Build up the body of Christ. Support the Pentecost Offering.

Winner of the 2024 Grawemeyer Award in Religion speaks to an appreciative crowd at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

The Rev. Dr. Charles Halton, who wrote ‘A Human-Shaped God,’ delivers an inspiring talk

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

On Tuesday, the winner of the 2024 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, the Rev. Dr. Charles Halton, delivered a lecture at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Charles Halton, winner of the 2024 Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his book “A Human- Shaped God: Theology of an Embodied God,” published in 2021 by Westminster John Knox Press, delivered an insightful and inspiring talk Tuesday in Caldwell Chapel at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Watch Halton’s talk here.

Each year the seminary joins with the University of Louisville to award the prestigious prize.

In his book, Halton, associate rector at Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington, Kentucky, argues that embracing God as a deity with human qualities can bring us closer to God and inspire us to become better people.

During his Tuesday lecture, Halton used stories — about Zeno of Elea, a Greek mathematician and philosopher; about Ernst Mach, the Austrian physicist and philosopher; and the Genesis 1 account of God creating human beings — to conclude that the creation of humanity “may be the most foundational passage for theology, and yet it’s been difficult for people to understand,” Halton said. “Interpreters are nowhere close to consensus about what it means for humans to be created in God’s image.”

Why has that been so difficult? The Hebrew phrase for “in the image of” God is seen again in Genesis 5, this time describing Adam’s son, Seth, whom Halton calls “a chip off the old block.” Put that reference back in Genesis 1, “and we’re done,” he said. “But theologians have looked at this and said, ‘Man, it’s a mystery. I don’t know what’s going on.’” Theologians are stuck in the same rut physicists were stuck in before Einstein and other came along with their Nobel Prize-winning work early in the 20th century. “They believe the heavy lifting of theology is done. It’s over. All we’re doing is fixing some things on the margins,” Halton said.

Theologians also say “there’s no way God can be humanlike. It’s off the table,” Halton said. “Let me channel the ghost of Ernst Mach. He would say, ‘Theologians need to focus on observables.’ From the data, they can construct the images of God.”

“We should not be convinced that the heavy lifting of theology is done. Instead of jamming data into our theories,” Halton said, “let’s set theories aside, take a fresh look and start again.”

If God is the foundational element of the universe, then everything is related to God in some way, Halton said. If everything is created by God, everything reflects God in some way and is in relationship with God. That’ data for theologians to use.

“But we’re finite creatures with severe limitations, including our capacity for imagination,” Halton said. “We are often trapped in conventional ways of thinking and we lack the confidence to break free from those conventional ways of thinking.” Another limitation is a theologian is “a tiny entity trying to understand a God who is so much bigger than us,” he said.

“It’s inevitable we are going to get our theologies wrong,” Halton said. “Let’s say 20% of the stuff in my book and what I’m saying tonight is totally wrong. … Every theology that has been produced or will be produced has something wrong. The question is, what parts are wrong? What about harmful theologies, like trans-hating theologies? For most of the other stuff, it’s not clearly malevolent. We’re never going to be able to understand God perfectly.”

“That got me thinking,” he said. “Theologians try to arrive at the truth. Even if it were possible, how would we know when we arrived there?” The question is not “Is it true?” but “Does this theology help me become a better person, or a more loving and inviting and charitable person, or can this theology make this community a more welcoming place?”

It’s hardly a “new and radical” proposal, since Augustine of Hippo said nearly 17 centuries ago that “what God wants is for people to grow in their capacity for charity.”

“Augustine said it’s not a problem if someone misinterprets a Scripture as long as that mistake makes the person more charitable,” Halton said. “I am suggesting we take Augustine’s approach and apply it to the act of designing theologies.”

Going back to the first few pages of Genesis, Halton said he first tried to understand what humans were like, “then tried to use that as a reference point for what God is like. … If God created humans in God’s image, we humans have got to be similar to God in profound ways.” We can then, he said, reverse engineer our understanding “to see what God is like.”

Biblical observables include God changing God’s mind, God moving from one location to another, God learning, God experiencing emotion and God forgiving.

In the biblical flood narrative, God looks at the world and God is aghast, he said. “God says, ‘We’ve got to start over. I see one dad-gum family that can be my rootstock for version 2.” When the floodwaters recede, “God says, ‘It was too much. Killing everybody? That was too much.’”

God sets the rainbow in the sky “to remind God never to do that again. It’s an amazing, complicated story,” Halton said. “This is a God on a moral arc, a God in relationship with Creation, a God in process about learning, even about God’s self, and the more God learns, the more God wants to change” into One who’s “loving and kind and embracing of God’s evolution.”

If a central tenant of one’s theology is that God doesn’t change, how do we explain it when the text shows that happening? “You’d have to say this transformation doesn’t happen,” Halton said, or “focus on the observables: God undergoes a change of mind, and these changes of mind are patterns we are to emulate as well.”

It’s common in Islam, Judaism and Christianity “and pretty much any religion that sees God as a person to say part of the human task is to look to God for inspiration on how to move through the world and then imitate God in our lives,” Halton said. “If God is in relationship with this world, and through this relationship God is committed to this moral arc of self-discovery and self-betterment, then one of the goals of our lives should be to join God in that moral arc as well.”

“My attempt is only one way to think theologically about the doctrine of God,” he said. There are, of course, many more ways to think about God, “and some are incredibly helpful and beneficial to us. They can make us become more charitable, better people.”

“Many of these understandings are still waiting to be discovered, but only if we set aside some of our leaky theories about who God is and focus on these observables. I can’t wait to see what happens,” he said, “when theologians do this. Thank you all.”

The crowd in Caldwell Chapel rose to give Halton an ovation before asking him a few questions and then chatting with him at a reception that followed the lecture.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.