Sunday, December 25, 2011

God Vulnerable

Sometimes my atheistic friends display spiritual insight beyond many of my believing friends. As I reviewed some of my Christmas related files this morning, I encountered this 4-year old exchange between my friend Tom and me, consisting a post he wrote on his own blog, and my comment. The exchange inspired me to build the graphic below, and to reproduce a portion of our conversation ...

"Why the need for a vulnerable God?"

The Christmas season is a bit peculiar for atheists, especially de-converted ones like me. Choirs and the songs they sing are especially poignant. "O Holy Night" is beautiful and "Silent Night" is so wondrously simple. However, the religious pomp is no longer part of my life.

When I recollect the nativity story, it begins with a weary Mary who has traveled so far to Bethlehem, and a penniless Joseph who is panicking to get his wife somewhere where she can deliver a baby. There is no hospital, home, or quarters available, just a barn. Then there He is. Between runs from Herod and the life that is to follow, there is this moment where all has stopped and the universe looks on at God incarnate, this tiny, needy baby on a bed of straw. While "Hallelujah's" are part of the scene, it's really overwhelming peace that is iconized in the nativity.

Christianity is strong on symbols and the two biggies are the cross and the nativity. The cross is violent and the nativity is peace, but both exhibit a vulnerable God. It is this God-made-feebly-human characteristic that ironically makes the Christian God so attractive and able to yield strong convictions in followers. No wonder the broken hearted, lonely, and strung out reach out to Jesus. But what about us suburban upper middle-class kids? What is it really about the vulnerable-God story that hooks so many and can even make a formerly religious, now anti-religious atheist like me nostalgic? posted by Tom at 11:29 PM on Dec 23, 2007

My comment:

Wow, Tom. You preach a better Christmas sermon than most believers I know. But you raise a valid and significant question. Indeed, we could let Jesus answer it himself: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) Jesus often said that he did not come for the “suburban middle class kids” of his day, but for the lost sheep. Yet, even though they were not the target of Jesus’ ministry, many of those healthy, righteous, together people did choose to come along for the ride. And, so long as they could stomach the throng of whores and addicts surrounding Jesus, they were heartily received. The Zacchaeuses, the Matthews, and the Nichodemuses were not turned away! But others, like the rich young ruler, found Jesus attractive but wholly inaccessible on their own defined terms.

Why such vulnerability in God’s “self-presentation”? Perhaps, as the above paragraph would suggest, it was an appeal to the lowest common denominator of mankind; God knowing that any other approach would slam the door of relationship in the faces of the bottom half of humanity. But for me (also a suburban middle class kid), the picture of the Almighty in kenosis (self-emptying), utterly vulnerable, unconsumed by self-importance, humble, serving, is what attracts me to him. And are these not the qualities we look for in our very closest friends? I am only free to reveal my deepest inner core to another who has made himself vulnerable to me.

It is, in fact, what draws you and me to each other. You are one of those rare human beings who is not consumed by self-importance, an atheist who does not demean believers, who is not afraid to mention your own “atheistic doubts” to believers. In short, you have readily presented yourself to your readers as vulnerable. And I hope I have done the same. I do not wish to pretend that my faith is all so secure and air-tight that I have no room for your penetrating questions and challenges. It is my desire to present myself to you as a vulnerable human being, sharing with you a sincere quest for truth, for the ultimate answers that are, at times, elusive for me also.

When I only present myself in my strength, I drive people away. My strength is never grounds for intimate friendship, for deep relationship. It seems I often come across this way. I am naturally self-assured, proud, “together”, successful in business and life, etc. But when I freely open up my weaknesses, when I own up to my own failures, when I lay out the frailties of my humanity – that is when I find people strangely drawn to me, drawn to deep friendship with me, opening the secrets of their own hearts to me. It is remarkable. I am most “winsome” in my weakness, in my vulnerability. I define intimacy as “into-me-see”.

But what of God? He has no “real” weaknesses. He has nothing we could call “failure”. And, in his self-presentation to us, he admits none. Still, he takes on all the weakness inherent in human flesh. He absolutely humbles himself at the nativity and at the cross. He leaves no barriers of exaltation, of perfect strength, of free divine prerogative, to bar our access to him. One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 3:32. One translation says that he “takes the upright into his confidence”. Another has it “He is intimate with the upright.” The original language has hints of pillows and couches, as though God is inviting us into his parlor. God wants to share secrets with us. He wants intimacy with us. This absolutely blows me away! And if it is true (even if there is but a remote chance that it is true!) surely there can be no greater quest than our pursuit to enter into such a relationship with the Creator of all!


Tom said...

Hi Cliff.

Thanks for the reposting. That was a nice exchange that makes me think we should get back to blogging! I've appreciated all of our exchanges and your perspectives. They have helped me grow -- I suppose somewhat ironically to the point of not feeling like I have to blog anymore! (It also makes me realize my Facebook/Blogging picture is now 4 years old!) I wish you well in the coming year. Merry Christmas!

nick said...

Hello Tom, Cliff,

I appreciate your guy's public dialogue. I will say it again.. Thank you both for your public vulnerability.

I am challenged by your thouhts on vulnerability. I too try and display my strengths and hide my weaknesses. I am reminded that an even handed honesty of both would deepen my life experience.

While my faith in the person of Jesus is at its richest, right along side -is an ever constant and growing mix of doubts/questions/critiques.

Happy boxer day from Cape Town.

Cliff Martin said...

Hi Tom,

I should have gotten your permission to post this conversation from your website, but I wanted to post by Christmas Day, and I was a little late for the formalities. Did't think you'd mind.

I hope you do start posting again. And I hope to post more in the coming year!

Success and Joy to you and your family in 2012.

Cliff Martin said...


Thank you for your comment. Isn't it strange and wonderful that the more we allow ourselves to think and explore and examine our faith (all that stuff some people warn us not to do!) the richer and more multidimensional it all becomes.

Happiest of New Years to you and your lovely bride!!

CarlyCrosby said...

Wow, so much wisdom on both sides of this.

I loved your words: "He leaves no barriers of exaltation, of perfect strength, of free divine prerogative, to bar our access to him." I feel like that truly represents why our mighty Lord humbled himself to the lowest of the people and suffered the scorns that he did.

This is definitely a new perspective of God for me. I've always viewed it as the man trying to hide or cover his Godhood but this really opens my eyes to God embracing humanity to invite all into his presence. A truly beautiful view.

Thank you so much, I love reading your blog.

Cliff Martin said...


Thank you for you kind comment! I'm so pleased that you enjoy the blog.

I have not been posting much lately, though I am quite active on some Facebook forums. I may return to the long-form blog posting someday, but for now my teenage daughter and my business are keeping me too busy to think about much else! But your comments mean a lot to me. Thanks!