Over the last few weeks I have had the opportunity and the privilege to meet with two different groups made up of people who are all in their own way searching for new ways to tell the Christian story. One group is made up primarily of theologians and clergy. At least four of the participants have published one or more books. The other group gathered in Chicago to look for new language to communicate the message of Jesus to children. It was made up of clergy, active church lay-people and scholars.
More than once, while I was participating in one of these gatherings, I was almost overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude. I wondered, “How did I get so lucky to be involved with such bright, informed, caring people who really are dedicated to making a positive change in their lives and in the world?” Interestingly, although each group had a slightly different focus, at some point in both of these gatherings, we found ourselves trying to decide what we mean when we use a word or metaphor for that which we commonly call “God.”
It was relatively easy, among all of these conversations, to agree upon what we did not mean. It was clear for example, that we were not referring to some anthropomorphic being whom may or may not respond to our prayers and supplications. We did not mean some supernatural theism that has haunted Western Christianity for over 1600 years. We were not talking about a separate entity and we had interesting conversations about whether there was any dualism in all creation. Sometimes we tossed around terms like pantheism, panentheism and something called creatheism, (God is a holy name of Ultimate Reality) but we did not seem to be getting any closer to finding terms, descriptions or even characteristics that fit everyone’s perspective or anyone’s perspective for that matter. It became particularly challenging when we realized that we were trying to communicate something about this yet indescribable, mysterious phenomenon to children. How do we teach our children about something that is indescribable?
Flying home from Chicago while pondering all of this, I pulled out some of my notes from our meetings. I was reminded that the great theologian Paul Tillich once suggested that we just stop using the word “God” for a hundred years because it was so loaded with historical and emotional baggage. I suspect that his suggestion was made in jest and was intended to make a point.
In one of our sessions a New Testament scholar pointed out that Jesus would have been appalled with what Western Christianity has done with the term God. He pointed out that as a Galilean Jew, Jesus most likely thought and spoke in the Aramaic language and would have used Alaha where we often see the word “God” in Christian scripture. According to Aramaic scholars, like Neil Douglas-Klotz, the closest translation of Alaha into English would be Sacred Unity, Oneness or the All. Douglas-Klotz argues that with this understanding there could not have been the kind of dualism that is still so pervasive in Western Christian theology today.
Although this perspective was helpful, it was still more about what the term “God” did not mean rather than what it does mean to progressives Christians. This challenge is not new for thinking and aware people. It is much easier to use God to explain that which we do not understand or to support our personal bias.
Rudolf Bultmann, brilliant theologian of the last century struggled with this same issue and wrote about it in an excellent essay called, “The Crisis of Faith.” Bultmann points out that we are constantly confronting our fragile world, dealing with finite things and with our vulnerability. He suggests that it is some power that we do not control. He also points out we do not create some of the most beautiful, powerful, lofty moments in our lives. And as wonderful as those experiences are, we cannot make them last. Eternity escapes us. Bultmann concludes that there is a power that controls the temporal and the eternal. He calls this power, “God.” He writes, “This ‘mysterious power’-the power which limits man and is master of him, even when he thinks he is his own master-is God.”
In his 1985 book, A Primer on Radical Christianity, Gene Marshall points out that, “Bultmann was not referring to a supernatural power out there somewhere, who invades our natural realm.” He simply says that this mysterious power that all of us have experienced every day of our lives is what he is refers to as “God.”
After taking a brief look and some writings of Catholic theologian Hans Kung, Protestant scholar, Schubert Ogden and Rabbi Harold Kushner, Marshall posits that it is time to get rid of what he refers to as the Two Story Mind-Block-“the assumption that there are two realms: the natural and the supernatural. “
Marshall calls for a new metaphor for this “mysterious reality.” He writes, “The new religious metaphor (which pictures the awe-filled experience of reality opening up in the center of ordinary reality) enables us to open ourselves to reality in both its familiar naturalness and in its awe-producing strangeness. Realty is both known and unknown, ordinary and profoundly mysterious. Only when we accept and honor this mysteriousness in the midst of ordinary life, will we stop trying to wrap life up in neat intellectual boxes.” I found this helpful but I was still left wondering how we talk about this new metaphor, this mysterious reality.
Serendipitously, while I was in the midst of this struggle to find ways to talk about God, I pulled out a National Geographic magazine I had picked up in the airport earlier that day. It was the December issue that focused on the unlikely possibility that we earthlings are alone in the universe. The article has more of those almost unimaginable pictures of “small” parts of the universe taken from the improved Hubble telescope. In one photo we can see a galaxy that was 150 million light years away and dwarfed our own Milky Way phenomenon. The pictures alone should be enough to shake our common sensibilities. But the article make a good case for the idea that our little, insignificant planet is probably one of many that can sustain life. Like so many of the Hubble revelations however, it forces anyone who really wants to take in what is revealed to us about our teeny perspective, that trying to put objective quantitative qualities on to something we call “god” is a little silly. I wondered if the early church father, St. Tertullian, knew more than he understood when he wrote over 1800 years ago, “That which is infinite is known only to itself.”
I was brought back to Marshall’s comment that it was time to “stop trying to wrap life up in neat little intellectual boxes.” It occurred to me that what I can talk about is what happens when I open myself, without fear, to this Mysterious Reality in my life. I may not be able to identify it or quantify it but I can describe what it is like to experience it or “experience something” that I do not understand. I can share the ways that I intentionally live and think that cause me to experience it more often, as I open myself to both the natural and its awe-producing strangeness. I can also explain that as I engage the awe-producing strangeness more and more often, it does not seem so strange at all or it may be that I simply that I grow more comfortable with the awe-producing strangeness. And maybe most importantly, I can happily admit that I could be wrong about all of this, and yet I still get excited about the “awesome” discoveries that I made and will continue to make on this journey.
Now what kid is not going to understand that? After all, no child is a stranger to awe.