February 3, 2018
A reflection: God Thoughts
Historic Observations: Some days it seems so very long ago; but I clearly remember the event. Yuri Gagarin, who died 50 years ago on (my birthday) March 27, 1968, was a Soviet cosmonaut. He was the first human to journey into outer space, when his Vostok spacecraft completed an orbit of the Earth on April 12, 1961. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev quickly announced to the Central Committee of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party that “Gagarin flew into space but didn’t see any god there.” Khrushchev had a big laugh about that.
It was also in 1961 that French Protestant theologian, Gabriel Vahanian’s historic book God is Dead: The Culture of our Post-Christian Era was published. Vahanian (1927-2012) argued that the “death of God” happened when God was turned into just a cultural artifact and modern culture had lost a sense of the sacred. He argued for a transformation of a post-Christian and a post-modern culture. Vahanian – contrary to what some said later — was a true believer.
In many ways, Vahanian was echoing what Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) had expressed in his Letters and Papers from Prison. During his year and a half confinement in the Berlin Tegel military prison, Bonhoeffer questioned the role of Christianity and the church in a “world come of age,” where human beings had lost a sense of a metaphysical God. He pondered the meaning of a “religionless Christianity.” In a note dated November 21, 1943, He wrote “My fear and distrust of ‘religiosity’ have become greater than ever.” “Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’” he wrote “do not in the least act up to it and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’” Bonhoeffer of course was reacting to all the “good Christians” who supported Adolf Hitler’s National Socialism agenda.
Sometimes, people learn from the past very slowly. Quite often today, I fear that God, for many people, has been turned into “just a cultural artifact.” Our political leaders love to say “God bless you”; but they say it the same way the check-out person at the supermarket says “Have a good day.” Is there really any belief behind it? Too many contemporary “believers” speak and behave in ungodly ways. I can understand why young people, and more and more older people, are “nones,” interested in spirituality but not religion. Like Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christians”? They want nothing to do with institutionalized religion. They see, for instance, very little that is Christian in the words and behavior of Washington DC’s top political leader. They see his close advisors promoting a bizarre and distorted version of the Gospels. Was Jesus really very white, very racist, very xenophobic, and very sexist?
Yet, nevertheless, I believe God is still traveling with us on our journey. But I ask how do we best think of God today? What words? What imagery? Certainly, the old Hebrew and early Christian cosmology, with God enthroned in the heavens is past history. Khrushchev said Gagarin did not see God in space; but Nikita was blinded by his own Communist ideology.
How do we see today?
Earth and the Cosmos Today: On my desk, is a Christmas present from my son: a petrified sand dollar. Like his dad, he is fascinated by historic phenomena and objects. This one (not his dad) is one hundred and fifty million years old. When my little sand dollar was a living creature, crawling across the seabed, our earth was in its Jurassic period; and our earth’s supercontinent Pangaea began to break apart. That left two landmasses, a northern mass containing what we know as North America, Europe, and Asia and a southern mass containing South America, Africa, Australia, Antarctica, and India. During the early Jurassic, North America separated from Africa and South America and moved northward, but it was still connected to Europe. In the late Jurassic period, the North Atlantic began to appear between Europe and North America. Fascinating.
Rubbing my fingers over this old but now nicely polished fossil, the thought struck me: As it crawled around in a greatly changing earth, God was there with it. And when the continents separated and gave form to today’s earth configuration, the Spirit of God was there in and above the raging waters and shifting earth.
Our knowledge of the earth and the cosmos have grown considerably since the Book of Genesis was composed – a long process combining traditions dating from between the 10th and 5th centuries BCE. He have now learned that our earth is about 4.5 billion years old and that our solar system itself is only one among a vast number of others. In the bigger picture, our sun is just a star like many others. Our earth is like a speck in our Milky Way Galaxy that contains over 200 billion stars, and enough dust and gas to make billions more. And the expansion and evolution continue, and God is there at the heart of all of it. Fascinating. There are in the greater universe thousands of billions and billions of planets such as our earth. In the very beginning, God was there. God was here. God is still here. God is still there. Here and out there, and beyond…. How does one describe this God? Who is God in an immense and ever-evolving cosmos? Who is God for an ever-evolving humanity? I no longer understand God as “transcendent” because I experience God as right here with us – at the heart of Reality — not above us and out there.
The philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965), whom I greatly respected, stressed that God is best understood as “the ground of Being-Itself.” No part of Reality is alien to God; and, Tillich stressed that God is both personal and transpersonal. In faith experiences, Tillich stressed again, we encounter God. The central component of Tillich’s concept of faith was that faith is “ecstatic.” “The ecstatic character of faith” Tillich wrote “does not exclude its rational character although it is not identical with it, and it includes non-rational strivings without being identical with them. ‘Ecstasy’ means ‘standing outside of oneself’ – without ceasing to be oneself.” I liked Tillich and enjoyed being able to attend one of his lectures in my younger days. But enough about that.
Faith Experiences: Through meditation and contemplation we can stand outside ourselves without ceasing to be ourselves. Here, as I mentioned last week, art and music have an essential mediative role. People can and do experience the ground of Being-itself perhaps without being able to adequately express what they experience. I mean a kind of contemplative intimate experience leading to an inner stillness. In the old days we called this an experience of grace.
Perhaps we can only speak about these faith experiences with poetry and symbol. Just as we can only express our love for another person in poetic and symbolic language….And we contemporary people need trustworthy spiritual guides to protect us from religious charlatans. Jan Walgrave (1911-1986), one of my truly beloved old Louvain professors told me, shortly before he died, that if we had good courses in spirituality we would not have to have any courses in moral theology.
Yes, as some of my friends suggest, I think it might be possible to explain faith experiences in terms of brain states; but this explanation becomes inadequate, if one has had even a small faith experience. I am writing about contemplative experiences, where one feels and understands that all life makes sense in a way it didn’t before. The questions we wrestle with about life, death, suffering, evil, and God’s love. Those things begin to melt away…….We are not alone in the universe nor alone at home in our corner of the city. Even if we don’t know how to put it into words, the Reality is there.
Some of the problems and horror stories in the news will still be with us. We are strengthened, however, to be prophetic in words and actions. We will not just endure but can and will flourish because the God who watched over my sand dollar is very much alive and journeying with us today. One of my favorite Paul Tillich books is The Courage to Be (1952).