In 1995, Joan Osborne released the original version of the hit song One of Us. (You can watch the video and listen to the song here.) The opening lyrics are as follows:
If God had a name, what would it be?
And would you call it to his face,
If you were faced with Him in all His glory?
What would you ask if you had just one question?
And yeah, yeah, God is great
Yeah, yeah, God is good
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make His way home?
Of course, the idea of God simply being one of us – just a slob like one of us – is, in some ways, quite preposterous. We are not gods: we did not create the universe, nor do we sustain it; we are neither omnipresent nor omniscient; and we are not perfect, however you may care to define perfection.
In one sense, then, God is quite clearly not one of us. He is wholly other than we are. To deny this is to deny his very God-ness.
Yet there is another sense in which the question What if God was one of us? takes on a different and more profound meaning.
If a person is said to be not one of us, it usually means he or she is not recognised as part of whatever group is being referenced. Conversely, to say “She’s one of us” means the person in question is indeed seen as belonging to the group being referenced. And it is in this sense that the song One of us unintentionally prods at one of the great questions that has faced humanity for millennia.
Consider the biblical story of human origins. In the early chapters of Genesis, we find an account of a God who is intimately involved with his creation. While there is no suggestion that God is just like Adam and Eve, he is very much one of them in the sense that they enjoy intimate communion with him, even walking together in the Garden. Then something happens that disrupts this beautiful oneness. We don’t know quite what that something is – or, indeed, whether it is an event at all. What we do know is that after this point in the narrative, things are forever changed; it seems that something in the very fabric of the world God created has been thrown off kilter. Where once there was closeness, there is now distance; where once there was trust, there is now fear; and where once there was innocence, there is now shame.
We could spend a long time discussing the nature of sin and the Fall, but that’s not the angle I want to take here. (If you’re interested in exploring that angle, I wrote a short series of posts on it earlier this year, the first part of which is here.) Instead, I want us to think for a moment about what actually, objectively changed as a result of the Fall narrative.
I would submit that the answer, in fact, is nothing: objectively speaking, nothing changed at the Fall. God continued to seek fellowship with Adam and Eve in the Garden. And note, in particular, what the author does not say: we are not told that God was angry or offended, or that he demanded sacrifice or even apology from Adam and Eve. What are we to conclude, then, about the state of separateness – between humans themselves and between humans and God – that clearly established itself from that point forward?
I would contend that this separateness was and is a subjective state rather than an objective reality. The truth is that God was just as close to Adam and Eve after the Fall as he had been before it. But something had changed; a fundamental shift had taken place in their hearts. The reality was still the same; what had changed was their perception of it.
And so began the myth of humanity’s separation from God.
What we have from then on, I think, is the story of a race that believed itself to be at enmity with God. But let me reiterate again that this enmity was not an objective reality; it was the product of ashamed, fear-filled hearts.
Let’s put it another way: to the extent that humans became enemies of God, it was because they now saw themselves as his enemies. In truth, he was never their enemy.
But how could God convince us of this? What could he do to demonstrate that he was still one of us, that he still desired unbroken fellowship with us? The answer is what we celebrate at Christmas: the Incarnation, when the eternal God stepped into human flesh.
I used to believe, like many Christians, that the Incarnation was when God stepped out of his separateness from humanity and bridged the gap between heaven and earth. I don’t really see it that way any more. Or at least, if I do, I think the gap he bridged was imagined rather than real.
For me, the Incarnation was when God demonstrated in unmistakeable fashion what had always been true: that no matter how separate we felt we had become from him, no matter how far we thought we had drifted, there never was a time when he was not among us and with us. That’s what Immanuel means: not that the God who was not with us now is; but that the God who had always been with us has now decisively and unambiguously stepped into history to remove any doubt as to his supposed absence and to shatter the myth of humanity’s separateness from God.
And so, this Christmas, the Incarnation brings us face to face with a question: will we continue to live under the veil of artificial separation that has lain across the eyes of humanity for millennia, or will we allow our eyes to be opened to the joyous truth that God’s dwelling is with us, both now and for all eternity?
[ Image: ashley rose ]