Craig Barry Anderson
Our meaning of God is never the same as our experience of God, much less God herself/himself. Fundamentalism of any kind – biblical, theological, liturgical, and ecclesiological – makes a finite world equivalent to an infinite God.
“Meaning,” as a bundle of symbols, signs, metaphors, myths, narrative plots, doctrines and theological systems, is human effort to give substance to an experience of God that is finally ineffable and ultimately mysterious – from Augustine of Hippo’s notion of “God as an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere” to Tillich’s experience of God as “this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being” (that we name God).
Perhaps the best we can do is to recognize that God is finally “an utterable sigh from within the depths of the soul.” We observe that the infinite can never be contained by the finite. This observation invites a retrieval of two Christian “scandals” regarding God – the “scandal of particularity” and “the scandal of universality.”
Religiously speaking, a “scandal” refers to any person, act or thing that offends our religious or moral sensibilities. We sometimes forget that Jesus’ person, message and ministry were scandalous and offensive to the religious authorities and institutions of his time, so offensive and scandalous that he was executed.
The “scandal of particularity” is associated with the radical claims of Christianity – incarnation, the Word made flesh dwelling among us; Emmanuel, God becoming human and God with us; transcendence experienced in immanence. The ‘scandal of particularity’ needs to be held in tension with what I shall call “the scandal of universality.” This second scandal is the flip side of particularity and is well known by Christians in both the experience of God and the meaning we make of God. As the incarnate particularity of God, Jesus announced the universality of God. A “scandal” in his own time and today.
Jesus was crucified not only for his being the particularity of God but for his refusal of the messianic particularity that those who followed him wanted. He did not come as a particular political, national or sectarian savior, but as the universal messiah, the cosmic Christ who announced God’s kingdom, another reality that relativized all embodied temporal and earthly kingdoms. In proclaiming an infinite God, Jesus rejected all meaning of God with God as infinite.
The two “scandals” of God in Jesus the Christ aid in clarifying our experience of God with the meaning we make of that experience. The Greek skandalon from which we derive scandal means “snare.” The particularity and universality of God in Christ have the potential to snare or entrap us if they are divided or seen as mutually exclusive in our attempts to make meaning of God.
Fro m Bosnia to Beirut to Belfast we can see the result of reducing God to an exclusive particularity. The story of religious intolerance is as old as history itself, from the persecution of first century Christians to the persecuted becoming, far too frequently, the persecutors after the establishment of Christianity in a post-Constantinian world. Religious wars have always taken on a divine mandate as “holy” war wherein the “other” as enemy is demonized, resulting in the excuse to inflict the greatest cruelty and suffering. Nor is such intolerance confined to tribal national skirmishes. The Crusade, the Inquisition, heresy trials, witch hunts and missionary tactics within Christian history give ample evidence of the scandal of particularity as a snare entrapping those who reduce the meaning of God to a fundamentalism which represses other religious expressions or other theological understandings.
The “scandal” of universality” has the potential of “snaring” in another but related way. As a corrective to a fundamentalistic notion of the particular, we stand in awe of the universality of a God that we cannot contain with our attempts to provide meaning. With Aristotle we are increasingly aware that “God has many names though he is only one being.” With Gandhi we recognize that “there are innumerable definitions of God because his manifestations are innumerable.” Like Gandhi we “overwhelmed” and “stunned” by this realization. The “snare” is this very sense of being overwhelmed and stunned and losing our sense of the particular.
The awesome experience of the universality of God moves us to make meaning of that experience, and we do so through the particular because we are bound by our particular time, space, embodiment, culture, history and language as finite beings. We can only know and give meaning to the universality of God through our finite particular experience, and the meaning we make of God and such particularity is, as we know, always partial. The “snare” of the scandal of universality is that we forget this sense of being rooted and grounded in a particular faith-world and tradition.
The religious hunger in our culture today is often fed by the junk food of undifferentiated cosmic ”new age” religion (note the “new” and its indifference to distinctive past traditions). The understanding, tolerance and respect for other faiths that we seek in ending the religious bloodshed in Bosnia, Belfast and Beirut requires a heightened awareness of particularity, wherein the universal is revealed; not a sloppy syncretism, but a differentiated knowledge of and respect for the many names of God.
To illustrate the need for the scandals both of particularity and universality and their indispensable interdependence, I conclude with a brief personal recollection:
Shortly after my arrival in 1984 as the new Episcopal Bishop of South Dakota, I visited the churches on the Standing Rock Reservation with the priest responsible for the churches at the western end of the reservation, Father Wilbur Bearsheart. In the course of our many conversations as we drove the high plains, I asked him about the conversion of the Lakota people by Christian missionaries. He stated that conversion was relatively easy because the Lakota were and are a deeply religious people who see the sacred in every aspect of life and all religions.
Father Bearsheart noted that members of the Great Sioux Nation eagerly embraced Christianity, because it gave them a deeper insight into Wakan Tanka, the most common name for God in the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota language. As monotheists/henotheists, they identified with Jesus as a tribal brother and saw him as the counterpart of the White Buffalo Calf Woman who brought the Sacred Pipe, the primary sacrament of Lakota religion, to the Lakota people.
The parallels between Christianity and Lakota spirituality, according to Father Bearsheart, were many and profound. However, he went on to say that the openness and generosity of the Lakota people were not reciprocated by most of the missionaries who asked the Lakota to give up their indigenous spirituality, language and culture, in short their identity as a people. He concluded by noting that the greatest tragedy for the Lakota people was not the massacre at Wounded Knee but the systematic betrayal and abandonment of the Lakota people through broken promises and treaties, all of which were undergirded and supported overtly and covertly, some notable exceptions withstanding, by the Christian churches.
Father Bearsheart’s words still haunt me. My experience of Lakota spirituality as a needed corrective, not replacement, for many of our meanings of God has profoundly influenced my own spirituality and theology. I have been given the gift of deeper insights with regard to christology, the Trinity, the importance of denomination and tribal identity informing what we mean by a catholic Christian community, family values and the sacredness of family loyalty, obligation and responsibility, to name but a few.
The scandals of particularity and universality taken together resist easy claims of accommodation and entrenched fundamentalism. In our day and time they provide us with a needed awareness of the dialogic relationship between the one and the many in the experience that we name God.
Bishop Craig B. Anderson, president and dean of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church, New York, is president-elect of the National Council of Churches.
The Living Pulpit / January-March 1997