Learning to Say “God”: Reflections on Ten Years of Preaching



At the end of this year I will have been preaching for 10 years. One might wonder why I did not wait until I had fulfilled my years to reflect on them. Ideally that’s what I would do, but as I have come to learn, life is never ideal. I am presently experiencing a shift in how I preach the Bible and I thought it expedient to describe the process while it is happening rather than to try and do it retrospectively after the angst and uncertainty has worn off.

Impossible Prayers
I have not forgotten that this is an article about preaching, but good preaching begins with good prayers, though in my case it began with bad ones. My early Christian life was characterized by almost no prayer at all and when I did pray I believed they were impossible. I believed “God” was unchangeable and that made prayer impossible. I could ask, but he could not change, so it’s easy to see why I rarely bothered asking. Whatever I meant by “God” it was not someone who changed.
It was certainly not someone who changed for me.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
I do not pretend to know what Pascal meant when he wrote the memorial he carried in the lining of his coat, nor do I remember how it came to me, but I do know what it meant to me when I heard it. “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and of the learned.” I realized that my idea of God had been shaped by the philosophers and not by scripture. Somewhere along the way I had heard, and accepted without question, that God was immutable, unchangeable, that whatever he purposed was done and there was no turning to the right or the left. So of course, when I had learned to say “God” from the philosophers, and not from the word of God, I cannot be expected to pray the prayers which only scripture makes intelligible. The “God” of my speech made prayer impossible. But when I went to scripture I saw Abraham pray to God and barter for the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah. I saw Moses pray for the lives of the rebellious Israelites. I read the burning passion of the psalms. All of these prayed as if they expected God to change … and he did.

I cannot explain how God changes. When I reason about him, or when I accept the reason of the philosophers, I find that I invent a God that cannot answer prayer. But when I read scripture I find a God who moves heaven and earth to answer the prayers of his children. The crucified Christ is the resurrected Christ who shakes heaven and earth so that only that which is eternal remains, and all that in answer to the petition of little children praying, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” When I read scripture I find a God that I could not have guessed.

Inventing “God”
After graduating preaching school I was enamored with apologetics. It was my great dream to be an apologist and debater. In the apologetics I had learned, you cannot assume God. You cannot assume the thing to be proved. So, you begin with the “facts”, the things that are given. You begin with creation or with Man and ascend step by step until you have arrived at God. This sort of polemic “move” characterized by apologetics as well as my preaching. I would begin with the “neutral facts” and arrive at God.

Recently I have recognized a problem in this order. If God is God then there is no such thing as neutral facts.  The “fact” is that all that exists is created, Man is a creature, and to call Man a creature–which is to tell the truth about him–is not neutral.  If we begin with Man then Man becomes determinative, not God. We allow Man to define God instead of allowing God to define Man. Further, if we begin with Man, without reference to God, then we do not begin with Man at all but only a false idea of Man. There is no “Man” without God. To begin with a “neutral Man”, a Man without reference to God, is to begin with Man misunderstood. And when your premises are false your conclusions cannot help but be false also. To begin with Man or creation, apart from God, is to begin with false premises.

The God I Could Not Have Guessed
Whatever “God” we invent as a result of such faulty premises–such as “Man” apart from God–cannot be the God who is Trinity, the God revealed in the crucified Christ. Indeed, if the God we invent as a result of such natural theology is the true God then he is exactly the God we have guessed. Once again, as I did with my prayers, I had invented a “God” according to the philosophers, one who made the God of the Bible unintelligible. The witness of scripture is that the God revealed in Christ is the God we could never have guessed. The cadence of the Gospel According to Mark is measured by the chorus “They were all amazed.” While the “God” we invent is amazing, the amazement is not at “God” but at the ingenuity of Man. Who could be amazed at a “God” who fits inside the heads of men? One begins to wonder whether the men are greater than the “God.” This cannot be the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Learning to Say “God”
So I find that my preaching has all been a discipline in learning to say “God.”1 The god of the philosophers produced impossible prayers. The god of my natural theology produced a god at which I could not stand in the awe appropriate to Jesus, and it produced a Man which was more awful. Bit by bit I am learning to say “God.” Little by little I am learning that to say “God” at all, if I am to tell the truth, is to mean the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To say “God” is to name a God I could never have guessed.  He defines reality.  I must begin with him, and so must my preaching.  I have learned that if I am to tell the truth, and preaching must be true, I cannot know in order to believe. I can only believe in order to know. Credo ut intelligam.2

1. I have intentionally borrowed the phrase “learning to say ‘God'” from Stanley Hauerwas who increasingly influences the way that I think about God and the task of preaching. The phrase comes from his book, Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).
2. “I believe in order to understand.” This comes from St. Anselm’s “Proslogium.” St. Anselm, Basic Writings, (La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1992), 53.

Who Am I? (Part 2)


In part 1 we asked whether we were primarily mind or body.  While acknowledging both we sought to discover which one most often ran the show.  We concluded that most often we follow the inclination of our bodies over our minds.  Therefore we answered the question, “Who am I?” by saying, “We are embodied creatures.”  In this article we want to add a layer to that.  I want to suggest that we are “teleological creatures.”1

The word telos (from which we get “teleological”) is a Greek word which means something like “goal” or “purpose” or “aim.”  By saying that we are teleological creatures I am saying that we are always “aiming” at something.  We aim at all sorts of different things in all sorts of different ways but the thing common to it all is that we are aiming.  To illustrate, take a moment and think.  Don’t think about anything.  Just think.  You can’t do it can you?  Now try this: want.  Don’t want anything in particular, just want.  It’s impossible.  See, none of us can simply think or want or hope or fear.  All of these things are always aimed at something.  We must think about something, even if it’s just thinking about thinking.  Neither can we just want.  We want pizza or excitement or rest or sex but we want something.  The same goes for all of the other ways that we intend or “aim at” the world.  There is always an object.  We are intentional beings.  We are teleological creatures.

When we combine the fact that we are embodied with the fact that we are teleological this helps us further the conclusion in our last article.  If I were primarily a thinking-thing then I would aim at things through thinking.  Most of what I did would be based upon what I thought or believed about the world.  I would seek abstract ideas like peace, justice, pleasure, and happiness.  But there are two problems: 1. I am not primarily a thinking-thing.  I am an embodied creature.  I am primarily a desiring-thing, and therefore thinking is not primarily how I intend the world.  2. Even if I were primarily a thinking-thing that would be a difficult life.  Take a moment and imagine justice.  Not a just society or a just household.  Just justice.  Again, it’s impossible.  Or how about peace?  You cannot imagine just peace.  You can imagine a peaceful relationship, peaceful scenery, a peaceful government, even world peace.  But you cannot imagine just “peace.”  And it is incredibly hard to aim at something that you can’t “see.”  As James K.A. Smith puts it,


“[W]hat we love is a specific vision of the good life, an implicit picture of what we think human flourishing looks like … implicit in it will be assumptions about what good relationships look like, what a just economy and distribution of resources look like, what sorts of recreation and play we value, how we ought to relate to nature and the nonhuman environment, what sorts of work count as good work, what flourishing families look like, and much more.”2


This is because I am primarily a desiring-thing (not a thinking-thing).  I aim at a vision, not ideas/beliefs.  “It is important to emphasize that this [vision of the good life] is a picture.  This is why I have emphasized that we are fundamentally noncognitive, affective, creatures.  The telos to which our love is aimed is not a list of ideas or propositions or doctrines; it is not a list of abstract, disembodied concepts or values.” 3

As was mentioned in the previous article we might be tempted to consider the imagination under the control of the mind instead of the body. However, our imagination works on us in a different way than our reason does.  Listening to a definition of chaos (which would target our reason) is different than considering a painting of chaos (which would target the imagination).  A definition engages the intellect, a vision engages the guts.  It works on our passions and our emotions.  Consider the different reactions you experience when you hear statistics about poverty in Africa compared to when you see a photo of a poor child with a swollen belly and belabored breath.  That’s the difference in idea and vision, intellect and imagination, mind and body.

In general, we do not seek to obey a set of rules/convictions.  We desire to live into a vision, a picture of life, like the Pevensie children of C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  We may think, like Edmund, that looking at a picture doesn’t do any good.  ” ‘The question is,’ said Edmund, ‘whether it doesn’t make things worse, looking at a Narnian ship when you can’t get there.'”  He thought that no matter how badly they wanted that vision of life, picturing it wasn’t going to get them there.  But they were wrong, and so are we.  The children stared at the painting of the ship and eventually found themselves transported into the world of their imagination.  “The things in the picture were moving … Down went the prow of the ship into the wave and up went a great shock of spray … Eustace jumped to try to pull it off the wall and found himself standing on the frame; in front of him was not glass but a real sea.”4  Just as their longing for the Narnia of the painting was able to transport them there, so we will be transported into our vision of the good life, however we paint it.


“A vision of the good life captures our hearts and imaginations not by providing a set of rules or ideas, but by painting a picture of what it looks like for us to flourish and live well.  This is why such pictures are communicated most powerfully in stories, legends, myths, plays, novels, and films rather than dissertations, messages, and monographs.”5


When we are captured by a vision we live into it.  I once listened to an episode of the early morning radio show Kidd Kraddick in the Morning where J-Si described his misplaced motivation to cut his son’s hair.  He said something like, “I was at the salon getting my hair cut and the lady did it so fast!  She made it looks so easy.  So when I got home and my son said he wanted hair like mine, I thought, ‘I can do that.'”  It did not go well.  He and his wife, Kenzie, had to take their son to have a trained professional fix his hair.  The point, however, is about what made J-Si want to do it in the first place.  It was the skill and ease of his hair dresser.  He was fascinated by her.  She did not reason with him while he was in the chair to convince him of why he ought to cut his son’s hair, why it would be a good idea, or how it would be an economical decision.  None of those things are the “reason” why he cut his son’s hair.  This was a visceral bodily phenomenon.  He was moved into a vision where he could cut hair with the same ease as she could. He tried to live into that life he had imagined, and failed.  But he tried none the less.

In the movie Adjustment Bureau David Noriss (played by Matt Damon) meets the girl of his dreams (Elise–played by Emily Blunt) but is suddenly separated from her and unable to find her again.  Upon serendipitously meeting he explains his efforts to locate her.  He says, “I didn’t have your number.  And I didn’t even have a last name to go by.  You know, if you Google just ‘Elise’ you get seven-hundred and …” “You did not!” she objects.  “… fifty seven thousand hits.  And none of them are you.”  See, Noriss was captured by a vision.  No one convinced him that he should find Elise.  No one argued with him to prove that this course of action was right or good or profitable.  Noriss imagined a world in which he and Elise were together and he put forth tremendous effort to make that vision a reality.

We do the same thing.  Because we are embodied creatures we are captured by a vision of our life and because we are teleological creatures we then proceed to live into that vision.  But our lives are not isolated from others.  We live in families and communities and therefore our vision is always a social vision.  We imagine that we are rich or famous or good looking or successful or healthy and we try to be that.  (Notice also that these are not things which are “right” or “wrong”–the are things which are desired or not).  We imagine that we have a dog in the country or we imagine that have a loft in the city where we can bike to work and walk to the coffee shop.  We imagine a home with large open windows, the smell of apple pie in the kitchen, kids playing in the floor, and ourselves reading a book by the fire (at least I certainly do).  The point is, these are the things that move us.  And even these more local visions are always situated in a wider contexts.  All of the pictures I described above are set in a peaceful America, not a world at war.  They are pictures of economic prosperity, not poverty.  The vision of the city is ethnically diverse, not racially divided.  These visions have universal implications and we live towards them.  This is how we operate as human beings.

We are all seeking a vision.  The danger is that different visions are constantly vying for our affection.  Some visions are communities which are hospitable to being fully human while others are dehumanizing and inhumane. But how do we know that we are seeking the right one?  That will be the concern of future articles.  Let me say for now that as a Christian I believe that the vision of the future towards which God is headed is a New Heaven and a New Earth.  It is a place where Jesus reigns as king and we reign with him.  It is an ethnically diverse kingdom of peace.  It is a place where all have justice and none are oppressed.  There are parties with music and celebration without the debauchery which often infects our own festivities.  There are feasts without the bad health that accompanies our gluttony and bad decisions.  There is art without pornography, technology without war, dance without lewdness, family without death, friendship without deception, and joy without sorrow.  This is what it means to be fully human.  This is the vision I live into.  This is the vision we are all invited to live towards.  So join me in being simply human.  You were born to.


©M. Benfield 2016

1. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2009), 52.
2. Ibid, 52-53.
3. Ibid, 53.
4. C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, First Harper Trophy Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 9-10.
5. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 53.

Who Am I? (Part 1)


Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is fond of saying that there are three questions which every reflective person eventually asks: 1. Who am I?  2. Why am I here?  3. How then shall I live?  This article begins a series of articles which seek to answer theses questions, the first of which is, “Who am I?”

There are a number of phrases floating around which one hears here and there that attempt to give an answer to this question.  One says, “You are what you think.”  Another says, “You are what you believe.  Still another suggests, “You are not a body which has a soul.  You are a soul which has a body.”  All of these indicate a common conception about the nature of man.  They both conceive Man as being primarily an immaterial thing.  They all admit that we have a material part, we have bodies, but they reject that as being our essence.  In these conceptions of what it means to be a human being we are first immaterial creatures and second we are embodied creatures.

The other available option to us is that we are primarily embodied creatures.  This idea suggests that while we have an immaterial part, call it mind or soul or whatever, that is not at the core of our identity.  We are earthy first and spirit-ish second.

But how do we decide which of these options is the right one?  Neither conception denies the existence of both material and immaterial parts.  The question is simply which one is nearer to the center of what it means to be human.  We can answer this question by asking which part “runs things” most of the time.

When we speak of these two “parts” of us we list things like thinking, believing, and reasoning under the control of the immaterial part, the mind.  Things like love, hate, fear, desire, lust, and imagination are more visceral and hence are under the control of the material part, the body.  Even though we might be tempted to think of imagination as more of a thing that happens in the mind, imagination does not deal in abstraction but in pictures thus appealing to the senses and therefore more related to the body than the mind.  James K.A. Smith likens this to the difference in reading a textbook and reading a poem.  “Both have content, but they activate very different comportments to the world, drawing on different parts of us, as it were.”1

Now let’s consider exactly how much of our day we actually think about. Most of what we actually do we do without thinking.  In fact, we often find thinking to be a hindrance, not a help.  When we first learned to drive we had to think about checking the mirrors, using one foot (not two) for the gas and brake, shifting from Park to Drive then to Reverse and back again.  It was a nightmare.  It was only when the things we “knew” worked their way down into our bodies that we were able to drive smoothly.  The same goes for most skills.  Typing, playing piano or guitar, speaking another language, riding a bike, dancing or doing martial arts, all are done poorly when we have to think about them.  It is our bodies that makes those things happen, not our minds.  Actually, our bodies do these things so well that some times we do them without even knowing that we are.  Who among us has not had the experience of hopping in the car and then arriving at our destination without remembering the drive?  We don’t think our way through our lives, we “feel” our way around them.  All of this suggests that our bodies are primary, not our minds.  So to the question, “Who am I?”  We answer, “I am an embodied creature.”

This explains why we so often find ourselves doing things that we “know” we shouldn’t do.  Consider the man recently in love.  Even though he knows that he ought to go to sleep so that he will be well rested for his early morning meeting he stays up until 2am to talk to the woman he loves.  This irrationality is what Rumi described when he said, “Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy, absentminded.  Someone sober will worry about things going badly.  Let the lover be.”2 In cases like this, when the cognitive part and the non-cognitive affective part of us clash, it is most often the affective part which wins.

Related to the above, this also helps explain the phenomenon of temptation.  Temptation inherently assumes that our bodies are moving us to do something that our minds say we ought not to do.  If our mind did not tell us that we ought not to do it then we would not consider it temptation.  Also, if we know that we ought not to do it, and our bodies do not want to do it, then we do not consider ourselves to be tempted.  Temptation means that the mind says “no” while the desire says “yes” (cf. James 1:14).  If our minds ruled the day then we would rarely sin, except when our minds were mistaken about the difference in right and wrong.  It is because we are more moved by our passions than we are by our convictions that we find ourselves so often bogged down in sin.

But “So what?”, right?  Why does this matter?  For this reason: “behind every pedagogy is a philosophical anthropology.”3 In other words, our ideas about how to teach people are dependent upon our conception of what sort of thing Man is. If who we are is determined by what we think/believe then the way to help a man be who he is supposed to be is to fill him up with all of the right ideas.  In many schools, universities, and even churches this is the common practice.  However, if our identities are dependent more upon our bodies then we need a conception of education (and discipleship) which addresses the body, the non-cognitive and affective part of Man.  We need education which teaches us to love, not just what to believe.  This is sadly lacking in many Christian traditions (mine included).  As we continue to learn more about what it means to be embodied creatures we will “flesh out” (pun intended) how this should affect our education, worship, and discipleship.  For now remember this: being human means being in a body.  As embodied creatures if we want to change we have to aim our efforts at the body as well as the mind.  Instead of trying to convince our minds to conquer our bodies (as happens too often), we ought to try and enlist our bodies so that they fight on the same side.  Trying to conquer the body is, in essence, to attempt to dis-embody ourselves.  But that is to be less than fully human.  We are bodies.  So join me in being simply human.  Because you were born to.

©M. Benfield 2016


1. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 28, n.11.
2. Rumi, The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing, “The Ache and Confusion” (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 60.
3. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 27.