19 August 2016
Yuri Gagarin, who died in 1968, was a Soviet cosmonaut and the first human in space, on 12 April 1961. I remember the day well. Commenting about Yuri’s time in space, Premier Nikita Khrushchev told the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party: “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see God there.” Today I guess we would say, Nikita’s statement was more about an old cosmology than about theology. The question of God and God’s presence, of course, is more than ever contemporary.
How people contemplate and speak about God has critical consequences. It shapes people’s identity and behavior. People who see God as a warrior, and praise the way he smashes his enemies to bloody pulp, end up promoting and justifying their own aggressive behavior: “kill the bastards.” Or they see God sending flooding waters to Louisiana to punish people for living the gay lifestyle. People, who understand God more lovingly, are motivated toward care for their neighbor and mutual peacemaking. Pick your cause and then pick your god?
Theologians today – thanks to the increased number of women theologians — are much more conscious that the old patriarchal conception of God, in the image and likeness of the powerful ruling man, had the effect of legitimating strong male authority in social, religious, and political structures. The male Lord, King, and Father God ruled over all; and it gave men the justification to control, dominate, and marginalize women.
Actually, the human mind can never really and fully know the essence of the Divine. We can never satisfactorily wrap our minds around this great mystery. Nor can we exhaust the divine reality in our words, concepts, symbols, and rituals.
Thinking about God is not primarily a matter of using our intellect but of connecting with our experience. How do people experience and live their faith in different historical periods and in different cultures?
Traditional African religions, for instance, suggest names for God that are shaped by strong communal experiences: “Wise One, the One who sees all, the Greatest of Friends, the Great Spirit,” etc.
If we turn to the ancient Hebrew tradition, we see God, in the Book of Exodus, promising to be with his people throughout their future troubles: God is “I am who I am,” as well as “I am who I will be.” This understanding of God was much richer of course than the highly anthropomorphized God on his heavenly throne high up at the summit of the Hebrew three layered earthly cosmology.
The God questions are essential spiritual questions for us today: “How do we experience God? Do we experience God? How do we conceptualize God? Father? Mother? Ground of being?”
A number of twentieth century thinkers, with whom I resonate, would say that God is not a person, but that God affects us personally: The French philosopher Merleau-Ponty described God as “a force that is not compromised with the world of adversity, and who agrees with us against it.” The second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, remarked: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity; but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder the source of which is beyond all reason.”
I cannot understand God as external to our life and in that sense “super-natural”…a God who periodically intervenes in our world from outside…..Yet I have absolutely no doubts about my experiences of God.
Nevertheless, I cannot relate to a God who is a macho-man.
For some nineteen hundred years, institutional Christianity (to whatever degree it was authentically Christian) lived quite comfortably with prejudices based on gender, race, and sexual orientation. They saw it as God’s way. Yet when we look to Jesus Christ, we get a very different perspective.
My old professor at the University of Nijmegen, Edward Schillebeeckx, called Jesus Christ the “sacrament of the encounter with God.”
In the the Fourth Gospel, for instance, we read…”I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus restrict the “they” to only men, only whites, or only heterosexuals. Nor does Jesus restrict the “they” to just one religious group.
Prejudices do strange things to the human imagination. They distort reality. It struck me last week that all those people who believe Barack Obama is a sinister Muslim are the very same people who believe Donald Trump is a good Christian.
In her wonderful book Quest for the Living God, Sister Elizabeth Johnson courageously delineated the spiritual and institutional problems created by a conception of God that limits God to male images, patriarchy, and male superiority. I can understand why so many bishops have condemned her book. It pulls the carpet from beneath their feet.
How easily we forget the message and the meaning of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit came down on that group of men and women, gathered in fear in the upper room. The manifestation of God’s Spirit on that group of disciples broke through every human boundary of language, culture, and geography. The disciples were called to a new life and a mission to promote a humanity open to all people, because that is where one encounters the living God. That is the gift of Jesus: calling people to step outside of their defenses, to courageously move beyond fear, and their feelings of insecurity, to embrace in a new way of living what it means to be human.
Thanks to Jesus, divinity is seen in the fullness of humanity: when prejudicial limits are removed, hatred fades away, and what the Apostle Paul calls “a new creation” emerges.
Christianity’s message is not just about being. It is about human evolving and becoming: where the human enters the very life of God. Tremendously exciting.