August 23, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
I’ve been thinking about God a lot this week. Now, many of you are probably saying to yourself, “Laurie, you’re a minister. Don’t you think about God all of the time?” and that’s true, but most of the time, the kinds of things I am thinking about God have more to do with what God wants from us, or what we receive from God — in other words, the nature of our relationship with God — more than I am thinking about the nature of God’s actual self. And I imagine that is how you think about God as well. When you think about God throughout your week, you are probably thinking about God in the same way that you are thinking about your spouse, or your family, or your friends: how things are going between you, or what they need from you or what you need from them. If you are coping with an angsty teenager, for example, you think about the impact that his angst has on the family’s relationships. You don’t sit down to ponder the reality and nature of his existence, unless it’s to say to your spouse, “Well, he gets that from you!” Likewise, most of us, even the most devout of Christians among us, rarely venture into what’s called ‘ontological speculation’ on God’s substance; where God fits into the atoms that make up our universe, because we live our daily lives in a relational world, not an ontological one.
Ontology is defined as the study of the nature of being and deals with questions about the reality of existence. While lots of philosophers, theologians, and internet denizens may argue about where God came from and where God fits into the physical universe, we as people of faith think of God simply as the one who has provided us with comfort when we thought there was no comfort to be had, strength to stand when we thought we would collapse from our weakness, and who gives us a vision for the world that keeps us working for justice and peace. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel declared, “There are no proofs for the existence of God: there are only witnesses.”
Nevertheless, this week, I have been thinking about God in an ontological way because as I look at the many challenges we are facing as a nation and as a people, I’ve become convinced that how we think about God — the actual way we envision God’s being in our world — has a profound affect on how we think about each other. The author James Baldwin said, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer and more loving. If God cannot do this,” Baldwin says, “then it is time we got rid of God.” Or, I would say, “It’s time we got rid of the way we have traditionally thought about God.”
So, let me invite you for a moment to join me in engaging in some ontological speculation about God by asking you, “When you say the word ‘God,’ what do you mean by that?” How do you picture God in your head? If someone were to ask you, “Where is God?” what would you say, and if your answer is, “Everywhere,” how does that work? Is God a force like electricity; is God an object like the moon? What is God? What is the nature of God’s being?”
Those are some heavy questions and I am not, in a short reflection, even going to begin to unravel the possibilities that those questions raise, but I want to hone in on one piece of that puzzle that I have been thinking about a lot in the light of events of these past few months. And that is the question of whether God is an entity like we are, only bigger and better, or something altogether different.
Traditionally, when people have thought about God, we have thought of God as an entity, as the sort of personage depicted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel — the bearded old man sitting in the heavens speaking pronouncements from on high. Few of us modern people would claim to still believe in such a literal depiction of God — we are hip enough to know that God is not male, God is not white, God doesn’t have a beard, and God is certainly not riding around in the clouds — but even if the God of our imaginations has become more inclusive of gender and race, we still tend to think of God as a kind of entity: a singular being, like human beings but more than human beings, a sort of super-human being. Even if we say that God is spirit, we still imagine that spirit as having a singular identity that is separate from everything else around it.
There is a story of a little girl who said to her mother, “Where is God?” and her mother said, “God is everywhere.”
“Is God in this room?” the girl persisted.
“Yes,” said her mother confidentially.
“Is God in this cup?” the girl asked.
“Umm, yes,” her mother replied hesitantly, realizing she was getting into theological deep waters.
The girl smiled at her mother, clapped her hand over the top of her cup and said, “Gotcha, God!”
When we push our images to the extreme, we realize that they don’t make a lot of logical sense. If God is an entity, a singular being that is discrete from us and the rest of the world, where is God’s body? In what is God’s heart contained? Moreover, when we think of God as a kind of super-human entity, we then expect God to behave like the super-heroes of our literature, swooping in and saving us from our problems. When the pandemic was first sweeping across the country, many churches insisted on staying open because they said that they believed that God would protect the faithful from disease just as Superman saves his friends from dastardly villains. God, the supernatural being, will swoop in and save us from harm, from suffering, and even from the consequences of our own mistakes. All we need to do is kneel in faithful prayer and wait for our salvation. Seeing God as a super-human entity leads to passive followers.
And seeing God as a kind of super-human entity also permits authoritarian types to create a hierarchal religious structure with God on top, and God’s representatives next, and all of the “hoi polloi” on the bottom in a descending pyramid of greatness.
“You are the average sort of human being,” they say, “but I am a better sort of being,” they continue, “and I speak for God who is the best sort of being.”
Seeing God as a discrete entity, a supernatural being who lives in a supernatural spiritual body, separate and distinct from all of us and the universe, leads to a God who can just as easily decide to destroy as to save, who can line up followers and divide the world into who is with God and who is against God, and who can ask little more of us than our passive obedience if God chooses.
None of that image, however, goes with what we know of God through Christ. In the teachings and the person of Jesus, we learned of a God who worked through persuasion not force, who rejected hierarchal ways of living and insisted that even the least among us were worthy of God’s realm, who was experienced in the community of people learning to love one another, and who was the alpha and omega — the beginning and end of all things. What if God isn’t an entity separate from us and from the world but who lives in the bonds between all life? What if God is that which flows between you and me, is that which underlies all that lives, is the vitality which brings goodness to the world and causes all things to flourish? What if God is the heart and mind that infuses all living things and draws us into deeper relationship to give meaning and purpose to who we are? That all sounds kind of hooby dooby when I try to write it out, but what I am trying to say is that I believe that whatever God is ontologically, I think that God exists and is experienced only in relationship; that God cannot be thought of without thinking about one another, because God actually exists not as a separate thing somewhere out there but lives in the bonds between — in the relationships between all that lives.
The Psalmist says, “My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you [God.]
Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.” The Psalmist is immersed in God, and the deep which is God calls to the deep within the psalmist. God is not an entity out there but is that which infuses the psalmist’s life and experience, and echoes in the waves of the oceans and the songs of the earth. To think of God in this way is to recognize that there is no “us” and “them,” no good, better, best hierarchy of the world, no passive waiting for a superhero to fix the world’s problems, because God is as much in our neighbor as in us. God is moaning with the hurts of climate change as much as the earth is. God is coursing through the veins of our enemies as much as through ours. And God who dwells and is known in the bonds between us, constantly calls us to better community and to greater caring for one another because in our relationships with each other, we will know and experience God, God’s self.
And so, in my thinking about God, I have brought us back to the beginning of this sermon which is that if most of the time, you are not really thinking about the ontological nature of God, but only asking what God wants of you, and what you hope to receive from God, and how you can better your relationships to others and the earth — it turns out that you may be closer to the true nature of God than any philosopher or theologian.
God is not out there but is here, in the bonds between us. Blest be those ties that bind us to one another and to our God.