Thursday, December 05, 2013

What Do We Mean When We Say "God"?

by Roger Ray, D.Min.
Community Christian Church 
4806 E. Cherry Springfield, MO 65809

Acts 17:28-29
 For "In him we live and move and have our being"; as even some of your own poets have said,
"For we too are his offspring." Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.

Long before our ancestors had either organized religion or organized speech they became aware of their existence and their mortality.  The anxiety produced by the knowledge that they would die provoked the original human search for meaning in existence.  Before we pretended to understand how the leaves on trees turn sunlight into sugar or how the collision of a cold front with a warm front spawns tornadoes, many things in life provoked wonder. (We moderns occasionally need to be reminded that there is a huge difference between being able to describe an event and actually understanding an event.)

Looking up at the night sky, the awareness that summer will always follow winter just as the sun will always rise again demanded explanation.  In primitive cultures, the sun itself was a divine figure, as was the earth.  For them, the wind was not the result of solar heating of distant oceans but rather the breath of an invisible deity.  We experience and respond to our life through our emotions and so it was natural to assume that when the rain didn't come, or the rivers flooded, or the winter was too harsh that the gods were angry, offended or awaiting some sacrifice or devotion.

We initially conceived of gods in our own image.  Like us and like nature itself, our gods were capricious, sometimes loving and generous, sometimes jealous and vindictive.  We talked of gods who were like us, only bigger, stronger and with longer lives but with all of the foibles and appetites we experience.  So we built houses for our gods to live in.  We sacrificed food on altars to feed them, poured out wine and blood to appease them, sang songs to praise them and endured tedious rituals to satisfy their narcissistic need for attention.

But even from the dawn of civilization there were always those who felt that we were selling the divine other short by trying to turn them into men and women.  According to the writer of Acts, the apostle Paul, attempting to connect with a Greek audience in Athens, quoted a poet-philosopher, Epimenides, from more than five hundred years earlier, who said that Zeus was not dead but was, in stead, ever living and that "in him, we live and move and have our being."

Somehow there have always been some among us who could see that no religion defines God, no idol, painting, stained glass or statue could meaningfully describe God.  Yet we always feel compelled to try to express our profound existential experiences in concrete language.

We cannot avoid speaking of our lives in the language that is based in experience.  Consider the difference in the way that Paul describes his mystical experience and the way a later generation described it for him, after Paul was long dead.  In his own words, in 2 Corinthians 12, Paul says, "2I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. 3And I know that such a person--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows-- 4was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat." You see, Paul gives us no concrete visuals.  He knows that something profound happened to him but he resolutely avoids using language about winged angels or a giant enthroned divine king.

A generation later, Luke, writing the book of Acts to bolster Paul's reputation, describes what I am suggesting was the same experience in this way in Acts 9 (and in slightly different forms twice more in Acts 22 and 26):  3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' 5He asked, 'Who are you, Lord?' The reply came, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.' 7The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank."

Paul's ineffable experience becomes a very concrete experience that Paul never said anything about.  And, between you and me, if Paul did have an experience like this he would nave never stopped talking about it!  But it is much the same for most of us.  We have a deeply felt experience of the presence of a divine "other" but talking about that experience is like trying to nail smoke to the wall.  Anything we say starts to limit the experience and to diminish its value.
Luke, the presumed author of Acts, wanted for his readers to be persuaded that Paul was God's chosen messenger and so he adds details intended to be persuasive that, in the light of critical analysis, should be apparently absurd.

When I started in graduate school more then three decades ago, our professors were trying to teach us to stop referencing God as being male and just that move from seeing God as a Caucasian, white haired and bearded giant in the clouds met with angry resistance.  It isn't until you say, "Oh, God is a man?  How big are his feet?  How long is his beard?" will people begin to give up on the concrete image of God as a person.  To be male rather than female implies the presence of boy parts and trying to describe those divine parts is a conversation stopper in most Sunday School classes. Some things only become obvious when pushed to absurdity.

Hopefully, the matter of God having a gender is long settled but the problem of our desire for concrete images in which to conceive of God persists.  We use images to try to express ourselves, to understand and to communicate our experiences.

When we were young, our first science teachers showed us illustrations of atoms with little colored balls called neutrons and protons and they were surrounded by brightly glowing electrons moving in predictable orbits in assigned shells around the nucleus of the atom.  In our young minds, actual atoms, if we could see them, would have looked just like this.

Of course, you cannot see an atom and if you could it would look nothing like the model and yet the model helped us to understand atoms, their behavior and nature and helped us to form a basis for talking about chemistry and biology and physics.  In fact, we would likely never have made much progress in our comprehension of science if we had not, at the beginning, over-simplified reality just to get a toehold on the initial climb up into the light of understanding.

Similarly, we began our religious education with stories about miracles, making tablets out of modeling clay to look like the Ten Commandments, and learning about anthropomorphic images of the God who defies description.  We imagined God in human form.  We created a God who feels what we feel, who understands us and yet loves us.

The dark shadows of our minds sought to resolve our feelings of guilt and fear by creating an imagined pathway out of mortality and death and into a state of forgiveness, acceptance, and even of eternal reward. Not all religions have a clear concept of an afterlife but the experience of the weak and abused filled them with a longing for some universal justice, some way to balance the scales of life.  A final judgment followed by either reward or punishment gave the poor and enslaved, the victims of abuses of power, the opportunity to believe that a loving God would eventually punish their oppressors and bless us, the righteous and deserving, with glorious reward.

Many still find faith in such a final reward and punishment in eternity so crucial to their ability to cope with the injustice of life that they are committed to religious bodies and creeds that reassure them that product of the imagination of ancient Persian slaves is literally true.

Millions are willing to suspend critical thinking to accept as evidence accounts of near death experiences of "going towards the light," seeing long dead friends and relatives and being drawn back into their earthly bodies by some medical miracle that evidently came as a surprise to their supernatural theistic image of God.  The recent popularity of Eben Alexander's book, Proof of Heaven, speaks to the desperation many feel for certainty.  Alexander is a neurosurgeon and so, he seems to speak with the kind of credibility and authority the ancients once bestowed upon their high priest.

I am unapologetically dismissive of such thinly veiled attempts at confounding readers untutored in medical jargon to give undeserved credibility to personal accounts rendered in seemingly scientific language.  I read these accounts in much the way you might hear a primitive describing a flashlight as a magical stick that has captured the sun.  That so many allow themselves to be persuaded by such obvious self-delusion is testament to how desperate we are for some hope for eternity and for justice.

Still, while we must graciously allow everyone the freedom to believe and practice as they wish as long as they do no harm to others, those of us who strive to embrace an evidence based faith should open our minds to new ways of trying to articulate a less anthropomorphic view of the divine.

Many of the scholars most dear to progressive religious thinkers call themselves "panentheists."  The term may be new to you but the concept is as old as Epimenides who conceived of God as something other than a person with a body, who was "out there" somewhere.  The ancient Hebrews resisted creating statues or images of God because God, as a spirit, could only be diminished by trying to describe the Divine in human terms.

Western religious people often looked at the religions of the east such as Buddhism or Confucianism and wondered aloud if they were really religions because they lacked a single supernatural theistic god or a clear view of heaven and hell.  Hinduism, with its many gods was even more confusing to those who ipso facto assume that monotheism is superior to polytheism.

Eastern religions were not captured by the push towards the attempts at monotheism as seen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  But, to be honest, no monotheism has ever succeeded in staying the course, finding it necessary to add other virtual gods in the form of demons and spirits to account for the bad things in life and could not resist creating semi-divine characters such as in the incarnation of God in Jesus or the saints to whom Catholics pray for special blessings or the angles and demons of Muslim and Jewish lore.

Much of the attraction in recent years to the Buddhist view of God is specifically because of its lack of specificity.  Buddhists teach that all that is, is connected and the divine is united with the all.  As the ancient poet said, we all live and move and have our being in God.  God is not a rock or a tree but all rocks and trees are in God.  God is not "out there" only but is both "out there" and "in here."

That Buddhists refrain from trying to describe God does not mean that they do not believe in a divine presence.  That Hindus express their understanding of the divine in hundreds of godlike images is just another way of being open to a multiplicity of existential experiences of the divine.

In fact, a persuasive case can be made for laying the blame for most religious wars at the doorstep of monotheism.  If you have a concrete world view that says, "I my religion is not only right but is so very very right that anyone who disagrees with my religion is evil and possibly even deserving to be destroyed for blasphemy" then you have the historical basis for tragic human conflict.  Even if the motivations of governments likely had little or nothing to do with religious beliefs, the hearts of believers left them vulnerable to being recruited to crusades in the name of an indefensible theology.

Paul Tillich, the famous 20th century theologian, created a great deal of public controversy when he said "God does not exist." Though many chose to interpret that as a statement of atheism what he was saying, in a very intentionally provocative way, was that God does not have a body or a place, is not a thing or a person and in that sense does not exist within time and space but Tillich was not an atheist.  He was what we now more commonly call a panentheist.

Pantheism is the belief that the universe is god but panentheism differentiates itself from pantheism because though the universe is in god, the sum total of rocks, trees, planets and stars is not, itself god.  God is all of that and something more.  And yet, almost anything we say past that starts to look like trying to nail smoke to the wall.  Use every nail in your carpenter's belt and you will still have accomplished nothing and maybe will have done a lot of damage to a perfectly good wall.

As Tillich said, God is the ground of our being though attributing anthropomorphic emotions, will, intent or even intervention in human history to God is bound to end up in error.  As one who lives and moves and has his being in God, I prefer to speak, not so much in piled up adjectives about God but in terms of how my awareness of God gives me a spiritual perspective on life.

A strict humanist, an Epicurean or libertarian may seek either exclusively or primarily to scratch his or her own itches, desire her or his own comfort and joy.  As a spiritual person, I choose to strive to feel my connection to all other people and to the earth.  That is not a natural choice.  That is a conscious choice.

A panentheist's spirituality may express itself in forms of community ritual or in choosing to avoid goods manufactured by slaves or forms of transportation that accelerate the pollution of the planet.  I will say much more about the implications of a spiritual world view in the final portion of this work but for now I am inviting you to let go of all idolatry, all anthropomorphic images of God.

Panentheism then becomes the most effective way of bringing both scientific inquiry and spiritual concerns together into a consistent synthesis.  It also allows for a greater inter-faith cooperation.  I like to introduce my students to Panentheism through Marcus Borg's book, Speaking Christian, though it is the assumed theology of such authors as Bishop John Shelby Spong, Rosemary Ruether and Sally McFague and many more.  But we also see it in Catholic scholars such as Martin Heidegger, Karl Rahner and Hans Kung.  And in the Hasidic Jewish scholar, Martin Buber, the Sufi Muslim writer, Muhammed Iqbal and Buddhists such as Alan Watts and Massao Abe.

In the hope of preserving credible, meaningful and relevant faith in the the 21st century, let's stop trying to limit God to our own religion, stop trying to manipulate the Divine into doing our bidding, punishing our enemies or rewarding our friends.  Let's take our foot off of God's throat, because, you know, God doesn't have a throat and we look pretty silly trying to hold the Spirit down.


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