Friday, April 08, 2016

Book 4 of 2016 -- How Human is God?

This is one I was asked to read and review for Touchstone.  I actually finished it a few months ago, but just got the review done now.

How Human is GOD? Seven Questions about God and Humanity in the Bible
Mark S. Smith (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2014) Pp.192.

Mark Smith is professor of Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies at New York University. Previously he taught at Yale University, Saint Joseph's University . . . and Saint Paul Seminary . . . he is past president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America” (back cover). In this volume his deep grounding in Hebrew Scripture and knowledge of the world in which that Scripture was written is evident and is a great gift to the reader. 
In the beginning of our faith story we are told that humanity is created in God's image. Does this mean that God is also in our image? In this well-referenced—of the 192 pages 58 are endnotes and recommended readings—volume Mark Smith invites us to think about God as God is revealed in the words of the Hebrew Bible. To lead us in this thinking Smith offers seven chapters, each of which explores (and maybe even answers) one of the seven questions referenced in the subtitle of the book.

These chapters are broken out into two sections. In the first section we have questions about God: “Why does God Have a Body?”, What Do God's Body Parts in the Bible Mean?”, Why Is God Angry in the Bible?”, and “Does God in the Bible Have Gender of Sexuality?”. The second section explores have questions about God in the world” “What Can Creation Tell Us About God?”, Who—or What—Is the Satan?”, and “Why Do People Suffer According to the Hebrew Bible?”. Obviously many, if not all, of those topics could be a lengthy book (or books) in and of itself, which is why Smith gives such good notes and recommended reading for those who want to go deeper.
The nature and understanding of God is an unending discussion for people of faith. The questions about God never seem to get fully answered, but Smith makes an interesting suggestion in the prologue: “. . . the emergence of the understanding of God within ancient Israel was a redefinition of divinity in its time. . . the change in ancient Israel's sense of God may anticipate changes taking place today.” (xiii). As we continue to re-vision how we understand God we need to remain grounded in the witness of Scripture and this book is very helpful in doing just that.
Of course the challenge in talking about God is that all we can use are metaphors, and when we turn metaphors into literal statements then things can get weird. Smith recognizes this. And so even as he starts to talk about God's body he also notes “what are we to make of anthropomorphism? Is it simply a projection . . .” (5). However, as he points out, we use the language we have. Since we understand God as being personal and in relationship we will end up describing God in some of the same ways we describe other persons. But later Smith points out that “human language applied to God not only falls short; it only makes sense for God when it is recognized as being partial and falling short” (64). Smith pushes us to recognize that the descriptions he is talking about are not all that God is, a helpful reminder for us as we wrestle with our own understandings of God.
While this book is ably addresses some of the easier aspects of God (God's body parts, knowing God in Creation) it also does not shy from taking on some really difficult subjects (God's gender/sexuality, God's anger, why do people suffer). Smith knows that some of what Scripture says about God is challenging and is able to name and explore that challenge. This exploration invites the reader to look deeper. As a person of faith it would be easy to accept simple answers to difficult questions but Smith pushes us to look at what the text really says, even when it may move us out of our comfort with the simple answer. As a whole the book calls us to see God “through the positive lens of creation and through the negative lens of evil and suffering” (128) and so pushes a more complete, more nuanced picture.
Early in the book we read “we may be drawn to images of God that move us or comfort us . . .Sometimes, though, we do not really use our brains very much in thinking about God” (ix). Near the end we read “Human images constitute a starting point for thinking about God. . . This is a beginning, not the end . . . we change—our discovery of who God is changes” (129). This sums up an approach to exploring who God is. An approach that includes our own experiences and feelings but also our logic and reason as well as the witness of those who have gone before us. Which seems like a really good thing to encourage people to do as we try to answer who God is and how God is a part of our lives.