Landscape from Young, NSW 2011

After the Holidays

All theology that has any self-awareness knows it is not talking directly about God, but using symbolic language. It uses a symbol that points to, and participates in God in some way. But it knows the symbol is not God.

For me, traditional symbols often no longer "work." The language may have a resonance with previous experience, and may also be very beautiful, but it has become disconnected from anything real. It is no longer something I can believe, in the sense that it does not have the reality of sky or trees, or the person next to me. In fact, it does a disservice to, and trivialises, the numinous that I do experience. There is something more to life than what meets the eye, but the old God language neither expresses it very well, nor sheds much light upon it any more.

In fact, it is a hindrance. Good religious language not only describes an experience of the Divine it also sheds light on, or helps make more sense of the experience. But I often find the language of theology and church no longer does this. Instead, it hides the Divine, belittles the Divine, or points me to something offensive in its claim to be God.

I wondered it I could find a symbol which is real, and which "works?" What would be something that has indubitable reality in my life?

One great reality of our lives, which has some of the power that Father-God once had, is the planet. It has a sort of ultimacy because it is simply everywhere. It is unmistakably real. I do not doubt it's existence. So, it could perhaps be an image that works and has power.

There is no doubt the planet is like God to us. In it, we live, and move, and have our being. If the planet's ecology fails, we die. The planet is also something which has our attention. We are increasingly aware of our dependence upon it, of its fragility, and also of its awesome power to harm us.

But the planet would remain a symbol. It is not the ultimate- the whole cosmos lies beyond it, and beyond that, Ultimate Mystery. The planet is not God; I am not talking some kind of pantheism here.

But could I worship the planet? I thought maybe I could, for what is worship but to assign worth or value or worth to something? Giving worth to the planet would be about ecological awareness and sustainable living. Praise might be the reclamation of a river or the restoration of a wetland. Prayer would be to enjoy- simply to sit and enjoy. Or to climb the high hills and leave only footprints.

Enjoying and watching would shed light on the connectedness of things. High mountains and vast seas speak of grandeur. Water holes and oases speak of providence. Would this help me feel God more?

As I have wondered about this, and tried to let the planet flow into my feeling, I have decided No. In the dark of the forest I feel "something," but the forest is clearly only a channel, not a source. A wild beach or high mountain channel something, but they are not "it." I cannot make a symbol from something. ''Things'' are too clearly not God. The sense of God as something beyond us is too strong for the planet itself to become a symbol of God.

One night, tired and alone, and a bit depressed, I looked up at the sky and saw the evening star hanging low and bright despite all the city light. Steadfast and steady, somehow it spoke to my loneliness and melancholy, and I felt a certain closeness and familiarity. I speak to the star often, or simply gaze. There is a reality, despite it being quite clear to me that it is simply is star, and that I am speaking to something else, far beyond and also deep within myself. Symbols choose us. We cannot manufacture them. The most we can do is engage them and let them speak when they present themselves to us

Of course, my love affair with the star remains private. There is no church building full of people who gather with me this Sunday morning to share and rejoice in the sense of God which the star brings. Somehow there are meta-symbols which reach out to a mass of people. God the Father has been one of these; my little star is not.

Where does this leave me and the church.? As I think back, I see the church did several things for me. It gave me a safe place to grow up. It gave me wonderful values based in the life of Jesus for which I will always be grateful. It encouraged me to trust my sense of the Divine, and trained me to be discerning of things spiritual. That very training, of course, awakened me to the failing power of our symbols. I began to find that I who had always craved acceptance and approval, was mistaking these things' ephemeral satisfactions for the deeper satisfaction of a meaning-full life based in the Divine. When I grew enough to do without the crutch of the church's approval, its symbolism was suddenly impoverished. And even offensive.

Yet I belong to the church. It is my home. I am a person, made to be with people. These are my people, aren't they? Or am I to walk into exile on some other path?

For now, I mix with other lost souls, comparing notes, which is perhaps a poor worship, but honest. At times I burst into the Doxology for there is no other language to sing the sheer joy and wonder of life. And I stand sometimes in church as the people sing, and am aghast at the words, silenced by the next verse, wondering how anyone could believe such of God. Lord, have mercy.

Posted November 2005

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