Saturday, 1 September 2012

Naming "God"

When we were kids in Sunday School, we were taught that God was a white man with a beard who sat on a throne and did nothing but have people stand around him and bow and tell him how amazing he is.

A Quaker friend of mine asked this question “What sort of omnipotent, omniscient God demands to be worshipped?”. Well, none. But just imagine if you applied the traditional imagery and personality we apply to God to a human being: all-knowing, all-powerful but yet with such low self-esteem that they want others to tell them how amazing they are, even try to control you and if they don’t get it they hate you. You’d send them for therapy! Would you want to even be friends? But yet this is the image many have of God: and indeed I and my atheist friends do not believe in exactly the same God – the one outlined above!

When I attended a recent seminar on the “Divine Female”, the language of the prayers was changed in one service to reflect “She” and “Mother” and things feminine. I admit I felt uncomfortable with this: I, as a man, am used to God being a man too. And, “Earth Mothers” and “Goddesses” were a bit too pagan-y for me. And “Divine Parent” was right out for being “wishy washy”. But yet, here was I who couldn’t really relate to a “God the father” but could quite easily relate to “God not the father”…  Getting over those shallow theological and personal issues, changing the language changed the perception to a Being that was warm and motherly and nurturing and full of unconditional hugs and all the things we associate with Mum. To someone who never knew his father, this was always a problem for me. I did have an uncle and a grandfather, but both tended to be distant, unlike the strong female figures and influences in my life: my mum, my aunt, my grandmamma and my great aunt.  It was a change from that white man on the throne who conveyed a sense of, well, grouchiness. And since my mum died, I tend to refer to God even more as “mum”, and occasionally “Eh up boss” (God, of course, is a Yorkshireman).

Neither construct fit how I imagine Go, however. I have long struggled with who – and what - God actually is. When I was coming out, I had already rejected the notion of God as a person associated with any sex or sexuality (in mainstream Judeao-Christianity God is male and aggressively straight), and decided God was some kind of vibrant energy and being, who was present in sex and sexuality but possessed neither…Why would God need gender and a need to reproduce?  As to why Jesus was a man…would all the men have listened if Jesus was a woman? You tell me! That only highlights our flaws as people and nothing else.

Many mainstream Christians talk about God-as-Trinity but yet they seem to obsess about Jesus without as much attention given to the other two. On an eternal – and possibly fruitless – quest for the historical Jesus; or treating the Bible as his authorised biography and arguing Jesus is and was who the Church claims he is. Or was. As though it makes any difference whether Jesus was an actual person or whether like Robin Hood he represents something more, something about our human condition, our hopes, our aspirations and, ultimately, about ourselves. That’s what I think, anyway. And it makes me wonder why we hyper-focus on Jesus when Jesus spent his life trying to point to God. Like Buddha and other mystics he teaches a way; a way to God and a way to the self.

In the book, “The Shack” by William Paul Young, Jesus is described as this really super-cool down-to-earth guy that you’d invite round for dinner, go to the pib with and generally hang out with, because he’s just such a decent, everyday guy; he’s someone that is easy to be friends with. Maybe Christians focus on the Jesus part of the Trinity so much because of just that. Jesus is relateable and personal, which the other two forms don’t have going for them. As a Free Christian, I would say that’s exactly why we need figures such as Jesus, because we need to see something or someone like us…someone or something we can wrap our head around in order for us to see God, and someone we could relate to as humans.

But behind Jesus is God and Jesus spends a tremendous amount of time talking about God. And yet, I realized the other day that I’m not sure I look behind Jesus to see God as much as I should. I agree with his teachings on love, on hospitality, on welcoming those across the barriers of our own making. Mostly because those are my personal and political beliefs, too.  But I think it’s harder to stand alongside Jesus or Buddha or any other great mystic and look at the world, look at God with their eyes. So I have resolved to try stand next to Jesus and look at God with him. I resolved to see God and it just hasn’t been easy to do it from this perspective. I am looking for God and yet I think God must be in plain sight, looking at me looking for God.

The first two lines of the Tao te Ching in English, goes something like, “The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The way that can be named is not the eternal way.” The more we try to define God, the more we limit God. God is so much bigger than anything we can ever conceive. We create metaphors for God and try to put God in a small box to hold up, but as much as we do it, we just can’t get close. God is big and limitless and we are not. The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God. We dealing with somebody we made up. God cannot be totally figured out and while we should always seek God, we’re never going to fully understand in this lifetime. That’s uncomfortable, isn’t it?

When Moses asks God for His name, God simply replies, “I am.” If you really and truly think about that, it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying, because it doesn’t make sense and I think it sort of implies that God is everywhere instead of being in one place, like that man on the throne. So, if God simply IS, where is God?

Millions of people have been deeply moved by the Elizabeth Gilbert book (and now film), “Eat, Pray Love.” It’s the story of one woman’s search for meaning. She wanted her life to make sense as a whole, and all the parts to be honoured. She wanted to create an expansive life so that even seeming opposites could be synchronised into a world view that excludes nothing. She wanted to see if she could eat, pray and love all at the same time.

The ordinary, the workday and the spiritual are all linked and connected.  God is present and blesses everyday ordinary acts, not just through “holy acts” of Church. Every day and every act is wholly holy, our focus on God should not be reserved for a special time and place, we should be able to worship God wherever we feel that divine presence.

Narcissism aside, what if it was possible to include it all? To honour it all? To love it all? The Transcendentalist movement within Unitarianism understood this. Based on personal experience that God was greater than religion beyond churches and creeds; God was present in all things. 

The Transcendentalist vision suggests that we can apprehend spiritual truths through any source, and that the mind can apprehend absolute spiritual truths directly, without the dictates of past authorities and institutions.

They considered the possibility that every time you see a sunset, every time you smell fresh baked bread, every time you feel the touch of a loved one or loving acceptance when you didn’t think you were worthy, and your only response is “wow”, then you have just named God. This is the God who is beyond religious pontification, beyond creeds and beyond names.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said  " there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the Infinate...there is no bar or wall in the soul where man ceases...and God...beings."

So, is this God? When I see a perfect flower or the sun kissing a piece of tree bark that makes the bark look warm and inviting, is that God? Is God imagination and possibility…the fantastical combination of colours and forms that no one has seen before until an artist is moved to put them together? God must be in that, but that alone isn’t God…maybe it’s God’s presence.

People say God is love. When we love someone, when we hug a friend who is crying, when we feel the moist kiss from our child’s lips on our cheek…is that God? Is it when we help someone? Often when we help someone, we find that love and caring rebounds back and feeds our own soul. Is that God?

I think God must also be joy. I think it can be in something as simple as my foot absent-mindedly tapping in the car when a great song comes on…feeling joy for no purpose or intention, just for the joy of being alive and feeling alive. The other day at a friends barbeque, two little boys were dancing with every part of themselves to a song that was playing on the radio. They were dancing with such abandon and no inhibition and such joy. It cheered me up to see how happy they were, as though the mindless happiness was contagious. They smiled back with such genuine smiles. They were dancing for the joy of just existing. It made me think that God was in that too.

And what frustrates me most is this: It feels like when I get closer to seeing God, God moves. Like  in the Old Testament, Moses asks to see God and God only lets Moses see where he just was. We only ever sort of see where God just was, but we can’t see God…we are forever searching, forever chasing, forever seeing a glimpse of something mysterious and big. I think this is why there is the prohibition on images,on depictions of God in the Ten Commandments: by giving God an image, a form, a face, we are inherantly missing the point. Even naming God - calling God "God" (a word with so much baggage) is in one respect also limiting God. By depicting God in any form we are limiting God, reducind God to an idea, to a theology or creed. Which is why God tells Moses "I am". God just IS. It is enough to know that God simply IS.

So, if God can be seen in nature, if God is potential and possibility, if God is love and found in joy, how can I find God? I suppose I can strive to see beauty around me. But if it’s easy to see beauty in something as obvious as a sunset, maybe I need to look for beauty and see the potential of beauty in far less obvious places. Maybe I need to the potential of beauty in people, where it’s not always very obvious or easy to get to. If God is love and joy, then maybe I can get to God by how I interact with others. If I want to love God, maybe I can do that by loving someone else, and not just someone who is easy to love, but I mean really making an effort to love a neighbour that I don’t have much in common with or who I would not normally associate with. Maybe I can find happiness in very simple things. Maybe I can be happy just to be alive. Maybe God is in that feeling.

Jesus says that we should love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. That doesn’t seem so daunting if we can see God in all these other constructs and places, rather than just a white bearded man on a throne who I’ve never met and who I have to love – and fear - abstractly. I can do the former. I can actually love. I can love other people and nature and mindless joy and possibility and the simple act of breathing. As for loving God with all my mind, I cannot do that if I don’t use it. I plan on continuing to ask questions and wonder, especially when other people tell me it’s wrong, because I see something that maybe they don’t: God gave me an inquiring mind to use, not to shut off and blindly adhere to another human being’s interpretation.

The more I try to define God, the less I capture God and the more frustrated I feel at only having a glimpse of the mystery that is God. Having said that, I have resolved to seek God anyway. I plan to look for God within my religion. I plan to look for God as other religions see God. I plan to look for God outside of religion. I plan to look for God everywhere. If getting to God is a journey we cannot complete in this life, then I think the walk itself must be the reward.

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