My relationship with God. I attempt (as best as I can) to tell the story (so far) with the hope that it will inspire you to do the same, in whatever circle of friends you find yourself. What images of God are too small for you, and relative to them you are an atheist? Are there any images that do make sense to you (which would make you a certain kind of theist) and, if so, why? If you don’t personally prefer the word God, then what words do you prefer using to name that which inspires the deepest and the highest? And how, in this community of freedom, can we freely speak the words that we prefer in a way that respects the different preferences of others without ourselves being silenced? Can we avoid that classic blunder of liberal religious community, which is a sort-of theological don’t ask, don’t tell? As in, let’s talk about everything else, but when our deepest theological convictions stir within us, we clam up…
It’s so very important that we not clam up. That we as individuals talk about what God means for each of us. A story I always go back to when I articulate this has to do with the work of Abraham Maslow, founder of humanistic psychology and one of the founders of transpersonal psychology. His focus was on self-actualization or, as we Unitarian Universalists might say, people giving full expression to the worth and dignity that is inherently theirs. In the course of his studies, he determined that self-actualizing people very naturally have spiritual experiences—profound moments of love, understanding, happiness, or rapture, during which a person feels more whole, alive, self-sufficient and yet a part of the world; more aware of truth, justice, harmony, and goodness. Such moments I call God moments. But now here is the story. When Maslow’s students began to talk to each other about their peak experiences, they began having them all the time. It was as if the simple act of being reminded of their existence was enough to make them happen. Talking and thinking about God moments makes it more likely that we will have such moments ourselves. Conversely, if we do not talk and think about such things, we may block their happening.
The problem, of course—the reason why some or many of us might struggle with God talk—is because, in our experience, that little three-letter word has so often been associated not with God moments of love and understanding and happiness and rapture and the like, but with moments of prejudice and pain instead. God used as bludgeon to keep a person in line, to tell a person they are bad in some way and they must be better. Most recently: that guy on the TV show Duck Dynasty—Phil Robertson—opining on what God has to say about gays. Ugh. For me personally, the classic story comes from high school and something my Church of Christ pastor said about my Baba who had just died of brain cancer (some of you have heard this already). The week after Mom and Dad returned home from the funeral, on a Sunday after church, Pastor Manuel accompanied us to the local Baskin-Robbins for ice-cream. Imagine the scene. We’re sitting around licking ice cream cones, listening to Mom having a serious theological discussion with the Pastor. Mom asked, “Pastor Manuel, Do you really believe that full-immersion baptism is absolutely essential for salvation?” The thing was, Baba was a Ukrainian Catholic and had only been baptized via sprinkling, as a child. So Mom was desperately worried. She hoped her Mom’s soul was all right. Was she all right? Pastor Manuel said, “I’m so sorry. But no.” He didn’t want to say that. But his understanding of God as a strict father figure who enforces the rules like the IRS wouldn’t give him any wiggle room. It’s stories like this—usages of the word “God” like this—that can make a person never want to talk about God at all. Ever.
Which is actually the sign that some sort of talk IS needed—for at least therapeutic reasons. Hurts that need processing and healing. We experience such hurts at the hands of parents or siblings or other important people as we grow up, and if we don’t do the soul work needed to come to consciousness about what happened, how it’s impacted us, and how we can make better choices going forward, we can find ourselves stuck in old patterns that severely limit us in the now. In an exactly parallel way, if we don’t do the requisite soul work that can help us come to consciousness about hurtful God images, we will find ourselves stuck theologically. Stuck spiritually. Our ability to self-actualize as Maslow envisioned it will be limited.
So. We talk about God. None of this theological don’t ask, don’t tell stuff.
And I’ll go first. That’s what leaders do. 🙂
I want to begin where it all begin, my years growing up in Peace River, in far northern Alberta (where it is currently -33 degrees Fahrenheit)—nights there, when I would lift up my eyes and see the Northern Lights in all their electric colors, shifting and shimmering, green and orange and purple curtains over the sky. All so beautiful and mysterious, and to this my very heart would answer back with a sense of wonder and amazement, my very heart would open up and sing. No one taught me how to do this. Somehow there was within me an innate capacity for reverence, a predisposition to be in awe of something larger than myself, and I knew then that I was not the center of the universe and that there are deeper and higher and bigger things in existence, and even more, that in these depths and heights and hugeness was my true home. Northern lights.
I want to begin there, but I can’t. Because I want to be phenomenologically accurate—I want to be true to the actual experience of my relationship with God. And that relationship began with how the word “God” came into my life. It came into my life attached to theory which was abstract and unrelated to deep experiences like the one I had with the Northern Lights. Only much later in my life was I able to see that what happened for me in Peace River was a true God moment. Until that time, it was just an experience floating around in my psyche—I didn’t know what label to give it and therefore I didn’t know what to do with it, I didn’t know how significant it was. It just floated there, in my psyche, unrecognized, unused, unredeemed, until the time I was able to own the word “God” for myself and give it a meaning that made sense to me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First things first. How the word “God” came into my life.
I actually didn’t hear it very much growing up, since I grew up practically unchurched. Well, I actually did hear “God” used fairly frequently, but as a cuss word. Mom and Dad cussed like sailors.
Then there were all the usages of the word I heard in my Church of Christ days, during high school, and you already have a sense of what that was like. God the strict parent IRS agent.
And then there were all the usages of the God word in my college philosophy classes. The ones I took, and the ones I ended up teaching. Usually the word came up in the context of logical proofs for God’s existence. Just listen to two of the classics, and I’m not expecting anyone to necessarily comprehend what I’m about to say, as I say it. Just let the words wash over you.
First logical argument: it’s called the Ontological Proof:
Premise #1: Existing independently is greater than merely existing as an idea in the mind.
Premise #2: So long as we conceive of God as a mere idea in the mind, then we can always think of something greater.
Premise #3: But nothing is greater than God. God has all perfections.
Therefore, God must be more than a mere idea in the mind. God must exist independently, too.
Second logical argument: this one is a little more accessible, called the Teleological Proof:
Premise #1: Machines are produced by intelligent design.
Premise #2: The universe resembles a machine.
Therefore, the universe was produced by intelligent design.
Each of these logical arguments comes with a fascinating historical story of who came up with them and why, and then an in-depth exploration of underlying logical principles, and then a rigorous testing of whether and to what degree they can withstand skeptical challenges. All of this is enough to make our inner Spock raise his single Vulcan eyebrow and say, “Fascinating.”
This is how the word “God” was functioning in my life. And though, on the surface, with all the logical rigor, it appears light years away from the image of the strict parent IRS agent that the Church of Christ gave me, it actually wasn’t all that different. Because the proofs, just like the Church of Christ, assumed that the word “God” always pointed to a kind of perfect being that was more about rules than anything else—a kind of being that was on the outside of nature dictating and controlling everything.
Now I will tell you up front that, even then, I was skeptical about the existence of such a God. But God concepts have a way of creating people in their own image. Especially the images we are born into—and the all-powerful all-controlling perfect God image is the one most Americans are born into. Therefore we can find ourselves acting just like the God we might not even believe in. In my non-philosophical and flesh-and-blood life, what I most aspired to be was just like the God of the logical proofs—in the sense of demanding that my world conform to my rules, my timing. King Ego. Not too long before starting my eight year career as a community college professor, for example, I had applied to certain Ph.D. programs in philosophy, and for various good reasons, I was either not accepted, or I didn’t get the scholarships I wanted, and I can remember my impatience with the whole process and my rage at not getting what I wanted and in all of it I was absolutely not “letting go and letting God.” I wanted to be the one in charge. I was acting just like the God I did not believe in.
It would be some years later when I’d encounter a usage of the word “God” that I’d never heard before, which would be revolutionary for me. It was in seminary in Chicago when I discovered the theology of a fellow Unitarian Universalist called Charles Hartshorne, who happened to be one of the most distinguished American scholars of the 20th century. It’s called “process theism.”
Process theism sees God as the creative process of the universe, and there are two sides to this. One is the body of the universe, the evolving interdependent web of all existence. Process theology tells us that it is sacred: galaxies and stars, trees and animals, you and I. All of it is part of God’s growing always-giving-birth body. God’s not on the outside of anything. The world is literally God’s body. This is an eco-friendly, female-friendly spirituality!
That’s the first side of process theism, and here is the second. God is a consciousness over and above the universe, just as you and I have a consciousness that is over and above our own bodies. Do something for me right now. Wiggle your finger. You and I feel our fingers and think about them; we hope things for them and envision goals and futures; and it’s the same thing with God. God has a conscious side to complement God’s physical side. God is both the world and the consciousness of the world. Put the two together, and this is the kind of God that process theology envisions.
You can see the immediate consequence with regard to the issue of control. God, says process theism, is NOT all-powerful, NOT in control of everything. God simply cannot force the universe to do whatever God wants. Therefore, things can get tangled up. Accidents happen. Evil happens. The universe has creative independence and freedom, just like your own body when it gets sick. Your mind doesn’t want it to be sick, but it gets sick anyhow, and you have to cope. Same thing with God. God doesn’t want the world to be sick, and yet the world has creative independence. God simply can’t enter into the world supernaturally, like a bull in a china shop, and stop this and start that. All God can do is influence the world from the inside—and I know this might sound strange, but think of how cancer patients participate in their own healing. Cancer patients visualize their immune system as strong, as powerful, as potent, and the immune system responds. Similarly, God visualizes blessing and healing for this world, showers us with love, and if we are open to it (if we choose to participate), we can respond and receive. Nothing supernatural here at all. God influences the world from the inside, showers continual blessing up on us, impartially, universally, and does it without us having to ask. But the world has creative independence too, and so the blessing might not be received, we might be so stuck in our fears and angers and resentments that we can’t hear God’s still small voice…. The blessing might not be received. That is simply the reality and risk of freedom.
That’s what process theism says, which is light years away from anything the formal proofs I used to teach in college stood for. It was revelation to me. Revolution. Not a God that somehow stands outside of the natural order of the universe, who intervenes supernaturally in ways that favor one person over another or one tribe over another. Not a God that is all-powerful, with unlimited ability to act and yet appears to remain passive and uncaring when evil in the world is truly excessive, far beyond what seems needful for people to grow strong and wise. Especially not this last part, since then, how could anyone truly feel at home in a world in which a God existed who had the power to prevent evil but held back? Allowed the very worst to occur?
Not the process theism kind of God. The process theism kind is the one we sing of in “Bring Many Names,” #23 in the grey hymnal. There’s a verse that captures the essential spirit: “Young, growing God, eager still to know, / willing to be changed by what you started, / quick to be delighted, singing as you go: / hail and hosanna, young, growing God!” The kind of God that is vulnerable to the surprising and unexpected consequences of the creative process. Creativity not by long-range planning—design established from the very beginning and then executed ideally without flaw—but experimentation, throwing yourself into something, seeing what happens next, facing loose ends and incongruities, experiencing breathtaking beauty and meaning but only to the degree you expose yourself to risk and therefore to pain. Shrugging shoulders at this fact of life; perhaps even laughing at the joy and absurdity of it all…. If that can be true for God, then why not for me?
Even for God, the saying goes: “Don’t push the river.” Even God would say, “Let go and let God.”
Let it happen. Let the river flow. Theologically, it was taking me into completely new territory. The word “God” was becoming attached to meanings that actually made sense to me. And as I continued to develop my theology, I started using that little three-letter word like you’d use a metal detector on the beach in its most ideal sense. Uncovering lost gold and silver. Uncovering what’s precious. Waving the metal detector over the sandy beach of my life, looking for experiences in which I felt held in times of suffering and opened to wonder and blessed by love. Moments of flow, moments of peak experience. And I was amazed. I was rich with God moments and had not known it. The northern lights of Alberta came alive for me, once again.
There are no supernatural interventions. All God can do is influence the world from the inside, and to me this means that God is most directly encountered through practices which stimulate feeling and imagination and creativity. All sorts of practices can do this, and one which I personally benefit from is prayer. So, for example, when I pray my prayer:
I forgive all the ways in which my life appears to fall short.
I trust that whatever I truly need will find its way into my life.
I am grateful for what I have.
… when I pray this, it helps me relax into the sea of my life, and I realize that this is the only power I really do have … not hard power to command the world to be as I want it to be, not hard power to command love, but soft power to let go and relax, soft power to let the sea hold and carry me along its currents. And I feel, at least for that moment, that I’m home. It is a God moment.
Let the river flow. God is no longer just a word for me, but an experience. In this respect, I get so much from the Islamic mystical tradition of Sufism, which to my mind goes hand in hand with what process theologian Charles Hartshorne had to say. We meet with God on the inside, and ultimately this means through love. It is said that a seeker once went to ask a sage for guidance on the Sufi way. The sage counseled, “If you have never trodden the path of Sufism, go away and fall in love; then come back and see us” (Jami). Love is the method. “There is no way into presence,” says the 13th century mystic Rumi, “except through a love exchange.”
Unitarian Universalists, what if we started saying this about our religion? Whatever words you want to use—fine. But to get to the heart of the sacred, what if we said: go away and fall in love; then come back and see us? What if?
I wish love for you. The “God” word can contain so much pain. And yet there can be so much promise to it, also. It can be so useful in going deeper into our spiritual journeys through life. It has been for me. It is the word I use to summarize all that Rumi says in this poem, with which I close:
You that give new life to this planet,
you that transcend logic, come. I am only
an arrow. Fill your bow with me and let fly.
Because of this love for you
my bowl has fallen from the roof.
Put down a ladder and collect the pieces, please.
People ask, But which roof is your roof?
I answer, Wherever the soul came from
and wherever it goes at night, my roof
is in that direction.
From wherever spring arrives to heal the ground,
from wherever searching rises in a human being.
The looking itself is a trace
of what we are looking for.