We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is.
That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.
I started my college career as a philosophy major. A fairly surprisingly large number of comedians have degrees in philosophy. And there is a reason for that. You can get a degree in something like English Literature or European History, and three or four years after you are out of school, you have pretty well forgotten everything you briefly knew in college. But as comedian Steve Martin, also a philosophy major, can demonstrate, studying philosophy will pretty much mess you up for the rest of your life. Especially if you studied this guy in the middle of this ancient Greek tryptic, Plato, whose entire body of a work consisted in endlessly long dialogues about the meaning of words.
Being fairly exacting about the meaning of words has made me quite a misfit in most religious conversations. For a philosopher, when other people are making religious proclamations, they often sound like school children watching a fireworks display . . . everything they say amounts to “ooooooooo” and “aaaaahhhhhhhhh,” but they aren’t really saying anything.
It’s especially frustrating to me when I have written several books that I would like very much for progressive people to read closely but not many do, and some popular gurus write books with important sounding phrases and a sort of “self-help” kind of intonation that we have tended to call, in academic circles, a sort theological masturbation but if you demand of them, “what does that really mean?” what you find is that it is almost entirely balloon juice. . . and those books sell like hotcakes and I would be lying to you if I told you that doesn’t frost me at a very existential level.
There are terms that are bandied about among progressives that I would like to try to define in a way that can allow us to have a meaningful conversation about who we are, what we believe, and exactly how we are different from either traditional religious people, or, for that matter, how we are different from either cabbages or kings.
I’m going to try to hit this and move along quickly, so quickly that Plato would be embarrassed. But basically, traditional religious people are theists, they believe in the existence of a supernatural god who is, in almost every respect, a person, with emotions, a will, some scary judgements, and an episodic history of getting involved in human history.
The presumed opposite of the theist is the atheist who has concluded that there is no reason to believe in the existence of a “divine other” and they try to avoid contact with religious people whenever possible.
The agnostic is someone who very honestly concludes that the whole subject of god is beyond human knowledge and so, they have simply taken their playing piece off the board of religion and wish to be regarded as neutral, sort of the Switzerland of theology.
Progressives, arising out of the academic study of religion, are often described as being post-theistic, not that they have just gotten over the whole god business, but they have gotten over the trying to force themselves to think of god in terms of being a person. Which forces me to mention two more terms . . . I can only beg for your indulgence:
Anthropomorphism is the portrayal of something, animal or mineral, as being a human when it is not. You can see examples of this, mostly in children literature, in which an animal of some sort is portrayed as speaking and wearing at least some sort of human clothing, as the Walrus in the famous poem embedded in Alice in Wonderland’s account of the Walrus and the Carpenter.
And similarly, Personification is the portrayal of aspects of nature as being a person. The most ancient strata of religions tended to give personhood to the earth, the sun, the oceans, rivers, etc.
Many people in our day have tried to project personhood onto Senator Mitch McConnell but I am convinced that this is a mistake. But I digress.
Can People Really Know God?
Portraying god anthropomorphically, as a person, with super power, eternity, being all knowing and all seeing and omnipresent, but still very human in having emotions, judgements, loves and dislikes, preferences and things about which the divine person was quite disdainful.
This worked in more primitive societies when they assumed that the earth was the center of a fairly small universe and that people were the crowning accomplishment of creation. What frosted the church of the early 17th century about Galileo, and it seems quite innocuous to us now, but when he reversed the assumption that the sun revolved around the earth and explained, painfully convincingly, that the earth revolved around the sun, as did the other planets, then humanity itself was dethroned and our all too small and human gods along with us.
How to know if you are special from the beginning or God chose you …Galileo only opened the door to astrophysics and what followed him in successive generations of scientific inquiry revealed that the universe is incomprehensibly large and that our system of planets orbiting a star is only one of billions and billions of solar systems and that the whole of the earth is just a speck in the cosmos.
The Creation of Adam - WikipediaThis horrible awareness robs our human pomposity of anywhere to hang our bloated sense of our importance in the universe. As modern science engaged modern theology in dialogue, we have progressively given up on the notion that god is a superhuman in the clouds, and, I hope, we are giving up on the notion of god as a person at all.
If I say that what god is, is simply a part of the isness of existence, not a person or an entity who has a place or a form, but a spirit that unites and animates the universe but is not conscious being who cares if you are American or Russian, gay or straight, fat or thin . . . though, having failed at a thousand diets, it starts to seem that maybe god wants me to be fat . . . but again, that is a topic for another day.
In this, I believe that the author of the ancient book of Exodus deserves some applause. When Moses asks the deity behind the burning bush who or what that deity is, the response was simply, “I am.”
Three hundred years before Galileo Image result for meister eckhartinvented the telescope that got into trouble with the pope, a 13th century German theologian, Meister Eckhart wrote, “God is not what you think or even what you believe, because God is a word unspoken, a thought unthought, a belief unbelieved. So, if you wish to know this God, practice wonder, do what is good, and cultivate silence. The rest will follow.”
You see, Eckhart was a mystic. He wasn’t the first one and thankfully not the last but he was so profound, standing, as it were, on the threshold of the scientific age, he, a Roman Catholic theologian could say, “God is a word unspoken, a thought not thought, a belief unbelieved.” Now I’m going to sound like an elementary school kid at a fireworks show….. “oooooooooo,” “aaaaaahhhhhhh.” God is not a person, a thing, an entity, but an isness, integral to existence, but neither creator nor puppet master.
God is, to use the language of Exodus, the “I Am” about whom little can be sensibly said but Eckhart says, knowledge of God comes in three things: the practice of wonder, a life lived in doing good, and in, well, keeping your mouth shut. . . no, that’s too harsh, practicing silence is, at its root, a practice of humility . . . don’t assume that you know stuff that you need to tell other people. Practice silence.
The church of the past three hundred years knows more about Thomas Aquinas than it does Meister Eckhart because people like Aquinas embraced the growing wisdom of the enlightenment while fortressing traditional Christianity with academic language and purposeful defenses . . . it didn’t make him right, it just gave the church license to go on talking about heaven and hell, souls, angels, sin and tithing.
In our church, we don’t use the word “worship” because we do not believe that there is an enthroned ego-deficit supernatural theistic god who expects to be worshiped. We don’t use the word “praise” for the same reason, there is not an ego-deficit deity enthroned in the clouds who needs to be praised.
We don’t offer prayers of intercession because we do not believe that god is a theistic take on Santa Claus or the tooth fairy who bestows favors on those who ask in the right way or are persistent enough in the asking. We are careful about our language because we want to be careful not to perpetuate a pre-Galileo world view.
Specifically, we are trying to foster less of the old man in the clouds image of god and more of the wonder and awe of real mysticism, not magic and not science denying, but more wonder, as Galileo said, trying to make the religious people around him understand that he was not robbing them of faith but rather gifting them with a spiritual, a mystical wonder, he
wrote: The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.
I don’t grow grapes but I trust that Galileo would allow me to appropriate his insights to say, in the midst of a pandemic, surviving a collapsing economy brought on by incompetence in high offices serving some inscrutable dynamic between Russia, China, and the USA, still, I walk into my back yard and the sun has ripened blackberries that were green and red yesterday, and tomatoes that were green and hard when I saw them two days ago are now luminescent red.
Damn Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson, and Bozo Bolsonaro too, but while I was watching MSNBC, a single bean grew a vine that yields hundreds of beans. The kale I planted and have harvested twice already, keeps growing back. And, good for me, I actually like kale. I know a bit about botany and agriculture but I do not let that dampen the awe and mystery I feel every time I look at my little garden. And I will wallow in that mystic union until I am ready to leave my garden to go and fight against all forms of tyranny, fascism, racism and oppression. . . the political kind to be sure, but especially the religious kind.
Every time the church falls back into talking about an anthropomorphic god, replete with rewards and punishments and sacred texts, we are never more than a step or two away from homophobia, misogyny, classism, racism, maybe even nationalism and slavery. So I wish that progressives could get their heads straight and their language nailed down in a way that avoids that slippery slope of bad theology.
When we first begin to leave the cage of traditional religious thinking, we don’t give up on praise and worship all at once. We don’t give up on bibles and prayers and sacraments all at once, but we try to recast them as being friendlier, kinder, less judgmental, less dominating and more liberating. But the problem is that the cage is still there.
I feel like I need to be concrete about this, but I want to be specific in the nicest way possible. When progressives fall back into anthropomorphic language about god, they may do so with a very compassionate and well-intended purpose, but they are still lending credence to the judge on the throne in the clouds.
I want to use the rather unorthodox Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, as an example. I know a lot of people who really like her work and she has gained a great deal of notoriety in the progressive movement. And, clearly, she practices compassion and she preaches a psychologically aware message . . . but may I point out here that in her language, when she says, “I think God is wanting to be known . . .” that she is casting god as a person who, like you and me, has preferences and a certain relational itch. And that is just one theological twist away from saying that God wants you to do this and to not do that, to marry this person and not that person, or to be Christian and not Muslim.
And I like Nadia Bolz-Weber and I don’t mean that she does this and Richard Rohr doesn’t, because he does and so does Robin Meyers. Again, all pillars of the progressive movement but, lacking a precision of language that I really long for.
Once you give yourself permission to start telling people what god thinks, what god wants, what god likes or what god hates, you are just polishing the cage that you are going to put people back in, and simultaneously giving people to do their own projecting, announcing that whatever they like, feel, prefer, or wish is true because god told them so.
What makes any one of us go “oooooo” and “aaaaahhhhh” may have more to do with, as Scrooge said, some undigested bit of potato than of spirit. We need to be clear and thoughtful about something as important as this is.
The one kindred spirit whom I have never met but whose work I admire is Canada’s Gretta Vosper. She never falls into the language of an anthropomorphic god but lately it seems like she has taken to describing herself as being an atheist. I don’t doubt that a lot of progressives describe me that way but, Gretta, I don’t think that you have to be an atheist to reject anthropomorphism.
We can live with our faith in the midst of the mystery with a god who is a word unspoken, a thought unthought, and a belief unbelieved.
One of our listeners with whom I correspond recently described himself as a Christian without Jesus, a Buddhist without Buddha, and a Muslim without either Muhammad or the Quran. I like that. We are spiritual people without creed or sacred text or sacrament. We are seekers who live in awe and wonder, and try to do good things for others, and, I hope, we try to avoid saying silly things.
I offer this message as a conversation starter, and not a conversation ending. I may not be able to reply to all of your objections or corrections but, it isn’t me that you need to come to terms with anyway.
Rev Roger L. Ray