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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Language Fails God

Could it be that the real limitation of language is that it has very limited ability to describe the abstract? If you doubt that, try to tell me what love is in fifty words or less. While you are at it try to describe love in five thousand words or less, or the way a spectacular sunset feels, or your internal response the exact moment when you see a child born. The best we can hope for is a very loose approximation that doesn't really do the experience justice.

How many books have been written about God? Whether you have read one of those books or one thousand of them, the odds are they really don't even come close to your experience of God. They may come close to describing things that you have heard others say about God, but the things we say about anything or anybody rarely come close to portraying the experience of meeting them. If they did, all of those dates you went on with someone you were told had a wonderful personality would have worked out much better!

A great segment of Christianity has spent a lot of time trying to describe God in the way we might describe an office building, or the way a car engine works, or the way we would evaluate someone admitted to a
psychiatric unit. We try to attribute behaviors to God, as if God was some kind of superhuman being, in order to convince each other we know how God "works." We read the Bible as if it was a scientific treatise that describes exactly the way God and the universe interact rather than an attempt by people long dead to describe their encounters with the Transcendent in the only language available to them, the language of their everyday lives. We talk about God speaking to us, as if encountering God was some sort of psychotic episode. Preachers speak about God giving them just the message they need to preach while they were driving over to church on Sunday morning, as if God is their speech writer on call. In the end, it's all just so much nonsense because it's all about the speaker trying to convince the listener that the speaker is just a little bit closer to God than the rest of us and so we really should listen to them and empty our wallets into their collection plates. It's all about Harold, and not about God at all. For these people religion is all about literalizing a very abstract concept and then using that distortion to get ahead by any means necessary. In other words, it's manipulative nonsense. It's little wonder that Christianity has a credibility problem.

On the other hand, those of us who have had experiences of God are hard pressed to describe them. Some of us don't find trying to describe God as a "being," human or otherwise, very accurate at all. Fur us God is that which is found in silence; that which pervades, supports, surrounds, sustains, and animates life. For us God is far closer to what Eastern religions call Enlightenment than God could ever be to Harold. When we experience God it is as if we suddenly see everything very clearly, including the best direction to take or decision to make - not because someone is whispering it in our ear or commanding it under penalty of damnation, but because for a moment we share a transcendent viewpoint in which what has been hidden (and often so much more) is revealed. We are not left with any sort of proof that is a collection of bullet points but rather with a knowing that transcends explanation, and that knowing is what matters. That knowing causes us to realize, among other things, that it really doesn't matter if our understanding or description coincides with that of anyone else or if it earns their approval because the knowing itself is enough.

It's not much of a description, but then the only tool I have to use is language.

If the future is going to hold a meaningful expression of Christianity in a community setting we are going to have to find ways to move away from the popular misunderstandings of God as an angry, intoxicated, abusive parent and Christians as the small child that just spilled the milk across the kitchen table at dinnertime yet again. Whenever I hear about "praise and worship" gatherings I am always left with the impression that attendees are kissing up to the angry and abusive parent God while he is sober in the hopes that a little later tonight when he is drunk the beating might not be as bad. In fairness, there are people who love "praise and worship" services for the emotional high often created therein by well trained worship leaders who understand how to use psychology and music to manipulate their emotions. Isn't that just another kind of deception? Those attending such services believe that the Holy Spirit's presence makes them feel elated, but in truth it's nothing more than a contemporary PT Barnum dressed in church clothes.

What is God is more like the ocean and we are fish swimming in it? The God would both surround us and flow through us like water moves through a the gills of a fish. We would draw our sustenance from God as a fish draws oxygen from the water, and God would also support us and comprise our environment. The entire world as we know it would be God, and no other being we encountered would be outside of our God-environment. Trying to decide who was in and out of the ocean would be absurd, as would any claim that the water liked one of us more than another. Every now and then we might swim out of the cove in which we spend most of our lives and get a glimpse of how vast the ocean really is and how varied are the forms of life it supports. No analogy is perfect, but we can see how those with a limited perspective might believe that the ocean is angry when a story stirs it up and create stories of a vengeful, angry ocean. Those living in deeper waters would experience the ocean as unchanging and dependable and reject the stories of the shallows dwellers. A mature faith has found the deep waters not because it is special in any way but rather because it has engaged in spiritual practice consistently. That means it is within reach of all of us!

I don't pretend to have the answers about what our community gatherings will look like. Those questions are yet to be answered. They will certainly be grounded more in honest exchange and sharing of the journey than in attempts to manipulate or coerce one way or another. I suspect, too, that the environment for these gatherings will be much more a level playing field than the Church has historically been. There will probably always be people who facilitate such gatherings and are specially trained to do so, but a good facilitator knows that his or her job is to bring people into full participation rather than provide them with pat answers designed to repress thought rather than stimulate it. We could sing the old songs if they still gave us joy, but we would sing them in a way that appreciated them as metaphorical rather than literal - as any description of Transcendence must be if it has any hope of ringing true.

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