by Rev. J. Michael Solberg
at The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C.
From the 10:00 a.m. Service
on Sunday, June 7, 2015
“What We Talk About When We Talk About God”
(Mark 12:28-34, week 1)
You came in to talk with me a while back about some pretty serious stuff. A member of your family had been hospitalized, and the illness had begun with the all too common and terrible time of just not knowing what was really going on. For two or three days you simply didn’t know whether your whole world was going to be thrown into the heartbreaking, faith-shaking chaos of grief, or whether this loved one, and therefore your life and faith, would be just fine. After a few days, the doctors did figure out what was going on, that it was not a super serious situation, and now your loved one has indeed made a full recovery.
But the whole situation was still troubling you. Specifically, those two or three days of uncertainty were troubling you. You thought of yourself as a person of real faith, and yet if honest with yourself, as you were courageously trying to be, you realized that those two or three days of waiting showed your faith to be…vulnerable. As you put it to me that day, you were no longer sure you actually believed in God.
You were basically surprised when, in those days of waiting, prayer seemed to mean very little to you. It seemed as if there was no one “on the other end of the line.” It seemed that if this had turned out differently, if you had ultimately gone home alone, rather than with your loved one beside you, then it would have been hard to see any place for God in your life.
It wasn’t just that worry, and the threat of terrible grief, were driving God further away. It was that you realized there must be more to it than this. You weren’t sure you believed in God any longer – or perhaps better, your view of God was changing, and you wondered if there was something else, something “bigger,” more truthful, out there.
If the fear of loss and the possibility of life-shaking grief were enough to make God go “poof’ and disappear from this world, then obviously God would have passed from human consciousness long ago, because fear of loss and the possibility of life shaking grief are an inevitable part of the human experience. You didn’t see it like this, but what I saw in you was not a lack of faith, but a faith so deep that you had outgrown your previous view of God. So you asked me, “Mike, what are you talking about when you talk about God?” That is an R.E.Q., a really excellent question.
Good theology grows out of the lived experience of God’s people, and if you dig into the nuances of that conversation and that REQ, you would see that there really are three distinct ways to think about the question: moral, metaphysical, personal. I want to answer each distinct aspect of the question by denying something first, and then affirming something second.
First, when this person asked me what I am talking about when I talk about God, part of the question is moral. Basically, is God good? What I want to deny here is the underlying idea that God is pulling strings in our lives. A God who causes illness, who brings about disasters, who gives cancer to children and Alzheimer’s to adults, who acts in the hand or voice of an abusive husband, or the deadly explosive power of bombs dropped from drones – a god who pulls strings and brings about such suffering is not a good god and not a god who should be believed in. When I talk about God, I am not talking about a god who causes suffering, or otherwise pulls strings in our lives.
Then what I want to affirm here is that God is constantly, eternally, unfailingly pursuing what is good for humanity and for each of us individually. As scripture says it over and over again, “the steadfast love the Lord never ceases.” But now, perhaps, you want to yell at me, right? I just said that God doesn’t pull strings, but now I am saying that God does pulls strings to make good things happen? Am I claiming that God doesn’t pull strings that cause suffering, but does pull strings that bring joy and blessing? Well, no, I am not saying that, because what I want to affirm is that God doesn’t pull strings at all, good or bad. I want to affirm rather that the action of God, the doing of God, the power of God, is shown to us in Jesus Christ. In other words, God acts through Jesus’ way of love. And because Jesus was God and human, all humans are able to act with the love of God. In other words, God has chosen to only use the power of love to bring about God’s way in the world. As first John says, God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them. So when I talk about God, I am talking about a God who is good, because God works through love. So that’s the moral question I think is embodied in the “what are we talking about when we talk about God?” question.
Second, there is a metaphysical question involved here. There is a basic question of simply, “What is God?” What kind of being? What’s the substance there? How can I think of him, or her, or it, or whatever we pronoun we use? What’s the there, there? Okay, so what I want to deny here is that God is a being within creation at all. This is hard for us to think about, because every other word we use refers to something within creation. Whether it is physical, like a piece of paper, or abstract, like beauty, it only has meaning because we can make sense of it in the existing reality of the universe. But God is not a being, or anything else, within creation. God cannot be touched or seen or physically experienced. God cannot be fully described by reference to other abstract things. God cannot be manipulated or controlled. God cannot be persuaded to do this, or not do that. For anyone to say that science proves that God doesn’t exist merely means they aren’t talking about the same God that Christians have always believed in. God isn’t even some kind of spirit or ghost or soul or disembodied being. When I talk about God, I am not talking about a being that exists within the physical reality of the universe at all.
What I want to affirm here is that God is the source of all being. God is the beingness of all being. God is not within the what of the universe, but is the why of the universe. Should scientists ever finally agree on what processes within nature—quantum fluctuation, perhaps — gave rise to the universe, they still will not have touched God. When we talk about God we are talking about why there is something rather than nothing. In this sense, it is a bit silly for us ever to talk about God at all, given that we cannot possibly conceive of God at all. But as Thomas Merton said, “I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You,” so we keep trying. When I talk about god, I am talking about the source of all being. So that’s the second, metaphysical, question, that is involved in this question about what we talk about when we talk about God.
And finally, this is really a personal question. Here, I want to deny that God can be known exclusively in an individualistic, private, sense. Now this may surprise you, coming from a pastor, but I am not someone who believes that we can have, exclusively, an individual relationship with God. I mean, if you were the only person on a deserted island, and had never known other people, there would be no experience of God for you to get in touch with there, alone on that island.
But what I want to affirm here, is that God is irreducibly a social phenomenon – that we know God, experience God, and find God in the midst of community, in the midst of relationships. And that is essential to what God is all about. To use the double negative, I am not saying God cannot be known personally – surely can be known personally, by each of us as individuals. But that individual connection to God ultimately grows out of a communal, relationship based reality.
When that person came to me that day and said that “I am not sure I believe in God any longer,” I think it was the individualistic, private God that she no longer believed in. But God is not that kind of God. God is the kind of God that is only known in the midst of community, among the relationships of our lives.
So, 1) God is good, although God doesn’t pull strings in our lives but works through the way of Jesus Christ; 2) God is a being outside of creation, a being that transcends creation, a being who is the source of being itself; and 3) God is not defined by what we can know individually, but rather by what we can together discover and experience communally as the Church.
So you may wonder, “Okay, Mike, you’ve just given a nice lecture about the notion of God. But what does this mean for my life?” Well, what I think it means is that when you run into that time in your life, as all of us go, probably on more than one occasion, when the God that you had believed in just no longer seems to work, when that God seems too small, I want you to know, and I want you to rest assured that God is much bigger – that God is good, that God is the source of all being, and that God is embodied in our life together as the Church. That God is bigger, that God is real, and that God loves us always. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
You can see a list of all available UCH sermons online at: http://Hinsdale.Church/podcast