R. Kirby Godsey’s new book, Is God A Christian?, challenges what the author describes as the commonly held belief among many religious people that the God in whom they believe is “one of them”. People, Mr. Kirby observes, too often confuse God’s religious identity with their own, leading them to believe that God in exclusively on their side in all things, and by extension, hostile to all those with whom they disagree.
In a world of increasing polarization and rising religious violence, the notion that God stands fully and exclusively with any one group or faith is not only theologically problematic for those who believe in an infinite God, but actually quite dangerous. For raising those issues, Kirby is to be thanked. The likely hood that religion will be a source for as much public healing in the 21st century as it has already been a source of public suffering hinges on this issue, if not exclusively, then at least quite significantly.
In pursuing this important line of thought however, the author makes statements and pursues a methodology that is itself problematic in many ways — ways which also invite consideration in an honest exploration of this book. Kirby consistently writes about what, for lack of a better term might be called religious fundamentalists or fundamentalist approaches to God and religion, almost as judgmentally and arrogantly as those people often have treated him.
From the very beginning of the book, for example, the author refers to Christians with whom he has deep theological disagreements, especially on the issues addressed in the book, as “Christians” – note the quotation marks indicating that that are not really Christians at all. Kirby doesn’t even seem to notice the irony of doing this in the midst of stories which inveigh against those very people reading Kirby out of his own Baptist community! What happened to doing to others as you would have them do to you?
I raise this issue precisely because I share so many of the author’s concerns, and identify so closely with so many of his solutions. Kirby’s book is not simply some academic exercise, but a heartfelt effort to bridge the worlds of deep religious commitment to particular traditions, and the absolute necessity to remain cognizant of and respectful toward other communities. If we cannot figure out how to do both of those at the same time, we are going to kill each other and ourselves. Because the stakes are so high, we cannot avoid asking tough questions.
It is a matter of pride among people who identify with words like progressive, forward-thinking, and inclusive, to be at the forefront of bridging that divided, but if those terms become synonymous with treating those who think differently as backward, narrow-minded people who don’t “get” God, then what have we gained?
This book intrigued me and it surely raises questions with which all people committed to any cause, and especially to a faith, must wrestle. It just needs a better, more nuanced ending.
Is God A Christian? answers the question posed by the title with an unqualified “no”. But perhaps by offering a qualified “yes”, the author would serve his important cause better. Instead of undermining God’s Christian identity, one might imagine that God is, or could be, a Christian, just as God is, or could be, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, etc. all at the same time.
The issue is not what God is, or even how we need to experience the 100 per cent realty that God is as we experience God being – as long as no one of those identities is thought to exhaust all of who God is. For an infinite God, multiple identities are neither problematic nor incoherent; they are simply loving concessions to a finite faithful.
As is so often the case, the issue isn’t God, the issue is us.