[Sermon preached at Harrisonburg Unitarian Universalist Fellowship—December 1, 2019]
You would think that given how important God is to so many people, that we’d find it easier to talk about God. But it seems that even though people act as though, of course, God is real and we all know what we mean by God, very few people are all that articulate when they actually try to talk about God. It’s even difficult to find good jokes about God—when I searched the internet, this is the best I could do: God was talking to an angel and said, “I just figured out how to rotate the Earth so it creates this really incredible 24-hour period of alternating light and darkness.” The angel said, “That’s great. So, what are you going to do next?” God says, “Well, I think I’ll call it a day.”
I suppose for many of us, our understanding of God has evolved quite a bit as we have gone through life; mine has. One of the things I now believe is that we too easily forget that our language about God is always metaphorical. All that humans can say is what we think God is like, not what God for a fact is. It is our concept of God that we talk about. But we have the habit of saying simply, “God is this or God is that.” I will share today about the evolution of my thinking about God—and it seems more authentic to use the kind of language about God that I have used in the past. But I recognize that all I say here is metaphorical, even if I don’t use qualifiers such as “God is like…”.
I was stimulated to reflect on how my thinking about God has changed when I heard the sermon here on God by Paul Britner in October. Paul made me ask, What do I think about God? As a starting point, I think most people actually agree that God does not usually directly intervene in the affairs of human beings. Even most pious Christians have experienced enough tragedy to know that God simply does not step in and stop bad things from happening. My buddy Rod getting killed in a car wreck at age 17. My dad dying suddenly of a brain aneurism at age 67. My mom’s sister having a fatal appendicitis attack when she was four. Not to mention wars, famines, pestilences. So, the question, then, is: Why? Why does God allow so much terrible stuff to happen?
Let me summarize one common notion: the idea is that God has a plan for the world and its inhabitants. But God keeps God’s own counsel. We can’t know what this plan is since God’s ways are not our ways. God does intervene when it suits God’s purposes and our job is to trust God and rest in the confidence that God works all things together for good—even when in the moment we can’t see how. So, God doesn’t intervene because God chooses not to, for God’s own unknowable purposes.
I realize now that I never found this notion satisfactory, though I tried to believe it for a long time. But mainly I repressed my questions and doubts. When I was in college in the mid-1970s at the University of Oregon, I took a philosophy of religion class that forced me to face those questions and doubts (though just for awhile). We read a novel by Peter De Vries, The Blood of the Lamb, that focused the issue of God and evil. The storyteller, based on the author himself, tries to come to terms with the illness and death of his young daughter. He had grown up in a Calvinist family where God’s all-powerfulness was the central belief. That “embedded theology,” instilled in him from the time of his birth, turned out to be utterly inadequate for helping him with this worst imaginable tragedy.
In my memory, the class’s teacher, Professor Zweig got pretty emotional as he agonized over the issues the book raised. I had no answers myself, I was troubled, but in my fearfulness I wrote off Professor Zweig as a skeptic who mainly wanted to undermine the faith of his Christian students. So I didn’t take him seriously. What I learned only much later was that he was born in Germany in 1930 to Jewish parents. His family barely managed to escape the Nazis in 1936 and move to the US. The issue of God’s presence in a world full of evil was indeed one that he had quite authentically agonized over his whole life.
However, I simply wasn’t ready to face those questions back then. What I was doing when I was in college mainly was going along with what I was being told about God, which meant I was okay with accepting theology that did not conform to my experience (or my reasoning). That is, I lived in an intellectual and spiritual fog. I simply put the questions on the back burner once the philosophy of religion class was over.
In the years to come, I did move away from the belief in God’s control over things. But I didn’t really think carefully about it. Maybe I didn’t actually think God was in control, but I acted as if I did. I realize now that this was a kind of “mystification.” I operated as if reality corresponds with the standard belief about God’s power. At the same time, I suspected that reality actually doesn’t correspond. So, I avoided thinking about it. Mystification is when there is a big gap between what I act like I believe and what I actually believe (or don’t believe). I now think that mystification is part of the view of God that many believers have. Deep down, many of us fear that our belief in an interventionist God is not actually true; but we’ve been afraid to say that.
It makes sense that I would avoid the difficulties with belief in an interventionist God in a world with so much brokenness. On the one hand, I sensed that if God were indeed all powerful, God must be a moral monster—at best unwilling to stop the wars, famines, epidemics, the success of selfish, greedy people so common in history, or, at the worst, actually supporting those terrible things to further God’s own purposes. But on the other hand, it terrified me to think that in this difficult world I didn’t have assurance that someone is in charge who will make things right. It made me anxious to feel at the mercy of uncontrolled violence and chaos.
This was a huge problem—my most important belief, about God being an interventionist God, flew in the face of reality as I experienced it. For the twenty years after my philosophy of religion class I avoided thinking carefully about the challenges that class posed. Part of the reason, I am sure, is that for much of that time I was a Mennonite pastor. To take these challenges seriously is not the best recipe for job security in the Mennonite world. To do so would inevitably involve profoundly questioning people’s comfortable assumptions about God’s power.
When I came to teach at EMU in 1996, right away I taught Philosophy of Religion. I wanted to use DeVries’s book and finally pay more attention to the problem of evil. Alas, the book was out of print and not available. So I chose When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner. Like De Vries, Kushner addressed the big questions while responding to the tragic death of his young son. But whereas De Vries’s book was mainly about despair, Kushner offered a more hopeful spin.
Kushner presents an argument I have found helpful. He sets up a logical puzzle. Believers tend to have three convictions: (1) God is good and loving, (2) evil is real and destructive, and (3) God is all-powerful. But all three cannot be true at the same time. At most we can affirm two of the three. Kushner suggests that we simply cannot deny #2—evil is real (witness the death of his son—plus the Holocaust and so many other great evils). So, our choice is between #1 and #3. Either God is all-powerful and in control or God is good and loving. If God is all-powerful (and evil is real), God is complicit with evil and not good and loving. If God is good and loving (and evil is real), God can’t be all-powerful. Kushner knows that God is loving and good and he sees no evidence that God is all-powerful and in control. I became convinced that Kushner is right.
I came to recognize that the idea that God is all-powerful and in control is one of the most problematic and ultimately destructive of Christian beliefs. I think this is what I always sensed, even if I didn’t have the clarity of mind or the courage overtly to accept that for a long time. The big hurdle for me when I accepted that faith in a God of love requires us to give up on an interventionist God was: What about the Bible? Doesn’t it teach that God is intervening?
I had to struggle with this question for a while. My way through it was to decide we should read the Bible as ancient literature, as telling stories, as not making a lot of metaphysical assumptions. We should not read the Bible in the way I was taught—through the lenses of Augustine and medieval Christendom and John Calvin—that starts with an all-powerful, never changing, transcendent God.
I would like to suggest the term “materialistic” for this reading strategy. To read the Bible “materialistically,” we read it without assuming that “miracles” and God’s direct intervention are historical. It’s a story that is told in the same world that we live in. Thus, we assume that if something doesn’t happen in our world (such as seas being parted and thousands of soldiers being drowned when the waters crash back down), then it didn’t happen in the past. When the Bible tells about such an event, the Bible tells a story, a kind of “holy fiction” that conveys truths but does not describe actual events. Reading the Bible materialistically helps us find in the Bible a picture of God that actually does fit with life as we know it—a God of mercy who does not intervene to stop bad things from happening but who suffers with the suffering and witnesses to the path of love. This certainly isn’t the only picture of God in the Bible, but I believe that God as love is where the Bible as a whole leads us.
So, the reason that God does not intervene is because God is love. It’s not that God could intervene but chooses not to; it’s that love simply is not interventionist and controlling. The power of God is the power of empathy, the power of mercy, the power of connection. God also suffers when children get sick and die. God can’t stop such events, but God empowers love, the kind of “intervention” children most need.
God’s is the power that moves people to give their lives for their friends, that energizes resistance to evil, that brings life back in face of brokenness. It’s like the singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn affirms in his song “Where the Death Squad Lives.” In the midst of crying out against the violence of Latin American militarists against people who resist, Cockburn affirms, “around every evil there gathers love, bombs aren’t the only things that fall from above.”
The writer Rebecca Solnit addresses this dynamic in her terrific book, A Paradise Built in Hell. She does not name the paradise-building power “God,” but I think she could. She writes about various massive disasters such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1917 Halifax explosion, 9/11 in New York, and Hurricane Katrina. She discovered what I would call the presence of God in the midst of these terrible events—not in preventing them but in working within them through human love that unexpectedly created powerful communities of healing.
If I were to teach Philosophy of Religion now, I would use a book, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz by Jewish theologian Melissa Raphael. In moving detail, she recounts stories of women caring for other women in the Nazi death camps. She argues against the common belief that God was absent during the Holocaust. God was indeed present, right in the midst of the suffering, when people loved one another. These caring relationships invited God’s presence into that place on earth that seemed most godless.
Now, a God who is simply love and cannot intervene with controlling power may, to many, not seem like God. I think that’s fine. I’m more concerned to affirm love than to affirm the metaphor “God.” I can’t say “God exists” as a fact. But I can say that “love exists.” I not only believe love exists, I have seen it. Now, love is fragile. It can be stifled. It’s not interventionist. I think what most matters is this: How do we cultivate love? Still, I believe that linking love with God is a way to say that love is what matters most. It’s a way to affirm the universal character of love. It’s a way to recognize that all of life is sacred, that every human being and every other living creature deserves respect and care. For me, to say God is love is a way to assert that war and the death penalty and any other kind of lethal violence toward any human being is wrong, blasphemy in fact.
Let me close with another Bruce Cockburn line: “If you love love, then love loves you too.” Amen.