363. what we talk about when we talk about God (part one)
This post is my attempt to understand God. Nothing more (I’m not trying to change anyone else’s mind), nothing less (I am trying to work this out for myself). I had meant to take on this topic in just one blog post, but turns out, it’s gonna be another multi-part blog series.
As always, thoughts, comments, questions, critiques welcome in the comments section.
I was hungry and went to grab a burrito at Rancho Bravo, up on Capitol Hill. I was taking a break from reading for and preparing to write this blog post so I had my trusty Mission Workshop Rambler backpack with me and stuffed inside this backpack were my iPad (for reading) and my MacBook (for writing). I got my order, put my bag down, and started wolfing down one of their amazing Bravo burritos. It was delicious, just what I needed.
Now Rancho Bravo is right next door to The Elliot Bay Book Company. They always have an interesting selection of books on display (their staff recommendations section is particularly noteworthy) and so I went over to browse the aisles. After a while, I decided it was time for me to get back to work and I knew where I wanted to go – a new coffee shop in Fremont called Milstead & Company. These guys are SERIOUS coffee nerds. They make every cup to order and before brewing, they weigh, separately, the amount of coffee and the amount of (precisely temperature controlled) water used. They don’t eyeball anything.
Anyway, I got into my car, drove over to Milstead, looking forward to reading Peter Rollins’ new book, Insurrection (on which a lot of this blog post is based) while drinking a delicious cup of whatever exotic bean they were brewing that day. Lucky me, I found a parking spot right in front of the shop (uncommon). I reached around to the back seat to grab my backpack…
And it wasn’t there.
I knew immediately what I had done. I had left it at Rancho Bravo, more than an hour ago.
I freaked out. I immediately made a u-turn and started driving back. All the while I thought about how much stuff I had in that backpack. I thought about how Rancho Bravo is kind of a sketchy place – you have to get buzzed in to the part of the restaurant that has their bathrooms. I thought about how stupid I had been, leaving it there. I thought about how long I had been gone.
And I prayed that it would still be there – that someone would see it and turn it in to lost and found.
The drive seemed to take forever, but eventually I made it back to the restaurant. I walked in and the first thing I did was to look at the table where I had been sitting. My bag wasn’t there. I went up to the counter and asked one of the cashiers if anyone had turned in a backpack. He looked back at me with a blank look on his face.
My heart barfed inside my chest.
But one of his coworkers overheard what I had said. She looked around behind the counter and asked me, “what color was it?”
“Blue,” I said.
She reached down and pulled my bag out.
My heart glowed inside my chest.
I thanked her and drove back to Milstead.
I’ll get back to this story in a bit.
First, I want to talk about the word, “idolatry.” Basically, in Christian theology, idolatry is worshiping anything that isn’t God. The first of the Ten Commandments deals head on with the issue.
(3) “You shall have no other gods before me.
(4) “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. (5) You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, (6) but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
The reason why I think it’s important for me to reflect seriously and carefully about how I understand God is because I don’t want to worship an idol.
Even if that idol is God.
Now what do I mean by that?
Well, remember that story about my backpack? After I got my stuff back, I thanked the cashier and then as soon as I got back to my car, I thanked God profusely. But what if my backpack hadn’t been there? What if instead of turning it in, someone had just walked off with it? If that had been the case, I would have blamed myself.
Do you see what’s odd about that? Get my stuff back – answered prayer, God is awesome, thank God! Lose my stuff – blame myself, I’m an idiot, I suck.
What’s up with that?
Why the two completely different reactions? If my stuff had gone missing, why did I blame myself instead of blaming God for not answering my prayers or for not being awesome? Or taken from the opposite end, after getting my stuff back, why did I immediately think that God was the awesome one? Why didn’t I just conclude that the person who chose to turn in my backpack was awesome?
And we see the same thing in sports all the time. Sometimes, when a Christian sports star wins some kind of big game or makes a big play, they make a gesture to give glory to God. Tebowing was in the news a lot these past few months and serves as a good example of this. But what happens when Tim’s team loses or one of his passes is intercepted? Does he still kneel and pray? Or does he blame himself? (I don’t know, does he? I don’t watch sports. If someone could straighten me out here, I’d appreciate it.)
My point is this.
For me and for sports stars, thanking God when things go well but blaming self when they don’t is really bad theology because it’s inconsistent.
And I think it’s even more than that.
I think it’s idolatry.
Let me get at this idea another way.
Back in ’89, a baseball movie called Major League came out. One of the characters was named Pedro Cerrano. He can’t hit curve balls because he thinks his bats are afraid of them. Opposing pitchers know Pedro can’t hit curve balls so of course, they keep throwing them at him and he keeps swinging and missing. Pedro believes that his voodoo god, Jobu, can cure his bats. There are a bunch of scenes in the movie showing him performing arcane rituals on his bats in the hopes that Jobu will cure them of their fear, thus allowing him to hit curve balls.
Most Christians would look at that and say, Pedro is worshiping an idol – a carved wooden doll that he thinks has the power to cure his bats of fear. This doesn’t work. Pedro keeps missing curve balls. Whenever this happens, Pedro thinks that he didn’t perform enough rituals for Jobu or didn’t perform them properly. He blames himself when Jobu doesn’t come through.
It doesn’t happen this way in the movie, but imagine what would happen if Jobu-believing Pedro ever did manage to connect with a curve ball. That would confirm to him that Jobu had cured his bats. And Pedro would have thanked Jobu.
Now what’s the difference between Pedro’s Jobu and the way I viewed God while praying about my backpack?
Maybe the difference is that Pedro was praying to and performing rituals for a carved wooden image that represents Jobu, whereas Christians do not pray to images or statues. But can’t an idea be just as much of an idol as a statue? In fact, an idolatrous idea is probably far more problematic than a physical idol because a statue can be thrown away whereas an idea is FAR harder to get rid of.
In the movie, Pedro eventually gets fed up with Jobu’s inability to help him hit curve balls. One day at bat, he explodes and says, “I’m pissed off now, Jobu. Look, I go to you. I stick up for you. You don’t help me now. I say ‘Fuck you,’ Jobu, I do it myself.” The pitcher throws him a curve ball and Pedro hits a huge home run. After that Pedro gets rid of his statues of Jobu and is done with him.
Idolatrous ideas, however, can’t be just thrown away – they’re far sticker than that. Because here’s the thing. Our brain is wired to make connections. Even as I come to recognize that I may have an idolatrous idea about God, that idea is linked to a wide variety of other ideas. And for someone who’s been a Christian for over twenty years, the idea of God is a pretty central one – it serves as the foundation for much of how I see, understand, interact with, and live in the world.
Meister Eckhart, the 14th century Christian mystic, is known for saying, “I pray God to rid me of God.” He understood that any particular idea he might have about God can become an idol and so his prayer was that God would rid him of his idolatrous ideas about God.
And I think I’ve lived for far too long with just such an idolatrous idea about God. And I don’t want to do that anymore.
I’m not sure how many parts this new series will take up, but in the posts that follow, I hope to share some ideas about how I’m rethinking my ideas about God – ways that allow God to be God rather than the God I want or need or just happen to believe in at the time.
God, help me.