Wednesday, November 09, 2016

God, Church, Religion

by Henk Hart

"Take off your sandals." --Photo by Henk Hart

We are now in the 500th year of the reformation started by Luther. Part of its gift has been the availability of Bibles in every language. Sometimes that is explained as the official church losing control over what people would believe. But that’s true only in part. By means of councils, synods, confessions, and other official channels churches have kept and are keeping a fairly tight lid on orthodox teaching and proper beliefs. More and more, however, people exercise much greater freedom in deciding the shape of their faith. That seems an unavoidable influence of our times. When the tension between what churches consider proper and what believers none the less decide for themselves becomes too great, churches become emptier and memberships decline. I have a notion that if churches would encourage and participate in the questioning and searching that is more and more common in our world, the birth of more widely shared forms of faith could give rise to a global culture once again looking for wisdom in living a life of faith. That could be considered as attending to unfinished business of the Reformation. The United Church of Canada is in the process of deciding whether a pastor in that denomination should be defrocked for being at odds with its most recent statements of faith. Perhaps we are now living in times when such conflicts could also be addressed by engaging in a 10-year open dialogue and reflection on how faith could be shaped as a gift whose power is self giving love.

1. Do we invent God? That is not where I think I am. "Invent" sort of always sounds to me like "whole cloth" creations ex nihilo. I don't think that's true about what we "make" of God. The big unanswerable questions of life and our need to deal with them are not our inventions. Nor can we invent whole cloth how we deal with these questions. These issues and our needs in my view point to realities beyond us that, I take it, are real. Our struggle with these issues does not lead to any satisfaction unless we can experience them helping us move in a direction that bears fruit. However, that said, most of the realities humans relate to as God are mysteries we do not and cannot make fully accessible, even though we also cannot live without lasting intimations of what that “divine” reality is like and what it does to our lives. In light of that, I think, we do give shape to (which is not to say, we invent) whatever we experience the mystery to intimate, reveal, tell us. In the course of that, I think it is also helpful to say that in this very process we become who we are. God-in-heaven shapes us from the-earth-we-are. And in that mysterious process of mutuality, it seems entirely right to me to say that we experience God in ways to which we ourselves give shape. Is God a God who cares? I would suspect that this is far from a universal acknowledgement among people. A God who cares may emerge from eons of careful and reverent listening within some tradition. And, obviously, a God who cares is infinitely satisfying in our dealing with the big issues. But a God who cares also presents problems to tsunami victims, to those who suffered under Hitler, Stalin, Ceaucescu, Milosevic, etc. None of our God experiences are, I think, certain, settled, and safe. To entrust ourselves to the divine mystery as we have learned to know it always remains a vulnerable risk. And that, it seems to me, is just what helps us understand the mystery as divine: it transcends our domination and at the same time is our dominus.

2. Religion as a way, a path, is peculiar neither to the Japanese nor to me. Psalm 1 opens the Psalter with that theme, indicating its pervasive characterization of Israel's walk with God. Jesus refers to himself as the way that gives life in truth. The early Christians were, in Acts, referred to as people of The Way. That designation is dear to me.

Perhaps with Hinduism as an exception, religions view their way as unique, often at least in some respects exclusively so. When it sometimes seems that we can all too easily and too quickly switch from one "way" to another, I suspect we then refer to ways of thinking or expressing ourselves, rather than to the complex wholeness that is a religion. The OT's "no other gods," or the NT's "no other name" point, as full fledged ways to walk, to Jesus' saying that we cannot serve both God and Mammon, at least not successfully so. Syncretism as a thought experiment seems possible, but as a way of living (not as an individual but in intentional community with others) it seems undoable to me. When we say that we think we are not limited to one or another way very long, we cannot mean, can we, that people are Muslims for a short while, then Christians, and soon also Hindus? That does not seem true to life.

3. Some are skeptical about churches as exceptionally graced. I'd dare say that such churches are not as rare as we think. Good solid churches in which people worship with joy and are built up as members are not, I think, rare. Of course, not all of us would feel at home in all of them, because of social practices, theological views, etc. I do think that the life span of a church's bloom may sometimes be short. But I suspect that 4th Presbyterian in Chicago or Riverside in New York have been going strong for an enviably long time, as has People's Church in Toronto. So I base my expectations on what I think is an achievable reality. I see no reason why we should expect less of the church than we do of Carnegie Hall, Roy Thompson Hall, the Concertgebouw, Cirque Du Soleil, Tafelmusik, etc. That does not mean we should find them in every village. But it does mean, I think, that we have lots of living models of excellence. I know quite a few that feel palpably alive, spiritually energized, enthusiastic. No feelings of dead space, stale air there. The quality of the experience seems crucial to me here. But it can be a small very informal group on an attic as well as a huge church in Chicago or a "base community" found in Amsterdam's Dominicus, or even Amsterdam's liturgically rather traditional Wester Kerk. Sometimes the liturgy is so good that the sermon is not crucial. Music seems a very important ingredient. I can feel these qualities even in places where I'm not at home.

4. Now for the climax. God as person. Since I deeply believe that all we know about the Mystery can only be expressed metaphorically, I have slowly become more tolerant of the vast array of metaphors that are dear to people of all kinds, conservative or progressive. And since I also believe that people can likely best relate to a God who is like them or to whom they are alike, I think God as person is a supreme metaphor and consequently it plays a huge role in the life of the church, as it has for ages and ages. However, I have for myself become too conscious of the idolatry of the (logical) consequences we attach to the God-as-person metaphor. It is very difficult, also for me, not to relate to such a God as "really" a person. And for several decades now that has slowly begun to interfere with my being blessed by that metaphor.

I think only humans are persons and to be a person you need heart and lungs, brain and anus, nose and ears, etc., etc. Raccoons have those. But having these is not enough to be a person. I think that what makes people persons is lacking in raccoons. So for me, since God is never thought of as having the characteristics we share with raccoons, God is not a person. And since raccoons do have these but lack whatever else it takes to say "I" and to recognize other "I" sayers, raccoons are also not persons.

But perhaps God is person in its original sense. In ancient drama actors spoke through a mask and thus became the per-sona whose role the actor played. And we take it that anything whatever can be the mask through whom God speaks. In that way God is not limited to three personae because God speaks to us through sun and moon, sea and forest, desert and field, lion and ant, ruler and child. Panentheism encapsulates all this in a wondrous vision.

I certainly can find hope in God. I do believe that whatever is the mystery we name God, God is (the source of) love, life, peace, grace, justice, joy, and all those other positive forces that all of us yearn for and know would fulfill us, make us happy, give us life, etc.

Heady stuff here. But all of it is for me at the core of hours of daily awareness and reflection.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.


  1. I am always amazed at how the bible lover, the observer of modern life, the gifted philosopher and the nature mystic come together in you, Henk. From wrestling with the meaning of Hebrew terms like hesed, to reflecting on the luminosity of one metaphor or another, to thinking about what goes with what and in what order, to an awareness of the presence of God in a Fall-ruddied leaf, I find myself ever opened to for-me fresh thoughts and imaginings, when I read or hear one of your meditations or one of your sermons. It may be that this combination you manifest so distinctively here too will find its gift and call in offering a bridge between the spiritual-but-not-religious souls so widespread in our spirit hungry world and the at once spiritually full and spiritually needy community of the faithful of whatever institutional provenance and state. What a marvelous vocation that would be! I pray it be so. Such pontifices are desperately needed, as you know, and in numbers, all the numbers that our loving God is willing to grace us with.

    1. Affirmation comes so naturally to you and in such overflowing texts. All the blogs so far were written in solitude and for my eyes only. If sharing a few of them can be a bridge for some, I will shed a tear.