The chief end of man?

by Elias Blum

Q. What is the chief end of man?

A. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

(Westminster Shorter Catechism).

It is easy to see giving glory to God as a sort of homage or tribute paid by an inferior to a superior. Viewed this way, glorifying God could be perceived as fawning, obsequious and sycophantic. Giving  glory in this way would be an act of fear and obedience enforced by terrible power – a notion that degrades humanity and makes God out to be a vain and tyrannical egomaniac.

I used to share in these misgivings. This idea of a God who wanted to be glorified seemed very far from the idea of a loving and all-embracing God. Thankfully, I no longer see it that way. From reading Marcus Borg on ‘panentheism’ and John Shelby Spong on the notion of a ‘post-theistic’ God, I have come to reject the anthropomorphic idea of God as a king, ruler, father, judge.  These ideas of God as a paternal authority-figure are human inventions, and a pretty shoddy ones, too; they are exactly the sort of ideas you’d expect from a bunch of gregarious primates run by alpha males in big hats.

It might seem as if I am over-intellectualising here, as if I am reducing God to a metaphor for nature or an abstraction of consciousness, or some other undefinable ‘deepity’ – and that I have moved far away from the ‘God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob’. The theistic God described in the Bible is not only a king and judge, he also ‘walks’ and ‘talks’; he sits on a throne; he is forever turning his face this way and that; he has a penchant for appearing and disappearing at inopportune moments. All this, however, says more about scripture than it does about God. The Bible is a human record of the attempt by early societies – limited by the frail instruments of language and metaphor – to describe their collective experiences of the divine. These are merely descriptions and literary portrayals of God, not God. Yet even the scriptures speak of God in abstract as well as in anthropomorphic terms. God is ‘Spirit’ and ‘Truth’. God is ‘Love’.

Moreover, I can only speak from experience, and can only relate that experience through the restricted medium of written English. When I experience God in worship and in waiting, in thought and meditation, in song and in psalm, I do not encounter a ‘Big invisible king-man Sky-daddy who wants us to grovel before him’. Rather, I become attuned to a seething, beautiful, boundless, ineffable, loving, divine principle in existence.

If we move beyond all this bowing and scraping before the throne of imaginary ‘god-kings’, and towards a a post-theistic (dare I say it, ‘post-autocratic’) view of God, then glorifying God makes sense. In fact, it becomes a highly attractive and compelling ‘chief end’ (i.e. aim) of life.

If God is the source of our highest ideals, our strongest loves, and our deepest human values, then to ‘glorify God’ is to live well – to be the best we can be, to grow in character, love and virtue.

If God is the creative nature of the universe, present in every star and particle, then to glorify God is to love learning, to gain in understanding, to appreciate one’s one-ness with the whole.

If God is the animating spirit of life itself, present in every living thing, then to glorify God is to love life, and live lovingly, remembering that we are all just part of a human family and global eco-system.

(One of these days, I’ll get a spot on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.)