Wesley Hill: Following our names around

Truthfulness isn’t the easiest character trait to acquire. Sometimes it feels like we’re hiding our true selves behind a name, title or office.

“I am the false character that follows my name around,” wryly remarks the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s “White Noise.” A line like that makes us laugh and cringe at the same time. We smile because it’s witty, but deep down, we can understand the sentiment. Sometimes it feels like we’re hiding our true selves behind a name -- or a title, an office, a position, a reputation -- that masks what we’re really like.

Leaders, perhaps especially, can feel this tension, the gap between the public perception and “the real me.” “There is deep irony involved when anyone claims to be a Christian leader,” Jason Byassee admits. Truthfulness isn’t the easiest character trait to acquire.

This fall, I’ll be starting what I hope will be the final year of my Ph.D. I’m a doctoral candidate in New Testament studies, and my area of research has been the connections between what the apostle Paul says about God, Jesus and the Spirit in his epistles and the later doctrine of the Trinity, formulated at the Councils of Nicaea (325 c.e.) and Constantinople (381 c.e.). One of the things -- probably the primary thing -- I’ve learned about Trinitarian theology in the course of writing my dissertation is that it was meant, originally, to assure us that the God who comes to us in love is the same God who always has been and always will be. Trinitarian theology turns DeLillo’s line on its head and applies it to God: God is the true character that follows God’s name around.

The great titan of twentieth-century theology, Karl Barth, put it like this: The God who is for us -- the God who shows up at Easter and Pentecost for our salvation -- is the same God as he is “antecedently in himself.” That’s just a fancy way of saying there’s no gap between the name of God and the character who follows that name around. What you see is what you get. The Jesus who traipsed the dusty roads of Palestine throwing parties for the rejects and lowlifes and touching the outcasts? That’s God. No hidden deity clandestinely lurking behind the merry-making friend of sinners, ready to expose that grace for a sham. On the contrary, as Archbishop Michael Ramsey put it, in one of my favorite lines, “God is Christlike, and in him is no unChristlikeness at all.” If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.

Those of us at work in Christian institutions and Christian leadership positions should take our cue from this God. Paul developed a whole ministry praxis based around the conviction that there shouldn’t be any hidden agendas or closeted personalities. “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves,” he told a group of early converts (1 Thessalonians 2:8). More heatedly, he once dashed off this huffy sentence to a group of believers who feared he might be duping them: “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word” (2 Corinthians 4:2).

God and God’s people -- the world ought to know us as the true characters who follow our names around. Or, to put it another way, whenever someone hears the names “God” or “pastor” or “leader,” they shouldn’t only associate love and grace with those names. They ought to know that it’s the same love and grace all the way down. The names match the character. What you see is what you get.

Wesley Hill is a PhD student in the Department of Theology & Religion at Durham University in the U.K. You can follow him on Twitter at @wesleyhill.