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.