University Congregational Church
Feb. 28, 2016
“Finding Faith after Certainty: How to Quit Thinking about God”
Of all the conversations I have with people, by far the most frequent is about who and what God is.
• An older person told me several months ago that she wasn’t certain she believed in God after a lifetime of belief and faith.
• We have quite a few people in our congregation who identify with agnosticism & atheism.
• Even the most devout among us have questions.
I was reminded recently that Marcus Borg, that great theologian and thinker, sometimes asked people to describe the God they didn’t believe in. After they did, he was known to reply, “I don’t believe in that God either!”
As modern thinkers, we have many questions about the substance and nature of God. And no wonder! The word “God” itself has been used and abused…
– There’s the god of the politicians, invoked to win the hearts and minds of the voters
– There’s the god thanked by many athletes after a great play
– And the god heralded by beauty queens and stars when they win the coveted award
– There’s the perpetual god of naughty and nice who watches our every move
– And the god heralded by televangelists along with the god who blesses some preachers with jets and jetset lifestyles… oh my!
What we need is to completely reboot, recover, and reconstruct our idea of God. One of the problems we have is that we’ve been trained to think about God. We end up trying to connect to God through thinking – thinking big thoughts, big, enormous, complicated thoughts about morality, or about life’s big questions.
I’m sure many of you remember studying the philosopher Plato. Plato divided the cosmos into substance (what’s here) and form (the realm of the ideal). Behind what we see, he reasoned, is some sort of order. “There has got to be some sort of universal mind behind all this mess,” he reasoned, “creating order out of all the chaos that we see.” And bam! Humans have been thinking about God ever since.
Mark Stenberg, in his book “51% Christian; Finding Faith after Certainty” calls this the Greekified God. This sermon series is based on his book.
The God of the Hebrew people – the God of the Jews – and the God of our Bible – is very different from the Greekified God. Rather, our God is a God who happens, a God who enters into our time and our history and leads us from here to there. While the Greekified God is about order, perfection, and transcendence, Yahweh of the Bible hears the cries of the people and decides to enter into the suffering, the ambiguity, and the painful pangs of historical liberation.
The ancient Hebrews did not sit around and argue about whether or not God exists. They did not think their way to God. God happened to them, appeared to them, and covenanted with them…
… think of Moses, who argued with God
… think of Abraham, who believed in the wild promises of God
… think of Jonah, who rebelled against God, and pouted when he didn’t get
… think of Mary, who sang praise to God
… think of Jesus, who cried out in agony to God.
As Mark Stenberg writes, “There is a huge – a monumental – difference between thinking our way to God and confessing that God has done something. It’s time to de-Greekify the Christian God. We cannot think our way to this God. This God comes to us, just as God did to Moses and to Paul, and this God asks us to die that we might be born again. It is not simply the case that this God is irrational, or even a-rational. It’s just that we cannot think our way to grace. Grace does not fit. Grace is the rupture, the incongruity, the surprise that we do not initiate, that is too good for us to ever think up. Grace is the relationship that not only loves you now but also loved you into being and will love you beyond death.”
So, you ask, if thinking about God isn’t the best way to know God, then what do we do? According to the apostle Paul, there’s an important way for us to connect to the Divine. It is through prayer.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
Romans 8:22-26 (NRSV)
The kind of prayer Paul is advocating for is letting go of our thinking, and be in relationship with God. According to Paul, “We do not know how to pray as we ought”. This is the beginning of prayer – it is yielding, confessing, and receiving. Prayer is letting go of control and acknowledging that God is with us.
In fact, Stenberg suggests, what if we substituted the word God with the word relationship? That is exactly how the Bible stories describe God. God is in relationship with Abraham. God is in relationship with Moses and Esther and Ruth and Jonah and Daniel and Mary and Paul and Jesus.
God isn’t something they thought about. The stories of both the Hebrew Bible and our New Testament make it clear that God is about relationship. In fact, the first story in Genesis starts with God bringing relationship out of chaos because “God was lonely”. The subsequent stories continue the theme and are about the relationship between God and humanity.
My Christian History professor, Dr. Karen Carter, suggested that we understand the Aramaic word Abba as a guttural cry. She asked us to imagine that we had the worst nightmare ever. In our deepest but troubled sleep, we cried out in the night to the one who could wake us from the nightmare. Whose name would we call? Daddy? Mommy? Our spouse? Our best friend? That name is the equivalent of Abba – the one to whom Jesus prayed.
You see the beauty of that? When Jesus prayed, he called out to the One with whom he had an intimate relationship.
Mark Stenberg explains it this way: “I don’t believe in God so much as I believe in relationship. Rather I trust that the experience of relationship itself – the intense, uncanny, risky, but loving bond that can exist between creatures – is the highest high, the truest truth we can know – relationship like that deep, primal connection that exists between a mother and a child. Where does that relationship come from? It emanates from a God of pure, self-giving love.”
You might find other words that can replace the name God.
* Unconditional Love
* Complete peace
* Pure joy
* Life itself
Once you’ve spent some time reflecting on your word or words for God, what about renewing that relationship? What about establishing quality time for that relationship? Time during a walk to just enjoy God’s beauty. Time at the end of the day to say thanks. Time as you eat for deep joy. Quiet time to bask in unconditional love. Time for sighs too deep for words.
It’s much more fulfilling to put aside the thoughts about God and to take pleasure in a holy relationship!