A truth I regard as an absolute is this: people will always – consciously or not – attempt to shape the world so that it meets their deepest needs. Every person has a set of core assumptions about what the world ought to be like, and we filter all out experiences through these assumptions, and understand our circumstances through these paradigms. Not only that, but we act in ways that will bring about the desired state, and often our deepest hurts and fears are linked to incidents that have challenged the validity of our frameworks and where the world has resisted our attempts to shape it. Because He is so much a part of the world – whether or not we believe in Him, we are forced to develop a stance on Him – inescapably, we do the same with God. He created us in His image and we constantly try to return the favour.
One of my favourite poems – and by that I mean one of the poems that has shaped my worldview significantly (I appreciate literature that, to quote Jeanette Winterson, “challenges the I that I am”, rather than which makes me feel good or with which I agree) – is Browning’s Caliban Upon Setebos. It is a dramatic monologue in which Caliban, a half-man, half-beast, reflects on his faith in his god, Setebos. As the poem unfolds, we come to realise that Setebos is merely a projection of Caliban’s own fears and desires, a capricious and fickle god who ensures that Caliban is ultimately enslaved by himself.
I don’t think we ought to condemn Caliban for this. After all, I think Browning is suggesting that we are all Calibans. What we believe about God reveals more about us than it does about the divine. Often a belief in a wrathful, angry God, or an obsessive preoccupation with personal righteousness, is indicative of feelings of shame about the past or of a rigid upbringing. Sometimes a denial of the existence of God is indicative more of hurt at the hands of religious people than a genuinely objective weighing of the evidence. To some extent we all create a personally tailored Setebos. From our limited human perspectives, we will never be able to do otherwise.
So I do not believe that right belief is the same as faith, simply because I do not believe that right belief is possible: the finite can never properly understand the infinite. I do, however, believe that faith is. I cannot believe that God requires us to be theologically accurate in our understanding of Him if He designed us to be incapable of it.
That said, I do believe that pursuing better understanding is important; much of our happiness rests on our ability to begin to deconstruct Setebos. It’s not a salvation issue – God alone is capable of the kind of restoration that people so desperately seek. No personal righteousness, no raising of your hand in a worshipful assembly and no sinner’s prayer is going to suffice. The work is God’s alone. Rather, we pursue right understanding because it improves quality of life.
Look at it this way: the way I understand God will determine how I act and how I feel. If I believe that He is obsessed with counting my failings, I will be constantly ashamed, driven by guilt, and obsessed with trying to be pure. I will become frustrated by my inability to be so. I will come to resent God for the unreasonable expectations, myself for my lack of strength, and will likely become preoccupied with callously chastising others for their “sins” because on some psychological level it makes me feel okay about myself. On the other extreme, if I believe that I carry no moral accountability for my actions, I can easily become reckless and irresponsible, characteristics that ultimately diminish me. Imperfect pictures of God will always result in actions and feelings that trap us in a less-than-abundant life.
So I do believe that pursuing right understanding and right actions are important. Not because they are prerequisites for salvation, but because they enhance our life experience. And that, I think, is what God wants for us (John 10:10). God wants to free us from being slaves to our guilt and fear, and offers us instead a perfect love that drives these out (1 John 4:16-21):
And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
Lately I have been wrestling with a few big questions, trying to get to understand my Setebos better, so that I can diminish his hold over me. Honesty time: I feel frustrated by a church (in a universal, not a specific sense) that seems obsessed with good behaviour – focusing its efforts on sinlessness rather than on godliness (two very different things, although they merge in the minds of many). At the same time, by removing myself because I deplore the lack of grace, the consumerism and spiritual hedonism that govern most worship services, I feel lost because I long to do meaningful Kingdom work and engage with like-minded people (not because it ensures my salvation, but because serving God gives meaning to my life). I battle to reconcile a God who says He is not merely loving, but actually is love (something I believe beyond any measure of doubt) with much of what is ascribed to Him in the Bible, and with the scale of suffering in the world (so is my understanding of the Bible wrong or is the Bible itself – tainted by human interpretations of divine events – flawed? Where do I anchor my faith then? I would be justly wary of saying “trust your own logic”). I need to understand which of my beliefs and perceptions are merely a Setebos – my unconscious attempts to shape a God who meets my needs. And not because I am trying to win my way into Heaven either. I simply don’t want to be a slave to myself. He will take care of restoring me in an ontological sense, but that doesn’t negate the necessity of striving for right understanding and right actions. If I could just determine what “right” is …