The Future of God
I respect the courage it takes for someone to say "The emperor isnít wearing any clothes."
I respect atheists for the same reason because an atheist has the courage to say "What God? I donít see any God."
Although I am a devoted theist, I welcome atheists into our church community because they care so passionately about the truth they arenít willing to settle for anything less than the whole truth. Spurning wishful thinking and resisting the conventional wisdom, atheists struggle to be true to themselves. It is a supremely moral position. Indeed, such rigorous honesty is the basis of all morality.
God is often portrayed as someone just like usóonly much bigger and better. A supernatural being that actively intervenes in history on the side of one nation or another. An all knowing, all powerful being who compels obedience through fear and intimidation. Plagues of locusts, the wholesale slaughter of babies, the ruin of entire cities, the exile and slavery of his own chosen people when they fail to worship only him. A God who not only approves slavery but orders his people to enslave all the citizens of a city even when those same citizens have not resisted but, indeed, welcomed them into their city. A God who requires rituals of unprecedented bloodiness and gore, who orders a father to bind his first-born son for sacrifice, who commands Moses to gather all those who are faithful to him and slaughter all of their fellows who are not. An angry God who threatens even good people with everlasting punishment and torment. A God who will provide for those who properly believe and worship him.
Who can believe in such a God? I, for one, cannot. I reject the conventional God who rules by fear, who helps sustain structures of injustice by acting as an opium, a soothing narcotic to the oppressed. A God who too often is claimed as the patron and protector of the self-satisfied and self-congratulatory.
One the one hand, we have the believers and defenders of this conventional image of God, the literalists and traditionalists who would have us accept on faith and by virtue of ancient authority this supernatural God, this insecure, profoundly irritable and dangerously violent God.
On the other hand, we have those who reject that very same God.
At first glance, these two opposing groups, believers versus unbelievers, couldnít seem more different. But, in reality they have much in common. They share the same image of God. Their only difference is that one accepts this shared image while the other rejects it.
As a minister, I often find that people expect me to believe in and be prepared to defend this conventional image of God. Some, who accept this conventional image of God, imagine that I am on their side while others, who reject this same representation of God, imagine that I am against them. I donít know which situation is more irritating. One of my colleagues, Forrester Church, tells of a response he has developed to those who defiantly tell him, "I donít believe in God." He responds by saying, "Tell me about this God that you donít believe in. I probably donít believe in him either."
Nietzsche and others later proclaimed that God is dead. If, by God, they meant that conventional image of God as supernatural being who actively intervenes in history, then I agree, that God is dead. But is that the only image of god that is possible? In other words, does God have a future? Or is it time to leave God behind, to abandon the search for God just as we have abandoned the idea that the earth is flat.?
All my life I have struggled to understand God. At times, I have proudly proclaimed myself as an atheist. I also have often confessed to being an agnostic, one who doesnít know. But, whatever my position, I keep coming back to the question, to the mystery, to the struggle to understand God.
Iíve read and re-read the Jewish and the Christian scriptures. I read about them. Iíve discussed them, analyzed them, taught them, and still find myself alternately attracted and repelled by the stories they tell, by the image of the holy they present.
Iíve learned some fascinating things along the way. For example, the God of the Torah, the first five books in the Jewish scriptures, is a God that is an composite of several Gods. One of those gods is El, the Sky God of the Canaanites. This is the creator God of the first chapter of Genesis, the destroyer God of the great flood, an impersonal, distant God who is not concerned with individual people or nations. Then there is the warrior God, the God of Moses who assaulted the Egyptians. A brutal, jealous, and bloodthirsty God who dictated the slaughter and enslavement of the Canaanites and demanded bloody rituals of worship and equally bloody reprisals against any followers who fell away. This is the God of the burning bush who first appeared to Moses near Mount Horeb and later re-appeared on Mount Sinai after announcing his presence with lightning and thunder. The ancient god Baal, again of the Canaanites, was a god of war whose presence was associated with fire and mountains. Finally, there is the personal god common to that time and place. A personal god is like a guardian angel, someone who has a special interest in you as an individual. A protector in times of trial. Unlike El and Baal who were supposed to be everywhere and to effect everyone, a personal god was often assumed to be restricted to one place or to one person or family. The God that emerges from the Torah combines all of these Gods into one uneasy unity.
Another remarkable aspect of the God that emerges from the Jewish scriptures is how this God changes over time until finally we have the God of the prophets and the wisdom literature. A God, not just of the Jewish people, but of all people. A God who is seen as present, as immanent in every person so much so that the great Rabbi Akiva teaches that "whoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image." This is the basis of our principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. A god who cares more for justice and compassion than ritual. A god who demands that we place ethical values ahead of all others.
But as fascinating as I find these studies, I must confess that I find it difficult to sustain my faith on these ancient images and stories no matter how they are interpreted. Instead, I find my inspiration in fragments, here and there. Snippets of meaning that lead me to acknowledge a power, a sense of intelligence or order, far beyond human understanding. For example, Psalm 139 where it is written,
"For thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my motherís womb. "
Such passages help me regain my sense of wonder and awe at the marvelous complexity of life. Despite our wonderful technology and sophisticated understanding, we cannot create even a simple living organism. Another source of inspiration for me are teachers such as Hillel, Akiva, and Jesus who tell us that all that God requires of us is that we love one another.
I reject the image of God as a separate being, greater than all other beings, a supernatural being who actively intervenes in history. To be sure, this is one of the images of God that is present in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. But it is only part of the developing story of god, a god whose story begins with much flame and fury, but a god who eventually came to be understood as requiring moral values: Do not lie, do not steal, do not cheat, do not kill, do not covet, do not commit adultery, to love one another and to be compassionate, above all the other activities that we, as human beings also tend to value: power and domination, lust and greed, selfishness and self-righteousness.
I am hungry for a sense of meaning, a sense of transcendence, a sense of living in harmony with all of creation. I am drawn by the feeling that I am part of something greater than myself. I am humbled by the wondrous complexity of life and nature. I struggle on a daily basis to be honest, to be fair, to be compassionate. I struggle to be whole, to live a life of integrity and hope. I am not motivated by fear, though I am rightly afraid of what would happen if I were to give in to my baser temptations. No, I am not motivated by fear so much as I am called by a sense of what I could be, by a sense of freedom and grace, a sense of lightness. From time to time, I feel blessed by a sense of gracefulness, by a feeling that I am living as I would. At such times, I sleep soundly, I smile easily. I love gracefully. At such times, I feel blessed. This is what God means to me.
There are two stories that I am particularly fond of. The first story is of a young woman who's walking along a beach after a big storm. The storm threw starfish along the beach far enough past the high tide mark that they will soon die unless they can somehow get back into the water. The young woman is stopping and throwing each starfish that she comes across back into the ocean. Someone else, approaching from the opposite direction, sees what's she doing and says,
"What are you doing? There are miles of beach and hundreds of starfish each mile. It doesn't matter how many you manage to throw back, there will be thousands more that you'll never get to."
She replies, while picking up yet another starfish and preparing to throw it back,
"It matters to this one."
And she throws it back and continues on her way, stopping every few feet to rescue yet another starfish.
The second story is about an old man who's laboriously planting a fruit tree. Someone tells him that he'll never live long enough to eat the fruit from that tree. He answers that he knows that and continues to plant the tree.
God is what calls me to pick up those starfish, to extend myself in compassion and scare to all of life. God is what gives me the faith to plant trees, trees whose fruit I wonít be around to enjoy.
God is what gives me a sense of what could be and to follow that vision. Because of God my sense of inherent worth and dignity is strong enough that I can afford to ask for help, to confess my failings, to admit when Iím lost or unsure, to admit my weaknesses, to seek forgiveness and to make amends.
God is dead. Long live God. Long live the God who calls me to put moral values ahead of anything else I might value. Long live the God who calls me to be compassionate and respectful of others. Long live the God that people seem to naturally find when they search for lifeís meaning and value. Long live the God who calls me, who lures me, who inspires me to live the depth of my compassion, who gives me the strength to forgive others their failings and to admit my own failings. Amen.