Blogging about God has created a problem for me. I realize that I pray to an interventionist God while I believe in a distant God. Since I blog about God to help me figure out what I believe, this is good. It just doesn’t bring me peace.
Most of my posts are about what other people believe about God. Since they are smarter than I am that seems a good start. None seem to believe in God quite like I do, but that’s OK too.
I believe in a creator God, one who has stepped back from his handiwork. Why is there something rather than nothing? Philosophers ask this question, and they are serious. People, zebras, bugs, the earth, the cosmos: everything there is has no need to exist. It just does, and I can see no other ultimate answer than God. Alfred North Whitehead believed something like this.
This works on a less cosmic level as well. Every night I thank God for the gift of my life that day, and for the wonder and beauty that exists in this world. I pray for those I love and care about. And I pray for desperate, afflicted people, such as the Rohingya Muslims. That’s about it.
I try not to pray for myself. That seems too much like asking God for a bicycle for Christmas. But, what would I pray for if I were seriously ill? That I be open to God’s presence. I’d pray for the same thing for my wife, and others whom I love.
But you see the problem
But you see the problem. I pray to an interventionist God I don’t believe in. If I thank him for the gift of my life that day, then I presume he had something to do with that too. The same goes when I pray for others.
Phil Klay wrote a novel about soldiers in the Iraq war, Redeployment. One of the characters, a chaplin, talks about the prayers so many soldiers ask for. “Twenty centuries of Christianity,” he says to himself. “You’d think we’d learn . . . In this world, He only promises that we don’t suffer alone.” (p 167) I think that’s just about right.
How I think it really works
If God is present in all our lives, and yet terrible, terrible things have happened and are happening all over the world, how could God permit this? Because he is not all powerful. I’ve brought this thesis up in a couple of my blog posts. Process theology it’s called, though the name really doesn’t matter.
The answer that “these things happen for a reason, but only God knows why” is unacceptable. The revolution started by Martin Luther (see previous post), but which had its seeds centuries earlier in Thomas Aquinas, says that this world is a good, valuable, and beautiful place. It is not a just a way station on the route to heaven. This life is good in itself. If that is so, then I cannot imagine worshiping a God who allows millions and millions of people to spend their lives in fear, loss, poverty, and pain. One who allows torture and mass murder.
What’s the answer then? We are not in God’s hands. We are God’s hands. It is our job to take this world as we find it and make it better. In general, I think those who are inspired by God are more active than others, but there are many, many exceptions. Oxfam, my favorite charity, is thoroughly secular.
What is God doing in the meantime? I like the answer of Charles Hartshorne. God rejoices in our joys, and sorrows in our sorrow. Lots of people seem to think that a God like that is hardly worth worshiping. My answer is that if you want a God of infinite might, then you are worshiping power, not goodness.
I’m a Christian, and so I’m expected to think that Christ was a great event in history. I do, but not for the usual reasons. Jesus Christ is not my personal savior (whatever that means), but I don’t think he was just a wise teacher either. The story of Christ is the story of a God who allowed himself to become human and suffer as humans do in order that he might know more about us, his creation, and so that we can imagine a God who is not all powerful. In other words, God became human so that he could know us, and we him. If so, then basic human standards of good and evil must apply even to God. It’s good to worship God because God is good. Just not all powerful.
Lots of people, probably the vast majority of Christians, believe that Christ was never fully human, for he performed many miracles. The Nicene Creed says Christ was both fully human and fully God, which doesn’t really help. The Gospel of John treats Christ as though he was just pretending to be human.
What’s so great about Christ’s journey is his vulnerability, his willingness to be forsaken and humiliated as only a human can be. The Old Testament, as Christians call it, has most of the great Bible stories, but the story of Christ is a really great story, particularly if we read it not primarily as a promise of salvation, but as a story about God’s limits. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46) Who could say this but a God torn in two, doubting even himself for a moment? As all of us, including the most tenacious, have doubted God. (Christ’s cry is not just a reference to Psalm 22; he was not teaching Bible studies.)
Does God exist?
As I argued in a previous post, this is a stupid question. No believer can know for sure, and faith is a matter of living as though God exists. In so doing, we make God as real as he possibly can be for mortal humans. Belief isn’t about what you believe. It’s about whether you act as though you believe. For some faith comes easy. For others, fake it until you make it probably comes closer. And make it we do. By acting as though God exists he does. I think this is what I am doing when I pray to an active, interventionist God. But I think prayer is also a form of meditation on all the good and bad in the world, an act that reaffirms each day that there is enough goodness, enough love, to make this difficult life worth living. Many can’t say this, and for most the pure animal will to survive takes its place. For a few it doesn’t.
A world worth living in isn’t a fun and easy world. It’s a meaningful world. The idea that we are God’s hands, making this a better world, is more than enough to make life meaningful, and more than enough to keep us busy. But what about those who are old, frail, seriously ill, or depressed? Can they act as God’s hands? Not in the same way, but to live life in whatever way we are constrained is to uphold the value of life, affirming that everyone counts.
Why is there so much aggressive atheism these days?
There are lots of reasons, including the power of science and technology, which sometimes makes it seem as if God is unnecessary. We can do for ourselves. But I think the main reason is a loss of metaphysical imagination.
What do I mean? An analogy might help. Lots of people used to think of psychology in Freudian terms. Life is a battle between love and hate, our desire for mommy and the need to grow up, a world expressed in the meaning of our dreams. Today psychology is about pills and serotonin receptors.
Even if Freud was wrong, he stimulated the imagination. If you have no imagination, then you can’t believe, you can’t have faith. Faith is not just an act of the imagination; it is a commitment of the imagination. Without it we live in poorer world. The attack on religion is an attack on the power of imagination to make a world filled with meaning. Without imagination, we can’t believe.
What about salvation and the afterlife? That’s for another post.
Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. State University of New York Press, 1984.
Phil Klay, Redeployment. Penguin Books, 2014.
Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality. Free Press, 2nd edition, 2010. [original 1929]