Progressive Christians are achieving great clarity about the historical development of the Bible and about viewing biblical passages in a metaphorical rather than a literal way. Using the word “God,” however, continues to be an area of unclarity and outright confusion.
It is, I believe, helpful to begin with H. Richard Niebuhr’s insight that the word “God” is a devotional word, much like the word “sweetheart.” “Sweetheart” points to a particular person, but it also expresses a quality of relationship. Similarly, the word “God” includes the meanings of loyalty, commitment, trust, friendship, and passionate devotion. At the same time, “God,” as used in the Bible, points to an actual experience, an actual encounter with, how shall we say it, the Ground of our Being; the Mystery, Depth, and Greatness of our lives; Final Reality; Reality as a Whole; the Mystery that will not go away.
Marcus Borg recently stated that Paul Tillich’s “You are Accepted” essay in The Shaking of the Foundations is the finest description in print about sin and grace. I agree. For 45 years I have used this essay to help inquiring Christians acquire an understanding of the meaning of grace in their own lives. Yet our clarity about Tillich’s description of sin and grace is muddled unless we grasp what Tillich was referring to with the “Ground of our Being,” the “Mystery, Depth, and Greatness” of our lives. Tillich used the word “God” sparingly because he realized how many misunderstandings circle around this word. Tillich says that God is not a thing among other things or a person but the Ground of Being that is beyond all beings, beyond all persons. This Ground of Being is an inescapable Overallness with which we have a relationship, whether we relate to this Ground as our God or not.
We can understand having a relationship with our pets, our spouse, our children, or our garden. We also have a relationship with the Whole of Reality. This Whole, this Mysterious Whole is a Master Process moving toward us in every moment, challenging the depths of our being. And we are responding to this challenge, either in flight, fight, or openness. This active, often fierce, process is our relationship with God, the “God” that Jesus worshiped, and the “God” that the Bible insists is our only appropriate worship. This biblical God is not a being among other beings, not a supernatural being among other supernatural beings, not a being at all – not a person nor an inanimate thing or collection of things, but BEING-AS-A-WHOLE.
So “God,” as this word is used in the Bible, does not mean something located within some larger sphere called “Reality.” It is misleading to speak of “the reality of God,” for “God” is a devotional word for Reality Itself, for Reality as a Whole. Using the word “God” in the biblical sense means being devoted to the EVERY-THING-NESS that transcends every thing and yet is present in every thing. Each and every thing is contained within this EVERY-THING-NESS. I am using the word “thing” in a very broad sense, including Jesus, including you, including me.
Each of us is a specific and distinguishable finite being, yet each of us is also a being that is inescapably related to the EVERY-THING-NESS in which all things cohere. This relationship is our glory, our divinity, our identification with Jesus in being both human and divine.
Most Christians, including progressive Christians, tend to see God as a supernatural being – a being alongside other beings – a super-being in another world of beings, a being that can interfere in this world and help us handle the things we want to arrange differently. This view is not the biblical view of God. When the Bible and other Christian classics seem to refer to an otherworldly person, we need to remember that these writings are poetry, ancient poetry. The biblical writers were using mythic language. People who lived in pre-modern times had no difficulty using mythic language. It was their way of talking about their life experiences. They were not literalists who believed that they could visit this super-place and pull on God’s beard. Literalism is a modern construction – a heresy – a departure from the origins of Christianity.
Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, H. Richard Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and many other great theologians all reject viewing God as a thing or a person. They reject literalism in all its subtle forms. When we use personal language to talk about God, we are talking mythically about our own personal relationship with that Infinite EVERYTHING-NESS that cannot be contained within any human imagery, personal or impersonal.
Research scientists can experience this Infinite Mystery behind-beyond-within-surrounding all the things they study. Many scientists have said something like this, “The more we know about nature, the more we know we don’t know.” This awareness of Mystery is an experience of God, the God of the Bible.
Our curiosity and openness to know more about nature and humanity is an experience of this Infinite Mystery. When we are open to know more, we are open to Mystery. Curiosity about Reality is openness to God.
Imagine lying on a cot on a clear dark night viewing the wonder of the stars. Suppose you remember your contemporary physics and thus realize that some of the dimmest lights in the sky are whole galaxies of billions of stars. Suppose you recall that these galaxies are traveling away from one another at vast speeds, that the cosmos is expanding through time. And if you imagine running time backwards, all these galaxies would approach a single point of white-hot potential. All this vast wonder had a beginning, an initial flaring forth – “the Big Bang” physicists have called it.
Then suppose that you call out to the night sky, “What was before the Big Bang?” As you listen for the answer, no sound comes back to you. All you can hear is the Infinite Silence. Paradoxically, that is the answer to your question. Before the Big Bang there was Infinite Silence – no vibrations, no movements. Even in present time, all vibrations, all noises, all bangs, big or little, take place within this Infinite Silence. God is the Infinite Silence in which all sounds sound, the Infinite Stillness in which all motions move. This is a contemplative (not a measurable) experience, but it is absolutely real.
When we use the biblical term “Word of God,” we need to notice this paradox: we are saying that the Infinite Silence is speaking to us. We are saying that this Infinite Silence not only spoke forth the Big Bang of Beginning, the Infinite Silence continues to speak every day. Here is a short poem I wrote about this ever-present quality of the Infinite Silence:
The Infinite Silence Speaks
through every rustle of tree leaves,
through every singing bird,
through every sound of any kind,
and through the silent spaces between the sounds.
The Infinite Silence is Void and Darkness
but also Fullness, a dazzling backlight
that shines through
every gleaming tree, every shimmering squirrel
and surrounds every human being
with a halo.
This everyday experience of Infinite Silence is an experience of what the Bible points to with the word “God.” God can also be spoken of as The Infinite Stillness in which all motions move. Meditation practices can help us get in touch with our experience of this Stillness. Perhaps it is frightening at first to enter the place of Stillness and within that Stillness watch all the activity that is taking place, including the activity of our own minds. Our minds are always busy. Our minds are an aspect of our biological being, which is always in motion. Our life processes, including our minds, never stop. Yet if we pay close attention to our minds, to our bodies, to all our inner being, we can also discern that all this motion is taking place within something deeper, the Infinite Stillness. Accessing this Stillness in which all motions move is finding God. It is within this Stillness that we find the Trust, the Love, and the Freedom from which truly creative living emerges.
So who are we as human beings? We are the God experiencers. We are the Mystery experiencers. And this experience is taking place at all times whether we are consciously experiencing this experience or not. In every experience God is present, and in every experience our experience of God is potentially present.
This “radical monotheism” of the Bible includes the insight that we can experience this Final Reality in both life and death, security and insecurity, fulfillment and frustration, joy and tragedy, love and solitude, knowledge and ignorance, success and failure, merit and guilt. The biblical God is not met in half of life, but in all of life. This understanding is captured in this bit of poetry:
With one wing, there is no flight.
Life and death are two wings
on the same bird.
A rock does not live or die. A living being both lives and dies. We human beings can know that we live and die. In living our lives realistically we are being loyal to that Final Mysterious Reality that we meet in each and every event. Such living is “trusting God” in the biblical sense. The word “God” becomes meaningful when it refers to that never absent, always wondrous, awe-filling Presence shining through each event and awakening the core of our being. When God is just a set of ideas in our head or a picture of some singular being in some transcending space, we are lost in idolatry as well as meaningless talk. Such superficial God-talk separates us from the Ground of our Being, from the Mystery, Depth, and Greatness of our lives. Christians will not be fully progressive or Christian until the quality of our God-talk is profoundly deepened.