God: the literary and conversation topic that just won’t go away.
Even when we’re not talking about God, we are.
Trying to improve, are we? Find greater purpose, figure out our next step, start to give back, leave a legacy?
God, God, God, God, God.
Wherever go matters of ultimate concern, there goes Grappling With God.
Great fiction: all about God, explicitly or not. (Though often about her absence.)
In his introduction to “The Best Things Ever Said About God” (20000, Harper Collins), more or less agnostic attorney-turned-writer Ronald B. Schwartz calls his book:
“…a miscellany for doubters and believers alike—though at neither extreme—and purged of freeze-dried sermonettes and vainglorious citations to chapter-and-verse proof that God prefers tea to coffee. A miscellany, that is, for those of open heart and mind who cringe at the first hint of proselytizing…a collection of the shrewdest, wittiest, and altogether most provocative observations that I have discovered as a pilgrim in progress.”
So, my fellow open-hearted cringers, just in time for your Sunday, whatever it is you are up and about to in some semblance of a Sabbath day of rest even if you profess no religion, I offer you a dozen of the chewiest, or just plain fun excerpts from Mr. Schwartz’s 128-page collection, along with notes of observation or elaboration from me as the spirit moves.
Consider this offering the cream skimmed from Mr. Schwartz’s own cream, reflecting nothing so much as my own subjective appreciation of the little nuggets of contemplation and delight he has so generously put before us.
1. “God is not a cosmic bellboy for whom we can press a button to get things done.”
—Harry Emerson Fosdick, 1878-1969, liberal Protestant pastor in New York City
Bellboy, waiter, commander-in-chief, our last desperate go-to for help and support: This common perception of God has him ever ready to meet our needs, for which we thank him profusely when the tide turns in our favor and shrug off with that “Mysterious are the ways of the Lord” resignation when it doesn’t. God maintains his stellar reputation either way.
2. “If you talk to God, you are praying; if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.”
—Psychiatrist, writer and professor Thomas Szasz (1920-2012)
Added recently to the lamentable list of terrorists posing as God’s self-appointed executioners, we have the Bundy clan’s current spokesman, Ammon Bundy, saying God told him to occupy the godforsaken Oregon wildlife refuge where he is currently encamped.
3. “God was more exciting then than he is now.”
—A child heard commenting on the Old Testament, quoted in Gerald Kennedy’s “The Seven Worlds of the Minister” (1968)
Yeah, what’s with God constantly showing up in the old days to rage at his people during their bacchanals and coming on as a burning bush for some well-appointed words with Moses? Yet through nearly all of modernity—not a peep!
4. “God is, by definition, ultimate reality. And one cannot argue whether ultimate reality really exists. One can only ask what ultimate reality is like.”
—John A.T. Robinson, 20th century English theologian, Anglican bishop, and author.
Robinson’s “Honest to God” in 1963 was a slim-but-influential book on the changing modern perceptions of God and the future of religion.
5. “God is being itself, not a being.”
—German-born Protestant theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich
This is the nub of most deliteralized modern theology. Tillich fled the Nazis and brought his immense gifts to the United States at age 47, publishing both scholarly and popular books in his adopted country on theology, back when regular people read books on theology.
6. “The idea of a Supreme Being who creates a world in which one creature is designed to eat another in order to subsist, and then pass a law saying, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ is so monstrously, immeasurably, bottomlessly absurd that I am at a loss to understand how mankind has entertained or given it house room all this long.”
—20th century novelist and critic Peter DeVries
DeVries’s 10-year-old daughter died of leukemia in 1960, giving rise to his powerful, raging-at-the-heavens novel, “The Blood of the Lamb,” the following year.
7. “People see God every day, they just don’t recognize him.”
—Singer Pearl Baily, talking to a New York Times reporter in 1967
In that sunset, sure—but perhaps also in that wretched beggar in the street?
8. “Sometimes I think we’re alone. Sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the thought is quite staggering.”
— American architect, writer and free-range thinker Buckminster Fuller
Humility is the watchword, it seems to me. We need remember always to walk and talk and bow with an appropriate measure of humility.
9. “There can be no Creator, simply because his grief at the fate of his creation would be inconceivable and unendurable.”
—Novelist, playwright and non-fiction writer Elias Canetti (1905-1994)
Canetti was a Bulgarian-born, German-speaking, naturalized British citizen whose life spanned multiple diasporas and two world wars. ‘Nuff said?
10. “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.”
—American poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)
One can certainly do much worse than poetry as one’s true devotion, though my personal opinion is that music trumps it as a gateway to the sacred. We should also note that Stevens supported himself as an insurance executive his entire life, his belief in poetry as salvation tempered by the bare fact that it tends to leave its most ardent practitioners, the poets themselves, however much spiritually nourished, physically starved. Alas!
11. “I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance.”
—German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
This lighter note from the otherwise tormented, visionary, ragingly brilliant and highly influential Nietzsche has a tragic undertone, given that he seems to have gone looking for his sacred dancing partner in all the wrong places, suffering, going insane, and finally dying from syphillis at age 55.
12. “Q: What’s the only thing wrong with being an atheist?
A: Nobody to talk to during an orgasm.”
Sometimes jokes cut right to the quick, don’t they?
And of course, no listing of a dozen anything should go without a bonus throw-in of a 13th to make it an uneven but slightly more satisfying Baker’s Dozen, which paves the way for…
13. “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”
—American poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)
And so it does, one passionate dalliance and subsequent delivery at a time, the ultimate expression of faith in a future we cannot predict, a vast sea of nothingness into which we throw our small measure of something, in all humbleness, gratitude and hope.
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Norse God temple photo at top of page by Trey Ratcliff, Austin, Texas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stuckincustoms/
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Your quotes from theologians and philosophers revealed a lot of the various thoughts I have had about the reality of God, whoever he, she or it might be. When I was in the early days of my work as a minister I became interested in the work of a little known theologian by the name of Robert Brinsmead. He wrote an article on what he called Christian Atheism. In the article he talked about his belief that the practice of religion was a human creation to allay our fears that God might not exist. His thesis was that the sacraments and other religious practices served to give “believers” something substantive to prove that God was real. Thus, worship days gave us a sense of a special time and place where we could find God. The Priest served as the vicarious presence of the divine; the communion was a realization of sharing bread and wine in a certain way creating an intimate personal relationship with Him; the sermon was a realization of God’s will and word; the doctrine revealed the specific mindset and behavior necessary to stay in His grace; etc. etc.
I think the need for religious practice is to overcome our ambivalence about God’s existence. The reality is that much of at least Western religion is based on fear rather that faith. We don’t see God involved in our day to day lives. But with our religion we can be more certain that we can find God, at least once a week or on holy days. In the priest or minister we can hear God’s word reassuring us that He has not left us alone, and so on. It is our fear that drives us to set all reason aside and accept that God is alive and with us. Today many people are willing to settle for a false understanding of God. For those “believers” a faith built on an irrational theology is better than living with the fear that we are alone and will not be able to escape to death.
I don’t mean to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I think there is the possibility of finding faith in life. Meeting with one another to encourage love of neighbor without the oppression of fundamentalists’ extreme demands and flat-out lies can bring about a meaningful faith. But I also firmly believe that Western religion must evolve before real faith is possible.
I am left to think, among other things, how many acts of kindness grounded in faith and love of others occur for every Ammon Bundy who captures headlines for inane and irresponsible activity. On another front, it occurs to me that finding faith in life may be driven by seeing what we believe. That is, there are innumerable signs of goodness and beauty before our eyes daily. If we believe those things (and people) are driven by a divine spirit, I suspect that is how we will view them.
Good to hear from you, Robert—was rather missing your voice around here! I’m struck by how loaded and multivalent just the vocabulary of the divine is, and therefore how difficult it is to communicate about it. (That’s why there is an enduring, inexhaustible market for spirituality books; I should take note!)
“God” is a thousand things to a thousand people, as is any statement about God being “real,” since that begs the critical question of “What exactly do you mean by ‘real?'” It’s as nebulous as can be, but we all know good intelligent people who claim “relationships” with a God who seems to function as a source and reflection of their (and all humankind’s) best projected selves, a repository of love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, the all of it. Now, those are very “real” things that we can really experience, practice, and bring to bear in our own lives, so in that sense, God is as “real” as can be. But that source, that God, has no objective, literal reality; it’s instead a function of the human imagination and our substantial storytelling, conjuring capacities, for better and for worse. (And as we know, there has always been plenty of both.)
So I think I would make this distinction: Is God “real?” Can be and is, for many people. It’s a real presence in helping to shape their lives. Those best qualities that they ascribe to God keep calling to them, keep shaping their response to life. But is God “literal?” Of course not, can’t be. The whole notion is profoundly irrational.
And the difficulties come not from the “reality” part of God but from the “literal” part, because once we literalize and regard God as anything but a projection of our best qualities of lovingkindness, then we start comparing notes and describing a being and deciding what that being is and isn’t. Religions and theologies mushroom therefrom, as do “holy” books written by human beings who begin to claim the imprimatur of their God, who often tends to call on all their worst qualities, as much of our dismal religious history can attest right up to this very day, when an unknown but always appalling number of our fellow humans will die because of someone else’s literal belief in a literal God who supposedly sanctions them to kill and maim.
Here’s my litmus test for a “real” God: Is it calling on humanity’s best, which means love and compassion, kindness and mercy? Then conjure that God all you want, because its track record is pretty good in human history, as the countless good works of religion can attest. (Millions of those good works will take place today, in every corner of our planet, statistically crushing the incidences of religious violence I reference above; they just rarely garner headlines.) But is it calling on our worst, which means anger and judgment, violence and hate? That’s not a real God; it’s a literal one as rendered from books needing to be read as myths, as probings and renditions of the depths of human experience, not a set of marching orders to do others harm.
Jay, I think somewhere in all that there is your comment, too, yes? I think I’d only slightly modify your last two sentences:
“That is, there are innumerable signs of goodness and beauty before our eyes daily. If we believe those things (and people) are driven by a divine spirit, I suspect that is how we will view them.”
I’d say rather than goodness and beauty being “driven” by a divine spirit, they ARE a divine spirit; they are the very things that make up the face of God—or God’s perfect reflection. They’re what we are actually talking about when we talk about God. More and more, I find myself “driven” to a radically stripped down religious sensibility: Is it kind? Then it is of God, in whatever ways you want to picture and celebrate him/her. Or Lincoln’s version: “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”
Hallelujah & Amen, Brothers!
If I understand your point correctly, to realize the highest virtues expressed by one’s faith in God is far superior to theological arguments over who God really is. I recall the religious history of the slaughter of men, women, and children of Albi, France because of their Catharistic beliefs. In almost every instance of trying to protect the purity of Christian faith people suffer, kill, and are killed. In my view is that much of the violence done in the name of religion stems from imperfect people trying to create a perfect God. While, this leaves many questions about what we should believe about “I am that I am” I think much of the problem has to do with Western religion’s failure to acknowledge the sanctity of the soul.
Yes, thank you, Robert, it is superior in every way, including, rather importantly, the guidance and rationale for how one wants to live one’s life. And if that ain’t the point of it all, I don’t know what is!
I love the line about “imperfect people trying to create a perfect God.” We do the same thing to ourselves—holding ourselves (and often each other) to standards of perfection at odds with everything we know about mercy and forgiveness. I think some really bad theology over the eons hasn’t helped that matter.
“Soul” is another of those words that has so many dimensions we could parse it all day & night (which we would both enjoy, I know…), but let me posit from my end this twist to that word in your formulation: “…much of the problem has to do with Western religion’s failure to acknowledge the sanctity of the body.” I suspect there’s overlap between your word “soul” and my word “body,” which might be fruitful to explore. I was commenting to a friend the other day the dreadful toll that just the story of the virgin birth has wrought on much of our civilization, not to mention the self-loathing inspired by the fall and Adam & Eve’s covering up of their nakedness. Oyyy…
Nicely done, Drew. Yes you captured the point that I was hoping to make; and you have greatly improved it with your suggestion to replace “driven” with ARE to indicate those acts representing the face of God. Many thanks my friend.
Robert and Andrew, your January 12 exchange has had my head spinning for a few hours this morning; to the point of reading up on the slaughter Albi, France Robert. I have started this post to see if, in writing, I can make sense of the very high level of thinking in the discussion between the two of you. So, Robert, my understanding of the slaughter is that the Catholic church felt deeply threatened by the insurgency and more personalized pure thinking of the “heretic” Cathartics and thereby felt compelled to dispense with them. In the vein of your exchange with Andrew, then, you are suggesting,or cautioning, that making an end run around the literal “what God is” for a personal belief in the expression of the highest virtues carries some risk. do I have that right? From Andrew’s response I gather that the aspiration to live to the highest virtues can blow past the importance of mercy and forgiveness, thereby creating its own dead end. Gentlemen, I am working hard to follow you here: am I in the ballpark?
Jay, I’ll let Robert answer on the Albi issue and its implications, which I am interested in as well, but I would only clarify the point I was trying to make: I don’t think anything can “blow past the importance of mercy and forgiveness.” What I meant to suggest instead was that “the aspiration to live to the highest virtues can blow past the importance of theological arguments over who God really is.” Real life mercy & forgiveness always trumps theological speculations. I’m sorry not to have been crystal clear on that point. This communication business is challenging! :-)
Hi Jay. Forgive my late response to your reply to Andrew and me. Real life virtues, as Andrew said, always trump theological speculations. My position is, that when creeds and hierarchy were established in the emerging Christian church, that faith and God, or HSI, were destroyed. The soul, which is the inner-world of each individual, is the realm in which HSI exists. Faith, morality, and love of neighbor must first be the result of one’s own search for truth in life. That doesn’t necessarily mean religion is completely evil. Religion, as we know it, falls short by thinking they already know God and what HSI wants from us. But perhaps there is some hope.
It will be, as the Apostle Paul said in 1Cor. 3, when religion becomes “fools that they might be wise,” that it might be able to facilitate faith. Faith must always be derived from personal exploration and struggle. The day that religion sees itself as a FACILITATOR of faith, rather than an authority will be the day that faith, and the soul, come alive. Faith, like truth, is subjective and can only be found within one’s own personal search of life. This represents a search of soul as well as a search of our material existence. But of course the Church, like other fundamentalist religions, are unlikely to relinquish their power over its constituency any time soon.
In the end it will be individuals willing to endure the ire of the Church who will find faith, truth, and love for neighbor. History, beginning with Jesus, tells us that it is mainly heretics who live by faith.
Thank you, Robert; and thank you, Drew for your Jan 13 clarification post. Both of your responses are quite helpful to me. First, let me offer an apology for my brief disappearance and silence in this discussion. I have been in Michigan helping to care for my 89 year old mother-in-law and have been up to my ears in family business. Drew, my sense is that I intended to agree with you that virtues such as mercy and forgiveness trumping theological speculations about the nature of God. Yet somehow that agreement was not clear in my post and comment about “blowing past” God. Robert, your view that the establishment of creeds and hierarchy in the Christian Church have worked to obscure, or diminish, the central role of the soul and one’s own search for life is quite reassuring and confirming to me as I have felt this to be the case from my earliest memories of considering the nature of God and the role of religion in that personal search. I especially like your suggestion that souls would be better nurtured if religion could see itself as facilitator rather than authority. The sanctimoniousness and horrific close-mindedness that the mantle of authority evokes has done much harm to humankind. Many thanks, Jay