Select Page

The last three weeks in First Forum I’ve taught a series on recent theological insights into God.  A number of folks asked that I put together a bibliography of all the sources I referenced, so I’ve done that here and annotated it.

Overall Survey
One congregant asked, “Which of these books should I read, because I’m not going to read them all?”  So I recommended Elizabeth A. Johnson’s Quest for the Living God which was the text that guided our study.  I want to say a little bit about her approach, especially for those who weren’t in the class.  Johnson writes that recent theology on God has arisen from practical commitments of people, unfolds from religious experiences, and does not begin in the Academy.  We are in the latest chapter of an ancient and on-going quest for the Holy that is never settled because what we seek is incomprehensible, our curiosity is insatiable, and our cultures continue to change.

So, Johnson recommends three rules for exploring God:

  1. “The reality of the living God is an ineffable mystery beyond all telling.”
  2. “No expression for God can be taken literally.”
  3. “The necessity of giving to God many names.”

With those guidelines, she raises criticisms of modern theology and the “trivial views of God” that it led to in most people’s popular imagination.  On this point she mentions the once very popular religious book J. B. Phillips’s Your God Is Too Small, which pointed out the trivial ways most people talk about God.  Then she launches into her explorations of post-World War II theology.  Her book is also a great resource because every chapter ends with an excellent “For Further Reading” section.

In the wake of the Second World War and the Holocaust, in a period where ordinary people were beset with doubts and the problem of God’s involvement with evil and suffering had become acute, many theologians grappled with new ways to think and talk about God, and generally resulted in the rejection of traditional understandings of God’s power and action. In our class I referenced the following:

  • Catholic theologian Karl Rahner’s Encounters with Silence, a recovery of mystery
  • Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets, which highlighted the pathos of God
  • German Protestant Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God, which responded to the appeal of atheism by arguing, contrary to the history of Christian theology, that God suffers and is present with us in our suffering
  • I also mentioned the importance of Elie Wiesel’s Night for posing the core problems that post-Holocaust theology addresses

If God is present in suffering, then we get various theologies that arise from suffering communities.  I didn’t go in-depth into Liberation Theologies in this class, as I feel that I have often taught the key thinkers and ideas.  But here are some of the main texts:

  • Peruvian Catholic theologian Gustavo Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation in which he proclaims “To know God is to work for justice.  There is no other path to reach God.”
  • The African-American James Cone’s God of the Oppressed
  • Rosemary Radford Ruether’s ground-breaking Sexism and God-Talk
  • Phyllis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality
  • For a great summary of feminist theology Mary Grey’s Introducing Feminist Images of God
  • Mary Daly’s challenge to Christianity in Beyond God the Father
  • Virgilio Elizondo’s Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise in which he presents a God who chooses those humans reject, gives them the mission to transform the world, and overcomes evil with the power of love.
  • Though I didn’t highlight it in this class, also relevant here is Nancy L. Eiesland’s The Disabled God which poses a significant challenge to traditional understandings of divine power

Where the first class session focused on rethinking God in response to issues of suffering, the second session focused on how we understand God as God exists in relationship.  First up,

In response to new scientific wonders–that the universe is very old, incomprehensibly large, complexly interconnected, and profoundly dynamic–theologies examined God’s  relationship with nature.

  • Sallie McFague’s The Body of God is a beautiful presentation of eco-feminist theology
  • David L. Clough rewrites systematic theology from the perspective of the non-human creatures in his book On Animals
  • I pointed out that much of the work in this area rested on or was in sympathy with Process theology, the central text of which is Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality (please don’t try reading this without help!).
  • More accessible Process theologies include John Cobb’s Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed and Catherine Keller’s On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process.  Keller’s book also bears witness to how, as feminist theology evolved, it too found common cause with Process thought.

One of the great surprises of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has been the revival of Trinitarian theology, because of this emphasis on relationships.  Johnson herself describes the Trinity as “a living fecundity of relational life that overflows to the world.”  But this new Trinitarian theology is not trapped in the creeds and councils of the ancient church, instead it is rooted in our religious experiences, understands that its language is symbolic, and speaks in contemporary idioms.

  • Sallie McFague’s groundbreaking work The Models of God, which discusses the Trinity as Mother, Lover, and Friend
  • Baptist James McClendon’s Systematic Theology.  In Volume 2, Doctrine, he writes about the Trinity as an ecstatic fellowship that also expresses the goal of creation, and that our best experience of such is in good sex.  I also read an excerpt of McClendon’s Volume 1, Ethics, using new idioms and the language of open-ended adventure to redescribe the Christian story.
  • Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley’s God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ in which she argues that we can’t disentangle our understanding of God from our understanding of sex, gender, and erotic desire.
  • I also quoted a passage from Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God in which she describes the Trinity borrowing language from Asian religious traditions.  Armstrong herself is not a Trinitarian theologian, but is a scholar of human religions.  This book was her response to the New Atheists popular in the Aughts.
  • For another response to the appeal of atheism, a fascinating book that I didn’t reference in the class, the English critic Terry Eagleton’s Culture and the Death of God.

The other relational concern that has opened up new ways of thinking and talking about God is religious pluralism and our relationships with other faith traditions.  How do we understand God to have been at work in different cultures and traditions?  We mostly used Johnson’s own chapter on this topic, but I also referenced the longtime Harvard professor and leading liberal American theologian Harvey Cox’s The Future of Faith.  Most of Karen Armstrong’s work is relevant here.  And maybe the most important Christian theologian to guide our journey into religious pluralism was John Hick, who wrote much on the subject.

My Journey
When the Adult Ed planning session was held, I was encouraged to make one session of the class a survey of my own evolution on the topic of God, from my Southern Baptist origins to now.  So, that’s what I did in the third session.  Much of that included story, including story about religious experiences, but I did also site some of the sources of works that had been influential in my own thinking, including some of those already referenced.

  • The Canadian Baptist Henry Blackaby’s book Experiencing God I used to highlight the understanding of God I grew up with.  That book, which was originally a devotional workbook, was very popular in my adolescence.  One can have a personal relationship with God and can come to know God’s specific will for your individual life.
  • In college, one of my interests was how religion and science were related, so I was deeply stimulated by the various works of theoretical physics that were popular in the early and mid-nineties, including the books of the Australian physicist Paul Davies who argued that physics was a surer path to God than religion.  In class I referenced his God & the New Physics.
  • In a sophomore class required of all religion and ministry majors, we read extensively in the works of American pragmatist William James.  For that class I wrote a paper on James’s views of God.  James rejected traditional notions like omnipotence and omniscience and argued for a God that was more open, changing, responsive, and intimate with humanity.  Maybe James’s Pluralistic Universe is a good example of his thinking.
  • In Contemporary Theology we read the Lutheran theologian Terence E. Fretheim’s The Suffering of God.  The idea that God suffers was traditionally a heresy, but Fretheim demonstrates how deeply Biblical the notion is.
  • I also read Sally McFague’s The Body of God at this time. I mentioned it above in the ecological section.
  • In a university class on the Problem of Evil, I read a number of works that were seminal to my own thinking, including an excerpt of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (later I read the entire novel) and Elie Wiesel’s Night.  Wendy Farley’s Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion argued that there is evil and suffering that cannot be justified and explained, and instead we should understand that God’s response is compassion that exists in solidarity with the sufferers and works for justice.
  • Also in that class we read an essay by Lewis Ford entitled “Divine Persuasion and the Triumph of Good.”  Ford claims that God never uses coercive power, but instead always works to persuade (to call, lure, inspire, excite, entice).  There is no one will of God for our lives that we must follow or be forever a sinner and a failure.  Rather, together we work with God as co-creators of our lives and of creation.  We are free agents and God responds to and incorporates our choices.  This essay was seminal in how I’ve understood the working of God ever since, and you can notice its influence in the words I do (and do not) use in my preaching.
  • Karen Armstrong’s best seller A History of God was the first book I read that treated our thoughts about God as subject to historical change and development.  Also the first I read to show how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam develop in relationship to one another.
  • The best-selling and Pulitzer-prize-winning God: A Biography by Jack Miles writes the biography of the character of God as God appears in the Hebrew Tanakh.  It was a radically different way of approaching God, as God develops and our understanding of God develops in the Hebrew scriptures.  Most important for me is how Miles’s interpretation of the Book of Job has been the one I adopted ever since.
  • Creativity in American Philosophy by the University of Texas professor Charles Hartshorne, opens with an essay on the Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards that eviscerates the God of Calvinism and taught me how to think of God’s relationship to time and what God can and cannot know.
  • Early in my ministry years I read many of the major works cited already, and was deeply influenced by some of them, such as James McClendon’s Systematic Theology, James Cone’s God of the Oppressed, and Jurgen Moltmann’s works.
  • I then mentioned two recent reads that have provoked my deepest thinking about God in almost twenty years.  One is The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event by the postmodern philosopher John D. Caputo, and the other is God’s Monsters by the Jewish professor Esther J. Hamori, which presents in vivid detail all the awful and violent things God does in the Hebrew Scriptures.

In summarizing her exploration, Elizabeth Johnson wrote, “Together these gateways offer us glimpses of the living God at once ineffable, vulnerable, liberating, relational, justice-loving, beautiful, generous, cherishing, dynamic, and adventurous; at once creative, redemptive, and embracing; in a word, Love.”


421 South 36th Street, Omaha Nebraska, 68131
(Located at the corner of 36th and Harney Streets)






First Central Congregational Church