364. what we talk about when we talk about God (part two)

(Click here for part one.)

Let me start with another story. It’s the story that actually got me thinking about writing this new blog series.

A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with a couple friends. We got to talking about seminary and my future plans to plant a church and one of my friends turned and asked me, “do you still believe in God?”

And then I paused.

It was a long pause.

And even when I did get around to formulating an answer, I remember it came out slowly.

And while I know I didn’t say, “no,” I don’t remember saying, “yes,” either.

There was a time, not too long ago, when that pause would have really worried me, but you know, while I was sitting in that pause, trying to figure out what I wanted to say about God, I felt totally calm. It didn’t concern me at all that I didn’t want to answer with an immediate, “yes, of course I do.”

There was a time in my life when I felt I really needed that kind of certainty – or at least I felt that I needed to give the impression that I had certainty.

But I didn’t have that certainty anymore. I wasn’t certain either way – that there was or there wasn’t a God. And again, it didn’t concern me that I wasn’t certain.

And I knew the best way for me to sort out what I thought about God was to blog about it.

More than writing about my belief (or disbelief) in God (something I hope to get to in the next post), what I really want to write about is that pause. Because a lot of thoughts were swirling around my head in the midst of that long pause, but they were all jumbled and jangled. Which is probably why I can’t remember what I said in response.

In my last post, I wrote about how I didn’t want to have an idolatrous view of God – a view of God that wasn’t really God. I think that’s one of the things I came to realize in the space of that pause. I realized, if I were to simply say “yes,” the God that my friend would understand me saying yes to was not the God I believed in – not exactly.

Let me put this another way. Imagine two conversations.

Conversation one:

John: You can shoot that target with a spear or with a bow and arrow – which do you want?
Jane: Give me the bow.

Conversation two:

John: Which broach do you want to wear tonight, the flower or the bow?
Jane: Give me the bow.

Even though Jane says the exact same thing in both conversations, she means something entirely different each time.

That’s kind of how I felt in my conversation about God. In my pause, I realized that if I were to simply say, “yes, I believe in God,” the “God” that my friend thought I was referencing would be very different from the “God” that I wanted to reference.

Conversation three:

John: You can shoot that target with a spear or with a bow and arrow – which do you want?
Jane: I want to wear the bow.
John: …?

The miscommunication in that last example is clear. John is asking about a bow and arrow, while Jane is talking about a broach, even though they’re using the same word, “bow.” And while the misunderstanding wouldn’t have been as great in my conversation, the point is the same. “God” for me was different than “God” for my friend. That’s the thing that I was struggling to sort through in my long pause before I answered.

I knew that the God that my friend was asking me about was the traditional Judeo-Christian idea about God – an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity. But I don’t know that I believe in that God anymore and so I couldn’t simply say, “yes.”

I used to believe in that conception of God, but I don’t anymore. And there are lots of reasons why, but let me point out two of them:

  1. The traditional view of God is too abstract for me.
    God is far too other for me to relate to in any real way. I’m weak and can’t relate to an all-powerful God. My perspective and my knowledge is severely limited – I can’t relate to an all-seeing, all-knowing God. I am particularized in time and space – I can’t relate to an ever-present God that transcends space and time.
    And I don’t want to believe in a God that I can’t relate to.

  2. The traditional view of God is too concrete for me.
    I don’t want a God that can be defined. Any God that can be described is a God that’s too small, too limited, too fixed to really be God.
    And I don’t want to believe in a God that can be easily and readily defined.

As part of my seminary training, I’ve been interning at a wonderful church called Findlay Street Christian Church. As I was reading and wrestling with how to talk about God for this blog series, I asked my pastor/mentor how she understood and talked about God, and I really liked what she had to say. She said when she talks about God, she has to use the language of poetry – language that pushes beyond language.

And that got me thinking about a scene from the movie, Contact, where Jodie Foster’s character, Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Ann Arroway is sent out into “space” and gets to see all kinds of amazing galactic scenery. She’s a scientist and so she does her best to accurately describe the journey she’s on but at one point she sees something far beyond anything she’s ever experienced – something for which there is no technical terminology. In response, she says,

“…celestial event.
No words could describe it.
Poetry! They should’ve sent a poet.
It’s so beautiful, beautiful.
So beautiful…
I had no idea.”

(watch about the 1:40 mark to see the quote)

Here, Ellie is confronted with something that cannot be captured with precise, scientific clarity – something that can’t be described by ordinary words. And so she says that they should have sent a poet – someone with the ability to push past the normal limitations of words.

Ellie’s sense of bewilderment and inability to translate what she was seeing into words is the same thing my pastor was getting at when she said she has to appeal to the power of poetry in order to talk about God. Because ordinary words just won’t work.

Now I suppose it’s all well and good to say that God is beyond language, but we are a communicating species and part of the role of a (future) pastor is to talk about God and so I have to be able to say something, and not everyone’s going to let me get away with quoting e e cummings or Meister Eckhart.

And so I’ll give it a shot and say this.

The Bible says that God is love.

But what is love? I actually got to hear Peter Rollins speak a few weeks ago and in his talk he said this about love. “Love does not exist, love calls things into existence.” And by that he means that love isn’t a thing. That’s why (as the eminent theologians Lennon and McCartney assert) you can’t buy love.

Love is something that happens in between, in relationship. Love is never a static thing, it’s dynamic. Love opens up possibilities in both the lover and the one loved. When Rollins says, “love calls things into existence,” he’s talking about how the thing or the person you love is constantly unfolding before you. Love is like a key that unlocks an entirely new world – the interior universe of the one loved. The lover recognizes that love is a bridge between these two realities. And in the crossing, something entirely unexpected and new is created and experienced – a sum exponentially greater than its parts.

In the movie, Sleepless in Seattle, Tom Hanks’ character gets asked, “Sam, what was so special about your wife?” And Sam responds,

Oh, well, it was a million tiny little things that when you add them all up, it just meant that we were supposed to be together.

And I knew it. I knew it the first time I touched her.

It was like coming home, only to no home I’d ever known.

(watch around the 0:49 mark to see the quote)

That last line captures perfectly what Rollins is trying to say. In love, Sam discovered an entirely new conception of home – an idea of home that, prior to loving this person, did not exist. And in their relationship, that idea of home was made real, it was embodied in their marriage relationship – in love.

But even with all of these powerful, amazing features, love is not a thing in and of itself. You can’t bottle it up, it won’t sit upon the shelf. It only exists in spaces between. It takes up no space at all and yet it can feel larger than the multiverse itself.

So what do I talk about when I talk about God?

I talk about love. (Yeah, I know, ironic.)

Looking back now, I think this is how I would have liked to respond to my friend who asked me if I believed in God.

I think I would have wanted to say, “I believe in God as revealed in love.”

And I think that would have been an opening into quite a lovely conversation – one that never would have been possible had I just said “yes” or “no.”


Belief in God as revealed in love.

That’s a different sort of believing isn’t it?

Stay tuned, more on this in my next post.


2 thoughts on “364. what we talk about when we talk about God (part two)

  1. Pingback: 369. what we talk about when we talk about God (part 3) | Lonetomato808's Blog

  2. Pingback: 369. what we talk about when we talk about God (part 3) « Flavor and Illumination

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