What is God really like? Who is he and what should we expect from him? We are left with the possibility that there is no way of knowing God. And of course, there are always those who tell us that there is no God – Nietzsche in the 19th century and some scientists like Richard Dawkins today.
The fact is that the idea of God is embedded in every culture that has existed for more than three generations. So it’s not surprising that even in popular music, questions of God arise. Back in June 1996 the pop singer Joan Osborne came and went with a #1 single, ‘One of Us’. The music was catchy and the lyrics asked some good questions: If God had a name, what would it be? If God had a face, what would it look like? In essence it asked the question, ‘What would God be like if he were flesh and blood?
Hindus tell us that there are many different gods (Shiva, Vishna, and so on); Judaism insists that there is only one. Buddhism denies the notion of God and Islam insists that everything is directed by the will of Allah. So, who’s right? Certainly not all of them. Perhaps none.
It’s this kind of question that makes Joan Osborne’s question so relevant. The only way we can really know what the creator God is like is if he lived as one of us. If he stepped into our shoes for a while we could see him from his birth to the grave. We could observe where he was born and the school he attended. We’d hear of his interests and life-style, what music he listened to and what social events and pubs he might check out. And we’d see the way he’d treat people – the politicians and the celebrities; the poor and the outcast; or just the average guy on the street like you and me. And if he had to die, we’d see how he would cope with it.
One of the striking things about Christianity is that it is grounded in history. The Gospel writers insist that Jesus of Nazareth not only lived but was unique. He was not just a prophet, he was more than a prophet. He was not just a man, he was God’s Messiah. He was not just an extraordinary man, he was both God and man.
In the hours before his arrest one of Jesus’ friends asked him a question that wasn’t very different from the one in Joan Osborne’s song. We read it in John 14:9: Philip said, “Lord show us the Father. That’s all we need.”
Philip wanted to know what every religion has always wanted to know: What is God like? He wanted some tangible experience of God that would sweep his doubts away. Perhaps he was thinking of God’s special appearance to Moses in the burning bush. Or maybe he was influenced by the Greek mystery religions and had in mind some inner ecstasy, a spiritual trip that would lift him up to new levels of consciousness. Either way he wanted to see God.
Jesus’ response is electrifying: “He who has seen me has seen the Father…” He was saying, ‘Philip, don’t you get it? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.’ How many people think of Jesus merely as the ultimate good guy or one of history’s great teachers? Both ideas are no doubt true, but neither comes near what he was saying. He was saying that he was not just God’s emissary or ambassador, but God himself. He was claiming to be God in our shoes.
It’s a startling, astonishing claim: ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father…’ Do you really believe this? And if you do, what will your answer be next time someone asks you about God?