Thursday, October 29, 2009

God, Whatever That Means: Part Two

“God cannot be expressed but only experienced,” because in the end our language about God must be silence. Even the word “God” cannot begin to contain what it strains to reveal, especially because of the connotations that drag so heavily behind the term. And yet, despite this acknowledgement that God is beyond comprehension, the tongues of the ancient mystics dripped with honey as they spoke of the impossibility to speak of God. They relentlessly explored language to find more ways to search for God, because only one metaphor was not enough. They saw God as Fire, Light and Darkness, Silence, Event, and Mother.

In many ways I can rightly be called an ‘atheist,’ but I immediately hesitate writing that word because its assumed reference is too narrow for me, as is the classical definition of ‘theist.’ Maybe a/theist works better, or "orthodox heretic," if labels are indeed preferable. I am nervous to be this honest. I find deep meaning in many traditions of the Christian religion, in people like Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa (among a vast host of others), and even though in many ways I feel like I have left Christianity behind, I know that I can never truly abandon it because it has informed me and shaped my language. Once again, I find Wendell Berry speaking to me: “[T]here are an enormous number of people- and I am one of them- whose native religion, for better or worse, is Christianity. We were born to it; we began to learn about it before we became conscious; it is, whatever we think of it, an intimate belonging of our being; it informs our consciousness, our language, and our dreams. We can turn away from it or against it, but that will only bind us tightly to a reduced version of it.”

But as I learn more of other religions, I have eyes to see that whatever simmers beneath Christianity also simmers beneath Islam, Native American spirituality, and the teachings of the Buddha. I find myself covenanted to the im/possible event and wrestling to live out the questions through the way of Jesus. I wrestle with what one of my closest friends has tattooed on his arm: meaninglessness and covenant. I don’t know what to say about God. T.S. Eliot said, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” Maybe that is the best place to start because commitment in humble uncertainty, which is faith, is fertile soil for dialogue.

If everything was certain and mystery was nonexistent, then nothing would need to be asked for, sought for, knocked for because the answers have already been given. Jesus revealed the kingdom of God through stories and questions as mystery, a secret still hidden in its disclosure, like a treasure buried in a field or a pearl of great price whose wealth can only be experienced by giving it up. Jesus could only hint at the kingdom’s presence, and he did this by healing the sick and eating with outcasts, not by establishing religious dogma. I am certainly not suggesting in any of this that religion is utterly worthless, because art, liturgy, lament, poetry, mystery, and the sacred can and should be expressed and practiced in dialogic rituals with a shared community. But I agree with John Caputo when he says “Some people can be deeply and abidingly ‘religious’ with or without theology, with or without the religions. Religion may be found with or without religion.” For him, those who love God are people who are worth their salt, and religions are only good if they are true: “Salt is my criterion of truth, and love is my criterion of salt.” I say “Yes, and yes.”

For me, God is not an almighty, sovereign, separate force that controls or pulls or coerces; I think God is more a weak call, like an inviting whisper that haunts you and must either be answered or ignored. The power of God is in powerlessness, weakness, and foolishness (1 Corinthians), like a beaten man hanging naked on the cross of an empire. True sacrifice and redemption can only happen without the force of power and the certainty of reward. God is more in absence and presence, in the sound of silence, in the faces and cacophonous voices of the suffering who cry out for liberation and deliverance, in little moments, in diversity. God is only experienced in and as action. God is love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, the other. There is an “endless translatability” between God and these things until I am not sure which is a version of which: is love a way of exemplifying God, or is God a way of exemplifying love? The Fox Indians say “When you have learned about love, you have learned about God.” Everything, the Law and the Prophets, everything is summed up in this: “Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself,” and these two are inseparably one. God is like the Tao, the source of life and the way of life, and the Tao that can be explained is not the true Tao. I see all of this most fully and deeply in the life and death and way of life of Jesus of Nazareth. This way requires new eyes, and requires that we be reborn into a new way of engaging with the world that opens up a path to the deep heart of reality, which is God.

In some upcoming posts, I want to share several metaphors for God that are deeply meaningful and engaging to me. All cultures and religions use metaphors to carry the deep wonder of their experiences of the divine over the void, into meaning. Metaphors are bearers of meaning; they are sacraments because they can convey the divine to us, and they convey it among us. For many of us, the divine has only been conveyed through Western, masculine metaphors; we choke God with these confining sweaters that we weave, refusing to allow any room for God to move or breathe. In our oversaturation, we have lost the nourishing insight that “[t]he unnameable is omninameable” . . .


  1. Michael (aka your brother)October 29, 2009 at 3:00 PM

    Amen and Amen.

  2. Beautifully said.

  3. "Truth like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold. You push it, stretch it, it'll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it'll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying to the moment we leave dying, it'll just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream." ~Neil Anderson, character in Dead Poets Society

    Not sure why the sweater made me think of this quote. Hope you're doing well...jcs