“Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” Part II
A recent letter from an Anglican priest in Canada revealed what this priest believes to be the dire straits into which Christianity has fallen in that gentle land to our north. “So many of the churches are empty,” he wrote, “and the people who are left are old and tired. Clergy do their best, but no one is really positive about the future.” He went on to say, “We are seeing the death of the church in our own lifetime.” This Canadian clergyman had gone so far as to urge the bishops of his church to address this issue, but, he wrote, “They are reluctant to do so.” One bishop told this priest that the bishops “didn’t want to hear any more bad news.” If one looks at the life of Christian churches in other parts of the world through anything other than “stained glass lenses,” one sees a similar pattern everywhere.
Of course, there will be those who will offer anecdotal evidence to the contrary. They will point to individual gifted clergy whose success appears to counter this analysis. People also like to cite third world statistical growth in church membership, but Christianity in the third world has yet to confront the intellectual revolution that has shattered traditional religious images in the developed world. They will not be able to ignore these things forever. It may still be comforting and even emotionally satisfying to think that there is a heavenly father beyond the sky who watches over us and who is able to come to our aid, but wishing for it does not make it real. We are, rather a space age people. We travel through the skies on spacecraft and we study distant galaxies with telescopes. The image of God as an external being, equipped with supernatural power and ready to come to our aid is simply no longer a compelling one.
Elie Wiesel looked at this image of God through the dreadful reality of the Holocaust. A deity who could rescue the Jews from slavery in Egypt in the ancient world as the scriptures tell us, did not seem to be available to rescue the Jews from Hitler’s concentration camps in the 20th century. We are post-Galileo people, post-Isaac Newton people and post-Einstein people. We cannot think about God in the same way that previous generations have done. People in America did little more than laugh when evangelist Pat Robertson explained why God had not stopped the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. It was to punish us, he said, for making abortion legal, for tolerating feminism and for recognizing homosexuality as part of a person’s being, not an explanation of his or her doing. When he later explained that the hurricane that hit New Orleans did so because it was the birthplace of lesbian comedian Ellen DeGeneres and that the earthquake that rocked Haiti was God’s response to the Haitians for making “a pact with the devil” when they threw the French out in the early years of the 19th century, his words served only to raise the approval ratings of the late night comedians.
All of these things are symptoms of the demise of traditional religious thinking. The God we have defined theistically is simply no longer believable. Pretending that this is a temporary phase through which we human beings must pass will not help. Trying to do better or louder the same things that have not worked for years is to be so out of touch with reality as to qualify under the definition of insanity. If the theistic definition of God is no longer viable, we need to ask: “Is atheism then our only alternative?” That is the clear conclusion to which the rising tide of secularity seems to be announcing as its own. If we can begin to “think different” or “accept uncertainty” in the world of religion, as Steve Jobs did in his technological world, I believe the first step is to seek an alternative beyond theism. That is what I hope to do in this series.
Was theism ever a proper understanding of God? That is the first question we have to raise. Is theism not rather an expression of the essence of our own self definition? Is the theistic deity not a God created in our own image to serve our needs?
A study of the origins of human religion reveals that the birth of self-consciousness was simultaneous with the birth of religion. It was in the trauma of awaking to an awareness of self-hood in the midst of a vast and frequently inhospitable world that caused human beings for the first time to postulate the existence of a power greater than ourselves to whom we could appeal for help. This power had to be like us, but with all our limitations removed. That definition is still apparent in the words we use to describe the theistic God we continue to worship. When analyzed that deity is little more than a human being freed from the limits of human life. Human beings are “mortal” and “finite.” God transcends that limit and is therefore called “immortal” and “infinite.” Human beings are limited in power. God is not limited and is therefore called “omnipotent.” Human beings are bound inside time and space. God is not so bound and so we call God “timeless” and “omnipresent.” Human beings are limited in knowledge, but we presume that God knows all things and so we call God “omniscient.” We could go on and on but the pattern is clear. We human beings created the theistic definition of God as a way to define our yearning for God to be what we needed God to be. It was not the other way around. We never stopped, however, to recognize that the idea of God as a being, outside the limits of time and space and equipped with the supernatural power to come to us in times of need was not a revealed truth about the nature of God, but a human creation, a human construct! No human creation is eternal. Theism, as a human idea, can, therefore, die without God dying. Our definition and the reality we are trying to define are never the same. The death of theism seems to me to be what we are experiencing today. If that is the only definition of God that we know, we will inevitably experience theism’s death as the death of God!
We have also created intermediate creatures who are somewhere between human and divine that we call angels. They are generally depicted as human figures except for the addition of wings. Angels are normally thought of as males and in the Bible are given male names. In the biblical story, one of the names for God is “El” and that name is incorporated into the angel’s names: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael. We think of angels as somehow sharing in the being of God. The addition of wings to the bodies of angels is also fascinating. Wings, of course, were borrowed from the world of birds that could soar above the natural limits placed on human life. So wings presumably lifted these angelic creatures above the boundaries inside which human life is condemned to live, signifying once more that angels participate in God’s power.
We need to ask if there were any non-theistic words and concepts used in the biblical story to define God. A biblical search reveals that there were, but the theistic definition was so dominant that those other ideas never rose to become anything more than a very limited minority presence. Perhaps, however, in these minority understandings something might be found to help us to separate “God” from our “definitions of God.” It is worth taking a look.
The earliest biblical “minority report” on the understanding of God’s nature is found at the very beginning of the biblical story. God in that narrative is identified first with breath and later with wind. God breathed into Adam at the moment of creation and that enabled Adam to come alive. The idea in this metaphor was that God was to be understood not as a being, but as a permeating presence that lived in us and through us. The effect of the presence of God within us was to enable us to come alive. In a secondary way, breath in living things was then identified with the wind, but its function was identical with breath. The wind was the life force which animated and vitalized the whole natural order. The wind was mysterious. It could be experienced, but not captured. We could see the wind’s effects, but not the wind itself. We did not know from whence the wind came or where the wind went. We could never contain it. All we knew was that wind made vital the trees and the forests. So the wind came to be thought of as the breath of God flowing through the whole world and whatever it touched it brought to life. It was still only an analogy, but it was a non-theistic analogy, and as such it brought us into a new realm of possibility. In time the wind became a synonym for the Holy Spirit, the most mysterious part of God. In the dream of Ezekiel recorded in the 37th chapter of the book that bears his name, the wind of God was said to have blown over a valley filled with the dead, dry bones of the Jewish nation, now defeated and with no hope for life, and that wind brought those bones back to living. “The toe bone got connected to the foot bone.” In the Pentecost story found in the 2nd chapter of Acts, the Spirit fell upon the gathered community of believers and called them to a new level of life, life beyond the boundaries of their defensive, tribal fears. In the power of the Spirit they were one people and could communicate in the language they each understood. In our creeds we still define the Holy Spirit as “the Lord and giver of life.” So God, even in the Bible, was not always an external invader of life. God was life itself. The theistic definition is not, therefore, the only way that human beings can conceive of God. God was thought of as that which flows through and unites all living things from the original single cells of life to the self-conscious creatures who can and do commune with this life force in an activity called worship. Worship is not just a ritual act, it is also self-conscious living. It is living fully!
The primitive theistic being who answers our prayers and comes to our aid has been destroyed by the advance of human knowledge. As theism dies, however, does this not call us into the development of a new way of understanding that which is unlimited, transcendent and yet still might be real? As the God definitions of antiquity die, can we still be God-intoxicated, fully alive believers and yet not be theists? I think we can and this is the first step, I believe, into thinking differently and accepting uncertainty inside our religious life.
File these thoughts for now. We shall return to this exploration.
~John Shelby Spong