My First Impressions about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the Temple were expressed in the heartfelt theistic language of my religious tradition. The basic premise is of theism is that 'God' is a person we can talk to and to whom we may relate. Words such as 'righteousness 'and 'justification' make it clear there is a right relationship to be had with this God. There are, of course, a thousand and one volumes exploring the nuances of the metaphor of a theistic God, and assessing its limitations. It is not simplistic.
Within this model Jesus, and Paul, and the early church discovered the liberating experience that God did not need to be satisfied or propitiated by us. God simply loves us. It is a gift given before us, despite us, and to us. Not only can we not ever make ourselves right with the God from whose glory before so far short-the point of the reading this week— we do not have to. God loves us and accepts us anyway.
This is the crux of our faith. It matters little that the church and its theologians has struggled to accept the gift; the heresy of Substitutionary Atonement and God's Satisfaction, which make Jesus die for us to keep God happy; that is, God loves us but not his son. Regardless of the excesses and plain errors, the person who somehow grasps this gift of God's love, who feels the insight, experiences a great liberation, be they professor, process worker, or peasant.
(The God of substitutionary atonement is that same God who forbad child sacrifice in the old Testament, incidentally.)
But what about when theism as a metaphor does not work? There are some who wish to impose their theological constructs upon us, and who tell us we are simply wrong here, but for many people today theism and makes no intellectual, experiential, or ethical sense. For them the theistic metaphor is not a revelatory metaphor for the experience of the Divine; it obfuscates; it hides the Divine.
This is not only an issue for those who have the language to critique theism. How much longing is unfulfilled, and how much spiritual agony is suffered by those who 'cannot believe,' or for whom the 'penny will not drop,' not because of their lack of faith but because they are seeking to relate to the Divine with a metaphor that is a worthless currency in their reality?
Yet each Sunday in church, the language of liturgy, prayer, sermon and hymn is theistic. I seek to preach otherwise, but the sermon is the last and least powerful way into the heart. Try finding non-theistic hymns which still touch the mystery, and relate to the tradition of Jesus, but are not grounded in theism. Let me know if you find them.
When it comes to talking about God
1. There is the theist. This person may speak of the Divine using metaphors of nature, or have subtle and erudite nuances in their theism, but a 'person' is at the root of their thinking. The personal God is the ruling metaphor in their range of images. The personal nature of God is not a revelatory metaphor for them, God's person simply is.
This is not without reason. Jesus is presented in the New Testament as thoroughly theist. Nowhere does he say "Abba— Father— my metaphor for the Divine."
2. Then there is the atheist; the person who thinks God in any sense simply does not exist.
3. There is also the a-theist; the one who finds theism an untenable way to speak about God. I pronounce this a-theist so we can hear the hyphen, as in 'a-political.'
4. There is the post-theist, who has been on a journey somewhat akin to the person of post-critical simple faith who has grown through intellectual struggle and honest doubt from a pre-critical-simplistic faith.
This person has accepted they can't bend their reality to fit the theistic metaphor's demands, and has explored a-theistic metaphors for the Divine. They have trusted their instinct for the presence of something other; that is, they trust the instinct of, or explore the hope for, some underlying teleology that transcends physicalist determinism and is apprehensible in some meaningful way. They live in the faith; uncomfortable as a-theistic discipleship may seem at the beginning.
In my experience of this, aspects of my reality and glimpses of the Divine slowly clarified into an intimacy which is not personal. Such a person may breathe deeply of the night air, gaze at the stars, look into a dog's eyes, plant their bare feet into the earth, yet feel at home, enmeshed, held, loved, close, all the while feeling no obligation to relate to "Him," or "Her."
To explain further: I am awaiting a cancer diagnosis, or not. My theist past would have me pray to God the person, asking for healing, courage, faith, acceptance— all those things. I feel no fear— dying is like the last visit to a Dentist-you just do it, anyway— but I am quite adrift. I can only wait these last days because everything will change. I feel deep sorrow because I had much left which I hoped to do and now there may not be time. But I have had no impulse to pray as I would once have prayed.
I did write a poem yesterday, or more correctly, perhaps, some theology. In part it says,
a prayer contemplates the failure
of his biological frailty
acceptance honours what God has given
eviscerating every passion
in a thorough exploring …
No theism. No person. But prayer in the sun, barefoot, and released for a while. The emotional releasing, uplifting, and healing of paralysis from these few hours of abandonment to the grief and writing, is akin to that of the thoroughly theistic prayer of my past.
And sometimes this post-theist, or perhaps I am a poetic-theist, can use the language of theism. And sometimes, not. It is barren, empty, ridiculous. If theism were all I had I would be lost.
So the poetic-theist smells the air in the way of my dog when she first it leaves the house in the morning, taking the measure of the world. She looks at the text for the day, and the challenges that ride in on the wind, and asks, "What metaphor of our rich faith heritage will steer me in the way of the Divine today?"
I am hugely grateful for my release from a tyrannical theism. For you see, I can relate to the tax collector and to the Pharisee. For I was once, and sometimes still am, the self-righteous Pharisee. And I am often the despairing tax collector who doesn't have a prayer. I despair over my complicity, my greed, the shallowness of my commitment to the way of Jesus, and my utter inability to be a decent human being. It is so good, such a relief, to know that God loves me. I know there is no way I can work my way out of this mess.To feel the love of God who simply accepts me as I am is a liberation that enables my sanity, curbs my despair, and gives me a life worth living.
But on the days when the horrors of the world are magnified and God does not intervene, when all the excuses of theodicy are mere sophistry, when the root probabilities of physics and biology mock providence, and God the Father simply cannot be, it is a gift of God to go outside and stand in the dark feeling the intimacy of the stars, and the trees, and the dirt. For in the a-theistic universe where there is no "God" to justify me, the love which simply accepts me as I am and enables my sanity, and curbs my despair, and gives me a life worth living, is still there.
Thanks be to God! Amen
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