Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Seeing the face of God

With the snow keeping us homebound, I thought it time to go back to one of those Big-Hard-Questions that I promised I would tackle in Advent. The season is nearly done, and I haven’t tackled many of them. But we will continue this discussion, and our walk through the labyrinth, through other seasons.

My friend Ilana DeBare, who is preparing for her Bat Mitzvah as a middle-aged adult, posted something on her blog Tuesday that got me thinking again on the Big-Hard-Questions.

She reports on a book about the variety of perspectives rabbis view God (Finding God: Selected Responses, by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme). Ilana noted that the authors did not spend much time on the “classic” view of God as a Zeus-like wrathful deity up in the clouds. They went more interesting places.

Ilana mentioned some other views, including that of Mordecai Kaplan, who had this to say about popular concepts of God:
“To most people God is not really God but a magnified demon. That is why they cannot disassociate religion from supernaturalism.”
That really grabbed me. I believe that is absolutely true for many people, and is why the idea of being in a religion or having a religious experience is repelling to many people. And I can’t say I blame people for that feeling, given the religious landscape across our globe.

Let’s acknowledge that the Abrahamic tradition, of which we are a part, comes with an imagery of a bloodthirsty God. The Bible is filled with it: Pharaoh and his army are swallowed up in the Red Sea because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, the rebels of Korah swallowed by the earth, the Revelation of John’s apocalyptic vision of the “End Time” when the elect will achieve rapture and the rest of us left in perpetual agony.

The religions that have flowed from the Abraham tradition – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have histories filled with purges, pogroms, crusades and jihads. Is it any wonder that to many non-religious, God seems like a demon? Or that many westerners are attracted to the peaceful meditation practices of Buddhism?It should also be no wonder that authors like Christopher Hitchens can sell a lot of books by arguing that there is no God, and that concepts of God are fundamentally dangerous. Indeed, he is right to this extent: Many concepts of God are dangerous, and if God is who the hateful mouthpieces of wrathful religion say it is, then I want no part of that religion or that God, either.

Is there another way of seeing this? Is there another way of entering into an experience of the Holy that is authentic and real? Many have tried expressing alterntives. In the last 30 years or so, many Christians made Jesus into an easy-going, free-loving hippie. The image is certainly more inviting than a demon. But that, too, has left some feeling that is more spin than real.

A number of modern religious thinkers and mystics talk of God being a “numinous thread” binding the universe together in a single living cord, and I believe that is close to my own belief. It has a universal appeal, transcends dogma and elite elections of the chosen few. Yet it is not very personal; it is really a passive image of God that seems more like electricity buzzing through a long extension cord than a God who I can talk with.

So it is that this time of year, Advent, the time before the dawn of Christmas, I am particularly drawn to another idea of God: the One who comes to us as a helpless baby, born to an unwed very young mother: Miriam – we would call her “Mary.”

She named her son Joshua – and we would later call him “Jesus.” He was born in scandal, and lived much of his life violating religious rules; he was arrested and executed scandalously as a common criminal on a Roman cross (1 Corinthians 1: 18-24).

That people would see in this child the divine is nothing short of a miracle, for they were certainly experiencing an idea of God that was as far from a demon, or a Zeus, or their own expectations of a messiah as could be imagined.

No gloss or theologizing can cover up how radical a concept of the divine this is, then or now.

This is of course a Christian way of looking at things, and I am, after all, a Christian pastor so that should not be too surprising. But this way of seeing Christ is not shared by everyone who carries the label Christian, for it brings into question many of our own cultural norms and the re-packaging of Jesus by 2,000 years of Christianity.

I am much taken in recent years by the writing of James Alison, a former Dominican who teaches and writes from South America. He was left the Dominicans after it came to light that his partner died of HIV/AIDS.

In one of his books, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination, Alison writes of how that experience led him to a new understanding of a God who has no outcasts, who needs no revenge, who lives inside and outside of time, and pushes us to upend our conventional culture-bound images of God and ourselves.

I’ve used one of Alison’s analogies in several sermons: he compares the Bible to a Lego set; you can put the pieces together to create a demon-god, or you can put the pieces together to see a creator who not only loves us, but who even likes us for who we are and who we are becoming; and challenges us to take that reality and see life without fear or the need for the rule of vengeance and death. Alison writes (p. 139):
“The coming of the Son into the world has as its end to create a belief in the absolute aliveness of God and the empower us in this way to act as if death were not, thus being set free from our compulsion to act out in a way governed by the kingdom of death.”
The implications of that idea are vast, for it suggests a different way to live. Religion, to me, is ultimately not a set of beliefs or dogmas – a contest of mine are better than yours – but a way of discovering how to live without fear in the presence of the Holy. Alison writes of this (p. 139):
“People like this do not fear the exposing of their previous participation in the system or mechanism of the dominion of death, because that is being left behind as they begin to allow themselves to be transformed into a mansion of life without end in the midst of the world.”
There is a great deal more to say, and it leads us onto the difficult ground of atonement theology, so it seems a good place to stop today. May you have many blessings this Christmas and in the year to come.

Nativity painting by Flor Larios.

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