Commentary by The Revd Robin Ham
“What we think about God is the most important thing about us: Discovering Tozer’s Wider Paragraph
I’ve often seen and heard A. W. Tozer’s powerful line quoted in sermons & books, ‘What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.’
It’s a simple but sharp wake-up call for us to examine the connection between our ‘theology’ (whether conscious or unconscious) and everything else about our lives.
And I’ve used that quote myself many times. In my experience, it helps people take a step back and reflect on that connection. What kind of a God do I believe in? What kind of a God don’t I believe in? How might that then shape me in various ways?
But only recently did I see the wider paragraph, which I think offers a perceptive and challenging focusing of the lens of the line, which simultaneously invites a wide-angle view of its truthfulness.
Because Tozer then goes on to say this:
‘The history of [hu]mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion…
And then he continues, ‘And [our] spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God’.
In other words, our view of God (whether affirming belief in that God or denying it) has consequences not simply at the level of the individual, but also for us at the level of society and culture. For me, this prompts two significant applications: (I’m sure there are many more!)
Looking at the Church
Firstly, it’s a challenging word to any collective Christian culture. That could be an individual church, a theo-cultural ‘tribe’, a denomination or movement, a geographically-defined representation of the Church (e.g. ‘the Church in the West’).
Collectively, we will be shaped by our view of God in more ways than we know; for good and for ill. It limits and it launches. Our theology is our heart and soul because it shapes our worship, our identity, our mission, our ethics, etc.
It’s likely that we will, of course, in many ways be initially ignorant of these connections. That’s why we call them blindspots!
We want to be ‘always reforming’, coming ‘back’ to the nature and character of God, even if we find that the God to whom we come back is different to the perception of God we had previously.
As the apostle Paul put it in Ephesians 1, we want to ‘know God better’ – and it takes a work of God for this to happen.
But we don’t do it alone. Sola Scripture but not *solo* scripture. We prayerfully read Scripture with others. We need them to show us those theological blind spots.
So as CS Lewis put it, will we therefore let the theological ‘sea breeze of the centuries’ – and, we might add, of the global Church – blow through our bones?
2. Looking at the World
But the second application that came to mind from Tozer’s extended quotation is this: If a people have never ‘risen’ above or ‘been greater’ than their view of God, then doesn’t that motivate us to courageously, compassionately, prophetically hold out God to our world?
And by ‘our world’, the punch of the quotation is that *each* culture and society needs to hear, see, & know this God. Because each culture and society who doesn’t know this God *truly* will be inevitably and variously bound by that lack of knowledge.
Or to put it another way, a distorted understanding of God (again, even if that’s of a God it ‘doesn’t believe in’) will both constrain its vision for life & undermine its flourishing in life.We might note the way Tom Holland’s recent work, Dominion, has explored how European and Western civilisation is indebted to the Christian faith. We are now discovering what happens when we separate the fruit from the tree which produced it.
In a week where we mark the centenary of the birth of John Stott, perhaps we’d do well to rediscover Stott’s unashamed call to ‘theologise’ all of life in all of God’s world. His work, The Contemporary Christian, perhaps models this best.
Let us take up the challenge to ‘tell a better story’ to our world. To relocate identity, value, meaning, love, forgiveness, hope, justice, freedom, dignity, purpose in God. Maybe sometimes we think proclaiming the gospel means a slim, peripheral message?
But in the gospel, we proclaim God, true and living. Tozer highlights for us that without God our cultures & societies are inevitably and unknowingly parched, constrained through our ‘not knowing’, ‘unknowing’ and ‘false knowing’.
Of course, we’re all on a ‘knowledge journey’. No individual, society or church can know God fully. God’s ways are above our ways. But if God chooses to self-reveal in Christ (as the Church has always believed), then to simply say ‘God is unknowable’ betrays a false humility.
As D.A. Carson helpfully notes, just because we don’t know God fully, that doesn’t mean we can’t know God truly.
(If you want a reference: A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (26 Jun. 2017), p5.)
The Revd Robin Ham blogs at: That Happy Certainty, www.thathappycertainty.com. He serves at Grace Church, Barrow.