Midweek Message (July 8-July 14)

World leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright tells a story about being a College Chaplain in Oxford. It, in a nutshell, reveals the problem that we seem to all think we mean the same thing with the word “God”.

He writes:

“It is important to begin by clarifying the question. When people ask ‘Was Jesus God?’ they usually think they know what the word ‘God’ means, and are asking whether we can fit Jesus into that. I regard this as deeply misleading. I can perhaps make my point clear by a personal illustration.

For seven years I was College Chaplain and Worcester College, Oxford. Each year I used to see the first year undergraduates individually for a few minutes, to welcome them to the college and make a first acquaintance. Most were happy to meet me; but many commented, often with slight embarrassment, ‘You won’t be seeing much of me; you see, I don’t believe in god.’

I developed stock response: ‘Oh, that’s interesting; which god is it you don’t believe in?’ This used to surprise them; they mostly regarded the word ‘God’ as a univocal, always meaning the same thing. So they would stumble out a few phrases about the god they said they did not believe in: a being who lived up the in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally ‘intervening’ to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good people to share his heaven. Again, I had a stock response for this very common statement of ‘spy-in-the-sky’ theology: ‘Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god. I don’t believe in that god either.’

At this point the undergraduate would look startled. Then, perhaps, a faint look of recognition; it was sometimes rumored that half the college chaplains at Oxford were atheists. ’No,’ I would say; ‘I believe in the god I see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.’ What most people mean by ‘god’ in late-modern western culture simply is not the mainstream Christian meaning.”

-N.T. Wright, Ex Auditu 1998, 14, 42–56