When you hear or think the word God, whether you believe in God or not, what do you imagine God’s character to be like? For example, do you think of an indifferent reality? A threatening, stern, punitive reality? A gracious loving, compassionate reality? Some combination of those traits? Or something totally different?
In nonreligious language, the question being asked here is, “What is reality like?” Whether you believe in God or not or are uncertain, what do you think “is-ness” is like? Our answer matters greatly. Whether consciously aware of it or not, our sense of “what reality is like” shapes how we live.
— Marcus Borg
Wrestling With God Lloyd Geering (4)
In the eyes of some of my fellow Presbyterians, to say nothing of Christians from other denominations, I have appeared to wander far astray from the true Christian path of faith. As they see it, I am at best a maverick and at worst an apostate. Of course I have made mistakes and errors of judgment from time to time; but had I not persevered in following the path before me, I would indeed have forsaken my commitment to that original call.
What is this voice I have been hearing and wrestling with all my life? Like the Jacob of old, engaged in his mythic struggle with an unknown assailant, I do not exactly know; but like him, I have sought to find out. I am still content to call that unknown voice ‘God’; but I acknowledge that, as Buber observed, this has become ‘the most burdened of all human words’ because it ‘has been mis-used so much’. If I use the word ‘God’ at all, I do so in the way Tillich did when he spoke of ‘The God beyond God’, or as Mahatma Ghandi did when he said, ‘God is truth!’….
…If asked whether I am a Christian, I still answer in the affirmative, for it is from the Judeo-Christian tradition that I have received most of my inspiration and values. But in this post-Christian, globalizing world, I think religious labels have for the most part lost any usefulness they may once have had. I am still a Presbyterian minister, for I have no regrets about having said, Here I am!’ when I did, nor any wish to deny the validity of that original experience. And I still go to church—partly because I value some form of spiritual exercise, partly out of gratitude for all that I have received through the church in the past, and partly for the fellowship of other people who are also seeking to walk The Way….
…Faith should never be confused with any particular set of beliefs. Beliefs come and go; they depend upon where people find themselves, both in the cultural history of humankind and in their own spiritual journeys. I conclude, therefore, with Cantwell Smith’s description of faith:
Faith is one’s existential engagement
with what one knows to be true or good.
It is the committing of oneself
to act in terms of
what one recognizes as cosmically valid.
What is Heavy Turns to Spirit
What is heavy turns to spirit.
It cannot help but eventually
Become like a cup of ink
That is poured out into the ocean.
I do not doubt that for a time
The ink darkens the water,
Obscures and displaces the light,
Leaching out its tendrils
Staining what it touches.
The ink must break down into its smallest elements,
And even the stains become only faint shadows
Barely noticeable to the outer eye.
This does not belittle the awful impact of a cup full of shadow.
It is only to say, that in an ocean of goodness,
In an expanse of health and light,
A cup full of dark can only prevail for so long,
Until it is overcome and transformed back into spirit,
Back into it’s smallest elements,
Received into the body,
To be made whole
These are words you hear in church. Sometimes you find them outside of church. The words have been around so long and so often used that they seem to have an obvious meaning. Salvation, for instance. Everyone knows what that means. Resurrection. Forgiveness. Jesus. Even God.
God isn’t really a churchy word. You find the word outside of Christianity, of course. Yet according to Christian historian, Larry Hurtado, Christianity shaped what is meant by God. The concept of God or gods was changed by Christianity and redefined. His book is Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.
There are times in which societies go through change. During these periods of change, words change their meaning. Concepts change.
The late Marcus Borg and his book Speaking Christian: How Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning—And How They Can Be Restored is a reclaimer. He seeks to reclaim the depth of meaning of Christian words that he feels have been distorted by a version of Christianity that has been dominant. He calls this distortion “heaven and hell” Christianity. Through this distorted lens of heaven and hell all Christian words and concepts are warped—like a looking at yourself in a funhouse mirror.
I talked about salvation a few weeks ago. Salvation is not about being saved from hell and saved for heaven, but as Borg points out the word and the concept has had far greater depth and breadth. It is liberation, homecoming, wholeness, and not only for individuals but communities, societies, earth itself.
Borg wants to see churchy words through a longer and deeper lens of vision. That has been his project, to reclaim these words from modern distortions, particularly the distortion of modern fundamentalist Christianity. I think it is such a worthwhile project that I am doing an entire series of sermons on it.
I should note that there are other ways to approach this. If Borg is reclaiming Christian words, others seek to revise them, even put them on a shelf. In this view, the words have so much baggage that we would be better off to stop using them. Our understanding of the universe has changed so much and so fast that Christian words are far too small to help us navigate this change. We should as Gavin Rumney of New Zealand says, “rake through the ashes of Christendom” and discover what has been worthwhile and revise it for the future. We hear the word post-Christian associated with this view.
At our Jesus Seminar last fall, we had speakers it seemed from each camp. The topic was God and Jeff Robbins thought that we need to reclaim the word whereas Tom Sheehan thought it is time to give God a break and talk about other things.
If there is a point I want to make about all this it is this: I want to avoid dismissing either approach prematurely. I want to avoid saying one or the other approach is out of bounds. We don’t know what the boundaries are anymore. That is what change means. Change means that boundaries lose their distinctiveness. We may be involved in a combination of reclaiming and revising and we cannot know how it will all wash out. I suggest we explore these approaches with open minds and not be too anxious about it all.
In my pastor’s page I quoted from an article in PRRI , a research institute on religion and culture. The article was entitled, “Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back.” The article provided this eye-opener:
“The reasons Americans leave their childhood religion are varied, but a lack of belief in teaching of religion was the most commonly cited reason for disaffiliation. Among the reasons Americans identified as important motivations in leaving their childhood religion are: they stopped believing in the religion’s teachings (60%), their family was never that religious when they were growing up (32%), and their experience of negative religious teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people (29%).“
Let me read the money quote again:
…a lack of belief in teaching of religion was the most commonly cited reason for disaffiliation…
Whether we call them churchy words or beliefs, they have become a problem. It seems to me that we ought to look at this research. What is it about our beliefs and language, our churchy words, that is turning people off? Maybe we need to reclaim the language, maybe we need to revise the language, but it would be in our interests to talk about it.
Southminster has been doing this for some time. This congregation engages seriously about the language we use in worship in regards to gender. This congregation engages in strong educational programs such as hosting Westar or Jesus Seminar events every year. This one coming up is going to be very good. It is entitled, Christianity, God and the Future of Religion. The title of that presentation is my sermon series in a nutshell.
Tell your friends. This is a great evangelistic opportunity. Evangelistic. There is a churchy word for sure.
Some people may be involved in their communities, including Southminster, in spite of the churchy words. The community, the relationships we have built, our activities, commitments, and programs seek to expand our awareness and make this community a positive contributor.
My goal is to have the language and the words we use in worship, the songs we sing in worship, the resources we use in worship, inspire us in what we do. That is why what you find here is in some ways quite a bit different from other congregations. For instance, we use secular poetry and language from other wisdom traditions. That’s revising worship. We also use familiar rituals and words in broader and deeper ways. That is reclaiming.
I don’t find it interesting to have a bunch of churchy words sitting there in the bulletin that we recite and then have that be unrelated to the good stuff we do. I don’t think that is sustainable. The words we use must be connected to the good we do. If there is a disconnect, the change needs to happen with the words not the good deeds. I think that is why many people are leaving churches. The words don’t match their reality. Many churches, and certainly denominational houses, are not creative nor courageous enough to recognize the disconnect and try new things.
That is why I like serving this congregation, among many reasons. We are in a sense an experimental community. We are trying things, pushing the envelope, being a bit scandalous if we need to in order to bring awareness to the importance of words. You have been doing this long before me. That is why I came here.
If we have words and rituals that are fresh, crisp, expansive, revealing, sharpening, engaging, then they can in turn inform and ignite what we do.
Today’s churchy word is God. What is God like? In Marcus Borg’s two chapters on God, he sees God as a parallel for in non-religious language we call “reality.” What is reality like? Albert Einstein waxed poetic when he said the question before us is this: “Is the universe friendly?”
You see this on bumperstickers and t-shirts. It isn’t in the form of God-language but is the secular equivalent. These are answers to the question what is God like:
Life is beautiful.
Life is good.
Life sucks and then you die.
The world hates me.
The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
Love your enemies.
Walk softly but carry a big stick.
I don’t fit in.
There’s no place like home.
The son of man has no where to lay his head.
In an ocean of goodness…a cup full of dark can only prevail for so long.
The good you do is meaningless.
You can’t fight city hall.
You are dust and to dust you shall return.
The universe cares not that you exist.
You are the consciousness of the universe.
You are a series of chemical reactions.
You are stardust.
You are loved.
All of those statements are about what God is like and none use the term God. They are secular ways of addressing what God language in the past addressed.
Is God, is Reality, is Life…good, bad, or indifferent?
How we answer that question, says Borg, matters. It shapes how we live.
These three views (good, bad, indifferent) are all found within our religious tradition.
From the Psalms…
“But I am a worm and not a human, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.”
And also from the psalms…
“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;”
“You are the light of the world.” Matthew 5:14
And also from Jesus…
“You, who are evil…” Matthew 7:11
in the Hebrew Scriptures…
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 1:2
and the New Testament…
“the sun rises on the evil and on the good,
and it rains on the just and on the unjust.”
The question is not whether God exists or God doesn’t exist; the question is what is God like? What is Life like? What is your life like? What are you worth? Is life worth living? Is life worth living well?
“What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” asks poet Mary Oliver.
You can’t really answer those questions by looking at the externals whether it rains or shines. It is more than feelings or thoughts that come or go. You can’t have others answer the questions for you. Otherwise you just hand over your agency to another.
It is your life. Your God. To answer the questions of God requires trust. You have to reach for it, reach for it within. What is God like? What are you like? Good. Bad. Indifferent?
It isn’t a one size fits all answer. It isn’t a one time forever answer.
It is the mystery of existence and who knows?
But isn’t it nice to have a place to explore all of it?
Without needing to assent?