Bradley Jersak’s A More Christlike God is a sort of summation or primer on the last 15 years or so of rethinking God, especially around atonement issues. For many years now I’ve loved my tradition’s (the PCUSA) emphasis that, as I put it, the distinctive claim Christians make is not about how godlike Jesus is, but rather how Jesus-like God is! As you can tell from his title, Jersak agrees. And reclaiming this understanding of God is the big take away from the discussion I mentioned above.
Not that we ever should have lost this heartbeat of Christian faith, but tragically, we did. We too easily accepted damnable surrogates from the culture around us and as we tried to put Christian faith to illicit uses (behavior and social control). Jersak mentions four common false surrogates: God the doting grandfather, God the deadbeat dad, God the punitive judge, and God the Santa Claus blend. I like to reduce them to two: the God with a Scowl and the Nice God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
Jersak makes short shrift of these deviations and moves on to tackle more substantive yet still pervasive issues around the identity of God. Is God pure will (or freedom) or pure love (or goodness). A view of God of pure will or freedom produces followers (for we become what we worship, as Augustine argues) focused on “my” rights, “my” security, and “my” freedom. You can call this the quintessential American deity. Jersak quotes David Foster Wallace in critique:
”That you are the most important and what you want is the most important. And that your job in life is to gratify your own desires. … This does not work as well when it comes to educating children or helping us help each other know how to live … and to be happy— if that word means anything. Clearly it means something different from ‘whatever I want to do’—‘I want to take this cup right now and throw it! I have every right to! I should!’ We see it with children: that’s not happiness. That feeling of having to obey every impulse and gratify every desire seems to me to be a strange kind of slavery.”
A God of pure love or goodness makes followers whose first and fundamental interest is the well-being of others. Even when they are not nice to us or a threat to us. “Christlike love is willing, not willful. Consensual, not coercive. Faithful, not forceful. It serves and defers for the sake of a higher good than one’s own way. In using terms like self-giving, sacrificial and forgiving, I am making Christ’s passion journey from Gethsemane to Golgotha my central and abiding referent for extreme love.”
Throughout the rest of the book Jersak ransacks the Bible, church history, and the theologians to make the case that a God of pure love or goodness is the biblical God. Karl Barth brought both freedom and love together in his remarkable description that God is the one who is “free to love.” Such a similar freedom to love ought also to mark us as followers of this God.
I judge Jersak has made his case. In spades. If you are not yet convinced of the Jesus-likeness of God, you would do well to pick up A More Christlike God and read!