Circling, But not Encircling

It’s always been easier to say what God is not, than it is to say what God is.  We expect this. If we could say what God is, then we would be wrong by definition. How could we the created, define the Creator, and therefore in some sense control the Creator, with a fence of words?

We are often untroubled by this basic theological insight. Many of us never think about it, and so remain a little naïve about the nature of “God.” Others, formally aware of the issue, nonetheless speak of “God” with a sort of familiarity which ultimately means they do have a definition of what God is, and usually… who. Not for us the careful respect of “The Name” practiced by many Jewish people.

Yet in our reflective moments, we know there is a difficulty. How does one do anything but lapse into a silence if one is to avoid at least a loose definition of that which cannot be defined.  What do we say in worship, if we think there is ‘something’ worthy of worship?

We are aware of the arrogance of religious people who essentially seek to own God by their definition. This is made all the more obvious in our multi cultural society. We do not wish to be like that. The least thought means that the in-definability of God is obvious.  There is nothing radical about this, but the implications, and how to proceed, are not clear.

In his article God Talk Fred Plumer considers these questions. Speaking of some discussion groups he is a part of he says

[W]e found ourselves trying to decide what we mean when we use a word or metaphor for that which we commonly call "God." It was relatively easy, among all of these conversations, to agree upon what we did not mean. It was clear for example, that we were not referring to some anthropomorphic being whom may or may not respond to our prayers and supplications.  We did not mean some supernatural theism that has haunted Western Christianity for over 1600 years. We were not talking about a separate entity and we had interesting conversations about whether there was any dualism in all creation. Sometimes we tossed around terms like pantheism, panentheism and something called creatheism, (God is a holy name of Ultimate Reality) but we did not seem to be getting any closer to finding terms, descriptions or even characteristics that fit everyone's perspective or anyone's perspective for that matter.

He continues

It became particularly challenging when we realized that we were trying to communicate something about this yet indescribable, mysterious phenomenon to children.  How do we teach our children about something that is indescribable?

It is not simply an issue for teaching children!  How do I talk about this to the people who live in my street?  There is a fair chance the “supernatural theism that has haunted Western Christianity for over 1600 years” is what they understand by “God.” Certainly it is what is understood by some of my Sunday congregation.

The matter is complicated because their instincts about “God” are not necessarily far astray. Plumer remarks how easy it is to use “God to explain that which we do not understand or to support our personal bias.” Yet there is often in ordinary people observation which is more than a convenient explaining. There is profundity.

My grandmother grew up in a lonely settlement under western hills, looking out over wide Australian plains to another range. As a little child she was required to be up early to report to her school teacher between which of the distant hills the sun rose.  Seventy years later I heard her say to my cousin, “How can you look at the sun rise, and not believe in God?” Could Rudolph Bultmann have said more?

Plumer tells us that in his essay "The Crisis of Faith,"

Bultmann points out that we are constantly confronting our fragile world, dealing with finite things and with our vulnerability.  He suggests that it is some power that we do not control. He also points out we do not create some of the most beautiful, powerful, lofty moments in our lives.  And as wonderful as those experiences are, we cannot make them last.   Eternity escapes us.  Bultmann concludes that there is a power that controls the temporal and the eternal. He calls this power, "God." He writes, "This 'mysterious power'-the power which limits man and is master of him, even when he thinks he is his own master-is God."

Plumer quotes A Primer on Radical Christianity, by Gene Marshall to emphasise

‘Bultmann was not referring to a supernatural power out there somewhere, who invades our natural realm.’ He simply says that this mysterious power that all of us have experienced every day of our lives is what he is refers to as "God."

He says Marshall

calls for a new metaphor for this "mysterious reality." He writes, "The new religious metaphor (which pictures the awe-filled experience of reality opening up in the center of ordinary reality) enables us to open ourselves to reality in both its familiar naturalness and in its awe-producing strangeness.  Realty is both known and unknown, ordinary and profoundly mysterious. Only when we accept and honor this mysteriousness in the midst of ordinary life, will we stop trying to wrap life up in neat intellectual boxes."  I found this helpful but I was still left wondering how we talk about this new metaphor, this mysterious reality.

This is the root of the problem. The reason “supernatural theism… haunted Western Christianity for over 1600 years” was that it was a series of metaphors which worked. It worked because they worked! What we are searching for is a group of metaphors for today, which we know will have limitations, and which will not describe God particularly closely, (how could they?) but which will nurture our emotions.  We want something that goes beyond saying “a mysterious reality” which, at least sometimes, is too mysterious to be “real.” We are looking for imagery which respects our modern understanding (and pretensions!)

For some of us, there is also the demand, or perhaps we think it is a demand, to say more.  As a clergy person, I am required to lead the prayers in worship and expound the scripture. With Plumer, I am well past “trying to wrap life up in neat little intellectual boxes."

He goes on to say something that works for preaching, but is less helpful when it comes to congregational prayer.

[W]hat I can talk about is what happens when I open myself, without fear,  to this Mysterious Reality in my life. I may not be able to identify it or quantify it but I can describe what it is like to experience it or "experience something" that I do not understand.  I can share the ways that I intentionally live and think that cause me to experience it more often, as I open myself to both the natural and its awe-producing strangeness…

In preaching, I find this is the way to go.  “Live the Life,” I say.  “You will discover the presence and the power as you make the effort to live the life Jesus shows us.” People respond to this. They often know the truth of it in their own lives.

Addressing that mysterious reality, however, is a problem. How do we pray in corporate worship?  My denomination has a tradition of probing and exploring scripture, and dissecting it and playing with its images.  We enjoy this. We expect it of our preachers and teachers.

We also have a strong tradition of praying to a person.  As theologically sophisticated as one may choose to be about what “personal” means, the prayers of praise and intercession, nonetheless imagine a person not too dissimilar to you and me. Here words and imagery fail me.

I mostly do not want to address God. There are sometimes moments of extremity when addressing the mysterious reality as a person makes sense. It is a kind of opening of myself and abandoning all my pretence to answers or control of my life. Judith Meyer said

I don't pray often.
But when I do,
it's because I'm desperate.

I want to tell you about this,
because sometimes these prayers,
desperate though they may have been,
have changed my life.
Not because they were answered
in any obvious way.
Not because the universe offered me any signs
to confirm that I was going in the right direction.
Not because of anything outside myself, actually -
but because of something inside,
something that allowed me to open up,
or to change,
or to move on
in ways I desperately needed to do.

I understand that. But too much addressing the mysterious reality, risks reducing ‘it’ to something manageable and definable.  I am still too to close the ‘external, out there God’ for much talking to the mysterious reality to be appropriate. I’m not sure it ever will be.  Jesus' word, "Abba, Father" is not so much a revelation for me, as a definition.

Desperation is also not where most of our prayers are, or should be, on Sunday morning. If Judith’s words were all that prayer is, we would be breeding a culture of the worst kind of dependence. The church has already had too much of that.

Just before Christmas, these were my prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession, at one service, struggling to find a way in this dilemma.

In the bitter-sweet of Christmas
we stand torn between joy and sorrow...
for though we say good has come from God
we know life has dealt a hard hand to many.

We have family and friends  far distant
in Sudan, in the United States, in  Great Britain,
in India, Tonga, and places in between.
We remember the names,
and whisper them in our hearts.

We have family here at home,
with all their struggles
which we so often cannot help
but only be there to encourage
or to pick up pieces.
Sometimes while we struggle with our own pain.
We remember the names,
and whisper them in our hearts.

We remember the names
and speak them aloud before God...
We remember Sam and Betty...
We remember Coral and Gordon
We remember Joyce
We remember Jijo’s mum...
[invite people to speak out names]

People close to us have died
and now Christmas is never quite the same.
We remember husbands and wives
mothers and fathers,
brothers and sisters
children who have gone before us...
and dear friends.
We remember the names,
and whisper them in our hearts.

In our hearts Lord... lies great pain
leeching into our lives from the loss and struggle
sometimes flooding over us
swamping us with sadness
dragging us down.

And now it is Christmas...
full of tinsel and cheap decorations
flashy lights and shallow advertising
and sentimentalised stories of a baby in a manger.
These do not distract or heal.
They mock us.

Let us see through the glitz
of a society which has forgotten
what you have done.

Let us remember the promise
that is in the birth of Christ:
the hope of a new heaven and earth
and justice for all people
and God with us.
In Jesus name we pray.  Amen.

I deliberately spent time trying to open people’s emotions to the pain and the beauty around us, and the ambiguous nature of our situation.  In the end, I address “God.”  And am…  unsatisfied.

I recall that somewhere in his footnotes to Against Method, Feyerabend said there are cosmologies based around the presence and protection of a person by the moon. These observe that when you walk at night, the moon follows you. Perhaps such worshippers speak to the moon, just as farmers speak to their sheep, and vignerons sometimes talk to the vines as they prune. Perhaps they are much less naïve than I think.

I am sure that my friend Chris, who speaks to his rams as he works, addressing them as “Men,”  has no illusions that they are listening to his conversation in the way that I listen to him. But his conversation recognizes their reality, and their being part of the whole of what is. It dignifies a relationship.  Sheep are not things.  “God,” whatever that is, is not merely a thing.  Perhaps addressing “God” is not so odd.

In the meantime I will continue to circle God, reluctantly admitting- and yet grateful- that God will never be encircled by me.

Fred Plumer's article is at The Center for Progressive Christianity.  Read on >>>>

Andrew Prior 2009


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