People sometimes ask me if I believe in God. In the pause between the end of the question and the beginning of my response, a million things happen in my head and throughout my body. It used to be that this was an easy question for me to answer: a nonchalant “Of Course!” would usually encapsulate the amount of critical thought with which I engaged the question of God. There was no question that God existed and was active in orchestrating my life. I prayed for guidance. I passed the major decisions of my life through a filter that was woven of scripture verses and wisdom.
God existed and I tried to follow him every day. This was my language. This was my metaphor. But belief in God has become complicated for me. There are so many things that I’ve learned or experienced that no longer fit into the metaphor that I had been given that it now takes me a while to figure out how best to answer.
Perhaps the best way to talk about this is to tell you about the gods that I don’t believe in.
Bearded Man In the Sky
I don’t believe in the old-bearded-man-pulling-levers-in-the-sky god. This is the god that is ultimately in control of every aspect of life from sunrises to sunsets, to which flies get squished on your windshield, to how many days you have left on the planet. This god’s time is spent tweaking and architecting scenarios that test our faith. This gives God to much manipulative control over our lives. I have a hard time reconciling the idea that God would care much about the order in which the millions of leaves fall off of the trees in my backyard, or in which order they start to grow again. This is the problem with this idea: when does the control stop? It doesn’t make sense to me that God would be at all concerned with orchestrating the details of our lives like this. Such a god would not be good because we would be left feeling helpless and out of control of our lives. Removing our volition removes the authenticity of our devotion.
God the Conductor
In my mind, God is not a conductor and we are not players in some grand symphony. It’s a beautiful metaphor that has us striving to play our parts well, each contributing to the beauty of the arrangement. This view of God places divine timing and rhythm at the center. God cues us and requires that we respond to His direction. But God is not calling us to play a specific role at a certain time. We are born with proclivities and potential, we develop talents and skills and gifts. It is up to us to choose how and where we might use them to make a positive impact on the world. A view that has God calling us and requiring us to respond in a certain way at a certain time leads to an overwhelming sense of guilt when we choose a different way and can limit us from reaching our greatest potential.
The God of Writer’s Block
God is not an author writing our collective story. He doesn’t dictate plot lines. The Bible is not his perfect decree in written form. While it is a beautiful collection of myths, and stories, and poems, the Bible is more important for its role in sharing wisdom than for sharing historical accurate data. Were there walls around Jericho that fell when a group of people marched around them? Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t know. Did Jesus’ death set off a collection of supernatural phenomena ending with the tearing of the curtain in the temple? We have nothing to prove that this happened. Is the earth just 5,000 years old and did God bury old dinosaur bones strategically in order to keep us guessing (and to give those people that He called to be paleontologists something to do)?
No. Just No.
The problem here is that we get bogged down in the data and the historical accuracy of the things that the Bible claims. People have put a lot of pressure on the Bible to be perfect and it’s not; at least, not in the way that we think of as perfect. It’s a collection of stories and letters written by specific people in specific contexts and tell a particular stories with particular biases. It’s not historically accurate or comprehensive, but that’s not the point. It tells the stories of groups of people that, themselves, are trying to figure out what it means to follow God. They have given us the foundation of a language that we can use to speak about God, and examples of how we might make the world a better place. But to say that God is an author requires too much creative license on His part. He is not building to some big reveal and arbitrarily adding details that fit with the story.
God is not the superhero god that responds to our every beckoning call. I have prayed for a lot of things in my life that have never panned out. It’s a good thing, because some of the things that I’ve prayed for were ludicrous. In short, I don’t believe that God intervenes in the our daily lives or changes the trajectory of natural laws. I’m not saying that He can’t, I’m saying that he does not – that He chooses not to get involved. He doesn’t hear a prayer and spring into action to make things better. He doesn’t get a holy email and submit it to a planning committee to rewrite history AGAIN to accommodate the new request. He simply doesn’t get involved. This is not to say that prayer is useless or pointless.
Prayer is highly valuable. It is a speaking into the universe those things that excite you or cause you anxiety. Prayer makes verbal and tangible the longings of your heart. When in a group, prayer serves as a rallying call that focuses one another on a common vision and goal. When we want the family dealing with the death of a loved one to feel comfort, there is a realization that we can be that comfort. When we want the hungry to have something to eat, how long will we continue to sit around and pray before we volunteer at a soup kitchen or make a donation to a food pantry? Prayer also helps us to work out the things that we truly need versus the things that we merely want. We test our desires when we verbalize them.
The Only Way God is Good….
In fact, God can only be good, in my mind, if He doesn’t respond; if He chooses not to get involved. There are millions of stories of pain and suffering, of mothers praying for their children’s safe return, of fathers feeling the guilt of being unable to protect their family, of children praying for unspeakable torture and slavery to end. The pain continues. The guilt never subsides. The torture gets worse every single day. In stark contrast, we pray that we get a parking spot close to the mall. We pray that our church services will go off without any technical difficulties. We hear our athletes talk about how God was with them while playing football today. If a god is more concerned about a wide receiver’s last second catch in the end zone than he is with ending the abuse of young children abducted into trafficking, then I want nothing to do with that god. For me, only a god that chooses not to get involved can ever be considered truly good.
Perhaps most significantly, I don’t believe in God as eternal punisher. I don’t believe in a god that deems it appropriate those of his beloved who were unable to live up to some standard should be, themselves, burned by flames that never relent. I don’t believe in a god that creates beautifully diverse people only to have them destroyed. I don’t believe in a god that biases his salvation to the western world. If there is fire and brimstone, it is not somewhere else. It is here. It is all around us and none of us have been individually equipped to combat it. When we join forces with others who want to make the world a better place, we have the will and the energy to extinguish flames, to protect.
We can overcome evil with good.
I don’t believe in any of these gods. They don’t make sense to me. They leave me wanting more which is not exactly the feeling that you want from a creator of all things. My wanting may be related to the insufficiency of language to communicate the full experience of a concept that is best described as indescribable. Our language around God, love, and eternity, routinely lack the fidelity to share our experience in any meaningful way. You may describe a sunset behind a gorgeous mountain vista and still fail to communicate more than just the physical details. There is no way to fully communicate your individual experience of that sunset, the complex mix of very personal emotions. How is it, then, that we expect to be able to understand the ultimate mystery of what God is by simple words? How is it that we feel that any small subset of our language should be reserved for describing God? This limits our sacred dictionary even more and compromises our ability talk about all things mysterious.
Still, it’s not all about the language. There are some characteristics ascribed to this energy that we call God that I simply don’t believe capture God’s character. I do not believe that God is anti-gay, that God favors one person, group, or country over another. I don’t believe that God is vindictive or manipulative or that he even makes anything happen. I believe God is bigger, stranger, and more wonderful than anything we can think of or imagine.
When someone asks if I believe in God, there are a lot of caveats. There is no good way to answer this question. If you’re asking me if I believe in any of the gods that I’ve talked about, then I probably don’t. If you have some view of god that isn’t malleable or open to new data or criticism, then I probably don’t believe in that god either. If you’re asking me if I think a person is going to heaven or hell, then you’ve probably already missed the point.
But, if you’re asking me if I believe that there is something fundamental that unites the entire universe in ways that we cannot even begin to understand, then maybe we can talk. If you’re asking me if I believe in the wonder of physical laws that have enabled our consciousness from energy, then I’m open for discussion. If you’re asking me if I’m humbly pursuing the same wonder and mystery that dozens and dozens of generations of people before me have humbly pursued, then I’ll gladly admit my full investment in the journey.