What does God
Members of Explorers were invited, at an early stage,
to sketch personal answers to the question.
Here are the six responses that came in.
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I was reared by atheist parents. They were happy for the neighbours to take me to Sunday School and Bible Class as they believed true choice could only be from a knowledge base, and it was up to me to make my own choices. I went, not from any religious fervour but simply because it was one of the few gatherings of young people I was allowed to go to. The God we learnt about there was basically the old fashioned white-bearded man on a cloud who saw me when I was naughty, and would punish me later. There were some traumatic events in my childhood and this God who was supposed to see even a sparrow fall may have seen, but didn't seem to care enough to do anything to help me, perhaps because I was too naughty and therefore damned was my conclusion. And if I was already damned then why bother! This combined with my growing interest in the sciences, and a home life where scientific ideas were keenly discussed, led to my consigning God and religion to the irrelevant basket.
For many years I was clear that immortality was a matter of molecules freed from our bodies at death rejoining the dance of life and continuing forever to circulate, and there was no need for a God in this concept. If there was something Godlike out there, then it was something akin to the old fashioned notion of the music of the spheres, as somehow there was a basic order to the universe - everything was in its right place by scientific laws that could be, or would be, understood. And if somehow we could open our perception wide enough then we might hear its clockwork as music.
I lived for some time in a community where I absorbed, without analysing in depth, a lot of Eastern ideas including ideas on re-incarnation which had a lot that was satisfying about them, especially the way Karma made sense of bad things. Then having survived a lifethreatening illness, I began an inner quest as I had acquired the notion that somehow my illness was connected to how I saw myself and my place in the world. These questionings iead on to an interest in Jung's writings with their emphasis on a spiritual dimension. Participating in a range of courses over this time I had many intensely emotional experiences and perceptions that I could not integrate within my scientific framework. Then I learnt to hold these experiences more lightly as having a validity even though they could not be explained by science, and I began to develop ideas about science telling us how things happened, but these other experiences were more about the why of life, and outside time and space.
Over the years there have been occasional powerful visions that have had something of the nature of God about them. I distinguish these occurrences from, say, day dreaming by their unexpectedness and the vividness of their perception; my senses are fully involved and the feeling of emotional intensity to them is almost overwhelming. The earliest of these was a perception of towering powerful cloud with brilliantly lit edges like the towering massive summer clouds in Auckland. From the cloud came two beautiful arms and hands, a little like Durer's praying hands, only these hands cradled the earth which looked like a child's drawing with bright blue sea, and green and brown land, and there were fish and whales spouting in the sea and birds and animals on the land, just the way a child would draw them. Around the base of the cloud were vague changing shapes like drifting fog, and I realised that these were symbols of different religions - the Celtic cross was there and so was the Egyptian ankh, and eastern symbols and a Mayan disc and other things that I have no idea what they were.
A more recent vision had a feeling that what I was seeing was outside space and time. Beside me was an enormous eagle-like bird which towered into the night sky, yet I could clearly see its head as if we were eye to eye. Its feathers were very dark and glistened with stars which could have been on the feathers or could have been shining through. The bird's eye was very bright, not kindly, more watchful and perhaps aloof. In its curved beak was held a lustrous glowing pearl which seemed to me to contain the universe, safely held by this austere guardian.
These visions and experiences have changed me, and because of my how/why dichotomy I no longer see science as an obstacle to belief. Indeed the marvels of evolution are such that they inspire awe in me, and that has an element of reverence for the force behind, but this is a more abstract concept than any simplistic notion of a "nature God". But God of nature is in there too in the sense of incredible gratitude that sweeps over me at times; that I am alive in a world with such amazing beauty, and I hear myself saying thank you for this sunrise, play of light, whatever. But thank you to whom or what is never fully clear; it is a simple up-welling of joy, of ecstasy. Matthew Fox's ideas that they we are co-creators has a lot of resonance for me. But the other side of that is despair at what we humans are doing to this wonderful world. Indeed I often feel ashamed to be human.
I have no sense or expectation of an angelic afterlife, there are too many imponderables in an age that knows the heavens are not an inverted blue basin, and that bodies disintegrate in the grave. I suspect that heaven and hell may be created by us on earth in our lifetimes. But I do feel that there is more to us than mere molecules and that perhaps, whatever that energy is, it does persist, as matter is neither created or destroyed. I sometimes wonder if that energy continues circulating, and perhaps God is in its aggregation.
So although I have developed a strong spiritual sense that enriches my life, I have mostly thrown out the concept of the Christian Father God, except as poetry. So why am I coming to Church at all could be a valid question. In part because I acknowledge that there is a deep human instinctual need for spiritual ritual and symbolism and a poetic context that sustained our foreparents, and still has resonance today. And in part it is that the Christian ethic and ideals provide an excellent framework to live my life within. It is also, as in childhood, social, as the church provides me with a community of like-minded and caring people, a family.
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My thoughts on this are in a very fluid state. I have been prompted to reexamine old ideas, by the discussions in the Exploring religion group, and also by reading Lloyd Geering's Christianity without God.
I find Lloyd Geering totally convincing in his tracing of how the idea of God developed, and was variously interpreted through the ages. I thought his arguments in his last chapter, about the need to return to caring for the earth along with his explanation of the dominance of the patriarchal/male/Sky-father god and the elimination of the earthmother in Israelite thought (which we had considered in our group) were very compelling. So rationally I am able to accept "Christianity without God". However this requires some adjusting of thought patterns (just as rejecting the atonement does).
One adjustment is one's attitude to prayer. I have never considered prayer to be a sort of magic, but it would be comforting to believe that the prayers of one person or a congregation in support of another person would be beneficial, at least in sustaining or comforting the person being prayed for. My hunch/belief is that there remains within us something from the past long overlaid by civilization, that links people by thought processes in a way we don't understand. I would be interested in other people's insights, ideas on this. And prayer helps to assemble one's own thoughts.
So, even more, I rejoice in the spring, the blossom trees, the blue sky, and the bluebells. I am a responsible human being. I should care for myself, for others, for our country and for the earth. In the face of the magnitude of this task, David Head said "Do I care enough for one?"
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What does God mean to me? Do I need even one A4 sheet, or maybe reams? In one sense, for me at present, God means nothing. Then again, if God means anything, God would mean virtually everything. To try to clarify such obfuscation, here are three angles on my personal views:
(1) God is a memory - both fond and frustrating. We all remember the moment of feeling the recent earthquake, when the Australian and Pacific plates of the earth's crust released some of the pent-up pressure between them. I remember a moment when the pressure between the right and left hemispheres of my brain may have done something similar, leaving my sense of a personal, addressable, possibly providential God dissipated. Some questions became easier (such as the problem of evil), some harder (such as final destiny). While I see no possibility of recovering my former state and indeed have no real desire for it, I do treasure it. I also acknowledge that it entwines my current thinking in ways I could never fully disentangle. I suspect that this phenomenon partly affects others whose spiritual journey has not deviated to such an extent, since everyone's ideas about God change at least a little over time. It is very easy for one's mind to be out of sync with one's actions, and even with itself. We could be ahead in our rational assessment of an issue while trailing behind in other ways such as customs and observances (including worship!). Our group's assessment of atonement theology could be a case in point - intellectually generally repugnant, yet the residue of the theory persists within most of us. That may not be entirely undesirable, providing we see it as story rather than theory. To a large extent also, Western secular society as a whole is in the position of experiencing God chiefly as a memory, and a rapidly fading one at that. Is it a disaster, a wholly positive development, or a certain mixture of both? The latter, I would contend, but to try another tack:
(2) God might be a Methodist! I'm not altogether joking. Is such a statement really much more anthropomorphic than saying that God is Father/Mother? To say so is not just to barrack for my team, but to express the fond hope that the Methodist ethos may show the most promise among Christian denominations of being able to respond creatively to the new order (or disorder). Wesley, as a man of his age, could barely entertain the concept of a time when 'God is no more, or at least has quitted the reins, and left chance to govern the world'. Yet Wesley also said, 'it is the glory of the people called Methodists that they condemn none for their opinions or modes of worship'. Methodism has been among the first to grapple with new approaches to scripture and to challenges from society. I sense much the same optimism in N's paper, in his desire to see a Methodism which 'is honest, searching and all embracing' and worship 'accepting of all positions on the faith journey'. And at our last meeting the group welcomed the assertion that Methodism is 'not a dogmatic movement' and that it 'properly makes room for growth in understanding and development in thinking'. Could we, dare we, now begin to adopt a firmer grasp of the wholeness of humanity (much more inclusive even of other religions and of the secular world) and to increasingly lighten and poeticise our God-talk and mode of worship? In trying to do so we might actually be catching up with where the God concept is heading.
(3) God is meaning - if we could but grasp it. At last something more substantive? Yet even this is a very tentative proposition. Having just now likened God to a Methodist, let me express a criticism of the Methodist portrayal of God. It seems to me that we have been far too precise, far too personal, and far too familiar in speaking of (let alone to) God. To be blunt, what is needed is a large dose of agnosticism in our thinking. Our complex brains are such primitive tools. Let me give two hints of what I mean taken from the media last week. On Edwards At Large, an Auckland Professor of Psychology cited some statistical evidence to suggest that people who are ambidextrous may be slightly more likely than average to believe in fairies. So what? It is just a trivial reminder of the need to be extremely cautious as to the reliability of the human brain in dealing with difficult questions. In an article on Mars in the ODT, a Russian physicist was quoted as saying 'The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but we cannot live for ever in a cradle'. On the scale of the cosmos we are barely a babe in a bassinet, possibly neurological nonentities. But paradoxical as it may seem, our best chance of sensing ultimate meaning may be when we are most aware of the questions surrounding life's answers. It may be as close as we are likely to come to an experience of atonement reincarnate, to an encounter with 'God'.
Goodness me! I see that I have depicted God as a packet of 'M&M's'. In one respect at least, my theological thinking hasn't changed since devoting a Trinity College Magazine editorial about 45 years ago to the subject of humour. I now have some difficulty finding God in liturgy, but I sometimes still get a whiff of God in laughter.
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My thinking about what God means to me has tended to be very nebulous. Like all of us, I imagine, my early belief system was formed through Sunday School and Bible in School teaching, with all the associated memories of cards with texts on them, little text posters for my wall, memory verses etc. That kind of thinking was naturally reinforced by belonging to Scripture Union at Primary and Intermediate School and then Crusader Union at College. For a considerable time I moved away from Church, not anti but simply not finding that attending Church added anything to my life. I suspect part of that moving away was a reaction against the very sentimental religion expressed by many. After my first hip surgeries I began attending Church again, more as a social link than spiritual. In 1975 I received a great deal of emotional and spiritual support from an Anglican Hospital Chaplain, which began a journey of exploration for me, one of the consequences being involvement in the Charismatic movement within the Churches. During this time I had the most profound religious experience I've ever known, and one which was very surprising. Not at all the way I'd have expected, or organised it if it had been of my own contriving, which I found reassuring! Since then, I've veered between quite divergent views of God. I've left behind (for the most part!) the God who's keeping score, who marks out of ten our thoughts, intents and actions with a view to a heavenly review at the Pearly Gates when I die. As my pain levels and degree of disability have increased, and some people have tried to impose on me their belief that suffering purifies, or brings nobility of some kind, I've been very interested in some things expressed in C.S. Lewis' book "A Grief Observed."
For instance: The terrible thing is that a perfectly good God is in this matter hardly less formidable than a Cosmic Sadist. The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe there is any use in begging for tenderness. A cruel man might be bribed, might grow tired of his vile sport, might have a temporary fit of mercy, as alcoholics have fits of sobriety. But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God, or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren't. Either way, we're for it.
Another comment of his: The conclusion I dread is not So there's no God after all but So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.
I don't see God as intervening supernaturally, nor as the Divine Clockmaker image who having created the universe, simply sits back watching. I'm somewhere in the middle, moving between the two, but most of the time confident that my faith, such as it is, helps me to live as well as I can, and motivates me to do what I can to help others. As the book "We Really Do Need Each Other" says, we not only need Jesus, but sometimes we need someone to be Jesus to us. So I can't come out with a statement of faith, it's too tied up in who I am and how I try to operate in the world.
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"You cannot serve God and wealth." (Jesus of Nazareth)
"Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?" (Jesus of Nazareth)
"I maintain that whenever someone recognizes something in God
and puts a name on it, then it is not God.
God is higher than names or nature." (Meister Eckhart)
"Where is this God? God has acted exactly like people who hide themselves and then
clear their throats, thus giving themselves away. No one could ever have discovered
God, but he has now given himself away. " (Meister Eckhart)
I trust Jesus of Nazareth more than I trust myself. (I have much less confidence in the gospel writers' presentations of him: we know they were seriously offtrack, historically, in much of their reporting and interpretation.) The Jesus Seminar gave the two NT quotations above a good rating - around 70% - as likely to have originated with Jesus himself. In one of them two vocations are placed in opposition. Which one you choose, Jesus said, makes all the difference to the way your life goes. To take Jesus seriously is to take God seriously. (This is not a personal claim on my part to have done everything right.)
Jesus did not theorize about God. He did not produce theology. He knew God and, in his activity, expressed God. So the best I can say is that, for me, 'God' points to that which was ultimately real for Jesus - what made him the person he was.
It is people especially (and not just Jesus) who make God known to me. They do this, in the first place, by their lives. Some also try to put God into philosophical language, poems, or stories (or pictures, or creativity) for themselves and for others. My second Jesus quotation reminds me to learn at least a little of people's histories, and their presuppositions, before I take their words too seriously. And even then good communication may find me dull and uncomprehending.
I respond with sympathy to some words of Charles Brasch:
|There are only certain poets I can hear,
Who pitch their notes to my eccentric ear,
The rest sublime, mellifluous, heady, love-true,
Might as well sing to the deaf, as I do.
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To attempt to define a personal perception of God on an A4 page is at the same time, outrageous and absolutely logical. Outrageous from the standpoint that a topic of such magnitude could not possibly be expressed on one, or any number of pages, but absolutely logical from the standpoint that if God is the allpervading force in the universe, then in principle, there is not a lot more to say.
It is perhaps an unfortunate by-product of some traditional forms of observance/worship that in attempting to describe a personal perception of God, in that description it becomes necessary to note what, in the writers mind, God is not
Firstly, I see God and Jesus Christ as two separate entities: the latter a special person pointing toward and living the ideals of the former.
As a consequence, the worship of Jesus as the ultimate entity appears to be misplaced. Rather, worship, if that is the correct term, should be directed to "God" and Jesus recognised, and revered as an important exemplar. Our focus is on the messenger, insufficiently on the message.
Returning to "God".
God encompasses the laws (and consequently the forces) of the Universe, which can be both beneficial, and prejudicial to life. But life, an expression of God, has positive direction evidenced by increasing intellect, knowledge and understanding over the aeons of time.
Bad things can (and do) happen to good people and given that God encompasses the laws and forces of the Universe it could not follow that only the good consequences of these laws and forces affect life. It is self evident that there are frequently bad consequences.
To me then, "God" is not personal in the sense of a beneficial personal "minder", overseeing unrequested, my, or anyone elses actions and outcomes, as would a father and mother. (If that were to be the case, then the omnipotence of "God" would be demonstrated a sham, as disasters and tragedies abound.)
Rather, we may be born with, and/or develop a pro-active empathy with God (that entity which encompasses all the laws of the Universe and exerts a positive direction in the evolvement of life) reflecting to greater or lesser degrees the contributing elements of that positive direction, and experiencing, as a consequence, greater or lesser degrees of "heaven on earth".
"God" is there (i.e. the laws of the Universe and direction of life evolvement) whether or not we choose to acknowledge, or develop that empathy. That is up to the individual. The ball is in our court but failure to develop that empathy is not a denial of the existence of God this has simply not been acknowledged by the person involved. A person's lack of knowledge of, say, mathematics, doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, it's simply not acknowledged.
The manifestation of the acknowledgement of God tends to be most obviously in the context of:
mutual support within communities
acknowledgement of and striving for, high ideals at all levels
Science may tell us that these are mostly innate actions, the motivations for which are embedded in the thalamus (or whatever) of the brain, relating to self preservation and/or preservation of the species. That's fine, science is as much part of belief in God as anything else, helping to provide greater understanding and reducing the dependence on faith alone.
I'm already well past the prescribed A4 page but must add that it seems to me that a lot of the difficulties being experienced by the churches now, are the result of perhaps quite few principles being obscured by dogmas which seek to explain, but in the end require, themselves, a degree of interpretation, which renders the principle totally incomprehensible.
The KIS principle should apply. Keep it simple.
I find that in the course of these short notes, I have not used the word "love" once, and use the word "worship" rather circumspectly. To me, "love" in the religious context is the mutual support within a community (however large or small) arising from individuals empathy with "God", that "love" quite reasonably extending to encompass the individual's relationship with the environment.
I have the feeling that the use of the word "love" in the religious context is probably incomprehensible to the majority of people, especially those "unchurched" and the term "love of God" is similarly challenging.
I find the phrase "in awe of" a rather more satisfying expression than "worship of", and acknowledge the person of Jesus as the catalyst for Christendom and a pointer to God.