At the forum last year, Wes Seeliger posed for us the basic issue of our day: the question of God. It is not about how you get saved, or what are the sacraments. The question is what do you mean by the term “God”? Are we ready to talk about God?
People sometimes ask me about what I believe about God. I finally learned to say that the question of believing does not interest me very much. I’ll be glad to talk to you about God but not about belief. As a way of entering conversation, I’ll tell you what I mean when I speak of God. I don’t mean that the way I talk about God is the same way you talk about God, but if we are going to have God talk, we must be willing to tell each other what we mean when we speak of God.
When I speak of God, I may be talking about what Stephen Hawking had in mind when he announced that the universe began with an intensely concentrated bit of matter about the size of a shriveled pea. Then came the big bang and everything that followed. When I talk about God, I may be speaking about how everything came to be.
Or it may be that when I speak of God, I am talking about the way we human beings have of recognizing how the world is, as opposed to the way we know the world ought to be. We know the world is a terrible mess — filled with crime, catastrophe and disaster — and we know it ought to be filled with love, justice and peace. When I talk about God, I may be referring to whoever or whatever planted in our minds an awareness of what is as opposed to what ought to be.
When I talk about God, I may be speaking about the ability we have to invent metaphors that take us further toward the way we know the world ought to be. We can decide if we want to say, as the gospel of John did, that God is love. What a wonderful invention! John or the editor that used his name didn’t say that God is loving or that God gives us love, but that “God is love.” You can turn it around: love is God. Metaphor-making is a wonderful capacity.
When I speak of God I may be talking about the “You” to whom I direct my prayers. Lots of old men took up praying when they got past fifty. I was precocious; I started praying when I was only in my forties. When I speak about God, I am talking about the one in whose presence I name my deepest fears, my greatest longings, and my fondest hopes. I am also talking about the “You” to whom I address all that is trivial and mean about myself. Once in a sermon seminar at St. Mark’s on Capitol Hill, Joe Tarantolo — who is among us this evening — talked about “the God to whom I pray and whine”. I, too, have whined in my prayers. Down deep inside I am something that you don’t want to know: petty and mean. God is someone to whom I can direct my pettiness and meanness. Only in prayer do I have the capacity to approach the truth about myself with something like honesty.
Or when I speak of God I may be talking about my desire for justice and accountability in this world. God is the one to whom I can turn all my anger over what went wrong so it won’t leak out onto somebody else who doesn’t deserve my rage. God is also the “You” to whom I give thanks as a way of reminding myself that all the good coming my way is largely the result of random luck. Do you know that both anger and thanks can be the result of the same experience? I was thinking about retiring early in order to get on with this business of The Center for Progressive Christianity, but I didn’t have quite enough money. I didn’t have any accumulated equity for a down payment on a house because I have always lived in houses supplied by the church. Then my older sister died and left me half of her retirement fund. At the very same time in my prayers, God was the one to whom I directed outrage over my sister’s dying so young and the one I thanked for the gift of her money. Intellectually, I don’t think God killed my sister so that I could have a good life in my old age. But in my prayers, I hold God accountable because somebody has to be.
I am offering nothing here to argue about. When you talk of God, you may mean something entirely different from what I mean, and that is just fine. Sometimes, however, we progressives and liberals can help each other in the search along this road if we talk a little more openly about what we mean when we speak of God, if we dare speak of God at all. Some time ago, a member of my congregation pointed out to me that he had been listening to me preach for six years and had never heard the word “God” come from the pulpit. I did not speak of God because I was terribly afraid of being misunderstood. I am a little less afraid now that I am older and out of the pulpit. I am ready to start talking about God if you are. We have time. That’s what I like about this imagery of being on the road and honoring all those who search. As we walk along together, you can tell me what you mean when you talk about God, as I have just told you. Maybe we can even have this kind of conversation with those other people out there — the critical thinkers who shy away from church. With some honest talk about God, we may be able to encourage them as they encourage us in our search for meaning and for truth.