Wednesday, February 15, 2012

from A Call to Re-Image God and All Religious Symbols

by John Shelby Spong

“Today, there is a general agreement around the world that monotheism is the proper definition of God. The monotheistic God, however, has taken very different forms in the various region of the world: 1. The Judeo-Christian world of the West and those parts of the world that were colonized by the West; 2. the Islamic world of the Middle East, a world that stretches now from Indonesia to Libya, and 3. the Hindu-Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Confucius, Shinto world of the Far East. Generally, though more in the West than in the East, the theistically understood deity is dominant. God is thus generally thought of as a being, external and supernatural, the dispenser of blessings and punishments and the worker of miracles. It is this theistic understanding of God, which has been in place for the last 12,000 to 15,000 years that appears to be dying the world over. The death of theism is not the death of God; it is the death of a human definition of God. If, however, one has no other concept of God, the death of theism feels like the death of God.

“This death has been brought about by the study of space from Copernicus to Hubble’s telescope, together with the work of such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.  Insights from that field of knowledge have in effect, destroyed the theistic God’s dwelling place above the sky. The study of physics, with its insights into the laws of nature and its new understanding of the relation of cause to effect, now explain many things that we once attributed to the theistic deity. These discoveries, coming first from Isaac Newton and then from his many descendants, have also reduced the credibility of supernatural language, which is the language of theism, including as it does, appeals to both miracle and magic. Our world no longer knows how to make sense out of most of the things that religious people claim to be theistic activities.

“In our own Judeo-Christian tradition, there were always minority voices that suggested new ways in which the divine could be experienced and understood. In a previous column we looked at breath and wind as God symbols. Are there others that might move our thinking outside of and beyond the dying box of theism?  In the scriptures non-personal words and images for God, while not the major thrust, are still present, and that presence forced even the biblical writers to recognize the limited and problematic nature of all human concepts of God. An impersonal definition did not imply a non-personal deity. It only meant that personal images were not big enough to embrace the mystery and wonder of the holy. Every word that human beings create and use is but a symbol. The best a symbol can do is to point beyond itself to a reality that words cannot possibly enfold. Perhaps that is why the Jews were traditionally forbidden even to speak the name of God, for to pronounce the holy name was tantamount to claiming that one could actually know God. That is also why the second of the Ten Commandments in the Jewish Scriptures prohibited any human attempt to make an image of God. God cannot be replicated in any human form. Perhaps those who engage in the enterprise called “theology” ought to realize that building images of God with words, whether in scripture, creeds or doctrine, is little more that another form of idolatry.

“Listening to the minority voices in Holy Scripture, we hear different ways of perceiving the “holy.” In the First Epistle of John someone appears to have asked the venerable elder, “Who or what is God?” He responded, “God is love!“ He went on to say that if you want to abide in God you have to abide in love. Love enhances life, expands our vision, calls us to new understandings and opens us to the possibilities of growth. Yet love is still a mystery. None of us can create love; all we can do is to pass it on once we have received it. If we do not pass it on, it dies. Love cannot be saved or stored. If God is love, we need to ask the obvious question: Can we then say “Love is God?” Does defining God as love not carry us beyond theism?

“A second biblical image for God is that of a rock. Well over a hundred times in the Bible, the word “rock” is used in reference to God. That idea has entered Christian hymnody in such titles as “Rock of Ages.” To what reality was this biblical image referring? Experience tells us that when we stand upon a rock, we are supported and kept from sinking. Is that the connection? My great theological teacher, Paul Tillich, made that connection when he referred to God as “The Ground of Being.” Can this “rock” image also lead us beyond theism? Is our “being” an aspect of something we might call “being itself”? Are we connected in some mysterious mystical way with all that is? Can we look at God through this lens and break the theistic pattern by exploring these possibilities? I believe we can. I think we must. The future of Christianity requires the discovery of new analogies for speaking of the holy. That is the first step in moving beyond theism. It is a slow process, but a necessary one. Once we enter it, however, new doors begin to open.”


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