give praise to God.
The praise of God frames the Psalm. The sentence,
“O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
occurs in the first and the last verse.
Now why is praise so important? It makes God present, it summons God, as a protector of our world. In sum, the theology of the psalm is that human praise keeps out chaos and evil. They are still active, but the way to combat them, is to praise God.
My late grandmother died when I was about seven or eight years old. She lived with us. In her late sixties she developed lymphoma and received radiation therapy. As the cancer continued to spread, it caused her much pain. My mother was trained to inject her with morphine. Even so, sometimes the pain was so unbearable that she groaned and cried. Then my late father would gather the family around her bed and we would sing a hymn,‘Nearer my God to thee’ or ‘Rock of Ages’ or Psalm 130, ‘Lord, from the depths to thee I cried’. My grandmother always said it made her feel better.
Even today at military services, the hymn ‘Abide with me’ is played by bands commemorating the excruciating fear and chaos of the Second World War. It reflects the realities of soldiers singing hymns when they were facing the utmost dangers and their deepest phobias. I think something like this is meant by the psalm’s theology, that God’s praise makes God present and forms a defence against the forces of evil and chaos.
Perhaps this observation helps us to understand why babes and infants are mentioned in connection with the fortress against the evil dragons, the foes and enemies. The second verse reads
‘With praises from children and from tiny infants, you have built a fortress. It makes your enemies silent, and all who turn against you are left speechless.’
It seems that the psalmist is saying that the incoherent babble of babies, their cries and laughter are nothing but forms of praise. Together with the more articulate praise of adults which frame the psalm, they constitute the fortress erected against chaos and evil. Both professional temple singers and little children when praising God defeat the dragons and bring order.
The message of the psalm, therefore, seems to be that in times of war and plagues and disasters, the cries of infants, the pious singing in family devotions, and the recitals of combined choirs make the order of God’s creation present; they ward off and defeat the agents of chaos and evil.
There is certainly something to say for the power of music. Martin Luther who launched the Protestant Reformation 500 yeas ago, suffered from a plethora of maladies: Ménière’s disease, vertigo, fainting, tinnitus, a cataract in one eye, kidney and bladder stones, arthritis, constipation, angina, and an ear infection which ruptured an ear drum. Famously he said,
“My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.”
Douglas Adams who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy declared,
“Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven and Mozart tells you what it’s like to be human. Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by Hitler for conspiring against the Nazis said,
“Music…will help dissolve your perplexities, and purify you character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.“
I think you will agree, however, that we cannot face chaos and evil alone by singing God’s praises. This is why ever new and ever more innovative ways to imagine God have developed even in the Bible itself. Psalm 8 reflects a picture of God as a male person. It is called theism. He is far away, outside of our sensory experience, and transcendent in all aspects. We have to sing and pray and make sacrifices to gain his attention and make him present.
In some parts of the New Testament, God is experienced as much closer and much more immanent. Jesus was called ‘Emmanuel’, God with us (Matthew 1:23). Some of the Stoic philosophers regarded nature, the whole cosmos, as God. This is called pantheism, God everywhere.
Paul in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 speaks about us as the body of Christ. We are God’s fingers and eyes and ears and feet and mouth and heart. In Acts 17:28, he goes much further by viewing God as infinitely close to us:
“For in God we live and move and exist.”
God is in us and we are in God and what is, the heavens, the sheep and oxen, the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, are divine. This is called panentheism.
So we find at least three ways to imagine God: God as a person outside of creation—theism; or God as identical to creation—pantheism; or God as the soul of creation—panentheism.
Sallie McFague wrote a book which was published in 1993. She called it The Body of God. An Ecological Theology. In it she criticises the idea that we as human beings think we have dominion over creation. She argued that the image of God in Psalm 8 was influenced by the monarchy. God is viewed as a creator warrior judge king. Today we know human beings exist in interdependence with all other beings, both human and nonhuman. We are interrelated and interconnected. We need to act as God’s body to protect the web of life. We live and move and exist in God.
The theologians of the Early Church decided to talk about God as Father (or Parent), Son )or Child) and Holy Spirit. It combines the notions of theism, pantheism, and panentheism. I think it is meaningful. God as parent indicates that God is more than God’s creation; the cosmos emanated from God. When we read the stories Jesus told, who are the actors? People like you and me who are called to forgive, to reconcile, to feed, to visit, to care for, and to be mindful of. We are God’s body. In the striking Philippians hymn (2:6-11) it is said of Jesus that he emptied himself taking the form, not of a ruler, but of a servant. We behave like God when we serve. The Holy Spirit indicates that God is present in rocks and deserts, water and air. So the trinity is basically a family metaphor, with a parent and a child and a spirit, a family ethos of caring for and promoting life in all its forms.
And this brings us to the biggest enigma of them all: that the triune God calls us to be the creators, the caretakers, and the servants of each other.
Then, when we become numb with fear because the monsters are on the loose, the dragons of terror, of crime, of deception, of greed, corruption and plunder and state capture, of disease and storms and fires and pollution, let us sing the praises of God. Let us also do the little we can to make a difference. It is then that our flesh becomes a psalm, a hymn of praise, to God, warding off the forces of chaos and evil.