Losing God to Find God

I saw an article this week that discussed how, over the last five years, belief in God in the United States has declined by 15%.  It is the latest in a string of studies and articles that discuss a general decline in “God-belief” in recent years not only in the United States, but in Canada and Europe, as well (though, the US has come to this decline rather more recently).  Whenever I see articles like this, I am reminded of the story told about the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin from a time when he served as Chaplain at Yale University.  The story is that a student came to him one day saying that he had concluded that he no longer believed in God.  Coffin said, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.”  The student proceeded to describe a God who was judgmental and demanding, a God who laid down the law and smote those who didn’t follow it, a God who bestowed blessings on some while denying them to others.   In short, the student described an image of God that was a caricature, constructed largely on the basis of an unsophisticated reading of the Hebrew Bible.  When the student finished, Coffin said, “Good.  I don’t believe in that God, either.”

Whenever the question of belief or unbelief in God arises, Coffin’s question to the student should always be asked:  which God are you affirming or denying?  The sad truth, I think, is that a lot of people – I suspect even most people – have as the object of their belief or unbelief a God very much like the one that the student described to the Rev. Coffin.   When one reads the arguments of the so-called “new atheists” against belief, it seems to me that this is the God they are arguing against.  It seems clear to me that one of the most important steps in a mature, evolving spiritual journey is to let go of this God.  Not in favor of unbelief, but rather, of deeper belief.  In essence, we must lose God in order to truly find God.

This God that we need to let go of in order to go deeper belongs to what Richard Rohr has called a first half of life spiritual orientation.  As we grow up, begin adult lives, initiate careers, establish intimate relationships, we tend to be driven by internal forces and ambitions that place ourselves at the center and that urge us to define the world in a very clear, black-and-white way.  Once a person is “established” and has gained more life experience, if s/he is willing to reflect on those experiences, s/he begins to move into a second half of life spirituality that appreciates complexity, understands that there are many shades of color in the world, perceives that the edges of things are not always sharp but often quite blurred, and is often able to be more other-centered than self-centered.  Rohr has said that he has known people in their twenties who already have a second half of life spiritual orientation, and that he has known people in their eighties whose orientation still is one formed in the first half of life.  If we are able to make the shift that Rohr describes, we will find that our understanding of who God is also shifts.

Here’s another quote from Fr. Rohr (the bold emphasis is mine):

If we want to go to the mature, mystical, and non-dual levels of spirituality, we must first deal with the often faulty, inadequate, and even toxic images of God that most people are dealing with before they have authentic God experience. Both God as Trinity and Jesus as the “image of the invisible God” reveal a God quite different—and much better—than the Santa Claus image or the “I will torture you if you do not love me” God that most people are still praying to. Such images are an unworkable basis for any real spirituality.

Trinity reveals that God is the Divine Flow under, around, and through all things—much more a verb than a noun; relationship itself rather than an old man sitting on a throne. Jesus tells us that God is like a loving parent, who runs toward us, clasps, and kisses us while we are “still a long ways off” (Luke 15:20). Until this is personally experienced, most of Christianity does not work. This theme moves us quickly into practice-based religion (orthopraxy) over mere words and ideas (orthodoxy).

The fact that belief in God is declining in our society, and the likelihood that the God who is losing credibility is the caricatured God that Coffin’s student described, is an indication, I think, that people are finding it difficult to have the essential, formative experience that Rohr speaks of when he describes God as like a loving parent running toward us:  “until this is personally experience, most of Christianity does not work.”   To me, this speaks powerfully of the need for Christian communities today who help people to find this experience, so that they can (using Rohr’s terms) move beyond God as noun to discover the deeper (and truer) mystery of God as verb.

The quote from Fr. Richard Rohr is from the Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation dated June 24, 2012.

True Religion?

I’ve been on a bit of a Richard Rohr kick lately, receiving his daily email from the Center for  Action and Contemplation.  His most recent series of emails has been speaking of the Perennial Tradition, the idea (not original to Rohr, certainly) that there is a collective or common wisdom that “keeps recurring in different religions and with different metaphors” but which, at a foundational level, is essentially the same.  Many religious people find this idea objectionable or threatening, because it seems to undermine the uniqueness of their particular religious tradition.  In fact, the idea of the perennial tradition honors the uniqueness of each tradition that bears it, and recognizes the ways in which each of those traditions contributes to it.  What the idea does challenge is the exclusivity that many people like to attach to their own religious tradition:  that their’s is the only one that has any truth or value.  Or, as it is often put in the Christian tradition as well as others, that there is only one religion that can get you to God.

As Rohr reflects on the essential elements or recurring themes of the perennial tradition, he focuses on three principles:

  • There is a Divine Reality underneath and inherent in the world of things.
  • There is in the human soul a natural capacity for, similarity to, and longing for this Divine Reality.
  • The final goal of all existence is union with this Divine Reality.

Each of the world’s religious traditions honors and utilizes each of these principles in their own ways, and I certainly find that these principles speak to my own experience of the core elements of the Christian tradition and what I have observed and learned about with respect to other religious traditions.

For me, acknowledging that the perennial principles speak to something deeply true about human experience that is expressed in each of the various religions does not in any way undermine my commitment to Christ or compromise what I perceive as the uniqueness of the Christian tradition.  What it does do is help me feel a greater connection to my fellow human beings, and to realize deeply, as someone once said, that we are all spiritual beings having a human experience.

I leave you with this quote from Richard Rohr, which to me rings beautifully and urgently true:

Most people, particularly young people, have no knowledge that the purpose of their life is union with Divine Reality. They have been told that the purpose of life is to get a degree and make money and have kids and die. That’s the narrowed-down secular understanding of reality, which is de facto followed by many Christians. Most are no longer connected to the perennial philosophy, and just waste time fighting their own religion. This is not wisdom at all—it is low-level survival. We’re now living in a largely survival mode in our culture. No wonder so many of our kids turn to drugs, drink, and promiscuous sex, because there’s nothing else that’s very exciting or very true.


Providing the Hunger

In a talk entitled Eucharist as Touchstone, the Rev. Richard Rohr says,

The Eucharist is telling us that God is the food and all we have to do is provide the hunger. Somehow we have to make sure that each day we are hungry, that there’s room inside of us for another presence. If you are filled with your own opinions, ideas, righteousness, superiority, or sufficiency, you are a world unto yourself and there is no room for “another.”

I must admit that while the Eucharist, or Communion, has always been deeply meaningful to me, I have never before thought of it quite this way.  I love Richard Rohr’s suggestion that our role as we approach the Eucharist is to “provide the hunger”.  And as he explores what that means, he interprets it in terms of providing “room inside of us for another presence”.

On the one hand, it seems so simple:  allowing room in our hearts and souls for God to be present in and with us.  On the other hand, it is often so hard to actually accomplish.  Too often, as Rohr says, each of us is a world unto him-/herself, because we are so filled with ourselves:  our “own opinions, ideas, righteousness, superiority, or sufficiency”.   There is simply no room for God.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians (11:17-32), St. Paul criticizes the way in which the Christian community in Corinth is celebrating the Eucharist.  The wealthier among them are bringing a whole picnic lunch to church and feasting sumptuously in front of the poorer members of the community, who have little or nothing.  It reflects the fact that in the early church, the Eucharist was celebrated as part of a larger meal.  Eventually, perhaps in part because of the problems St. Paul is discussing, the meal was dropped, leaving only the blessing of the bread and wine.

St. Paul criticizes the Corinthians for misunderstanding what the Eucharist is about.   Those who are hungry (physically) are to eat at home before they come to church, he says.  In his own way, Paul is making the same point that Rohr is making:  that when we come to the Eucharist, we are to bring a spiritual hunger, a space within us for God’s presence to dwell and, from that dwelling place in our hearts, to begin to transform our ideas and opinions so that they reflect the values of the kingdom of God, and to remind us that our whole lives, our whole beings, depend on the One who seeks to come and make a home within us.

My Father’s Gift

This weekend, our whole family will be gathering to celebrate a milestone in my father’s life:  the 50th anniversary of his ordination in the United Church of Christ.  He claims retirement now (though what this means is not entirely clear!), and the church where he and my mother worship (and where he has preached and conducted various services from time to time, despite the whole “retirement” thing) is having a big celebration this Sunday – the actual anniversary date.  And words will be required from both my brother and me,  though this has my father worried:  he wanted to be sure that we understood that these were not to be eulogies as he is, thankfully, not yet dead.

And so I have been pondering these not-to-be-anything-like-a-eulogy words over the past couple of weeks.  As is my usual methodology, I probably will not write them down, which means that I can’t be entirely sure what I will actually say when the moment arrives.  I have been told that we should keep these words few in number, so as not to go on too long.  A few words to sum up 50 years of ministry, which for me are inextricably linked with 50 years of fatherhood (well, okay, 46 in my case).  It probably won’t be easy to do.  I might not be able to keep it as short as hoped.  My main concern is that it doesn’t smell at all of eulogy.

In my ruminating about all of this, I have kept coming back to something:  a gift – one of many – that was given to me by my father, and lives very much at the heart of my own life and ministry.  And that is the gift of a generous and loving God.  Because let us make no mistake:  the image of God that we carry with us, that informs the relationship we create with that God and that serves as the launching point into a Christian life, is initially given to us by someone else, someone who occupies an important position in our life.  That “someone” may be a parent, clergy person, or other significant adult.  It might even be a whole bunch of people, like a particular faith community.   But somewhere along the line, someone has played a crucial role in telling us who God might be, and that image has set us on a particular spiritual course.

If we are serious about our spiritual life, at some point we will begin to reflect on that image of God that was given to us and in which we were formed.  We may come to conclude that the God we are coming to know in our lives is nothing like the image we were given, or we may conclude that the image was basically sound but requires some adjustment in light of our experience.  Or, we may find that the image matches well with the God with whom we are in friendship.  This is part of the very essence of the spiritual life:  testing various images and symbols against our own experience of the sacred.

There are those, of course, who are less reflective, and who accept the God images they were given without giving them much thought.  They simply assume those images are true and, when those images find “hooks” in their own egos, they can easily mistake the image for the reality, and end up worshiping a God who is more a projection of their own ego rather than the God who is.

Today, I am very aware that so many people are given images of God during their formative years that are more about death than they are about life.  They are given images based on a distorted reading of the Hebrew Bible, which is used to create a distorted understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus, and so for them, God becomes a figure who is more about judgment, vengeance, and strict obedience than mercy, forgiveness, and grace-filled compassion.  Increasingly, we find that people reject this distorted, rigid image of God and, in the process, reject God all together, being unaware that there are alternative images of God that speak more truly in relation to their lived experience.  And, also increasingly, we find that the most “successful” churches are those who insist on proclaiming a God of vengeance and judgment, mostly based on the idea that one can avoid God’s vengeance and judgment by being part of a select group.  It is no wonder that such churches are large, because who doesn’t want to be part of an “in group”, especially if it means being “in” with God?

In my case, the early years of my spiritual life were shaped in large part by my father’s life and preaching.  The image of God that I was offered during those years was an image of a God of generosity, love, and compassion.  I was taught that God did indeed require things of me, but not in terms of an unattainable moral perfection.  I wasn’t going to be perfect, and God knew that.  No, what God required of me had less to do with my own righteousness and much more to do with seeing the needs of those around me and doing something about them.  I was helped to understand that people carried with them tremendous burdens and deep brokenness, and rather than seeing this reality as a source of disappointment, God saw in this reality an opportunity for us – for me! – to be about the work of helping people lay down some of those burdens and heal some of that brokenness so that they could know themselves as beloved.  And that is precisely the work that my father has been up to for these 50 years as a pastor and therapist.

And thanks to my father (and my mother deserves credit, as well!), I have always known myself as beloved.  By them, certainly, but most importantly in an ultimate sense by God.  There has never been one day in my life when I have questioned that or not known that in some way.  And that is a tremendous gift for which there can never be sufficient gratitude.  Because, in a fundamental way, it is the gift that has made all the difference.