Spiritual understanding emerges over time from humanity’s long march of relationship with God. Christianity and Islam both inherit from Judaism a very historically rooted understanding of the evolution of God’s relationship with humanity. This historical understanding of God can be contrasted with the understanding of the great Eastern religions which hold a view of God as cosmic, outside historical time and place. In this view God is universal and unchanging.
In the Judaic historical view of God, God appears to be continually changing – evolving into human consciousness through events in time and place. The Scriptural record is the unfolding account that witnesses to this process of evolution. If we compare the images of God in Exodus:32 and Luke:15, God appears to grow and change over time. The point here is not the complex theological question of whether God changes or is unchanging. God appears to grow within an evolving relationship with humanity. With the evolution of culture our image of God, hopefully, deepens.
In Exodus 32 we see God entering into history very clearly through the long forty day conversation with Moses on Mount Sinai. Forty days is a long time, and in conversation with Moses, a clear picture emerges of a God possessing strong feelings. The God of the Torah feels and reacts when things don’t go according to plan. Exodus:32 reveals a God who, when crossed can rise to heights of rage that threaten to obliterate Israel. God rages against Israel because God passionately loves Israel. The passionate God is revealed here to have anger management issues. God appears to have a poor tolerance for being disappointed and displays an alarming tendency for poor impulse control.
The people have become frightened by Moses’ long stay on the mountain. They feel lost and bewildered without Moses and the God who accompanies him. Lost and afraid, deprived of Moses they turn to Aaron, Moses’ brother for comfort and leadership. They ask him to restore their lost sense of God’s presence.
Aaron is priest and priests are usually more down-to-earth than prophets. So Aaron and the people construct a God who is more immediately available to them. It’s not so much that they confuse the Golden Calf for the unseen God of Moses. Through the Golden Calf they simply long to experience a God who is accessible and available. In the Golden Calf, they can see God, and they can touch God. This image is an image of God with them, a God to whom they are able to pour out their concerns, to whom they can express their fears, a God before whom they can dance and celebrate with ecstatic joy. Feeling lost and abandoned, through the Golden Calf the Israelites have a God they cannot lose.
Exodus:32 seems to be one of those powerful cathartic moments in the history of the relationship between God and this small section of humanity, namely the Israelites. In the face of God’s rage and the threat of poor impulse control Moses discovers it’s possible to stand his ground and force God to calm down. Moses discovers that God can be reasoned with. If this is a first for Moses it is not for God, who earlier in time seems to have had a similar encounter with Abraham who convinced God to save the cities of the plain – Sodom and Gomorrah. In both instances a human being needs to remind God of God’s desire to remain faithful to his promises despite a sudden rush of blood to the head. There is a deep insight into the psychology of relationship here. No real relationship can exist where either party to the relationship lacks the power to make an impact upon the other!
God also seems to learn something from this encounter. God’s mood is changed by being reminded of the bigger picture of the covenant with Abraham, now being renewed with Moses. Despite his rage, God also seems to realize that human beings need a level of physical intimacy of encounter with Godself. Rabbi Arthur Waskow commenting on this aspect of the encounter on Mount Sinai says:
The ancient rabbios thought there was a relationship between the Golden Mishkan (the portable Shrine known to us as the Tent of Meeting) and the Golden Calf. The way they understand the relationship was that from watching how the people dance for the calf, God ruefully accepts that the people need a physical focus for their experience of God. So God gives them the Mishkan in place of a calf. In this approach, the story as we have it in the Torah is “out of order” — chronologically reversed. For it is the experience of the calf that convinces God to design a Mishkan.
Rabbi Waskow ruefully notes the similarity between the golden calf and the golden altar to be placed at the center of the Tent of Meeting; both made of gold, both with horns. He says:
And the people? Dimly from the foot of the mountain, they hear the overtones, a blur: “Plenty of gold? Uh-huh. And — something about horns? — Un-huh. Must be a golden bull-calf!!” So they build it. For God as well as us, the truth is firm: What you sow, that you shall reap. Or to put it in another way: certainly earth is spirit, there needs to be a physical context for the spiritual path. (A “path” is very earthy.) https://theshalomcenter.org/content/golden-calf-golden-mishka
We also live in a time when idols abound. Since the Enlightenment, God has been in retreat from the stage of the universe, finally ending up well off stage, leaving us to strut with increasing self-importance center stage. Christianity takes a detour into Deism where the image of God is that of the prime mover who subsequently leaves the universe to run itself. God absents Godself, leaving us feeling alone because we are now like the Israelites at the foot of Mt Sinai, bereft of a lively sense of being in relationship with God and trying to get on with things the best way they can. Finding substitutes to fill the chasm of our loss we construct and worship our own golden calves. Amidst the many idols of Western Society the idols of science and morality particularly stand-out.
Like the Golden Calf our idols of science and morality comfort us with something more immediate and tangible in the face of an experience of existential loneliness. I am not suggesting that scientific progress is not a benefit to society but as an idol it comforts us with the illusion that through increasing control over the material universe we don’t need God because we can become the authors of our own salvation. Similarly, civilization needs a moral compass. Yet, the idol of morality comforts us in the belief that if we just follow the rules we will be saved by being a good person.
Idols function well, up to a point. It’s lonely center stage with only the faintest intimation of God whispering from the stage wings. In our loneliness we question whether we really do have a relationship with God that is accessible to us in the here-and-now of our lives. In our need to assuage our existential loneliness the idols of science and morality promise more than they can deliver. The 21st century is a time when these idols increasingly fail to fill the gap created by our loss of tangible relationship with God. This causes us to plunge into even deeper despair!
Many Christians might accuse me of heresy in suggesting that God is anything but unchangeable. Yet, my point is because we have a God made known to us through the particularity of human history and culture, as we evolve our experience of God and our images of God, evolve with us. In Luke:15 Jesus offers us profound images that reveal the evolution of God over the long march from Exodus to the Incarnation. Where the God of Moses is passionate and jealous, the God of Jesus is compassionate and extravagant.
The parables of Jesus are not morality stories. They are exhortations to discipleship. Through the juxtaposing of images that are at once familiar and at the same time absurd, Jesus challenges us to move beyond the limits of our idols, which limited by what we are able to imagine for ourselves. The expectations of the Kingdom of God (thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven) break into our safe but lonely experience, forcing us to draw uncomfortable comparisons between what we are prepared to settle for, and what God desires for us.
The God of Moses demanded obedience. The God of Jesus call us into a relationship of discipleship in which we find the courage to live and work for more than we imagine being possible. Only discipleship leads us to the discovery that in the midst of feeling alone and lost, we are already found. As David Ewart in his weekly sermon blog Holy Textures puts it:
There may indeed be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, but the parables are more about the joy to be had on earth from hearing the good news of the extravagant God who risks all to search for each one of us personally, individually – joyfully. Our God isn’t sitting passively off somewhere in heaven waiting for someone to bring news that a sinner has repented today. Our God is actively searching for us.
My question is will we allow ourselves to be found?