Institute on Religion and Democracy
December 19, 2000
Talking About God is a 7-part video series produced by United Methodist Communications through an ecumenical video consortium called EcuFilm. Aimed at Sunday school classes and other discussion groups, the series poses basic questions about God to a select group of 14 people professionally involved with religion.
The EcuFilm web-site boasts that a diverse group of people was interviewed for this series. That diversity includes: “theologians, pastors, a rabbi, a teacher of disabled children, African-Americans, an Hispanic, Africans, whites, conservatives, liberals.” The assumption seems to be that if we get an eclectic enough group of individuals “Talking About God,” perhaps we will be able to extract the truth from the mix.
Unfortunately, that group is so select that the participants are not as diverse as professed. Seemingly only one outspokenly orthodox Christian, the Rev. Bill Hinson of Houston, Texas, is included. Most of the other speakers take turns denying key doctrines of classic Christianity.
Who is God?
How does this diverse group identify God? Marcus Borg, well known for his role in the radical Jesus Seminar, says that he thinks of “God, or the sacred, or the spirit, as all around us, as well as within us.” Borg describes his theology as “panentheism,” or a belief that all things are a part of God. He says the God of “supernatural theism” is the God “he stopped believing in.”
Grace Imathiu, a Methodist from Kenya, agrees with Borg in portraying God as an impersonal force. She says, “God is any life-giving thing we know.” She adds, “I don’t think God is a person, as such, but a power.”
Borg and Imathiu are vague about who God is. Bill Hinson, senior Minister of First United Methodist Church of Houston Texas, is much more specific about who God is and about who he is to God. He says of himself, “I’m God’s child.” He later explains, “…when I call God ‘Father’, I’m following the example of Jesus Christ.”
Hinson talks about a personal God with whom we can relate as a son to a father, while Borg and Imathiu talk about a ‘force’ which has no personality of its own. Although Borg does not believe in a personal deity, he does talk about the need for “relationship.” He says, “The center of the Christian life is not correct beliefs, but… a relationship with God or the sacred.”
Juanita Campbell Rasmus, a United Methodist pastor from Texas, seems to have a diminished view of God’s sovereignty. She says, “I think God gets lonely and needs us all.” But Hinson is emphatic that God is the “sovereign of the universe, but has allotted work for our hands.”
How it is that we know God?
Borg admits that some people may very well “have a tin ear for the sacred.” He is not concrete on how one can get to know this sense of the “sacred.” His sense of spirituality seems to be based entirely on subjective experiences. In contrast, Hinson reports that through Scripture reading and prayer he has “had those insights into the nature and purpose of God.” Burton Visotzky, a professor at Union Theological Seminary, agrees with Hinson when he describes one of his teachers approvingly: “When he prays, he talks to God. And when he studies [the Scriptures], God talks to him.”
Radical Bishop John Shelby Spong, recently retired from the Episcopal Church, goes further than Borg in separating experience from objective reality about God. Spong says “I’d like to draw a distinction between the experience of God and the explanation of that experience. I believe the experience of God is real… I don’t think there’s anything eternal about any explanation.” Spong goes further: “I do not know who God is. I know only what my experience of God is.”
Imathiu seems to agree with Spong that it is the experience of God, not God Himself, that we are to treasure. Speaking of one such experience with the divine, she says, “Whenever I’m in a situation where I’m afraid, I do depend on the memory of that experience.” She calls it “an experience of something in the room… and for me that was a ‘God presence.’”
What does God do?
Borg and Hinson’s words again go head to head when they begin to talk about what God does. Borg says, “I don’t think of God doing things in the world in that interventionist kind of way.” Yet Hinson says, “The God I know and serve… is a God who acts, who makes thing right, who intervenes in history.” A listener quickly gets the feeling that Borg and Hinson “know and serve” two different gods.
A.J. Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar at Vanderbelt University in Nashville, says she doesn’t “want to give God all the benefits and none of the responsibilities” for what goes on in the world. Levine doesn’t elaborate on what God does. But she is certain if He does any good, He also does some bad.
There is one thing Levine believes that God isn’t doing. “I don’t believe in somebody sitting on the throne,” she says. Such a kingly, authoritarian deity who exercises judgment does not appeal to Levine. Mary Lou Redding, the Managing Editor of The Upper Room, a Methodist devotional magazine, evidently agrees with her, at least in part. Redding says, “I don’t want God to even the score. I don’t want God to be a God of Justice, because if I get what I deserve I’m in big trouble.”
The majority of the speakers seem to agree with Levine and Redding. Peter Storey, a Methodist bishop from South Africa, says that “everybody’s in; in God’s love.” Sin, according to these folks, is not something that separates people from God. As Bishop Spong says, “The message of Jesus says there is nothing you can do and nothing you can be that will separate you from the love of God.” Spong makes no mention of the need for Christ to die in our place on the Cross to bring about that inseparable relationship.
Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, a Roman Catholic who teaches at United Methodist-related Drew University in New Jersey, was very frank when she said simply, “I hope God likes me.” But if she had a basis for that hope, she did not explain it. Instead, Isasi-Diaz, an activist in liberal causes, reports that she prays “best with a picket sign in my hand.”
Almost alone among the speakers in speaking for Christian orthodoxy, Hinson said “God’s grace is equally upon all of his children. But the God I know is a God of grace and judgment, a God of mercy and justice.”
The lack of belief in God’s justice naturally resulted in an open disbelief in Christ’s atoning work on the cross. Spong says the notion “that God caused Jesus to suffer, because He had to pay the price for your sins, or my sins- I find that a very strange idea.” Isasi-Diaz implicitly agrees with Spong when she says, “I think God never chooses suffering.”
A.J. Levine dismisses the importance of religious doctrine altogether by declaring, “Ultimately I don’t care what people believe. I care what they do." Borg is similarly dismissive. He calls doctrines “second-order language.” He believes the “first language of religious experience is metaphor and story and symbol.”
In opposition to Spong’s denial of Christian orthodoxy, and Levine’s theological apathy, Hinson gives us quite another testimony. “I’m going to present Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, because that’s what scripture tells me, that’s who I am as a Christian… We can’t get close to those who believe differently by shaving off all the edges and watering down our faith.”
James Cone, professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, echoes Levine’s sentiments when he says, “God can tolerate our belief as well as our disbelief… Correct belief is not the key. The key is correct action.”
This denial of the foundational Christian belief of salvation by faith in Christ was prevalent among the participants in Talking About God. Imathiu suggests Christian missionaries did a disservice to their hearers. She believes there needs to be “repentance by the missionary church which destroyed so much of the faith the indigenous people had…” Bishop Storey says, “If Gandhi’s not in heaven, I’m not sure I would want to go there.” His implication is that Mahatma Gandhi’s goodness, irrespective of any faith in Christ, would have carried him to heaven.
Enforcing this belief that faith (and therefore truth, life, death, God etc…) is relative, Levine recalls a time when she sat at her mother’s bed-side consoling her before her death with the statement: “Mom, you will see Daddy.” Levine asks, “Do I believe it now? I don’t know, but at that moment, it was true.”
Levine’s transient truths are echoed in Borg’s understanding of the Bible. Speaking of Psalm 139, he mentions the “three story universe of the ancient psalmist’s imagination…,” questioning the Bible’s truthfulness and inspired nature.
Imathiu does not directly deny the inspiration of the Bible. Rather her view of the Bible degenerates to mere superstition . She says that “the Bible itself has, physically, power to do things; as an object, even without reading it, as an object…” Imathiu gives the impression that the Bible is not the inspired Word of God, but instead is the magic lucky charm of Christianity.
Throughout Talking About God’s seven videos, only Hinson provides a firmly orthodox Christian view of the topics discussed. Most of the speakers deny that God is one being in three persons, at work in the world, known throughout history, having redeemed some of humanity for Himself through the work of Jesus, now calling all people to repentance and faith in Christ, and coming one day to judge the whole world. Also denied is the fallen condition of humanity, and the inspiration and trustworthiness of the Scriptures.
Talking About God, which was produced in 1999, is available on the EcuFilm web-site that can be reached through the United Methodist Communications site. The seven videos are between 20 and 25 minutes each. The videos can be purchased for $29.95 each, or $139.90 for the complete series. They can also be rented at $18 each.
EcuFilm is comprised of the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Maryknoll Missioners, the ECLA, the PCUSA as well as other denominations and Christian organizations.