Moving Beyond a Sunday School God — Thoughts on Proper 24

While I’m not exactly ancient, I have been kicking around for more than six decades. As I speak with folks younger than myself (and most people are!), I find I keep referring to events or music or television shows that preceded their birth reinforcing my sense that while I may have arrived honestly in this time, I certainly also belong in times long past. In my seniority, I have seen many institutions and conventions questioned, challenged, or abandoned. Like someone who crosses a border into an alien land and experiences culture shock, I am reminded of how different these days are from the days that shaped my beliefs, assumptions and habits. Some of the changes are amusing, others sobering, still others instill profound sadness.  While I don’t mourn the movement from formal dress to clothing more casual, I do regret the movement from formal address of strangers and seniors to the “Hi, guys” reduction of common familiarity.

Widespread lack of respect for public servants (and the appalling lack of respect of public servants for the public they are supposed to serve), teachers and law enforcement officers indicates clearly that things have changed, and changed dramatically. At times I feel as foreign as a little girl saying to her dog, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

I am obliged to say that the current assault on religious belief and spiritual practice adds to my sense of displacement. Certainly, there have always been those who have disputed the reality of a divine presence, but rarely have such disputes been as aggressive and pointed as they have in recent years. Proselytizing atheists seem to be everywhere these days in print and in the media. Their argumentative insistence, rather than being characterized by the laissez-faire or dismissive attitude of atheists in years past, has seemed remarkably aggressive and demeaning. Those who hold to a sacred tradition are not just misguided, they seem to say, they are ignorant and responsible for much of the world’s unhappiness. It occurs to me that many of them are arguing against something that none but the most childlike believe to be true. They insist, for instance, that there is no grandfatherly being in the sky who directs cosmic events in the way a child pushes around toy soldiers. Well, duh…

If such an assertion is patently obvious, what would the highest, the best thinking about God sound like? There are a number of intelligent phrases that shape my struggle to understand a Divine Other. I like J.B. Phillipps assertion that “anything you think about God is less like God than it is like God.” Perhaps the cleanest, least cluttered statement was made by Paul Tillich — there are only two non-symbolic things you can state about God: that God is being-itself and that God is the ground of all being. Such concepts cannot even be fully held in the human mind let alone exhaustively understood. So while I agree that Santa-God is a fantasy (comforting and appealing, to be sure, but a fantasy nonetheless), I am not prepared to state that there is nothing that undergirds reality. Fifty years ago, I may not have been able to say that spacetime is curved. Today I know better. Perhaps in another fifty years/centuries/millennia we will suddenly discover (much to our surprise) that there is a thread of astonishing vitality that makes all things be.

In this week’s Old Testament lesson, Jacob wrestles with a God/angel and seems most interested in knowing his opponent’s name. It’s not the first time in Hebrew Scriptures that people insisted on knowing the name of God: Moses also wanted to know the name of God before accepting a particularly daunting enterprise. In the ancient world, to know an individual’s name was to have power over them – to own a piece of their reality. Interestingly, when Moses stood in front of the burning bush in the story, the name he asked for and was given was presumed for millennia to be un-translatable. That four letter word (which so many people bandy about these days as if they were referring to their brother-in-law, but which I prefer not to speak, honoring a Rabbinic tradition as old as the name itself) known in theological and exegetical circles as the tetragrammaton comes closest to meaning (as far as we know) that which causes to come into being. Perhaps the ancients weren’t so dumb after all.

 Do the proselytizing atheists yet have an explanation for the emergence of reality? If not, I prefer to consider the possibility that whatever defines and sustains reality is 1. Bigger than me, 2. Unknowable by me, and 3. Longer-lasting than me (like, maybe, eternal). I’m prepared to God-that.

I should, at this point, make something clear. There is a significant difference between Christianity and Christians in the same way there is a difference between love and sex. Sex can certainly be loving (just as Christians can be Christ-like), but it can also be about power, aggression, possessiveness, and domination. Sadly, I look at many Christians in the world around me and those who have populated history and believe that they, too, are far more interested in power, aggression, possessiveness, and domination – behaviors that are foreign to the teachings of Jesus. Gandhi is reputed to have said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but someone should have said it.

The fact is that I like the best renderings of the Judeo-Christian tradition. I’m not as crazy about those who wear those renderings like a shield of inerrancy. For every offense that has been committed in the name of Christianity (and there are certainly many), there is as much about the teachings of Jesus and his clearest thinking followers that is worthy of whole hearted embrace.

For all the ill produced by the Church (and to be fair, non-religious people and people of other faiths produce ill as well, not because of the presence or lack of religious belief, but because they are people), I take some comfort in the fact that many church folk still strive to make a positive difference in the world not because they will profit by doing so, or because they will gain fame and recognition, but simply because they/we embrace a belief that we all count, and we are all connected.

One thing I like about the “tell me your name” stories in the Hebrew Scriptures – everyone who asks changes. Moses, a cowardly runaway, becomes the emboldened challenger of empire (we could use a few of those right now, I think). Jacob receives a new name, a new identity, and a rearranged body.

I suspect that even thinking about God or God-ness invites and encourages change. Letting go of arrogant certainty and yielding to possibility is positively transformative.