One time I was camping on the shore of Lake Erie with a group of friends for our mutual friend's (Craig) bachelor party. Of the group of guys, most were from our Bible college, all except one, who Craig knew from his work. Upon realizing this, my Bible college mates inquired about whether he was a Christian or not. The guy merely said that he “just wasn’t all that religious.” Another guy in the group saw this as an evangelistic opportunity. The conversation frustrated the un-Christian guy. He left and went over to where I was sitting. He was visibly annoyed, and I cracked a few jokes to lighten the mood. We chatted there under the stars, glistening off the gentle waves of the lake. I was smoking a nice but Cuban cigar. Eventually, curiosity got the better of me: “So, I am curious; what do you believe about God?”
“Well, I don’t know. My father brought us to church, and he was an alcoholic jerk. The stuff he did to my mother and me…” It went on something like this, and I had to interject.
“I asked you about God, and all you have said to me this whole time was about your Father.” The guy paused. He had not realized what he was doing. “You know God is not like your Father, right?” I insisted.
I don’t recall the rest of the conversation, but it illustrated to me just how important it is to think about how we talk about God. How we talk about God is always bound up with our relationships with other people. Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment in the Gospel of Mark is. It is, of course, that you should love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbour as yourself. Mark makes a point of saying, “there is no other commandment [singular] greater than these [plural]” (Mk 12:31). He says that as if the two are really one.
There is no disembodied knowledge, no solitary, isolated love of God, none that is worthwhile anyway. If humans inhabit a world that God created, if humans are God’s image-bearers, there simply is no way we think about God that is not connected to how ourselves and others bear that image. We have no relationship with God that is unaffected by all our other relationships. God is more than the sum of all our relationships, but God is not less than that. Having a very good relationship with my father reflected my natural view that God also is a loving Father. For others, I can see how the whole notion that God is like a Father might not sound all that redemptive. I did not have that problem, and so I just thought people needed to understand that even if you had a bad father, God is the perfect Father. That is true and does help, but that is not the whole story, neither with me nor with the Bible. This is my story about how talking about God, or more importantly, changing how we talk about God, is connected with how we see God's presence around us and in others.
Spencer Boersma is the Assistant Professor of Theology at Acadia Divinity College. He lives in Kentville, Nova Scotia, with his wife and five boys, and he serves on the board of ASBE.