God, Not of the Gaps
Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 17, 2013
St. Augustine wrote, “If you can understand it, it’s not God.” So take everything I am about I say with that grain of salt.
There is a version of “God” that is championed by modern Christian fundamentalism in particular that has become the focal definition of God to our detriment. It is God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, eternal, infinite, all good, and all loving, yet still harboring more than a hint of the old judgmental and jealous aspects as well. To which I can say, “Yea, Hitchens and Dawkins! Have at ‘em!” The modern atheists of celebrity stature, the “New Atheists” as they are sometimes known, focus their critique wonderfully on this tired, illogical, archaic version of God to great acclaim.
Noted author and scholar of religion Karen Armstrong wrote in the introduction of her book The Case for God, which we heard as our reading this morning, “Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably undeveloped, even primitive.” (p x) Later in that introduction to her book she acknowledges the critique of the “new atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, saying “It is a pity [they] express themselves so intemperately, because some of their criticisms are valid … In fact, the new atheists are not radical enough” (p xvi) She points out that theologians from various religions including Christianity, Islam and Judaism have been insisting for centuries that God does not exist. They say this not do deny the reality of God, she admits, but to safeguard God’s transcendence. Paul Tillich, for example, used to say “God does not exist, God is.” For which the fundamentalists labeled him an atheist. Armstrong contends that the modern version of God is a domesticated God, a tamed God that is wide open for the eviscerating critiques of the “New Atheists.” It’s too easy.
Christian Existentialist Theologian Paul Tillich argued several decades back that religion will always lose the battle against science and secularism due to one initial slip. He said religion “defended its great symbols, not as symbols, but as literal stories.” (Tillich’s Lost Dimension of Religion.) In doing so, it pulled the symbols down into the realm of being verified by science or history or logic.
My title “God, Not of the Gaps” is a play on this very concept. God of the Gaps is a concept from the dialogue between science and religion that Tillich is critiquing. The concept of “The God of the Gaps” works like this: In primitive times, God was the answer for any mystery, any gaps in our understanding of the world and life. If we didn’t understand thunder, the gods were responsible for thunder. If we didn’t understand death, God was responsible for it or in control of it. God served as the way to understand whatever was beyond our understanding. Where did we come from and what happens when we die? How did the world begin and why is there something rather than nothing? Many of our earliest myths and religious stories tell us answers to these sort or questions.
As our understanding of the natural world has grown, the place that God held has shrunk. We know what causes thunder and reason for the tides. We understand a remarkable amount about our universe compared with what was known even a few hundred years back. If God is simply in charge of the gaps that we don’t yet understand, then God will always be an ever-shrinking God. Carl Sagan laments this pattern in his classic book Pale Blue Dot seeing traditional religion effectively saying in the face of science “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.”
Fundamentalist Christians cling to the old version of God, refusing to see what Carl Sagan saw in the openings made by science. Sagan longed to see the concept of God evolve to match our understanding of the world in much the way Karen Armstrong articulated in the reading. I long to see our concept of God evolve to fit better with the world as we know it to be, in a way that does not contradict or supersede the natural laws of the universe.
Every now and then someone in the congregation will ask me why we are wasting our time trying to bring Religious Language back into Unitarian Universalism. The goal – or at least my goal – is not to regress enough to fit back in to the dying landscape of mainline protestant Christianity. My goal is to advance the conceptual maturity of the conversation. There are many ways to speak of God that line up with reality as we know it and do not leave us constrained speaking only of a God of the gaps. In other words, God doesn’t have to be omnipotent and supernatural and vengeful and anthropomorphic to be God.
Listen to the way a colleague describes his sense of such things. Rev. Scotty McLennan is a Unitarian Universalist minister and the dean of Religious Services at Stanford University in California. He wrote about his evolving understanding of God:
As a young child I thought of God as a magical, all-powerful being who was responsible for everything that happened, good or bad. Later in childhood I began to feel I had a cause-and-effect relationship to God, gaining some control over good and bad results by how I prayed, petitioned, and behaved. Then in my teenage years God became personalized for me as the ideal parent, unconditionally accepting and loving. By the time I was in my twenties, God had become an impersonal force or energy in the universe. …
Yet, in my fifties (McLennan continues) I’ve also begun to pray to God as a person again, especially in times of great need and great joy. I do that even as I know God intellectually as an impersonal life force. So I live in paradox and ambiguity with God now, often simply feeling overcome with awe as spirit fills me from some source far beyond my own conscious control.
I resonate with the way Rev. McLennan’s understanding evolved. I had a different trajectory though I landed in the paradox and ambiguity he describes all the same. For me, I grew up in a Humanist church, so Humanism is my first religious language. As a parallel, I was raised in a Universalist home. Thus, I grew up unsure about the existence of God, certainly sure that if I did believe in God it wasn’t an anthropomorphized deity. Yet I somehow developed the feeling of unconditional acceptance and love from this God in whom I only half-believed. And then I spent as much time as I could out in the woods near our house, out in nature where I developed another whole set of words to describe God. All this adds up to some confusion for me when it comes time to choose a religious label, and I sometimes claim to be a Buddho-Pagan Christa-Humanist with occasional bouts of mysticism. But usually I just say I am a theist.
But let me take a minute to tease out a discrepancy in the language. To be fair with the definition we must be clear that the word “theist” carries two valid meanings. First, a theist is generally understood to be anyone who uses the concept of God in their theology. Second, and more particular, a theist is one who believes in a particular version of God: a personal God with whom one can have a personal relationship. Traditionally, this means an anthropomorphic deity: a being with human attributes like compassion, wisdom, mercy, and love. This is a deity who hears and answers prayers, who moves through our lives.
Theism, as in the belief in a personal deity, is not the only version of God that is out there. Deism, for example, is a version of theism in this more particular concept except without the part where God goes tinkering in daily affairs. Deism posits that God created the universe and the natural laws by which it is governed and then stepped back. Deism is the God of Intelligent Design. Many of the founding fathers of the United States were considered Deists.
Pantheism, on the other hand, is a version of theism that sees god as synonymous with nature. Many evolutionary scientists will take this route to still speak of God. Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, calls Pantheism “sexed-up atheism” which is perhaps true from a certain perspective but Dawkins has a way of wording things that make me want to argue with him, (which is what he wants because that’s how he makes his money.) Dawkins also acknowledges Deism but dismisses it quickly as “watered-down theism” which is also true from a certain perspective. He focuses his whole critique of theism on the supernatural deity a la the Old Testament. But Dawkins says nothing, for example, about Process theology, Transcendentalism, Existentialism, or Deep Ecology; each of which offers a version of God that does not line up with the standard supernatural, omnipotent, anthropomorphic God of the fundamentalists.
Last year I formed a group that functions similar to Small Group Ministry with the twist that we always focus in some way or another on the question ‘what is the movement of the Spirit in your life?’ We call it the Good God Group. I’ve discovered there is a significant breadth in the circle. There are many different ways to believe in God. We have a breadth of perspectives in the room that is wonderful – we don’t all agree with each other on the nature of God and how it all works.
I had a conversation with two Christian colleagues last month in which one said: “So you’ve pretty much shifted to preaching a non-theistic message?” “Yup.” “Boy, I wish I could do that.” Meanwhile I’m quietly listening to this thinking, ‘are they really talking about what I think their talking about?’ Then they start sharing biblical passages, because they are still liturgical churches. For example, In John, chapter 4, there is that great story in which Jesus says “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship God in spirit and in truth, for God seeks such as these to worship him.” I was in the middle of a conversation with Biblically-based, God-believing, non-theistic Christians. Non-theistic in the sense that they don’t conceive of an anthropomorphic God, a personal deity which whom we have a relationship.
We don’t need to limit ourselves to the fundamentalist’s version of God. Let us speak of God as a metaphor, as a symbol for the deeper quality and aspect of living. Let us speak as the Transcendentalists do and talk about the soul of the whole, the deep power in whom we each rest and yet also which rests within each of us. Let us speak as the Existentialists do and talk about the God beyond God, whom we call by name but can be contained by no name, which transcends all concepts – yet is as close as our own breath. Let us speak as the Process philosophers do and talk about God as the force of love, luring us without coercion toward the good, growing with us in the ever-changing story of life. Let us speak as the Deep Ecologists do and talk about God as the energy of life, the nested creativity at every level of the universe, the evolving wonder and mystery that undergirds all existence and hums with the rhythms of living.
Not one of these concepts of God is anthropomorphic, some speak in metaphor of human qualities such as love and power but truly they look beyond the human level of such qualities. Not one of these concepts of God is supernatural, though argument could be made that the Transcendentalists saw nature as symbolic of the spiritual world, not the other way around. And several of the Existentialists did see God as beyond nature as well as fully inclusive of nature – so panentheists rather than just pantheists. But still none of them conceive of a wholly supernatural God, which is nuance to the usual argument don’t you think?
Last week when I preached on Atheism, I invited people to raise their hands if they indentified that way. So I will ask today, how many of you use the concept of God in your theology or take the label “theist” for yourself? [Note: a little more than half-a-dozen hands went up at first service and between 12 and 16 hands for second service]
The God I love, the God I believe in is not an anthropomorphic, supernatural deity. Perhaps I am a non-theistic theist. I am not a theist in the sense that a theist is one who believes in a personal god with whom one can have a personal relationship. I don’t have a personal relationship with God. And yet I pray. Prayer is very relational. I suppose I see prayer as a symbolic act, sacramental in function. I suppose most of what I can say about God is symbolic.
Martin Buber, a Jewish existentialist, wrote:
Some would deny any legitimate use of the word God because it has been misused so much. Certainly it is the most burdened of all human words. Precisely for that reason it is the most imperishable and unavoidable. -Martin Buber (I and Thou) 1923
I had jokingly said earlier this week that the sermon I delivered last week about atheism was supposed to turn the whole congregation into atheists and this week’s sermon was supposed to convince everyone to be theists. It was a joke. I realized while I was writing this sermon that the purpose of this week’s sermon is to convince myself of my theism again.
Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say it was to help me explore the distinction of non-anthropomorphic versions of God, of non-theistic theism if you will. I hesitate to come out and say our modern religious landscape must do away with this personal Theistic concept of God to move forward – I hesitate only because I suspect a few of you find this personal sense of God to be still precious. Yet moving to a higher level, can we not still use this language in metaphor and symbol? Because I have had experiences that have lead me to see the hand of God in my life, which I mean metaphorically and not literally. But those experiences will not go away and I need some theological framework to work from.
I have had unsettling experiences and peaceful experiences. I have had experiences of connection and of disconnection; experiences of grace. And I suppose I could talk about all those experiences without reference to God or without using that particular word. Yet no other word is big enough for what I need to say. And then there are those times when the only words that can fit what I have experienced are words like, “I felt a presence,” “I heard a voice.” I have had experiences when I sensed myself connected with all that is; or times when I looked back on where I’d been and somehow knew that I had not been alone. These are experiences of Spirit and grace.
This is how theology ought to work at its best. It ought to begin from our lived experiences. We begin not with a pre-established notion of God, but with our own experiences of the holy. We all have experiences that lead us to interpretations of the world in which we live. Our understanding of the world around us and within us has grown exponentially over the past few hundred years. There is no reason for our understanding and interpretations of the sacred and the holy to remain locked in ideas from centuries and millennia back. As humanity evolves, let’s allow our concepts of God evolve with us. Let’s not keep God locked in antiquity. Let the life-giving breath of God blow across the deep of our own hearts even today.
In a world without end,
may it be so