What We Talk About When We Talk About God

EPIGRAPH

Like all great things in the world, women and religion and the sky . . . you wonder about it, and you don't stop wondering about it.

—Tom Waits

CHAPTER 1

HUM

I realize that when I use the word
God
in the title of this book there's a good chance I'm stepping on all kinds of land mines. Is there a more volatile word loaded down with more history, assumptions, and expectations than that tired, old, relevant, electrically charged, provocative, fresh, antiquated yet ubiquitous as ever, familiar/unfamiliar word
God
?

And that's why I use it.

From people risking their lives to serve the poor because they believe God called them to do it, to pastors claiming that the latest tornado or hurricane or earthquake is God's judgment, to professors proclaiming that God has only ever been a figment of our imagination, to people in a recovery meeting sitting in a circle drinking bad coffee and talking about surrendering to a higher power, to musicians in their acceptance speech at an awards show thanking God for their hit song about a late-night booty call, when it comes to God, we are all over the place.

Like a mirror, God appears to be more and more a reflection of whoever it is that happens to be talking about God at the moment.

And then there are the latest surveys and polls, the ones telling us how many of us believe and don't believe in God and how many fewer of us are going to church, inevitably prompting experts to speculate about demographics and technology and worship style and this generation versus that generation, all of it avoiding the glaring truth that sits right there elephant-like in the middle of the room.

The truth is, we have a problem with God.

It's not just a problem of definition—what is it we're talking about when we talk about God?—and it's not just the increasing likelihood that two people discussing God are in fact talking about two extraordinarily different realities while using the exact same word.

This problem with God goes much, much deeper.

As a pastor over the past twenty years, what I've seen again and again is people who want to live lives of meaning and peace and significance and joy—people who have a compelling sense that their spirituality is in some vital and yet mysterious way central to who they are—but who can't find meaning in the dominant conceptions, perceptions, and understandings of God they've encountered. In fact, those conceptions aren't just failing them but are actually causing harm.

We're engaged more than ever by the possibilities of soul and spirit, and by the nagging suspicion that all of this may not be a grand accident after all; but God, an increasing number of people are asking—what does God have to do with
that
?

I've written
this
book about
that
word, then, because there's something in the air, we're in the midst of a massive rethink, a movement is gaining momentum, a moment in history is in the making: there is a growing sense among a growing number of people that when it comes to God, we're at the end of one era and the start of another, an entire mode of understanding and talking about God dying as something new is being birthed.

There's an ancient story about a man named Jacob who had a magnificent dream, and when he wakes up he says, “Surely God was in this place, and I, I wasn't aware of it.”

Until now.

The power of the story is its timeless reminder that God hasn't changed; it's Jacob who wakes up to a whole new awareness of who—and where—God is.

Which brings me back to this moment, to the realization among an increasing number of people that we are waking up in new ways to the God who's been here the whole time.

I'm aware, to say the least, that talking about this and writing a book about it, naming it and trying to explain it and taking a shot at describing where it's all headed, runs all sorts of risks.

I get that.

We're surrounded by friends and neighbors and family and intellectual and religious systems with deeply held, vested interests in the conventional categories and conceptions of belief and denial continuing to remain as entrenched as those traditional conceptions are. There are, as they say, snipers on every roof. And being controversial isn't remotely interesting.

But love and meaning and joy and hope?

That's compelling.

That's what I'm after.

That's worth the risk.

The great German scholar Helmut Thielicke once said that a person who speaks to this hour's need will always be skirting the edge of heresy, but only the person who risks those heresies can gain the truth.

And the truth is, we have a problem—we have a
need
—and there's always the chance that this may in fact be the hour.

First, then, a bit more about this God problem . . .

When I was twenty, I drove an Oldsmobile.

Remember those?

It was a four-door Delta 88 and it was silver and it had a bench seat across the front with an armrest that folded down and it fit seven or eight people easily and in a feat of engineering genius the rear license plate was on a hinge that you pulled down in order to fill up the gas tank and the trunk was so huge you could put five snowboards in at the same time or a drum set, several guitar amps, and a body if you needed to. (I'm just messing with you there, about the body.) My friends called it “the Sled.”

It was a magnificent automobile, the Sled, and it served me well for those years.

But they don't make Oldsmobiles anymore.

They used to be popular, and your grandparents or roommate may still drive one, but the factories have shut down. Eventually the only ones left will be collector's items, relics of an era that has passed.

Oldsmobile couldn't keep up with the times, and so it gradually became part of the past, not the future.

For them, not us.

For then, not now.

I tell you about the Sled I used to drive because for many in our world today, God is like Oldsmobiles. To explain what I mean when I talk about God-like Oldsmobiles, a few stories: my friend Cathi recently told me about an event she attended where an influential Christian leader talked openly about how he didn't think women should be allowed to teach and lead in the church. Cathi, who has
two
master's degrees, sat there stunned.

I got an e-mail from my friend Gary last year, saying that he'd decided to visit a church with his family on Easter Sunday. They'd heard a sermon about how resurrection means everybody who is gay is going to hell.

And then my friend Michael recently told me about hearing the leader of a large Christian denomination say that if you deny that God made the world in a literal six days, you are denying the rest of the Bible as well, because it doesn't matter what science says.

And then there are the two pastors I know who each told me, within days of the other, how their wives don't want anything to do with God. Both wives were raised and educated in very religious environments that placed a great deal of importance on the belief that God is good and the point of life is to have a personal relationship with this good God. But both wives have suffered great pain in their young lives, and the clean and neat categories of faith they were handed in their youth haven't been capable of helping them navigate the complexity of their experiences. And so, like jilted lovers, they have turned away. God, for them, is an awkward, alien, strange notion. Like someone they used to know.

And then there's the party I attended in New York where I met a well-known journalist who, when he was told that I'm a pastor, wanted to know if
all of you pastors
use big charts with timelines and graphics to show people when the world is going to end and how Christians are going to escape while those who are left behind endure untold suffering.

I tell you about Cathi sitting there stunned and Gary hearing that sermon and me at that party because whether it's science or art or education or medicine or personal rights or basic intellectual integrity or simply dealing with suffering in all of its complexity, for many in our world—and this includes Christians and a growing number of pastors—believing or trusting in
that
God, the one they've heard other Christians talk about, feels like a step
backward,
to an earlier, less informed and enlightened time, one that we've thankfully left behind. There's a question that lurks in these stories, a question that an ever-increasing number of people across a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives are asking about God:

Can God keep up with the modern world?

Things have changed. We have more information and technology than ever. We're interacting with a far more diverse range of people than we used to. And the tribal God,

the one that is the only one many have been exposed to—the one who's always right (which means everybody else is wrong)—is increasingly perceived to be

small,

narrow,

irrelevant,

mean, and sometimes just not that intelligent.

Is God going to be left behind?

Like Oldsmobiles?

 

For others, it isn't that God is behind or unable to deal with the complexity of life; for them God never existed in the first place. In recent years we've heard a number of very intelligent and articulate scientists, professors, and writers argue passionately and confidently that there is no God. This particular faith insists that human beings are nothing more than highly complex interactions of atoms and molecules and neurons, hardwired over time to respond to stimuli in particular ways, feverishly constructing meaning to protect us from the unwelcome truth that there is no ultimate meaning because in the end we are simply the sum of our parts—no more, no less.

That all there is

is, in the end,

all there is.

This denial isn't anything new, but it's gained a head of steam in recent years, this resurgence seemingly in reaction to the God-like Oldsmobile, the one more and more people are becoming convinced is not only
behind,
but downright
destructive
.

I was recently invited to participate in a debate at which the topic was “Is religion good or bad?” Here's the kicker: the organizers wanted me to know I was free to choose which side I'd take!

How revealing is that?

All of which brings me to Jane Fonda. (You didn't see
that
coming, did you?) Several years ago in an interview she gave to
Rolling Stone
magazine the interviewer said this:

Your most recent—and perhaps most dramatic—transformation is your becoming a Christian. Even with your flair for controversy, that's pretty explosive.

It's a telling statement, isn't it? You can sense so much there, as if there's a question behind the question that isn't really a question—that hidden question being what the interviewer
really
wants to ask her: “Why would anybody become a Christian?”

That's a question lots of people have—educated, reasonable, modern people who find becoming a Christian an “explosive,” not to mention an inconceivable, thing to do.

In her response, Jane Fonda spoke of being drawn to faith because “I could feel reverence humming in me.”

Reverence humming in me.
I love that phrase. It speaks to the experiences we've all had—moments and tastes and glimpses when we've found ourselves deeply aware of the
something more
of life, the
something else,
the sense that all of this might just mean something, that it may not be an accident, that it has profound resonance and that it matters in ways that are very real and very hard to explain.

For a massive number of people, to deny this reverence humming in us, to insist that we're simply random collections of atoms and that all there is is all there is, leaves them cold, bored, and uninspired.

It doesn't ring true to our very real experiences of life.

But when people turn to many of the conventional, traditional religious explanations for this reverence, they're often led to the God who is like Oldsmobiles, the one who's
back there,
behind,
unable to keep up.

All of this raising the questions:

Are there other ways to talk about the reverence humming in us?

Are there other ways to talk about the sense we have that there's way more going on here?

Are there other ways to talk about God?

My answer is yes. I believe there are. But before we get to those others ways, I need to first tell you why this book comes bursting out of my heart like it does.

 

One Sunday morning a number of years ago I found myself face-to-face with the possibility that there is no God and we really are on our own and this may be all there is.

Now I realize lots of people have questions and convictions and doubts along those lines—that's nothing new. But in my case, it was an
Easter
Sunday morning, and I was a
pastor
. I was driving to the church services where I'd be giving a sermon about how there is a God and that God came here to Earth to do something miraculous and rise from the dead so that all of us could live forever.

And it was expected that I would do this passionately and confidently and persuasively with great hope and joy and lots of exclamation points. !!!!!!!

That's how the Easter sermon goes, right? Imagine if I'd stood up there and said, “Well, I've been thinking about this for a while, and I gotta be honest with you: I think we're kinda screwed.”

Doesn't work, does it?

I should pause here and say that when you're a pastor, your heart and soul and paycheck and doubts and faith and hopes and struggles and intellect and responsibility are all wrapped up together in a life/job that is very
public
. And Sunday comes once a week, when you're expected to have something inspiring to say, regardless of how you happen to feel or think about God at the moment. This can create a suffocating tension at times, because you want to serve people well and give them your very best, and yet you're also human. And in my case, full of really, really serious doubts about the entire ball of God wax.

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