I found this photo online and it made me smile. Times may have changed, but one of the things that always amazes me about sacred texts like the Bible, the Qur’an, the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Buddhist Sutras, A Course In Miracles and the Torah is how they seem to be alive. The teachings and ideas in some cases are thousands of years old and are as relevant to us today as ever.
The Truth has a way of being eternal.
Last week we touched on something that has laid the groundwork for this exciting new 3 part series on “God”. We uncovered that words are merely symbols that point to something more essential or meaningful. Not unlike nylon and thread -on their own they are nothing to write home about, but when they are sewn together in different colors and shapes can bring us to tears. When we endow them with meaning like our country’s flag which can fill us with pride when it’s raised while our anthem is played when our hockey team wins an Olympic gold medal or sorrow when it’s half mast.
Today let’s leave the tree line and climb up a bit higher than our own particular view or perspective, just for the next 10 minutes so we can benefit from the overview effect on what we mean when we say the word that overflows with meaning “God”.
Karl Barth the Swiss theologian once said that “when we talk about God, we are talking about ourselves with a megaphone”. That our God concepts silently say something about us, our culture, and our values. A friend and favorite Irish Philosopher and Theologian Pete Rollins once jokingly compared this idea to our dogs. That we unconsciously choose the type of dog we do, because on some level they project the image or the way we want to be perceived by others. If it’s a cute soft fluffy small dog in a fashionable outfit or a pit bull with a studded collar. Whether it’s purebred with papers or rescued from the pound. Or if we don’t like dogs and we’re cat people. It made me laugh but I stopped when I realized that it was true. Our sweet gentle golden retriever Molly was loving and friendly. She played well with others. Calm. Loyal. Generous. Hmmm…
There’s of course a problem with this. Not with our dogs, but if our Gods are flattering images of ourselves then we’ll of course be praying to our God to help our football team win the Superbowl, to bless our tanks, and condemn those terrorists or anyone not on our side of the wall or the border. “God” then becomes a way of legitimizing our worldviews. The German Philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said that “our concepts of God are always just projections of our own values”, in other words… we project ourselves onto something bigger than ourselves. If this was true then wouldn’t ALL “God talk” be a problem?
John Caputo takes it a step further and says that “religion at its best is not a projection, but a projectile”. That the concept of our ideas of God doesn’t justify our views, political ideologies, or religions, they critique them. For example, in Christianity when Jesus observed people judging who was good or bad, clean or unclean, worthy or unworthy to be sitting at their dinner table, he would break bread with any outsider or unsavory dinner guest…prostitutes, tax collectors, and lepers. It can be a powerful way to interrupt our set ways and see a better way of being. It’s not necessarily about us being legitimized as we are, but an acknowledgment that we are willing to be challenged to break us open to a greater understanding of ourselves and one another.
So what DO we mean when we use the term, God?
About six years ago I heard a brilliant breakdown from Pete that was a game-changer for me. He articulated the four different ways we believe in God and I think it’s a perfect way to give this widely interpreted word some much-needed perspective.
GOD AS A BEING - In this first understanding, God is like us… but bigger and better. A “being” that’s superhuman. The old white man in the clouds was probably conjured up in our imaginations from the images created like this beautiful fresco in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo called “Creation of Adam”. A stunning artistic interpretation of God reaching out and touching Adam to give him the gift of life. God in this understanding is most often perceived to be outside of us so we pray in an intercessional personal way to Him. I recently saw a funny video of the Simpson’s cartoon where Homer Simpson was kneeling beside his bed praying and pleading to God to please bring back plastic straws because the paper ones get soggy so fast. From this perspective God is an all-knowing (omniscient), all-powerful (omnipotent) Being. This is the understanding of many traditional or conservative Christians. It’s on the Evangelical programs when we turn on our televisions and while an evolution or “great turning” or rebirth seems to be underway in our Christian household, it’s primarily what is still being taught in most Christian Biblical colleges and Catholic schools. It’s not always black and white as it may seem. It’s not always taken entirely literally, it’s more symbolic and many have a depth of understandings from personal spiritual experiences, from years of reading different theology or studying scripture.
2. GOD AS HYPER-BEING - God is not a Being in the world, but is above and beyond ALL things and can’t be objectified. This would be the understanding in most of the Orthodox faiths, the Mystics, and Hinduism to name a few. This one might be best summed up in Meister Eckhart’s prayer… “I pray God to rid me of God”. It’s beyond all man-made meaning or mental construct and more about a direct experience with the Divine. In the Islamic faith, Allah has no gender and is beyond comprehension. Images and metaphors are used to point to that which we cannot fully grasp intellectually. I love the example of Russians who would knock holes into their walls so that instead of using icons or crosses to remind them of God they would have an empty hole. That “gap” or space represented God. In the Old Testament Moses is told by God that “my name is YHWH, this is my name forever”. There are no syllables so you can’t even pronounce it and its deeper meaning is brilliant. The technique of using an infinite variety of names for God in the Bible protects us from ever thinking one name will do. God is bigger than we can think or as Anselm of Canterbury famously put it: “God is that than which none greater can be conceived”.
3. GOD AS GROUND OF BEING - God is that from which everything arises. The deeper wisdom in all of us. You discover God through giving yourself to the world in love and God is that which you discover in the act of love itself. Theologian Paul Tillich points out that we connect with God through ultimate care and concern. By giving ourselves over to love. ALL speech about God is symbolic and not literal because as soon as we make God a subject, God becomes an idol. There’s a split. So you love someone and in loving them you love God. If you don’t love your neighbor, you don’t love God. In this sense, some atheists are closer to knowing or experiencing God than some forms of theism which turn God into an object or idol. Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s writing about Religionless Christianity touches on this. In giving ourselves over to a cause or purpose bigger than ourselves we find, feel and experience a God of our understanding.
4. GOD AS EVENT- “God” is the name we give to a pull or call of something more, a part of us that calls us to be better versions of ourselves. The understanding is that God is not one-dimensional or only spiritual and is the name we give to that invisible compelling force that calls us to greater love, freedom, and democracy. To be hospitable, generous, and kind. It stops us from reducing the world to one-dimensional materialism. When Spirit is separated from matter, we get Cartesian Dualism and we know from our research over the past 100 years that our bodies and minds are most definitely not separate entities but intimately connected. Simone Weil who was born in the early 1900s wrote a book called “Gravity & Grace” which describes this world as “multi-dimensional”. That we are governed by natural laws and order, we’re also afflicted with fear and an eye for an eye mentality where we meet violence with violence, war with war. But it’s also peppered with grace. She sees these two worlds not as separate but its “Grace” stops us from repaying violence with violence, but rather a violence with peace, and hatred with love. God is an event that liberates us in time and space. To know God as an event is to re-think how we do what we do to make things better for everyone. Jacques Derrida describes it as a “deconstruction of our common assertions”.
Most if not all of the 4,000+ recognized world religions will likely be able to resonate with one or even a mixture of these four different ways we all believe in God. Of the four, the first could be considered the most Theistic, and as you head down towards the latter..the Fourth would be the least Theistic and most radical.
The most exciting thing to me is the new spiritual awakening happening in the world. It gets me out of bed in the early hours and I feel compelled or taken up by it because I can feel the spiritual intelligence available to us through each of them and the solutions to all our problems available to us once we shift our own perception and tune into this deeper calling on our lives to extend love to others.
There are so many cosmological advancements pointing to who and what we are including the latest scientific discoveries and how we experience life and how we see ourselves and the world and the Universe that align with these ancient teachings that it sometimes keeps me up at night when I make a new discovery or connect some more dots.
When I’m speaking to people if they ask what I do for a living it often strikes me when others say almost apologetically that they are spiritual but they don’t really believe in God or in Religion. After a few minutes of getting to know them, it soon comes out that they are talking about the first description of God as a superbeing and I think great, I don’t believe in that God either. I’m an Ordained Minister, a “Teacher of God” and “A Course In Miracles” with a deep love for Christianity and Jesus’ teachings and we’re on the same page.
So why even bother trying to understand this? To talk about God?
At its best faith is an attempt to orient us differently in the world. We participate in it, and it transforms us. It’s not about a particular belief system or how you arrange theological concepts in your mind like intellectual furniture.
No matter what you think you believe or don’t believe, we’re all living our lives according to something. Growing up in the Western world we are particularly immersed in the Christian language and doctrine or teachings, we may know we should love our neighbor and we may even celebrate Christmas, or Easter so even when we reject it, we’re still in some sort of relationship with it.
To me, it’s totally fine what others believe. I respect that. Whether they are atheists, agnostics, or secular humanists. It’s more about how you believe what you believe that matters most to me, but I really wanted to do this series because frankly most of us are totally unaware that there are many ways to understand the concept of “God”. According to Weil, Heidegger, and Tillich, contemporary Atheism is closer to the Biblical tradition than Theism.
Hope this has been a helpful beginning.
More to come. Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Please don’t fall off the edge of your seat this week waiting for Part II!
So refreshing Nona! Your wisdom and eloquence are such beautiful gifts.
Great perspective. Can’t wait to hear more!