We try to move away from concepts of “God” that focus on a Super Being in control, an external agent who, in Biblical and doctrinal understanding, intervenes, directs, reacts, sends ,listens, punishes, controls and rewards.
We try to move away from using “he” language.
We have carried some of our notions of God since childhood. Now, as we learn more about our world we find ourselves pruning away notions of a god that do not work anymore:
God is not a deity in heaven
God is not male
God is not a Being like us who listens and reacts
God is not a localized, overseeing deity
God is not above
God did not cut humanity from whatever God is.
Jesus is not the incarnation of a god in the heavens
God is not the organizer of everything in the universe.
God did not, does not communicate with just one group of people.
And positively we assert:
God is everywhere.
God holds everything in existence.
Jesus is revealer God-with-us.
I suspect that a great part of our difficulty in dealing with the notion of “God” today is the fact that we are “pruning”. It is like pruning a bush and all the while wanting to preserve the identity of the bush, wondering how far we can cut it back before it gives up the ghost and dies on us. So we keep cutting back our notions about this “God” thing/person, and all the while we have our eye on not going too far or we’ll lose contact with anything of meaning or particular identity. So we hesitate, for example, to assert that “God” is not a personal being because that personal aspect is generally considered essential to what “God” is – and it permeates biblical and doctrinal beliefs. So, in a real sense, our pruning always has an eye on what can be compatible with “being a believing Christian”.
But we keep pruning away, and as we prune, domino after domino falls, whether it be connected with revelation, the person and role of Jesus, the meaning of salvation, doctrine, worship, prayer, death and afterlife.
So “progressive Christians” find themselves almost aching with questions and issues such as:
Who or what is God?
What is worship for or about?
What is prayer about?
How do we talk to children about “God” in ways that respect the pruning we have done?
I suggest a way to proceed is to turn our procedure around, in a radical way.
Purely as an exercise to help us come to some clarity, let us put aside or on hold everything we have learned about “God” – even the fact that we capitalize the word!
Imagine we are starting afresh. No Bible, no doctrine, no church experience.
(Remind you of people you know? How about children?!)
Let us, in this exercise of the mind, make our starting point contemporary understanding of the universe and appreciation of our place in it.
We will be aware that in our lifetime even, this understanding has changed dramatically.
Let us briefly consider 5 key factors in this change:
1. The universe:
30 years ago, before the Hubble telescope was launched, we had no sense and no images of thousands of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. Now we’ve seen photos of this reality and are told there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in a rapidly expanding universe.
“Everywhere” has expanded enormously – in our lived experience (even though this “everywhere” has been there a lot longer than humanity has existed)
2. Quantum physics:
Quantum physics, even though we have little understanding of it, compels us to believe that everything material, everything seemingly solid in this universe, is actually composed of vortices of energy. And somehow, these vortices of energy inter-relate and interact with one another – even across enormous distances and without any tangible connection.
An interesting aspect of 1 and 2 is scientists telling us that 94% of the universe is unknown to us. It consists of “dark matter” and “dark energy” and scientists have no idea of what these are. So even though we know about billions and billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars, scientists say that any statement we make about the universe and how it operates pertains to less than 6% of the universe.
Alongside the mysterious world of quantum physics which scientists tell us no one understands is the mysterious world of consciousness that seems to permeate the universe and that is given wonderful expression in life. It seems that embedded in the universe is the capacity to store information, to attract, to work together, to work for a future goal. Call all this intentionality or intelligence or whatever – it is what we perceive in the working of a cell, in cells banding together to form molecules, when molecules store information and work together to form organisms. It is what happens every moment in my body when 60 trillion cells work together every moment to make me what I am.
4. What am I?
Science provides us today with a story about our origins that we never knew when we were young, nor even well into our adult years. We now have a “common” story (in the sense that it applies to all people): we have our origins in an exploding star more than four billion years ago; we are stardust; we have been on a cosmic journey all those years, and now 1,2,3 above work together to produce me. This is the wow! of human existence! And with this wow! comes the awareness that everything and everyone in this universe is inter-connected.
5. Evolutionary development:
As we contemplate all this we can appreciate that at the heart of the unfolding or development of what is going on in the universe, especially as it impinges on life, is the necessity of co-operation, of working together, of building on what is gained to allow further development. In other words, an appreciation that there is always a “next step”, made possible only by participants working together for that development and possibility rather than turning in on themselves in selfish and divisive activity. This is true for cells and molecules. It must also be true for the human community.
So here we are, adults in the 21st century, contemplating this wonderful universe, the wonder of life, the wonder of who we are and our connection with all that is. And we do this with a profound sense of astonishment, awe, appreciation – and concern for the future of the human species.
And the question, then, is this:
What moves us to posit some mysterious reality that underpins all this?
This is the key part of the exercise. Leave everything we have learned about “God” aside; be very aware that this is open-ended – we are not trying to defend any propositions about “God”. We are trying to enunciate what leads us to see in our experience of reality an agent, presence, force, whatever…
Record aspects of your answer to the question; take time to pause, consider and write down what moves you to posit this reality. Engage the challenge of the exercise – because it is challenging; it is difficult.
It is also important, because if we are not clear about this in our own minds, we will always resort to escapist “God talk” (biblical or doctrinal or popular thinking) when speaking to children.
I also think this sharing would open up to us adults the way to nurture children into a religious worldview.
The process would go something like this:
1. We adults clarify what leads us to believe in this underpinning reality and what its characteristics are, in so far as we experience them.
(eg “I believe there has to be some constant presence all through the universe holding everything in connection.” “I believe that consciousness which permeates the universe points to a mystery beyond our knowing.”)
2. We speak with children on this level, in language they can understand.
(eg “Everything in the universe is connected; we are stardust become human; everything we see around us was once stardust – we all share the same journey. We bring their attention to the way the cells in our bodies work …”)
3. If we have to use the “God” word, then from the earliest times with children we keep saying something like, “Many people call whatever is holding everything together, “God” and they speak as if God is a Person up in the sky somewhere, but “God” is nothing like that. God is like energy at work all through the universe – you cannot see it, but you can see its effects … etc
4. The Bible and Jesus and native religions are introduced as ways humans experienced this mystery. Jesus, especially, is spoken of as someone concerned that we all work together and do good etc. The key issue is religion ultimately is: how do we give the best possible human expression to this reality that underpins all that is?
5. Prayer is not focused on addressing an external deity. Prayer is about awareness and affirmation and gratitude and challenge. Likewise for worship.