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The word “God”

The word itself is the major problem. The word ‘God’.

It comes with far too much baggage.

The general understanding of ‘God’, the one most people think Christians believe in, which many Christians still retain from childhood Sunday School, is still of an older white male, usually with a beard, somewhere ‘up there’, to whom homage must be paid, who intervenes in individual and world events, though not all the time and not for everyone.

Just this week I read a character in a 2017 novel say “God answers all prayers”. Such comments are made regularly on many TV shows and in some movies. Stephen Colbert often communes with such a facial feature who appears upon request on his studio ceiling. Joke or not, it nonetheless has some general credibility with the audience and viewers.

It’s also the media’s general concept. They also assume all denominations believe alike, as therefore so do all Christians. Moreover, it’s usually Catholic authorities they always consult for clarification.

Our religion is the only discipline and profession where ‘growth’ and new learning have not been sought, taught, where things are expected to remain as they were ‘in the beginning’ because there’s nothing more to be learned. This is totally unacceptable in medicine, science, education, engineering, etc.

ANY word used to describe, define or clarify ‘God’ is immediately limiting, only and ever partial, never absolute or complete. The minute we try to put into words something way beyond mere words, automatically serious restrictions are involved. Even the word ‘encompass’ isn’t comprehensive enough – think of our universe beyond which we now know are billions of galaxies we’ve not yet seen. “God” is as illusive as love which words are also impossible to fully describe or convey. We’ve lost touch with the mystery, the awe, the ‘beyond-us-ness’, beyond explaining, proving.

Way back in the Jewish scriptures when in the story ‘God’ was asked for god’s name, the reply was something like I am what I am, which more accurately translates as, I will be what I will be. Back then, naming gave one control over the named. ‘God’ was not about to be controlled, or limited. Was not about to be nailed down, hemmed in, fenced about in any way.

John’s poetic gospel says of Jesus that ‘the word became flesh’. In other words (sorry for the pun), a solid limited concrete ‘thing’ became flesh and blood humanity – a ‘being’ that could learn, inquire, think, make mistakes, hurt, be hurt, be creative and love, is complicated, complex, unpredictable (NOT an algorithm), amazing, alive and growing! That was supposed to also be something like ‘made in ‘God’s image’. Yet we have taken the aliveness of the flesh and reverted it back into a dead word. Sadly, it’s now become an idol we’re being taught to worship.

Always before, the United Church of Canada had not done this. We had the New Curriculum (radical and reviled in its time), the Whole People of God curriculum. We practiced social justice and spoke up against injustice, even when it was neither popular nor acceptable. We encouraged creativity in our theological schools, and among our clergy. We invited into our gatherings cutting-edge theologians, promoted and taught their books. We didn’t run and hide when one Moderator said ‘Jesus wasn’t divine’, and the media, loving a scandal and having no real grasp on religion anyway, jumped on the comment.

Yet, when the word ‘atheist’ was recently mentioned by one of our clergy, rather than taking advantage of an incredibly open teachable moment with a huge audience, certain leaders demanded the wagons be circled, giving credibility to the media’s rants, attacking and throwing to the wolves one of our own, culminating in what’s basically a heresy trial.

For quite some time now, very few UCC clergy have believed in the god described at the beginning. For one thing, it raises far too many questions, especially about inclusiveness and exclusiveness. Never have they had to ‘swear’ to a never-changing creed or promise petrified thoughts.

When Gretta Vosper accepted an invitation from people in rural Nova Scotia, at a small church in a small, somewhat isolated town, the question was asked “Are those people really interested in discussing theology?” What an arrogant patronizing assumption, which of course keeps power with clergy/leaders. Of course they are! And isn’t that part of the role of both congregation and minister? What they’re no longer interested in is being told what to think or believe. Discussion is the operative word.

It reminded me of an early conversation with an Roman Catholic priest as we drove together to the cemetery after a funeral. “How come your congregation wasn’t given the wine during communion?” I asked. “Oh, they’re not used to it”, was his excuse. “How on earth can they get used to it if you never do it?” I responded. You’d have thought I’d suggested standing naked before them.

Over 50 years ago, in 1963 Bishop Robinson wrote in his ground-breaking, mind-bending book Honest to God: “I believe we are being called…to far more than a restating of traditional orthodoxy in modern terms. Indeed, if our defence of the Faith is limited to this, we shall find…we have lost out to all but a tiny religious remnant. A much more radical recasting…is demanded, in the process of which the most fundamental categories of our theology…must go into the melting….I can at least understand what those mean who urge that we should do well to give up using the word “God” for a generation, so impregnated has it become with a way of thinking we may have to discard it if the Gospel is to signify anything.”

He added: “The only thing of which I am fairly sure is that, in retrospect, (my words) will be seen to have erred in not being radical enough.”

He was denounced of course, as were any other persons throughout Christian history who tried to throw open wide the box in which Christianity repeatedly became constricted, to let in some life, love and fullness – the kind Jesus taught and said he came to bring.

In religious as well as other history, when we don’t know our own history, we are condemned to repeat it. Condemned not by anyone else, not even “God”, but by ourselves and the consequences of our own willful ignorance.

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