Monday, September 24, 2012

Where is God? Reflections on Post-theism.

(I have never posted a sermon before, but I had a few requests for this one, so here it is. It begins with me carrying a ladder to the front of the church, and setting it up so that it reaches into the rafters!)

When I was little, I knew heaven was up there. So I suppose it was only natural that when I came to church, I expected that if God was anywhere in the building, he must be up in the rafters. I always wished, as a kid, that I had a ladder, to check it out.

            Well, I'm a minister now, and if I want to fulfill my childhood fantasy, this is my chance. So I've brought this ladder into the sanctuary. I’ll climb it to see if God is up in the rafters. This is a very high sanctuary, after all. (Minister climbs ladder placed at front of sanctuary).

            And I'm afraid I have to tell you that now that I’m up here, I can't see God. Where is God? God must be hiding. Is God hiding from you, too?

            This is an especially good question for us, here at Lawrence Park Community Church, because we’ve been discussing post-theism. The root words of post-theism, from Latin, mean “after God.” I’ve been asking around the congregation what they mean by that phrase. And I’ve heard three different answers that are not mutually exclusive.

            For some people, “post-theism,” is a kind of strong agnosticism, almost atheism, about God. And in fact many things do argue against God’s existence. The universe seems to be explainable by the laws of science. On average, Christians who pray don’t seem to live longer than people who don’t pray. Evil still runs riot everywhere.

            Even Bible writers are frustrated by God’s absence. In Psalm 42, the Psalmist writes: "When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, `Where is your God?'" Or, "Your way is through the mighty waters,” says the Psalmist in 77, “though your footprints were not seen.” Isaiah writes, at one point, “Truly you are a God who has been hiding himself, the God and Savior of Israel” (Is 45:15).

            So I have sympathy for people who identify post-theism with strong agnosticism or even atheism. This is, in its own way, a Biblical sentiment. Important questions for such people include these: “Why should we still pray to God? Worship God? Bother with God at all?” Or is it just that ritual or old hymns are comforting? Perhaps, in the absence of God, we still go to church for community or discussion times?

            A second definition of post-theism that I’ve heard here suggests that post-theism refers to society’s disappearing belief in God. For these people, post-theism means that whoever or wherever God is, he or she obviously isn’t very important to most people in our secular society. God is, in fact, irrelevant and that is what we have to come to grips with in church.

            I also resonate with this answer. Many people, even those who say they believe in God, just don’t go to church anymore. Prayer has long been eliminated from our schools and workplaces. The old rules we used to go by—you can’t have sex before marriage, you can’t drink, you can’t preach if you’re a woman—these old rules that go with the faith of our fathers just seem stupid to most people, and proof that Christianity will be forever irrelevant.

            On the other hand, even if the religious right isn’t a moral majority, it is a powerful force in American politics. And the violent conflict between the fundamentalist kinds of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, strongly suggests that theism is still a very powerful force in our world. It is just not our kinder and gentler theism. But the bottom line here is that only segments of society and only the rare world culture is truly post-theist. In most places round the world, God matters very much.

            A third kind of answer I get to the question of “what is post-theism” is not atheistic, it is not about where our society is at, but it speaks to our old-fashioned ideas about who God is. So, for example, here are some excerpts from a pious poem that portrays God as a Zeus-like big guy in the sky.

It's a good thing God above,
Has never gone on strike
Because He wasn't treated fair,
For things He didn't like.

If He ever once sat down,
And said, "That's it -- I'm through!
I've had enough of those on earth,
So this is what I'll do.

I'll give my orders to the Sun:
Cut off your heat supply.
Turn off the oxygen and air,
'Til every breath is gone."

You know that He'd be justified
If fairness was the game
And yet He carries on and on,
with all the favors of His Grace.

            If this is how we think about God, then it is obviously high time for us to update our thinking. We need to stop imagining that God is sitting in heaven, tapping his toe in frustration because we don’t pray enough or are not good enough. I think we all agree that we need more mystery, more grace, and more spirit when it comes to our ideas about God. We need fewer lightning bolts and more mystery and humility when it comes to our ideas about God.

            Anyway, the notion of post-theism has been a part of the discussion here at Lawrence Park Church for a while now. And let’s be honest—the discussion has the potential, at least, to be a minefield. If we line up behind one answer or the other and dig in our heels the way Christians have traditionally lined up behind doctrinal distinctives, we’ll fight. We’ll fight about the liturgy, about the prayers, and about who is right and wrong. None of us wants this to happen, of course. But humans are humans. We’re stubborn. And, ironically, the things we are most uncertain about are often the ones we shout the loudest about. I’m reminded of a preacher who once wrote in the margins of his sermon manuscript the words, “Very weak point. Pound pulpit.”

            So where does this variety of answers to the question, “who is God,” leave us? Well, Jesus’ suggestion, from our text in Mark 9:37, is that if we want to find God, we can find God in Jesus, and if we want to find Jesus, we should look to the child. Or, to shorten the formula, we see God best in the child among us. Like in the Pat Green song we heard sung earlier in the service. We’re:

         For the inner city teacher
         With her heart stuck in her throat
         [who] Can still see God in every child
         And never gives up hope.

            What is it about a child that the child should stand in for God in the eyes of a parent, or teacher, or neighbor? Well, Jesus doesn’t say, exactly. Using almost poetic, and very evocative language in our text, Jesus leaves it to our imaginations. But in the rest of his life and teaching, Jesus made it clear he wanted us to pass on all the old, “orthodox,” ideas about God—that God is in his temple, that he is an old man in the sky, that God is mostly angry and righteous, and that God’s name must not be spoken. Not so for Jesus. Instead, Jesus tells us that God is not far away. God is close to us, approachable, in and with us. God waits for us, just as a little girl might wait for her mother to gather her up in their arms.

            Of course, saying so doesn’t make God easy to understand, or less mysterious, or put God in a box. Still, if we see God in the waiting child, it does mean that we can relax and enjoy the search for God—even make a life-long game of it.

            What I mean is illustrated by a little story. There was a rabbi once, whose son came running to him, crying inconsolably. Between sobs, he said, "Father, I've been playing hide and seek with the other children. It came my turn to hide, but after I found a good place, I sat there in the woods for hours waiting for the others to find me. But no one came. They got tired of looking and just quit playing and never even told me. They just left me there, all alone."

            The boy's father, the rabbi, put his arms around the child and held him close, rocking him back and forth. "Ah my son," he said, "that's how it is with God, too. God is like a child gone hiding, hoping people will come seeking him. God is like the child who wants to be found and embraced. So we must not give up the search. We must play till he is found.”

            My ladder looks slightly ridiculous, I know, but it symbolizes something that we ought to be busy with—not “or else,” but for the joy and wonder of it—we ought to be busy looking for God as we might look for a child playing hide and seek with us. We ought to look for God for pleasure of it. And all those thoughts about post-theism: interesting, fascinating, important. But not as lovely as playing the game of hide and seek with God. The search is the thing. Because, remember the promise of the gospel in another place, is “seek and you will find.


  1. I of course know you can't say everything in one sermon, and I think I get your point in this one.

    I guess I'm wondering what to do about the kind of NT zeal, warning, that we find not only on Jesus' lips but also on the lips of Peter and Paul. Jesus of course has many parables about being ready, warns the John 5 paralytic to "stop sinning, or something worse that 38 years of paralysis might happen to him, to fear that one not that can harm the body but also cast the soul into hell. Peter in his Pentecost sermons makes his audience acutely aware of what the killing of Jesus meant, etc. There is often the pleasant invitation, but also at times the dire warning. On the basis of this sermon I get the sense the Jesus is kind of like an amusement park or a fine restaurant, he's an advisable option for religious consumers.

    Thoughts? pvk

  2. Paul, thanks for your note. You're right of course, when you say you can't fit everything into one sermon! What to say about all the warnings in scripture, each that in its own way invites us to "repent," that is, "turn around?" Well, of course they need to be taken seriously. Each is an invitation to live life in Christ rather than in some self-centered reality. Repentance involves a self-conscious decision to follow Jesus when it comes to how one lives one's life. What I can't accept is the idea, which as you point out is often suggested in scripture, that one should "repent, or else."

    I'm not sure how I would explain my sense that I should dismiss this "or else," sense of scripture. Some of it is the very strong universalistic message that is also found in scripture. Some of it is the historical knowledge that scripture's message about hell (in particular) is rooted in Intertestementary developments (religious influence from Egypt, Iran, neoplatonism and other more gnostic influences, in particular). And part of it is a gut, spiritual reaction against that sort of rhetorical excess. If people accept the good news, it ought to be because it is good news, not because, "or else you're damned, or at a minimum, in deep trouble." That doesn't feel, spiritually, like gospel.

    If you're also thinking that "John's notions of scriptural authority, inspiration, and infallibility are sure changing," you'd be correct. Not sure where it is all going, but I'm enjoying the voyage after spending a lifetime in Geneva's harbor. I am obviously deeply formed by my life in the CRC, but I'm also really leaving its theological paradigm behind.

  3. Perhaps you guys remember the story of the Russian cosmonaut that supposedly said, after orbiting the earth, that he was then sure that God didn't exist because he had just gone into heaven and didn't see him. I remember that we really thought he was an idiot. But recently I have been thinking that he may have had a point. If nothing else, it was to help us wrestle with the question, "where is God?".


What do you think?