A More Nuanced God

A few days ago, I posted the following as my status on Facebook:

It isn’t that I don’t believe in God any more. It’s that I don’t believe in the God I used to believe in any more.

It elicited an alarmed response asking ‘Who is your new god?’ As if it requires switching gods.

The God I don’t believe in any more is one and the same as the one I do believe in.  Or perhaps three and the same.  After all, this is Trinity Sunday.

If you’re over the age of about ten, you know what I mean.  The parents that cooed and coddled you when you were an infant, rushed to find out what your every need was the moment you cried, and held your hand for your first steps, are both the same–and not the same–people who made you apologize when you hit the kid who tried to take the toy you wanted, made you do your homework yourself, and required you to eat with utensils.  You could hardly believe that the kind, indulgent big people of your infancy were now The Authorities.

As life progresses, you realize that as you get to know people over time, they are both the same, and not the same, as they were when you first met them.  This thing called growing up happens–they grow up, so do we. Events and experiences–education, parenthood, career–change us.  How many marriages crash on the rocky shore of Not the Girl I Married? This seems to be more a complaint of men than women. Women run into trouble by approaching husbands as works-in-progress, and being disappointed when those husbands remain the Man I Married. (I do not know what happens when women marry women, really.)

On top of that, the person I know is both the same person that is known by another, and also not the same. My friend is your spouse, his mother, her sister, their daughter, someone’s employee. I can learn more about my friend by encountering others who know her in different capacities. Some of what I learn will resonate with my experience of her, some of it I might not recognize, some of it will delight me, some of it runs the risk of upsetting me. But it is a richer picture than what I can paint from my perspective alone. A wider context helps me to understand my friend better, and participate more fully and appropriately in her life.

Relationship, from a variety of perspectives and over time, means we see the other with greater nuance. I’m beginning to believe that every worthwhile relationship needs this. Nuance may not always mean something is prettier or nicer, but it is closer to real. Indeed, I am coming to the conclusion that loving someone means that we acknowledge and accept much that might not be likeable about the other.
In my case, that includes God. I’m coming to not like much about God–divine silence, apparent neglect, felt absence. I’m reconciling myself to the idea that in my case at least, a relationship with God may sometimes mean that God isn’t very nice to me, and might best be held at arms’ length rather than allowed to get close enough to do more damage. I’ve let God get pretty close. That was probably a mistake. God has to be held at a distance while the damage gets repaired, and while God proves Godself once again to be trustworthy. I haven’t closed off the relationship, but what I know from experience makes me a lot more cautious than I was before. I need a few people around me to acknowledge the validity of my experience. The church is not set up to do that. One of the great female saints of the Christian church, Teresa of Avila, said of God, ‘If this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder you have so few’. I get that.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day when every preacher in the Western Church has cramped his or her brain to say something about this central doctrine of the Christian religion that won’t fall into heresy. I think one of the biggest mistakes the church ever made was to try to define the Trinity, and to condemn everything outside a small range of understanding as heresy. Trinity is about relationships, and therefore Trinity must be about nuance. In the Church of England, ordinands must sign a declaration in which (among other things) they uphold the 30 Articles of Religion–the first of which is the Trinity. You can’t quash nuance and uphold the Trinity.

Today is also, in much of the world, Father’s Day. Father’s day is also about relationships–especially those that grow over a lifetime, in which the parties take on and drop off (and sometimes exchange) a variety of roles. And sometimes, the relationship is closer or more distant, or even completely severed. Father’s Day, like Trinity, is a day of shifting, ambiguous, nuanced relationships. It seems appropriate that they fall on the same Sunday once in a while.

And so, in the shadow of the church, I search for this More Nuanced God in whom I now believe. The God will go by the same unpronounceable name as the one in whom I no longer believe.

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