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March 29, 2005

Faces of God

One of the things that stopped making sense to me sometime during seminary was the idea that humans are born innately bad and deserve eternal punishment for this (a foundational concept taught in many Christian circles).  Why would we deserve punishment for something over which we have no control? I came to ask.  Felt like torturing people forever for eye color or hair texture or the shape of our little toes.  These, too, are innate from birth.

But the more I live and think and read and get to know people, the more the first part of that equation doesn’t work for me either.  Even the most hideous human acts seem rooted not in innate badness, but a complex web of factors, including, yes, our genetic make-ups, but going far beyond that to damaging life experiences and powers beyond any individual, like those of families, neighborhoods, cities, and political and religious environments.  Heck, I’ve even been learning about lead poisoning recently, and all the havoc it unknowingly plays in lives across our country, concentrated (where else?) in slum dwellings where occupants have little choice about whether their walls get repainted or pipes get replaced.

I’m coming to wonder whether, when it all shakes down, we have any choice at all.  You heard me rightly:  any choice at all.  I live daily like I do have choice, and it feels quite often like I do.  But when I think longer about any single choice that I make, the choice can’t be extracted from that huge web I just talked about – any hundreds or millions of things that all moved in and around and through me to bring me to today, to this choice, to this ultimate decision about, oh, what cereal to buy at the grocery store.  Or whether to forgive the mean telemarketer lady on the phone.

The more I get to know the back-story to any person’s life, the less able I feel to place blame on any shoulders for the bad things people do.  On the contrary, my compassion for wrong-doers grows, and, in many cases, I grieve for all the things they endured to bring them to whatever badness they’re presently about.  Part of my own healing in recent years, for that matter, has involved unlearning to feel personally at fault, and therefore guilty, for responding to certain kinds of people with fear or judgment or hostility, for not being able to follow through on certain things I know would be good for me…for being far from perfect.  Most of these very things are defense mechanisms that my dear little psyche dreamed up long ago to try to protect me.  They are not evidence of badness at all – not rebellion against Good and True and Right.  Salvation I’ve needed, yes, but not from innate badness.

And this gets to the heart of what I’ve really wanted to talk about today:  God.  I want to ponder God, and whether or not the divine has a rough side.

A friend responded recently to the story I posted last month with a version of this question:  Isn’t it possible that the judgment and wrath of the preacher in this story (Harris) and the love and compassion of the blind woman (Mama) are both faces of God?  Are you wishing for and imagining and dreaming only of a lop-sided God – a God that lacks the wholeness that is softness and spikes, darkness and light, judgment and mercy…Harris and Mama?

Maybe I am.  I’m uncomfortable with a God that looks too human, too full of all the limitations that come along with human territory.  I’m suspicious that such a God isn’t God at all, but a projection of our own selves, made far bigger and more powerful, but nevertheless imbued with our own consciousness and emotions and responses to the things we don’t like.  Anne Lamott wrote once, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”  And I think she’s got it right.  A God that’s going to zap all my oppressors seems appealing, in one sense, but also one who isn’t taking into consideration, in the zapping, all the things that make oppressors what they are...that make me who I am.  Again, that web I talked about earlier.

I’ve been reading Carl Jung’s autobiography this month, and he reflects a lot on God.  He’s convinced that just as there is darkness and light in all of us, there is darkness and light in God.  And I’m drawn to this wholeness – drawn in a way that makes me think twice and thrice and more about my friend’s recent question.  If all of life is a mixture of yin and yang, is never only one thing or the other completely, why would God be an exception?  Why would God be only love, only light, only softness and compassion?  Is God so “other” from us, as many religious groups and writings claim (despite the fact that the God imagined by many of them doesn’t seem so other to me)?

My dabbling in quantum physics and a handful of clairvoyant experiences make the world and everything in it seem deeply interconnected, interwoven.  “One,” if such a word can communicate.  The breathtaking magic and mystery of it all makes God seem…I don’t know…equated, somehow, with all of it.  All of it together.  All of the oneness and conscious/unconsciousness that is everything.  In moments where I’m in touch with this perspective, it seems silly to think of God as outside of it all, watching on, acting and reacting to a separate universe of his or her creation.  If anything, God and the physical universe feel indistinguishable, and “physical” an arbitrary designation to assign to anything.

If God is something like the All (how in the world do I talk about this???  I feel at a loss for language here), then of course God is not all softness and light.  God is thunderstorms and avalanches and raging wildfires.  God is attacking lions and tantruming two-year-olds and oppressive dictators.  And yes, God is peacemakers, too.  And prophets.  And sages.  Community organizers.  Disaster relief agencies.  Babies, suckling at our breasts.

God is Jesus on a cross, living and dying in such a way that our darkness is exposed, our intolerance of those who challenge our systems, our religions, our gods.  God is death and loss and unutterable grief. 

And resurrection, too.  New hope, new life.

A God like this is bigger and more pervasive than any God I’ve ever otherwise dreamed of.  I’m not sure I like it entirely.  But right now, nothing else rings quite as true.

What do you all think?

03:59 PM in Healing, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion/Spirituality | Permalink


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A friend introduced me a bit to Joseph Campbell, who I believe was influenced a lot by Carl Jung. Yesterday we watched part 6 of 6 in a video-interview series called The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, which touches on the concepts of God, religion and eternity as revealed in many different beliefs around the world. It challenged me with questions, similar to the ideas you've written about. Campbell synthisizes many belief systems, and poses ideas of God being both darkness and light, love and judgement etc. but always seems to go back to "the ultimate reality" as being transcendant of our concepts and ideas. Personally I like the Celtic prayer that describes God as "in all things, and contained by no thing".

Posted by: Deeg | Mar 29, 2005 8:29:10 PM

Since I was in my early teens, when I read Old Testament stories I had a hard time believing that the God of king David was the same God as I knew. That wasn't someting I dared confess to anyone because it would have been heresy. In recent years however, I have lost my fear of heresy and have become much more comfortable accepting the fact that each culture if not each person creates its own God. The good part of this is that in creating God, we usually give him all the positive values that we want to live up to. When we fail to live up to those values, we find comfort in the fact that the idealized version is still intact. The bad part is that since we give God the credit for those values, we universalize them and force them on others, or have others force theirs on us.

This trick of ascribing all our good values to God falls apart once we begin to suspect that this is what is happening. All at once God doesn't have any definition anymore. What comfort or guidance or protection do we get from a God who is in effect a projection of ourselves? The new trick is to develop more confidence in ourselves and in nature and in the world we live in.

Posted by: roger | Mar 29, 2005 8:29:40 PM

Oh wow what a beautiful, challenging, questioning, wondering/wandering wonderful post!

I think I must have had all these thoughts/feelings and still have a lot of them, it is such a tension between the mystery/reality of God - how do children define/understand their father? Which is why I love the brilliance and honesty of Paul who can set out brilliant thoughts on God and still admits we only know in part and even our best thoughts are still only a dim reflection of the truth...

I have been reading about Mr Campbell a lot - particular in the context of his influence on George Lucas writing Starwars episode IV - the interesting point I had that when Lucas tried to write the plot by numbers [i.e. hero should be like this] the story died but when he just wrote the story in his head, putting aside the theories, it worked & contained all the elements he was trying to shoe horn in...

The concept of myth was something that CS Lewis also struggled with - is premise that the bible was just a collection of "myth" types and no different from any other culture - just mere reflection. I love this quote...

"Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and a friend were discussing the nature of myth while on a walk in 1931. Incidentally, it was an occurrence that played no small part in Lewis's conversion to Christianity. Lewis explained to the other two his belief that though they have a certain power, myths are “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”

“No,” said Tolkien. “They are not lies.”

At that moment, Lewis later recalled, there was “a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath.”

. . . We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God."

That is something that I really identify with... a myth which contains echos of the truth - maybe so that in every culture in every story there are seeds of truth. finger prints of God that can be used to find him...?

But your post is more than that - pushes those boundaries of the definition of God - the defining of him. Perhaps we can only express echos, glimpses, glimmers? By design all of us who say follow Christ have our own definition of christianity, our own view point - our experiences etc mean that we can all contribute to the telling of the tale as much as we are part of that tale? Our faith is not in a book, or a way of life or a ritual but in a fusion of man/divine being - God stepping into his-story, no longer the director but now a walking talking member of the cast trudging the boards of the stage...revealing God not in some mystery cloud or reflection of the psyche but in a walking, talking, feeling, relating flesh and blood way...?

Suddenly we have a new light, a new window, a new insight into God - we can look through Jesus to see the God of the OT and look forward and see God of the present - indeed chunks of the NT take that forward - the Jesus man/God in glory - its like how we knew him and how we still don't know him... maybe that's a great thing, maybe that stops us taking Jesus and trying to cram him into our mold, to write the story in his name and instead maybe like Lucas when we tell the story in our hearts, live the life in search/love of him we find the truth of him has been expressed anyway. Faith then moves from definition, certainty, all buttoned down to a God who as you say is dangerous, won't be boxed in, doesn't lie down and refuses to bend to our agendas

My bro and I have been debating the whole cosmos of influence on us - free will vs destiny, choice vs illusion of choice - faith vs no faith. Interesting that although the conversation has ranged far we wondered if all humans are born with a seed of faith as even a belief in no faith is still an expression of one... if we have such a seed maybe this is someway linked to the echo of eternity that the writer ecclesiates says that God has put in the heart of man - we all search, we all look for a position of faith, something and someone to believe in...

In that case maybe we do have choice, we can choose to ask, to seek, to face truth and pursue good faith... we can seek to love. We are not born bad we are born blind. Love and compassion not judgement is what we must deal in - it is not our ball game, we don't understand the rules let alone have the wisdom, insight and love to make a fair decision - judgement is God's cos lets face it no one of us is gonna win that arguement - in that case we are back to having our eyes open, to seeking to bring love, peace, mercy etc - to rage against injustice and misjustice and seek justice rather than impose judgement. seek to live out of compassion not condemnation. Light not darkness, love not hate etc...

There is a standard - God. Something we can measure and admire but never live up to or fulfil ourselves. I find that humbling and often helpful in facing the truth about me - I am imperfect and I am not God. I can deal with imperfection in me and it can help me see that everyone else is flawed too.

I think I have said before on here about my own sexual struggles and the tug between them and God - without God and another dimension in my life I think I would have given into the seductive lull of the darkness but with that element in my life it meant that it was a constant tug. Did I have a choice? Yes. Did I often make the choice least helpful to me. Yes. I am broken, I was even more broken back then. Fault lines running through me - and when something hit them by whole will power would disappear in an instant and the sensual, the need for control would win hands down. No contest... goodnight... Call it luck, call it grace, call it a God who never gives up or backs down but he didn't back down or away from me...

Posted by: Paul | Mar 30, 2005 5:44:16 AM

sorry about the abrupt end to the last post - the fire alarm went and I had to abandon the building :) But I think I will leave it there and reflect/ponder more - you're post is a wonderful thought blender :)

Posted by: Paul | Mar 31, 2005 2:11:59 AM

Deegy, that prayer is wonderful. And so is that interview series! Has so much in it to think about. Someday I'd love to see the whole thing (I've seen only parts of it).

Roger, yes, your last paragraph describes the angst and challenge so well of people who find themselves in such a spot. Do you think it's possible that in addition to ascribing to God all the best qualities we can think of, we also ascribe some of our shadow as well? I guess I wonder because some of the concepts of God that I've been exposed to are far from purely wonderful. They make me afraid.

And Paul, I love this quote: "We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God." So beautiful. Thanks for your many good reflections. And I hope there was no fire in your building! :)

Posted by: Kristin | Mar 31, 2005 8:58:35 AM

Heh there - the building is still there and so am I :)

I am continuing to ponder on the Q of do I have a choice and is free will an illusion?

I think I am pondering here as my journey through the desert as bought me to temptation class 102 - all the kingdoms of the world can be mine or I can have my cake, eat it and not add to my belly!

Personally I feel that there are two forces tugging at my life - one that tells me I can go back, I can revel in the sensual and in my own desires and sets out a rather attractive dark path and the other well that seems to be offering a "can't go back" which is no where near as attractive and promises a lot of ongoing pain...

I love option 1 but I know having lived through the effects of self determination before it was no where near as glamourous or as pain free, sweet and easy as tempation is currenly makes out.

I know option 2 is for me but man the will power there is low to pursue it...

I have a choice. Maybe what I need to recongise is to make the right choice stick I need the help of a higher power as alone I do not think I can...

Posted by: Paul | Apr 6, 2005 1:14:52 PM

A while ago, I made up three "UU absolutions" that I put on my own blog. Two of them particularly relate to some things you said about "choice".

"No matter what we have done, no matter how terrible an act we have committed, we can always make the choice here & now for the good. We can turn our souls away from darkness and towards the light. Today's right action may seem like very little when compared to our past failures, or to the failures of the world around us. But the choice of one tiny raindrop in a gigantic thundercloud is part of the universal choice that ends a long and painful drought. This kind of choice is the essence of humanity's salvation."

"My will is smaller than the web of life; my will is smaller even than its impact on my being. My will cannot change the past, nor can it alone transform the cosmos. My will is weak; I am often a mere channel for what comes to me, passing on to others that which was passed on to me. There is no blame for the smallness of my will: it is simply the truth. But my will is not nothing. Through my will I can, in even one small action, open wider the channels of kindness and love. Through my will I can choose to hold back the flow of hurt and pain. This is my opportunity at every moment."

We do have opportunities in our lives to exercise free will, just not on the grand scale that we usually imagine. In my experience, I have intuitively sensed those tiny moments where I could fall one way or another, where there was a pure choice.

Posted by: Barbara Preuninger | Apr 7, 2005 8:08:07 AM

Paul, I like your conclusion - that maybe we do have choice, but we sometimes need some extra help to make our choices stick. I wish you help and strength in your struggle.

Barbara, thanks for these quotes. I'm drawn to the way they hold two poles in tension: the modesty and glory of the will. If I'm honest, the jury is still out for me on what, exactly, pushes us/allows us to make the decisions that we do - whether there is actual freedom involved or not - but I think it makes more sense to live one's life as though there IS freedom. The alternative could be a pretty passive existence.

Posted by: Kristin | Apr 7, 2005 11:11:22 AM

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