I love Richard Dawkins! I never met the man, but I still love him and I am glad that he continues to get the press he seems to generate. The funny thing is that I agree with much of what he says. Yes, I realize that he has set up a “straw man” god that most people, with some minimal theological training, would simply dismiss. But the truth is this “straw man” god is still represented, prayed to, bargained with, called up, blamed or thanked in the vast majority of our churches today.
I attended a conference a few years ago at one of the better known seminaries in the country. Representatives from several of the denominational offices were invited at one point to share their thoughts about the future of the church. When the conversation shifted to new theologies and a response to the “new atheist” movement, I heard nothing but confusing and convoluted responses. These denominational leaders seemed to be more defensive than creative, more dogmatic than inspiring. In their attempts to hold on to a tired tradition, they seemed to make an admission that they had really given little thought to anything new. They used the word “God” with such authority that you would have assumed that we all understood what that word meant. It did not seem to fly with most of the young seminarians in the audience.
For over 30 years, I have been encouraging people in our mainline churches to let go of the ancient theistic God that we incorporated into the Greek Christian tradition nearly 2000 years ago and cannot to seem to let go. I have had little problem, it seems, convincing most people that we do not need to hold on to the traditional story of the historical Jesus. I suppose I have the Jesus Seminar and other good scholars to thank for that. But I have run into a dense wall far too many times when I suggest that we need to get rid of the God in the sky who hears our prayers and fixes things for us when we are good children. I do not believe God is an external being, a supernatural power, always prepared to intervene in human history. Nor can I perceive of a God who is a parent or judge and rewards and punishes obedient or disobedient children according to their proper behavior.
While most progressive Christians no longer hold on to this simplistic, even childish concept of God, with rare exceptions we still talk about what God wants from us in our churches and even in our homes. When I travel across the country to progressive churches my teeth are constantly on edge while I listen to the readings, prayers, songs, and rituals that seem to say that God is waiting for our correct action or God wants us to do something like feed the hungry, take care of the poor; or God is going to do something for us because we have done what we ought to do. Let’s face it, most pledge drives start with God’s call upon us to give. We still do petitionary prayers in most congregations as part of the worship service.
With what we now know about the immense universe, black holes, evolution, and our teeny, teeny little planet, isn’t time to change the entire paradigm? Do we really think that there is some entity, some power that needs to be pleased? It seems to me that at best this is an arrogant, superstitious and even an idolatrous assumption. Even the traditionalists tell us that God is unfathomable, all powerful. Why would we assume that this “I Am” needs anything from us? Any such idea suggests a theistic and dualistic model that we must eventually let go of. We have not come very far when we think it is a big deal to call this entity “Mother/Father God…”
You see, I think we have had it a wrong for a long time. I do not think that Jesus was telling his followers how they are supposed to act or behave in order to please God. I believe he, like other inspired wisdom teachers, was offering his teachings about how to experience this thing we so casually call God. What did Jesus mean? We have no way of knowing, but I suspect he meant something very different than what we normally perceive. I believe it is far more likely that he told his followers that by living a certain way, by extending themselves on behalf of others, by loving generously, for example, they too could experience Alaha (“God” according to Neal Douglas-Klotz an Aramaic scholar.) Douglas-Klotz suggests that his Alaha term would best be translated as Sacred Unity, All-ness or Oneness.
I do not believe that Jesus’ teachings were channeled from God so that he could tell us what God wanted from us. Rather, they were the result of his profound life changing experience of a complete Unity of all life… of a peace and sense of completeness that evades words. Wisdom teachers tell us that this phenomenon cannot be known, but can only be experienced and anyone has the opportunity to have that experience. There are many paths and they are teachable. These can lead ultimately to an experience of that sacred, the Divine that I am certain many people are searching for. We could even call this “heaven on earth.”
So why is it so hard to give up the theistic concept of God? For some, it is because that God has been a comfort for them and in some cases, this model of God has been the only source of true love in their lives. But for the vast majority of people who hold on to that traditional God, the alternative is just too scary. We are talking here about a giant mystery, an unknown. And in the western culture, most of us are extremely uncomfortable with unknowns. That discomfort has led to some pretty amazing scientific discoveries, but it is no help in a truly spiritual journey. That is why I find most people are uncomfortable with theologian, Dr. Gordon D. Kaufman, who concludes in his book, In Face Of Mystery: “…In religious myth and symbols, and in theological doctrines and reflection, we are dealing with matters of profound, ultimately unfathomable mystery; the ultimate meaning of human life, the final truth about the world and our place within it, is simply not available to us humans.”
That is why I love Richard Dawkins and the rest of the New Atheist movement. Their sometimes brilliant, and, often penetrating work, is forcing more and more people to rethink what they mean by the Germanic word, God. And as they make us aware of the simplistic ways we are still thinking about this god in the sky, we can become more aware of the awesome mystery that lies before us. And there we may begin to learn the real meaning of faith for with the help of a teacher, who has experienced that Grand Mystery, we can move toward something that can never be known but only experienced. And what an amazing journey that can be.
“…what is called knowledge is everyday parlance is only a small island in a vast sea that has not been traveled…Hence the existential question for the knower is this: Which does he love more, the small island of his so-called knowledge or the sea of infinite mystery? “(Karl Rahner Foundations Of Christian Faith (New York: Crossroad: 1982), 22–23)