John Bennison Words and Ways | 2017 | May

Resurrection as Change, Part III: Deleting “God”

You can read or print a copy of this commentary here.

Prefatory Note:

 

“God is a direction.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was a German poet whose works contain many “God” references. Often when Rilke wrote about “God,” however, he was not referring to a deity in the traditional sense. Rather, he used the term in metaphorical ways. “God” is a forest in which we wander, or the “cathedral” we are building. “God” is not a thing, but an action, a creative process of an emerging reality of which we are capable of having conscious awareness. And, “Religion,” he once said, “is the art of those who are uncreative.”

So with this in mind, I ask myself, what of “God,” and religion?

 

The Problem with “God”

 

“God” has admittedly been for me a direction; but neither a destination, nor even a companion along the way any longer. As the poet suggests, if the notion of “god” is directional movement from a former past to the present now, then now is the time for me to at least leave the “G” word behind.

To do so, I admit, means passing up a veritable smorgasbord of choices: theism, deism, pantheism, panentheism, monotheism, etc.; while idolatry seems to lie in the eye of the perceiver. The usual alternative fare offered up usually runs the gamut from atheism to agnosticism. Instead I prefer avoiding the circular argument altogether, simply dubbing myself a non-theist.

I also readily acknowledge this is the place to which I have only tentatively arrived; and, for the time being, along the way. This is what I now understand. Though, looking back, it is the direction I have been travelling for a long time.

Some folks try to redefine the word, ”god;” so that they can still employ it with sufficient clarification that they mean this, and not that. But for me, it’s a little like equating resurrection with resuscitation; or trying to revive and reuse something that’s been recycled just too many times. Better to start from scratch and opt for a change in thinking that’s entirely new and next.

So what exactly is that term – and who are the gods of one sort or another – that have been left behind? Here’s what is self-evident to me:

We live in – and are a part of – a non-metaphysical world. As such, there is no supernatural deity, no separate divine being that exists apart from our own human imagination, consciousness and capacity to conceptualize one. What does that mean?

For one thing, it means there subsequently exists no grounds for any distinction between the sacred and profane, between a spiritual life and the ordinariness of this life; or the hope and promise of a next world and some kind of “life after death,” and escape from the temporal singularity of our own mortality.

It might take a second reading to unpack that previous sentence, and chew on it for a bit. In actuality, it has probably been decades in its formulation. But it arises out of many years in the study of this particular subject (it’s called theology), and those human-created forms of expression about such things (that’s called religion). Here’s a little backtracking to fill in the background:

Where belief in a pantheon of gods once existed to try to describe and make sense out of the chaos and incomprehensibility of what we pejoratively refer to sometimes as a primitive worldview, humankind has achieved enough understanding of the natural world, and logged enough millennia of recorded history, to know enough to have more than a hint of acknowledging the one-ness (or, non-duality, if you like) of all things.

What was previously a theological premise – constructed in numerous different ways, and inventing “gods” for everything under the sun, and even the sun itself for that matter – has subsequently become a scientific assertion. In this sense, it is why science has often now been dubbed the new and only post-modern religion.

As evidence, consider how such true believers recently took to the streets in a world-wide “March for Science,” to clearly reassert its primacy; and in the face of a dwindling number of doubters and detractors. The basic (scientific) assertion is that empirical knowledge and unimpeded inquiry will always and ultimately win out over reactionary, ignorant naysayers and holdouts. Where theories about how the world came to be and how it operates are sometimes a good bet, so-called “alternative facts” just don’t ultimately hold up very well when eventually faced with the plain, bald truth.

So, if what was once a theological task has been usurped or replaced by the worship of scientific inquiry, what’s then to be done with that term that is so generic that it begs definition as much as it lacks it: “God?”

 

Deleting “God”

 

I have previously suggested that this particular pronoun with a capital “G” has been so bandied about with so many different meanings and applications as to be essentially rendered meaningless. Instead of trying to resuscitate it – only to risk its misuse all over again – we might be just as well be done with it altogether.

In fact, I’ve asked a few scholars far more learned than I why they still capitalize this particular word, as if referring to a proper name, instead of the ideas they like to substitute for what usually ends up being some quasi-anthropomorphic throw away line. But in my estimation, they always seem to come up short. So here’s my take:

First, the idea of “god” is exactly that. “God” is an idea, a notion, a human invention or contrivance, if you will. But more so, it is a descriptive idea of whatever we empirically experience, and then subsequently seemed to have attributed to an entity of some sort. We’ve historically done so, in order to try to explain the whys and wherefores of our lives.

But furthermore, it is not an idea that was planted in our consciousness by some mysterious outside force. I strongly suspect there is enough unknown mystery to the universe, in and of itself, so that any infinity of space, and eternity of time, should keep us busy for quite awhile. It seems to me we don’t need to invent and domesticate such unknowns and make humanly devised deities out of them.

Instead, and for example: In the Judeo-Christian tradition, when we hear the story of Moses encountering a burning bush that speaks without being consumed, or the voice that booms out like rolling thunder with approval over Jesus’ baptism in the chilly waters below, it is not a supernatural occurrence, but wonderfully descriptive mythic language striving to express the deepest possible meaning of a fully human experience.

Did I always understand this, and believe this to be true? Well, since in our “oneness” it’s all one big ball of wax, I can say the answer to my own question is both yes, and no! But the one, fundamental and essential truth I have found is this: We live our lives by myths and metaphors. And the search for meaning compels and challenges us to discern which myths are true, and which are false. Human history is littered with the enactments of false myths that have proved lethal. If there is any lasting value to any religious tradition, it is in the colloquial retelling of those myths that express alternate and enduring truths.

We live our lives by myths and metaphors. And the search for meaning compels and challenges us to discern which myths are true, and which are false.

Deleting “God” in “Christ”

 

Raised and reared in one of the great monotheistic faith traditions, I was immersed in a sort of religious inheritance bequeathed to me by my culture, my ethnicity, and centuries of Western history.

This included learning and living out the great mythic stories handed down through what were regarded as sacred scripture; along with the rites and rituals that were employed to symbolically express our part of that heritage, with a doctrinal belief system mediated by an authoritative, hierarchical human institution called the Church. So revered and meaningful were these words and ways, that they have sustained flocks of people from crib to grave.

In a search for meaning out of mystery and chaos – which is essentially the true function of all religion and its mythic tales –seekers far and wide found what was understood and believed to them to be an encounter with a sense of meaning and purpose, a defined direction and final destination. In the Christian faith tradition, it became fidelity to “oneness with Christ,” redemption and salvation. Subsequently, of course, the results were a plethora of interpretations as to what that all might possibly mean.

So along with leaving behind the vestiges of a supernatural “god,” there has been the so-called “quest” over a century of scholarly debate for the historical Jesus; as distinct from an eternal savior “god” and “Christ” of faith. The life and teachings of a 1st century Galilean sage in the wisdom tradition of his own religious heritage was subsequently accorded the messianic title by the religious tradition that emerged following his death and burial (facts) and “resurrection” (a theological assertion).

It was somewhat amusing when a cable news network recently broadcast a series entitled, “Finding Jesus – Faith, Fact, and Forgery.” Really? I found it incredulous that the promo’s for the series featured the iconic character quoting “I am” verses from John’s gospel; enjoining the listener to “believe.” Most scholars I know concur that the vast majority of sayings attributed to Jesus in the 4th Gospel are the invention of the early emerging faith community. The series merely reiterated legendary accounts from the gospels, and perpetuated more forgery than facts.

Instead, I liken myself to a disciple of Jesus on the Emmaus road, as recounted in the tale in Luke 24. I’m one who has striven to recognize the one I now refer to as that Galilean sage, as “hearts burn within us,” in the remembrances of his likeliest words and ways. But like those earlier disciples, I do so when I regularly break bread with some fellow sojourners in a group we simply refer to as Pathways. In doing so, I acknowledge I am only able to imagine there’s a faint resemblance of someone long dead and gone, who is borne out in our reenactment of study and supping each month.

Even so, I accept the inescapable fact that with only the earliest and various memories of who that historical figure really was, we share much of the same fate as those who were only one or two generations removed from him. We all have our own Jesus figure. And whoever he was, the world in which that 1st century CE figure walked and talked with his own god-language and religious context remains only partially transferable and translatable to the time and place I live two millennia later. Things change. So, when it comes to any religious construct, the question is what — if anything — remains?

 

Speaking anew without “God”

 

One of the things that remains is some of the mythic language once used to describe that which is beyond our present capacity to fully express and explain the human experience. We have strong evidence that the most authentic sayings of the historical Jesus were likely the “kingdom” parables, and a sort of godly language used to provide a context for transference; and how to imagine this same world differently. It’s why I refer to them as the “parables of now and next.”

Did Jesus have a “theological premise” different from me, at this point; especially with regard to the use of the word “god?” Probably. If Jesus were alive today, would he view things differently, and express himself differently as a result? Maybe. But it’s probably the only reason it makes me wish I believed in something as fanciful as a Second Coming!

I have for a long time reflected on the richness of the language we have inherited from two millennia of this one particular religious tradition, and asked myself (quoting J.S. Bach’s great hymn), what language shall we borrow? What new language might I employ to better express the place I have arrived? How, for instance, might I use resurrection language for what is new and next; instead of trying to breathe new life into that which is dead and gone?

I’ve actually thought of resurrection this way for awhile, based on personal experience. I used to say I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived long enough to have died enough little deaths along the way, to experience the fact that life itself continued afterward. There was no “god” that raised me up again, but life itself; and those other mere mortals surrounding me, loving me, supporting me.

Ah, some holdouts might still try to postulate the idea of a deity that’s been accorded such an attribute, and say, “God is love!”

To which I might suggest we simply reverse the proposition and consider: No, love is my “god.” Or better yet, love is simply love.

In the next commentary, I’ll reflect further on experimenting with such a proposition, and explore how such notions can stand well enough on their own.

 

 

 

© 2017 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

 

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