I guess I shall start where I left off.
In my journal, on the first day of my pilgrimage/retreat, I wrote “God is something to be experienced not to ‘believe’ in? God is too big to be believed in or not believed in.” It’s interesting for me to read that journal because it wasn’t very thought through. It was more of a stream of consciousness sort of thing. I was just writing whatever came out without editing myself like I normally might.
So what did I mean by a silly sounding statement like “God is too big to be believed in”?
I think modern Christianity has placed far too much value on cognitive belief. In the stream of Christianity that I have had most experience with, it is actually the central issue to get people to philosophically adhere to a certain set of beliefs. This makes Christianity a sort of network marketing pyramid where the job of Christians is to simply get other people to believe like them so that… well, so that they can get other people to believe like them, and so on and so on. Like a pyramid scheme, it might grow ever fatter and larger, but doesn’t really have any point if the point is simply to believe something.
I often hear some of the rants of these “new atheists”, and I find myself agreeing with so much of what they say. There’s a lot of silliness in modern Christianity, and beyond that, some of the worst things in history have been done because of religion (however, these folks don’t mention that most of the best things have been done because of religion as well…). There are all sorts of inconsistencies within much of the modern western Christendom that the new atheists attack so vehemently. The “god” they rail against, the god of violence and small mindedness and all of this… The thing is… I rail against that idol as well. I hear of some people’s perceptions of “God” and I think it sickens me just as much as it sickens Richard Dawkins.
But that is not the God I believe in at this point… I don’t believe in the old guy in the sky. I don’t believe in a god of the gaps, or the puppeteer in space, or the coke machine god who dispenses blessings if you put in the right amount of change, or the all powerful hippy in the sky, or the eternal schoolmaster who gives end of life doctrine quizzes to people to see whether or not they get to go to heaven… All of these conceptions of a deity are simply man-made idols. I agree with these new atheists to that point. In fact, with how abused the word “God” has been historically, I sometimes wish that we had a different word for “Him.” (And a new pronoun would be nice as well.) Perhaps for this blog, I’ll sub in “Reality” now and then.
To me, God is the basic Reality of the universe. God is what is. That’s how Moses wrote that God introduced Himself, isn’t it? “I am that I am.”
Whatever is, that is God.
Do you know that the original Christians used to be called Atheists by people? An Atheist is a person that rejects a conception of a deity. The early Christians had rejected the gods of the culture, so they were called atheists. In fact, Christians should ideally reject any conceptions of any deity… Because a conception is a human idea. Any human idea that can conceive of and contain God is an idol. True Christian doctrine would say that God is infinite and beyond our definition and conception.
What this does then is level the playing field for all of us on some level. We are all practical theologians trying to understand and experience Reality. Some, like our new atheist friends don’t think that reality has any sort of will or desire, some of us disagree, and think that Reality is “light and essence and love of the purest kind”. But, on this level, we are all human beings humbled in the face of the infinity that is Reality. This might be a better starting conversation point between Christians and Atheists rather than the arguments about Bible verses or whether or not there is a guy in the sky.
What I experienced in Assisi just felt like pure reality. It was so big and so strong and so beautiful. It wasn’t a guy in the sky. It wasn’t simply an idea or a wave of goosebumps and emotions. It just felt as though I was present with that which is. The great Reality was present there within me and all around me. In this Reality, we live and move and have our being. All in all. These sorts of words made more sense to me now than some other religious words that often seem to domesticate and contain Reality into a human set of ideas and practices.
What this does to my religion then is that my faith becomes more about encountering and experiencing this Reality than domesticating, dissecting or dogmatizing Him. It becomes less about “believing” in some invisible deity, and more about experiencing this Reality. The book of John refers to this Reality as “the Word.” Then he writes this beautiful statement that the Word became flesh in Jesus.
Christianity is supposed to be this beautiful experience of Word becoming flesh. It’s not simply about believing certain doctrines. Our doctrine, which is beautiful and good, is that somehow that ultimate Reality took on skin and was nailed to a cross and rose from the dead. That Reality is Love, and it is bigger and stronger than death and entropy. This is all beautiful and it is all mystery, but we experience this Reality primarily in a relational knowing rather than simply in a cognitive or philosophical one. This sort of relational understanding of Reality lets us experience our faith on a different level than a system of thoughts over and against someone else’s system of thoughts. It actually changes the way we live and move and have our being in the world.
I think that this is what true faith should be like. I believe that this is why James says that pure religion is too look after widows and orphans and to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world. Faith in God is not supposed to be primarily cognitive, it’s supposed to be an entirely different way of living.
Most people don’t primarily “understand” music. You listen to it. You play it. You dance to it. You sing. I’ve studied a lot of music theory, but I don’t fully experience music when I think about scales and modes and 12 tone rows… I experience music most fully when I engage with it. What I experienced in Assisi was that God is not something primarily to be believed in or not believed in. Instead, He is the Reality of the universe that is to be experienced.
Lesson 1: Taste and see that the Lord is good.
More to come in the next few days.