Monday, March 30, 2015

Is God Disappearing? And Is that All Bad?

I think it is fair to say that God has mostly disappeared. And maybe that isn’t all bad.

I was struck by this thought while listening to a new song by Portugal. The Man (Yes, no period. The punctuation is odd). It’s entitled “Modern Jesus.” As I listened the first time, I expected the song to offer up some sort of humanistic alternative to faith but I was struck by the fact that that band didn’t even try. After a rather maudlin swipe at preachers, (“we may be liars preaching to choirs”), all they have is, “the only faith we have is faith in us” and “who cares if hell awaits? We’ve been drinking at heaven’s gate.”

Well, I guess it isn’t so surprising that a group of young men with (as far as I know) no formal education other than some college and no serious history with church or synagogue or mosque doesn’t have anything deep to say about faith, hope, doubt, or God. But their song got me to thinking and so I googled “atheism” and “songs,” and discovered that atheism has just about as many hymns as Christian Contemporary Music does. It’s a popular meme. Religion apparently still has plenty value for those who want a can to kick.

But it goes to show that atheism is a definitely a thing. There’s the music. On the more scholarly front, we have the new atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, doing a reprise of themes from Time Magazine’s 1965 “Is God Dead,” cover. Nearly a quarter of Canadians (slightly lower in the States) won’t list a religious affiliation when asked, and I’m guessing many more are practical atheists—baptized Catholic or United or something like that, and happy for the church’s help when it comes to weddings and funerals, but mostly, they never, ever think of religion.

CNN is also taking note. It ran an interesting article about an atheist family entitled “The Friendly Atheists Next Door.” It’s good because the article tries hard not to caricature the people it highlights. They’re good citizens. Really nice. But don’t believe in God.

All this hits a bit close to home for me for a couple of reasons. I have personally struggled hard—and sometimes still do—with faith. I’m not sold on God, even though I know and understand most of the philosophic and theistic arguments for God’s existence. The only reason I can offer for hanging in there (besides being a pastor) is that it seems to me that God won’t let me go, which is as close as I can get to saying I have a personal relationship with God. So I try to make the best of it—while remaining honest, and seeking, and trying to sort out what in scripture (or other inspired writing) will help my parishioners live a good life, and why. I’m glad to be in a congregation that wants this sort of approach.

While I’m on my church, I can’t help but be aware of the fact that the previous pastor was a post-theist. Not for his entire run, but the last few years. He was done with a sovereign God keeping watch on how everything turned out according to his divine purpose. That, in turn, attracted a few new members who were curious—or convicted—about this approach to Christianity. It’s a complicated story, but the bottom line is that when I preach, I do so knowing that there are people sitting in the pews who, while they understand I am a theist, are thoughtfully critical about a lot of my preaching. When I preach, I constantly need to keep these people—and their agnosticism or atheism—in mind. You may want to know why they go to church at all—but they have their reasons and maybe that’s a column for another time. But they are welcome, involved, and interesting.

All of this reminded me of a book I read a few years ago, and have since dug up. It’s by Richard Elliott Friedman, and entitled, The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery. This Jewish author notes that in the Old Testament, the nature of God’s presence slowly diminishes from beginning to end. He walks and talks with Adam and Eve. By the time of Noah, and the patriarchs, he only makes special appearances, often veiled in fire or confused as encounters with angels. Moses gets to see a burning bush and the back of God, and all the people see a pillar of fire and cloud, and they don’t want to see more. When Miriam and Aaron ask if God has only spoken through Moses, God answers from a column of smoke and says that in the future he will make himself known to prophets in visions. The last persons the Bible says God “revealed” himself to are Samuel and Solomon. The last great public miracle happens on Mount Carmel when Elijah calls down fire from heaven. Excepting Daniel—problematic on many accounts—for the rest it is all visions and dreams.

In the New Testament God reveals himself in human flesh so ambiguously, so mysteriously, that many who met Jesus, even among his disciples, did not believe he was God. It took the church several hundred years to come to a consensus decision that he was. And as a Unitarian with some Trinitarian tendencies (Check it out here), I’m not sure what I can say about the nature of Jesus’ revelation.

What do we make of the disappearance of God as a progressive diminution in scripture and/or as a cultural reality for us, at least in the West? Well, maybe this—one of the arguments that Friedman also makes. God wants us to grow up.

That is, perhaps God chooses to hide him or herself or itself so that we as humans will own a morality and a destiny that fits with being mature children of God. After all, it is “precisely when humans are closest to God that they rebel most blatantly” (101). Adam and Eve, as well as the Israelites in the desert, not to mention Solomon, all come to mind. For all their walks with God, Abraham and Sarah both laughed at God’s promises. Moses didn’t get to enter the Promised Land. “I shall hide my face from them. I shall see what their end will be,” God explains. And Isaiah adds, “Indeed, you are a God who hides himself.” 

Why does God hide himself? Maybe Friedman is right. God’s desire—as the Biblical writers understood it, was ultimately that humans should grow up. “Gradually from Genesis to Ezra and Esther, there is a transition from divine to human responsibility for life on earth. The story begins in Genesis with God in complete control of the creation, but by the end humans have arrived at a stage at which, in all apparent ways, they have responsibility for the fate of their world” (30).

So maybe it isn’t such a bad thing that God is disappearing. But then, at the same time, a big responsibility too. It involves, whether you go to church or not, a commitment to doing more than drinking at heaven’s gate, here and now.

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