My “Hebrew Bible” professor at the Episcopal School of Theology is James A. Sanders. I say this wiath unabashed pride as I have been given quite a gift, to be able to soak in a bit of the knowledge and experience from a true master.

When he first started to lecture/preach, and yes,  he admits to doing both, I soon felt we were on the same page, with a similar ontological sense of a kindred theology.  One day, in class,  he put a name to it; this way of thinking, calling it a “Theocentric Christian Theology”.  Besides constant reminders of our continuing monotheising process, I shall also never forget his admonishment that humanity tends to worship the gift over the giver.

Below is a sermon Dr. Sanders gave at last weeks chapel at the Episcopal School of Theology, Claremont, CA.

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

Credo in Unum Deum

James A. Sanders

According to the first three Gospels Jesus’ first act of ministry, after doing some community organizing gathering his first disciples, was to heal a person of an unclear spirit.  He thus showed the power of God over forces of evil in the world, a first act of affirming the integrity of the One God of All.
And Paul makes clear in his various letters to the early churches, that belief in the One God of All is the core of Christianity.  Jesus taught in many ways that the very basis of biblical faith is belief in One God, even to the point of loving our enemies because their God is ours as well.  And, of course, Deuteronomy made early efforts at affirming that there was but one Yahweh and what it can mean that there is but One God of All.

But Christians, Jews and Muslims have still not yet gotten the point.  In many ways every day we show our belief in polytheism.   Alex Tribeck recently chided a contestant on Jeopardy who said she thanked God she had beat opponents in some recent contest she was in.  Alex immediately responded that she had thanked God that the others had lost.  The poor woman was baffled.  She clearly did not mean that.  Such an expression is usually but feebly intended to deflect credit from one’s self.  But what she was in effect saying was that her god had bested their gods. I’m sure she was not aware that she was subscribing to a form of polytheism.  And people do this all the time.  An American general recently went on television to denounce the god of Islam as evil and praise the god of Christianity as the true god.  That’s polytheism pure and simple.  By contrast, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia recently called for an ecumenical conference of the three monotheistic religions because, he said, “We all believe in the same God.”
Which of these actually showed he believed in one God of All?   The evangelical American general, or the Muslim potentate?

The Trinitarian formula was worked out by the early churches in a brave effort to understand the multiple aspects of the One God because  humans simply cannot comprehend God.  God is of a totally different order of being from humans and totally incomprehensible.  But settling on a trinity to express the inexpressible continues to cause problems.   The Qur’an explicitly warns against it, saying, “Say not three; God is One.”  Seminary students sometimes joke that some Christians take the Trinity to mean that there are three gods up there waiting for a fourth for bridge.  And some Christians think of the satan or devil as a fourth deity—the bad one we can blame for all the things we don’t like so we don’t have to blame our good god.   The popular mind says that “our God” should be somebody we like and can approve of.

The one doctrine that held all branches of early Christianity together was that there is but One God of all the world.  Pauline, Petrine, Jacobean, Johannine Christians, indeed all branches of the very splintered early churches, no matter how else they differed, all believed that there was but One God of all creation and of all the world, the God of All.  Those that did not, like Gnostics, did not survive, and for good reason.  Polytheism cannot seriously cope with or survive destitution and suffering.  Belief in One God is the principle reason that Christians have a double-testament Bible. The church father Marcion wanted to jettison the First Testament by the end of the second century of the common era.  He found much of it passé and morally uncouth (as we all do), but the churches rejected Marcion’s idea.  They could not agree with him because they knew that the major mark that united all Christianity was belief in One God of All, and that would be entirely lost without the First Testament, even with all its so-called texs of terror.

The three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all profess belief in One God.  But none of them acts like it; none of them carries through on the theo-logical consequence of what that really means.  It is not enough, however, simply to affirm belief, it is very important to work out what it means, and none of them has to my knowledge done that.  Each says it believes in One God, but each actually professes henotheism, one god per religion, and each is very sure that the One God reflects its view of what the One God is like—for Jews the Mosaic God of Torah, for Christians the God in Jesus Christ, and for Muslims the God Muhammed describes in the Qur’an.  The best of Muslim, Jewish and Christian theology through the ages, however has always claimed that God is bigger than we can think and is basically incomprehensible to the limited human mind, but we Christians often mistakenly take the Doctrine of the Incarnation to mean that Christ trapped God and limited God to what we humans like about Christ.  When the Christian says “Christ” he or she usually means the idea of Christ learned in Sunday School and church or the image each likes of Christ, or a view each approves of.

No, God is beyond the human mind to comprehend or to understand.  In fact, a god we humans can approve of is by definition not God.   We rightly believe that the grace of God is fully expressed in what we know of Christ Our Lord, but we should not go on to speak then, as some do, of “a Christian God,” or even as many so-called conservatives do of Jesus as God, limiting God to whatever we understand of Christ.  No, God is incomprehensible, beyond all human ability to image or to imagine, hence the Jewish and Muslim prohibition against making images of God.  Any image we can entertain of God is by definition wrong.

The Gospel says we should believe in God, yes; but the heart of the Gospel message is that God believes in us, and that in itself is incomprehensible.  God condescended to suffer what we humans suffer for thirty-three years under Roman oppression and rule.  It is not up to us to approve of God; it is God who approves of us, and that is grace pure and simple.

A contemporary theologian whom I have greatly admired was Arthur Peacocke of Oxford University.  He died two years ago.  One of his finest works was titled Paths from Science towards God (Oxford, 2001).  In it he said that the best explanation of “all that is” and “all that is becoming” is an Ultimate Reality, in other words, God.  Those are big words and convey even bigger ideas, but they are just words and the ideas are pure speculation.  They are an early 21st century effort to understand God, who is ultimately incomprehensible.  But we keep trying, as indeed we should, even while we realize that God is beyond human reason and human imagination.  The best we can do is to use the best metaphors we can; the worst we do is to let those metaphors limit God.  Absolutizing biblical metaphors is the surest way to falsify them.

Still, what can we Christians do, how can we act so as to work out what it really means to believe that there is but One God of All?  Former students will tell you that I suggest we start by refusing to demonize anyone or anybody.  You get up in the morning and you say to yourself in the mirror, “I’m going to monotheize to-day.  I am.  I’m going to try to live and act like I believe there is but One God of All.  Today I’ll refuse to belittle an opponent or anyone who disagrees with me.  Instead, I’ll try to learn from them.”  And you usually can manage to get through the morning routine—if you do not listen to the news on TV or read the newspaper.  Then you go out and encounter the world, try to do your job, and try to refuse to demonize anyone or any position not your own But by lunch it becomes nearly impossible.  I mean what are those darned politicians thinking?  How can they do what they do?  How can people do or say the things they do?  And by noon you have a headache so intense you just have to polytheize to get relief, usually by assigning to the Devil all the things we don’t like, thanking God “for every good and perfect gift”—perfect according to my views, of course.  It’s hard trying to monotheize, and that is undoubtedly the reason each faith-community or political community is so sure of the rightness of its position, and a great part of the reason there have been so many wars launched in the name of religion.  At least you won’t get a headache if you can go forth and legally kill somebody and then get a medal of honor for bravery.  You see what I mean!  It’s hard.  It may be that the First Commandment, of the Ten Commandments and of Jesus, is beyond human ability to grasp.   But, if so, why and how did this Bible which insists on One God of All come to be?  Where did it get these crazy ideas?

Dora and I have lived on several occasions in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank.  We found it difficult to affirm belief in One God.  Among Western archaeologists there is the saying that if one has lived six months on the West Bank one becomes rabidly pro-Palestinian, and if one has lived six months in Israel one becomes very pro-Israeli.  One question the Palestinian asks has so far found no answer, “What is ethical about the Christian West unilaterally, 60 years ago, giving Palestinian land and Palestinian homes to Jews because of Western anti-semitism that came to a head in Hitler’s holocaust?”  When we read of the hatred of some so-called terrorist groups for the US, we need but remember that question.  Talk about getting a headache!

So where can we start to get through the day, believing in One God of All? We have willfully misinterpreted Genesis 1:26 to say that God’s giving humans dominion over the earth—the birds of the air, the crawling things on earth, and the fish of the sea—means humans can exploit nature all we like.  The passage does not mean that and never has in any responsible reading of it, but we willfully read it that way because it suits human selfishness and greed, that are the real threats to family values.  Genesis clearly says that we were intended to imitate God as stewards of his creation, to be responsible for it as the humans on earth made in God’s own image.  The earth, God’s creation, this planet we live on, presents us with an incomprehensible gift worth approximately 30 trillion dollars a year in its own natural system of renewing water fresh to drink, renewing air fit to breathe, and replenishing natural resources that keep living things alive—and yet we humans are willfully destroying that system bit by bit.   God bequeathed us this magnificent gift and we are destroying it and the endowment that is built into it!

If humans on this planet are to manage to survive and give our children and grandchildren a chance to survive, we as Christians are going to have to try to act like we believe there is but One God of us all.  I am convinced that Christ came to live among us to show us in very specific ways how to believe in One God, and in his very being and in his teachings showed us the way to love one another, to respect one another in all our differences, and to serve God and not human selfishness and greed.  It is mandatory for us Christians to re-learn what Christ did and taught so that we refuse to limit God to what we think Christ should be, but to live our lives knowing that God is the God of our neighbor, even our enemy, as well as of ourselves.  The best way to do this is to identify not with Jesus in reading the Gospels but with those whom he challenged.   We can learn amazing things about ourselves if we read the Gospel text identifying with the Pharisees and other leaders and not with Jesus.   We must try to learn from one another on this pitiful planet what it really means to be whole human beings dedicated to the Oneness of God and the oneness of all humanity, and together to appreciate the priceless gift of creation for which we are held responsible.
Two thousand years ago, well before we started our maddening pace of destroying ourselves and God’s beautiful and mysterious creation, God came to us in Jesus Christ with a profound though simple message of love for our enemies and stewardship of this bountiful earth.  Have we not learned enough now about what we are doing to ourselves and to our children to heed Jesus’ message and try to live together in peace and responsibility?  God has done everything she or he could possibly do to show God’s amazing and divine love for all humans—even to the point of coming to live among us, suffering with us, and even experiencing death–so that we might live.

Can we not at least try to act like we believe it?                 Amen.