The New Christianity, Part 3: God (2/8/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
This is week three of our series on The New Christianity. So far we’ve covered a couple of important elements of Christianity—the Bible, and faith—and we’ve asked if the traditional way of approaching those subjects is appropriate for those of us in the modern church. There are several important subjects left, such as Jesus; what it means to be born again; the Kingdom of God; sin; and salvation.
It appears this series will unfold in six parts, and today—part three—is a subject I approach with some hesitation. This is a subject that leaves a lot of people cold. It is a subject about which people have very strong opinions. It is a subject that is big—I mean really really big. The subject? God.
To say that this is a difficult subject would be the granddaddy of all understatements. The word theology means, quite literally. “God talk.” (Theo—God; logy—talk.) Now, consider that pretty much every religion in the world accepts some form of this statement: “The God which can be spoken of is not really God.” You see the problem. By definition, “theology” means talking about that which cannot be talked about.
Isn’t it amazing the countless volumes of books that have been written on a subject that words cannot express! And I recognize that I am adding to that endless flow of words as I stand here this morning and deliver a sermon on the subject. But how do we consider the implications of The New Christianity without taking some time to talk about God?
Many modern theologians simply do not use the word “God” anymore. That fact is, there is a great deal of baggage associated with that word; so much baggage, in fact, that the reality to which that word tries to point is no longer conveyed by the word.
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And here’s why: From the time we are young children, our parents seem to have good and reliable answers to most of our questions. If we ask about arithmetic, they can explain it by holding up fingers—two plus two is four. If we have questions about our country, they can tell us stories about our nation’s founders. If we have questions about our families, there are tales to be told about how our parents met, and how their parents met, and how we came to be born in a particular place and time.
Our parents have all the answers—except when it comes to God. And when we ask questions about God, we either get answers that don’t make much sense, or our parents launch into some soft-shoe routine that attempts to hide the glazed-over look in their eyes. After all, God is the subject it is impossible to talk about—even to other intelligent and educated adults. How can parents talk to their children about such a thing?
And so, from a very early age, we create a special little place in our minds for “God-talk.” We create a small, airtight room in our heads where we can stick all the talk of God we hear as we grow up. A beloved pet dies, and somebody tells us he’s with God. Something terrible happens to a family member, and we hear that it is God’s will. We hear about a plane crash or a train wreck, with dozens of people tragically killed, and watch the one or two survivors thanking God for watching over them and protecting them while everybody else was killed.
That little room on our heads gets crowded with some pretty strange ideas. God loves us all we are told; but plans on sending everybody to eternal torment unless they choose properly among the world’s many religions. We human beings are made in God’s image, we are told, so we assume God must be five or six feet tall; but how can that be when we are also told that God is everywhere?
An awful lot of the God talk we hear just doesn’t make sense, and that’s why we stash it away in that secret room—under lock and key. And for the rest of our lives, whenever we hear the word “God,” the door to that secret room flies open, and what comes out is this flood of images and ideas that leave us confused; disoriented; off-balance. So we quickly take whatever it is we are currently hearing about God, toss it into our secret room, and slam shut the door as quickly as possible.
Marcus Borg, whose latest book, The Heart of Christianity, serves as the foundation for this sermon series, notes that a recent Gallup Poll reveals 95% of Americans believe in God. In England the figure is 35%, and the other European nations have even lower numbers.
Many of the Americans who claim a belief in God believe in a God that many of us, frankly, do not think exists. They believe in that six foot tall male God who presides over the world like a cosmic dictator. But for people who have moved beyond childlike images of God, and who are serious about the reality that word attempts to point to, Borg tells us there are two basic worldviews: a religious worldview, and a non-religious worldview.
Consider the totality of the universe—everything that can be said to exist in time and space. Is there something more? The non-religious worldview says “no.” All that exists is the matter, energy, and natural forces of the physical universe. The religious worldview says there is something more. Let’s set aside that word, “God,” that has caused so many problems. Notice I didn’t say God has caused the problems—just the word God. This “something more” that the religious worldview says is real is sometimes called God; but it is also called Spirit, Yahweh, the Eternal, the Sacred, Tao, Allah, Brahman, Atman, and the Ground of Being, among a host of other names.
Last week we talked about faith, and how faith means much more than agreeing with certain ideas about religion. Faith is something that happens at the very center of our being; something we feel in our depths that words cannot express. There can be no proof that God exists. The idea that there is “more” will never be scientifically proven. But it is not unreasonable to believe there is more—that God is indeed real.
Because there is no proof, Marcus Borg points to three things that allow The New Christianity to embrace the reality of God without resorting to superstition. First, there is the collective wisdom of humanity. There is something hardwired into we human beings that makes us seek God. That doesn’t prove a thing, other than the fact that the hunger for something more than the purely material world is a part of who we are.
Second, if there is no “more”; if God is nothing but a human wish that has no reality; there have been a lot of very intelligent and rational human beings who have been fooled. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Soren Kierkegaard were not a bunch of superstitious and fragile people who needed to find an imaginary crutch to make it through life. And these people—and millions like them—have claimed to have experienced God—the “more”—in a way that led them to spend their lives insisting God is very very real. Again, it doesn’t prove anything. But it is not unreasonable to assume they may have stumbled upon something many others haven’t.
Third, there is that amazing world of quantum physics. Go ahead and tune out for the next few moments if quantum physics gives you a headache, but I don’t know how to approach the possibility of God without at least mentioning what quantum physics has done to our view of the world. Quantum physics says the most fundamental processes of the universe occur outside space and time. And this certainly proves nothing, other than the fact that if a person thinks the modern worldview is the final and ultimate way of thinking about the universe, they are dead wrong.
Imagine how our ancestors felt five hundred years ago when science started telling them the earth was round and not flat; that the earth circled the sun; that the sun was just a garden variety star hurtling through space. It made no sense. We can all see what is real, and what is real is a flat earth, that is sitting still, being circled by the sun. And the stars are just specs of light on the edge of the sky. That is the reality we have been given to deal with. Why would our eyes deceive us?
They were wrong. But what we are now learning is that our modern worldview, revealed by microscopes and telescopes and the very best of modern science, is only a tiny piece of the whole picture. If we think we can find all the answers by studying the physical world in front of our eyes, we are missing the big picture even more than our ancestors missed it—those who thought the world was flat and stationary. And once again, this proves nothing regarding the reality of God, other than the fact that we should approach the subject with some humility, since our senses allow us to grasp reality only in four dimensions—height, width, depth and time—and the latest string theory suggest there are actually eleven dimensions.
Well, I have no real grasp of quantum physics, but it sure seems obvious that there is a lot more going on here than what we can get our minds around, and we should not dismiss the possibility of God just because we can’t prove God exists with the tools we use to study our four-dimensional world.
Okay, now that we can hopefully agree that one can have a religious worldview and not necessarily be shallow or superstitious, our search for the God of the New Christianity can move forward. And the church is dividing into two groups, which by now, should sound familiar. The old way of thinking about God is called supernatural theism, but let’s not bog down on the words. What supernatural theism means is that God is a person-like being, in many ways like a human being, who created the world, is out there in heaven somewhere, and who occasionally intervenes in the natural processes of the universe. God is one being among other beings. God is the Supreme Being; but one can think of God as something concrete. There are apples and oranges and fish and monkeys and human beings and God. They’re all things that exist separately from one another; things that could be lined up side by side.
The New Christianity has a real struggle with this concept of God. The New Christianity has difficulty picturing God as something totally unconnected to the rest of the universe. Instead of thinking of God as some thing out there, God is in everything and everything is in God. God is the encompassing spirit in which everything exists. This is not pantheism, which means God is the world. This is panentheism, which means the world in God. Again, let’s not bog down on the religious language. But panentheism is the view of God that seems to be anchoring the New Christianity. And panentheism simply means that God is everything that is, and something more. All of the universe exists in God.
Many people struggle with the idea of prayer when they are asked to move beyond the God-in-the-sky concept of God. And there is nothing wrong with imagining a God in the sky. God hears all our prayers, regardless of the manner in which we send them forth. It is helpful for me to picture Jesus when I pray, because I believe Jesus is a beautiful reflection of that Eternal Spirit that holds the universe together. But allowing God out of the box—accepting that God is much much bigger than some human-like creature in the sky—should not hamper our prayer life. Because the God of the New Christianity is close—very close. This God is inside every cell of our bodies. This God “hears” our prayers because this God is on the very waves that our vocal cords create in order to make sound.
The thing that many object to with this way of conceiving of God is that God is no longer personal. And this gets to the heart of the matter. Many claim the New Christianity has lost its heart. Many claim that this new way of conceiving of God reduces God to some sort of uncaring spiritual power that buzzes within everything. Many of us reject that way of thinking about God. This God of the New Christianity is still personal—not because God looks like a human being, but because God cares. God loves. God relates to us, and we relate to God, in a personal way.
We must not allow the God of the New Christianity to become an abstract philosophical concept. This is the Living God, in which all life has its source. We encounter God not in mental gymnastics, but in the deepest and most passionate levels of our being.
God does not micromanage the world, like some sort of cosmic dictator; but God is present in everything that happens—the joy, the pain, the laughter, the tears—and God quietly resides in the unfolding of our lives, in the events that shape us, and move us, and call us toward a better future.
This is not the God of requirements that so many in the Christian faith claim we must believe in. This is not a God whose primary concern is that human beings abide by certain religious rituals. This is not a God of rewards and punishment—a God who offers an eternity of bliss to those who follow the correct religion and practice it the right way, while condemning to eternal damnation those who have approached faith and religion the wrong way. This is not a God who divides nations into the righteous and the unrighteous, and blesses the swords and bombs of a chosen people while celebrating the deaths of others. This is not a God who will rapture people from the earth because they have made a proper confession of faith in Jesus, while leaving behind the multitudes to suffer eternal anguish.
That is not the God of the New Christianity. The God of the New Christianity is the God who holds all of creation in being and who, moment to moment, draws the breath into our lungs. This is the God who seeks justice for all people, and who blesses the lives of those who work for the greater good. This is the God who loves all of creation, and all people, not because of what they do, but because of who they are—God’s children—manifestations of God’s very Spirit. This is the God that is God—the only God we have—the heart of reality. This is the God before whom we reverently bow our heads, the God to whom we direct our prayers and for whom we live our lives. This is the God we seek, the God who is real, the God who is everywhere in everything and who holds all of creation together with the power of an unspeakable love.
Some try to turn the New Christianity into a social enterprise, which ignores God and addresses the problems of the world. Some try to turn the New Christianity into a godless collection of moral teachings that afford happy and peaceful lives. But the fact is, Christianity—old and new—cannot exist without God, and for two reasons. First, Christianity makes the claim that God is the heart of reality. And second, an even bolder claim—that Jesus is the heart of God. That’s where we’ll take up next week.
In the meantime, I am tempted to say something like, “May God go with each and every one of us in the week ahead.” But it occurs to me that God will go with each and every one of us in the week ahead. So my prayer is not that we have God’s presence in our lives, but rather, that we acknowledge it. Amen.