Sunday, August 9, 2015

Deconstructing (and Reimagining) God (8/9/15)

Deconstructing (and Reimagining God)
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

  •         If God is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient and all powerful and needs nothing then why does "He" need 8+ billion of these little critters here on earth to worship "Him" to feel complete
  •      What phraseology do you use to speak of God?   How do you internalize it or find meaning in it (the phraseology)?
  •      What do you mean when you say you don’t believe in God?  (or a supernatural God)

The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God.  That depth is what the word God means.  And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation.  Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself.  For if you know that God means depth, you much about Him.
--Paul Tillich 

1 John 4:12
No one has ever seen God; 
yet if we love one another, 
God dwells in us 
and the love of him comes to completion in us.

Don Cupitt 
Our true ‘selfhood’ or ‘personhood’ is ‘theatrical’: it is realized, not by recollection and introversion, but by extraversion, by going out into symbolic expression and communication with other people.  The self is simply to be expended.  When it’s gone so are we.  Meanwhile the true religious happiness is simply our present joy in going out into expression, communication, tending, work and creativity.  Do your thing, strut your stuff, put on a good show, live as intensely as you can in the present moment.  There is nothing else:  there couldn’t be.  To realize this is to have finally outgrown any need for consolation.
Gordon Kaufman 
To believe in God is to commit oneself to a particular way of ordering one’s life and action.  It is to devote oneself to working towards a fully humane world within the ecological restraints here on planet Earth, while standing in piety and awe before the profound mysteries of existence.  

Mark 4:26-29
The empire of God is like this:  suppose someone sows seed on the ground, and sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and matures, although the sower is unaware of it.  The earth produces fruit on its own, first a shoot, then a head, then a mature grain on the head.  But when the grain ripens, right away he sends for the sickle, because it’s harvest time.

The occasion for these questions this morning and for the summer series Bring Your Own Sermon (BYOS) began with a post that I wrote for a blog called The Friendly Atheist this past March. I never really thought that much of it at the time.   Every now and then I write something and it mostly goes unnoticed. 

This time was different.  I had only been here a couple of months.   The article received a great deal of response.  Conservative Christian media picked it up.  Between that article and the news coverage that week that our congregation had participated in the marriage equality measure for the Presbyterian Church, we even received protesters on the sidewalk.    These Portland Street Preachers come and share niceties with us every now and then.   The presbytery office received calls about my article and I had to explain myself to those good folks. 

The title of the blog post was “I’m A Presbyterian Minister Who Doesn’t Believe in God.”  I suppose on the surface of things that is provocative enough.  In it I wrote about things I have written over the years, basically, that my philosophy is a naturalistic one.   Religion is a human product and its texts and symbols are a product of human cultural evolution.    

I wrote that while much of our Christian past has focused on believing in doctrines, this is changing.  We are finding ourselves more interested in belonging to a community and doing good things and exploring questions.   While what I wrote might have appeared to be scandalous at a popular level, it really is kind of old news for theologians and religious scholars.   This is the stuff they encourage us to think about in the university and seminary.    I would say that we also think about those kinds of things in this congregation.  That is why I like it here.  

This sermon series is an opportunity to discuss with you some of these questions.   

The questions today have to do with God.  What did I mean when I wrote that I don’t believe in a supernatural God?   It means in response to the first question I was asked that I do not think an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient being exists.   Or if it does, it really doesn’t matter because it doesn’t do anything.  

I am going to suggest that probably most of you believe the same way I do at least 99.999% of the time.    It is not likely that you are going to leave worship today and pray to God for rain and honestly expect God to grant your request.    I am going out on a limb here, but I think that most of us operate from the assumption that weather patterns have naturalistic causes.    That is a very different point of view from that which is found in the Hebrew scriptures, right?    We find many texts there where God makes it rain or not.    For instance, Psalm 135:7

He makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth; he sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.

That is poetry for us today.  In the time it was written, it was likely regarded as the way it worked.  The fixed firmament above had storehouses of wind and water and God let it loose at his pleasure along with lightning bolts.  

When we look up at the sun we don’t see the god Shamash flying his chariot across the sky.   Nor do we expect that God could stop the sun’s motion as God did in Joshua chapter 10.   

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel:

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,
as it is written in the Book of Jashar.

The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.

In the Ancient Near East that cosmology would allow for such a story to be plausible.  Not today.   That story is a fictional tale.  A legend of bravado.  

When we are sick we go to the doctor, not the witch doctor.  For the most part, that is.  In times of desperation we may resort to other methods.   Most of the time we are practical naturalists.   That is the only way that science can work.  Laws are consistent. The universe doesn’t work because of the capriciousness of the gods.  

That said there is something in our evolution that is a glitch.   We want to believe in the supernatural.  And this explains the popularity of faith healers and gambling and fudging on the math of coincidence so that when things seem to happen in our favor we credit God or prayer or what not.   We ignore or forget the times that those things do not work.  That glitch is more prevalent with some people than with others.  But most of the time, we all are practical naturalists.   It is the only way we can really navigate our shared world.  

There is a hymn in our hymnbook that is just funny.  It is called God Who Spins the Whirling Planets.  The image that comes in my mind is of God as Curly Neal of the Harlem Globetrotters spinning Mars on his finger.     The language at best is poetic, right?  The planets do not spin because of God.   Only in a poetic way by saying God is a poetic word for gravity or in a deistic way, a god who set up the laws, wound the clock and went to sleep, can that hymn make sense.   Some old wag put it blasphemously that Galileo put God out of a home and Darwin put God out of a job.  Newton, too for that matter.    The very fact that the planet Mars was named for a god shows our change in thought.   Those white dots in the night sky were considered to be heavenly bodies, actual beings.   Your fate is written in the stars, right?  They are doing stuff to you, manipulating your love life.  

Whether we like it or not, whether we find it romantic or not, science cleared the heavens and earth of the gods.    For 99.999% of the time, you likely believe as I do that there is no supernatural being, that is a being outside of nature, God, intervening in the natural world and fiddling with things.   When I say I don’t believe in a supernatural God or shorthand, God, because that is what is almost always meant by God, a supernatural God, I am simply saying what we mostly all know and believe anyway, at least most of the time.

What might it mean to speak of God, to believe in God today?

Before I get there I do want to go back to a theory of how gods and eventually God came to be.  Philosopher Daniel Dennett says that we have inherited an evolutionary survival skill in which we give agency to things that move.    Your dog barks.  The question is not at what, the question is at who.   Your dog hears a who.   That is important for survival because the who could be lunch or the dog could be the who’s lunch.    That is embedded in our evolutionary history, long before humans.    It is a very important survival skill.  Better safe than sorry. 

Now your dog after the noise has stopped eventually forgets about it and goes back to sleep.  Humans are different.  We ruminate.   We make up stories about it, especially if there is nothing there.  Ghosts, goblins, trolls, forest nymphs, begin to populate our imagination.   Eventually everything has a supernatural being or god associated with it.   

The Hebrew Scriptures record an evolution of sorts from gods to God.   So for instance as Shamash the sun god becomes in Genesis chapter one the shemesh, the sun, that God puts in the sky and screws it in like a light bulb you see this movement from polytheism to monotheism.    

For centuries monotheism served us until science continued to push back and explain things without the need of a God hypothesis.   This is nothing new.  We know this and 99% of the time we operate this way.     Religions aren’t really sure what to do since they arose of course out of a pre-modern period.  Far too often, they think they need to bolster up a pre-modern belief in God and try to find gaps for God or in their more extreme forms try to resist science.    For the most part we sense the jig is up.

And yet, I miss my gods. 

I don’t want God to do anything for me. I want to project my angst and my awe and my wonder and my joy and my sorrow.   I want a language for that.  I find myself entranced at times by the stories and songs that speak to my depths.    Sometimes I use God as a name for the universe itself when it ‘shimmers below the surface of things” as singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer put it.  Sometimes God is the name for all the things to which I aspire:  beauty, truth, goodness, and perhaps it is that great ball of merit as Joanna Macy calls all of the emerging aspirations of humankind.    

I like the word depth.  I love this from Paul Tillich:

The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God.  That depth is what the word God means.  And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation.  Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself.  For if you know that God means depth, you much about Him.

Tillich knew the problems associated with the word God.   But he didn’t want to let it go.  He found a way to be creative.  
There is great creativity as we play with and reimagine the symbol God.    Some theologians say that God is in everything but not contained by anything.  Others equate God with the universe itself with no remainder.  Still others call God creativity or think of God as a process and a lure to draw us toward spiritual maturity.   Yet others call God the emergence of human aspirations that has taken on a life of its own.   Still others find that God gets in the way and have let go of the term and instead speak of Life or Depth or something else.    

If I had a suggestion it would be to go ahead and play.  Don’t try to put yourself or others in a box.   There is no need to have a final answer just yet.  No need to draw lines or take up sides.   No need really to be terribly consistent or right.   Sing the songs you can sing and let others sing those you cannot.   Don’t be afraid to speak what you think is true and don’t be afraid to hear a different truth from another.    

Eventually it will wash out and we will navigate our way and in the meantime we have each other.  We have our depths, our own stories, hopes, and fears, and in the sharing of them we might find the divine presence.  

If the old formulations no longer work, it is fine to let them go.   But be kind.  What doesn’t work for you may be holy for another.   

I have a memory from my seminary experience that has stuck with me.  It was in my church history class and my professor Karlfried Froehlich said in a moment of honesty, and I am paraphrasing:

Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I believe.  Other times I wake up and I don’t.  

I so appreciated that he said that.  He was a pious person and yet he knew that life and faith isn’t all so black and white.   I appreciated that.   I appreciated it so much I remembered it. 

There are days that I don’t want to hear the word God.  Too much baggage.  Too much harm done.  To much violence done in the name of God.  And there are other days in other ways in which my heart sings, songs of joy, songs of lament, and I don’t know what to call that feeling.   Sometimes God fits.    

There are many aspects of God as we have inherited the term, that I don’t believe.     But there are aspects of God to which I am committed.   The symbols of faith are invitations to live in a particular way.   To that extent I trust, believe, be-love, and am committed.      Toward love, compassion, toward what is true and beautiful.   To that I believe. Help my unbelief. 

For me, God is the depth of life, in the heart of life.  

Seek your heart, seek your depth, there is your God.


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