Ted Grimsrud—November 18, 2019
You would think that given how important most people think God is that it would be easier to talk about God. But it often seems that people act as though, of course, God is real and we all know what we mean by God, very people are very articulate when they actually try to talk about God. It’s even difficult to find good jokes about God—when I searched the internet, this is the best I could do:
God was talking to an angel and said, “I just figured out how to rotate the Earth so it creates this really incredible 24-hour period of alternating light and darkness.” The angel said, “That’s great. So, what are you going to do next?” God says, “I think I’ll call it a day.”
Talking about God
I suppose for most of us, our understanding of God has evolved quite a bit as we have gone through life. I know mine has. One of the things I have come to believe is that we too easily forget that our language about God is always metaphorical. We are saying what we think God is like, not what God for a fact is. It is our concept of God that we talk about. But we have the habit of saying simply, “God is this or God is that.” I will share about the evolution of my thinking about God—and it seems more authentic to use the kind of language about God that I used in the past. But I recognize that all I say here is metaphorical, even if I don’t use qualifiers such as “God is like…”.
I was stimulated to think about how my thinking about has changed recently when I heard a helpful sermon on God from a Unitarian minister, Paul Britner. What do I think about God, especially about God’s power?
As a starting point, I think most of us would actually agree that God hardly ever (if ever) directly intervenes in the affairs of human beings. Even most pious Christians have experienced enough tragedy and brokenness to know that God simply does not step in and stop bad things from happening. My buddy Rod getting killed in a car wreck at age 17. My dad dying suddenly of a brain aneurism at age 67. My mom’s sister having a fatal appendicitis attack when she was four. Not to mention wars, famines, pestilences.
We know God lets things go. So, the question, then, for many of us is: Why? Why does God allow so much terrible stuff to happen? At least this is the question for those who believe that God is loving and good. And most of us who believe in God do believe that. I suspect as well that for most of those who don’t believe in God, the God that is not believed in is a God who allows terrible things to happen. My thinking about this issue has evolved a lot….
Let me summarize one common notion: God has a plan for the world and its inhabitants. But God keeps God’s own counsel. We can’t know what this plan is because God’s ways are not our ways. God does intervene when it suits God’s purposes and our job is to trust God and rest in the confidence that God is working all things together for good—even when in the moment we can’t see that. I realize now that I have never found this a satisfactory answer, though I tried to believe it for a long time. I only succeeded as meagerly as I did because I repressed my questions and doubts. But, I mean, if God could have prevented the bombing of Nagsaski and didn’t, I don’t care about God’s inscrutable plan—I have to conclude God is not very morally good.
The problem of evil
When I was in college back in the mid-1970s at the University of Oregon, I took a philosophy of religion class that forced me to open the door to those questions and doubts—though I managed to get the door back mostly closed before straying too far from the believe-in-an-all-powerful-God-no-matter-what path. In that class we read a novel by Peter De Vries called The Blood of the Lamb that helped focus the issue of God and evil. The main character, based pretty much on the author himself, has to come to terms with the illness and ultimate death of his young daughter. He had grown up in a Calvinist family where God’s all-powerfulness was the central belief. The “embedded theology” that was instilled in him from the time of his birth turned out to be utterly inadequate for helping him with this worst imaginable tragedy.
In my faded memory, I picture my class’s teacher, Professor Zweig getting pretty emotional, agonizing over the issues the book raised. I had no answers myself, since my theology did not have the suppleness to respond to this terrible challenge, but in my defensiveness I wrote off Professor Zweig as simply a skeptic who wanted to undermine the faith of his Christian students. What I learned only much later was that Professor Zweig was born in Germany in 1930 to Jewish parents. His family barely managed to escape the Nazis in 1936 and move to the US. The issue of God’s presence in a world full of evil was indeed one that he had quite authentically agonized over his whole life.
I simply wasn’t ready to face those questions back then. At the same time, I was not emotionally all that deeply invested in an all-powerful God. It was something I was taught after I became a Christian when I was 17. It was easy in my comfortable life to accept that belief, but it was not something I had grown up with. What I was doing when I was in college mainly was going along with what I was being told about God in church, which meant I was okay with accepting theology that did not conform to my experience (or my reasoning). That is, I was living in an intellectual and spiritual fog.
I think I did realize that the problem of evil was likely an insurmountable problem for belief in an interventionist God. I certainly didn’t have a good response to Professor’s Zweig’s questions. But because I didn’t want to give up on the comfortable belief that God does intervene and is in control, I simply put the questions on the back burner once the philosophy of religion class was over.
The problem of mystification
In the years to come, my theology did evolve quite a bit and I moved away from the belief in God’s control over things. But I didn’t really think carefully about God’s intervention. Maybe I didn’t actually think God was in control, but I tried to act as if I did. I realize now that this was a kind of “mystification.” That is, I operated as if the standard belief about God’s power was true and reality corresponds with that belief. At the same time I suspected that reality actually doesn’t correspond, so I avoided thinking about it. Mystification is when there is a big gap between what I act like I believe and what I actually believe (or suspect I might believe). I now think that mystification is part of the default view of God that many (perhaps most) believers have. Deep down, many of us have feared that our belief in an interventionist God is not actually true; but we have been afraid to say that that belief isn’t true.
It makes sense that we would avoid the difficulties with belief in an interventionist God in a world with so much brokenness. On the one hand, we sense that a God who indeed is all powerful would be a moral monster—at the least unwilling to stop the wars, famines, epidemics, the success of selfish, greedy people so common in history, or, at the worst, actually supporting there terrible things to further God’s own purposes. But on the other hand, it terrifies us to think that in this difficult world we don’t have assurance that someone is in charge who will make things right. It makes us vulnerable to feel at the mercy of uncontrolled violence and chaos.
However, the result is acting like we believe in an interventionist God, a belief that flies in the face of reality as we experience it. I think that tendency to ignore the difficulties and act as if things are okay may well lead to the kind of moral paralysis we see all around us—such as the unrestrained warism and nuclearism of the American empire and the inability to take constructive measures to overcome the climate crisis. What mystification does is render it very difficult for us to recognize the world as it is, to be honest with ourselves, to break free from the various ideologies and loyalties that act as if they can provide order in face of all the contradictions—such as nationalism, consumerism, corporatism, white supremacy. These things only worsen our problems and undermine our potential for healing and transformation.
Returning to Philosophy of Religion
For the twenty years after my philosophy of religion class I managed to avoid thinking carefully about the challenges that Professor Zweig posed. Part of the reason for that, I am sure, is because for much of that time I was a Mennonite pastor; taking these challenges seriously is not the best recipe for job security in the Mennonite world—since they would inevitably involve profoundly questioning people’s comfortable assumptions about God’s power.
When I came to teach at EMU to teach in 1996, one of my first classes was Philosophy of Religion. I thought it would be interesting to use DeVries’s book and finally pay more attention to the problem of evil. Alas, the book was out of print and not available, so I had to find something different. I chose When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner. The similarity was that in each book, the author addressed the big questions while responding to the tragic death of the writer’s young child. But whereas, De Vries’s book was mainly about despair, Kushner offered a more hopeful spin.
Kushner presents a perhaps simplistic argument, but one I found helpful and still basically accept. But it’s for people who want to believe in God. Kushner is not trying to persuade skeptics to believe in God nearly so much as trying to help people who do believe in God to hold on to that belief in face of “bad things happening to good people.”
He sets up a logical conundrum. Believers tend to have three convictions: (1) God is good and loving, (2) evil is real and destructive, and (3) God is all-powerful. In the end, all three cannot be true at the same time. At most we can affirm two of the three. Kushner suggests that we simply cannot deny #2 about evil (witness the death of his son—plus the Holocaust and so many other great evils). So our choice is between #1 and #3. God is good and loving or God is all-powerful and in control. For Kushner, the choice is obvious. He knows that God is loving and good—he sees no evidence that God is all-powerful and in control. After I read this book, I realized that Kushner’s suggestion seems obviously to be the case.
I came to recognize that the idea that God is all-powerful and in control is one of the most problematic and ultimately destructive of Christian beliefs. I think this is what I always sensed, even if I didn’t have the clarity of mind or the courage overtly to suggest that for a long time.
Reading the Bible “materialistically”
I quickly accepted Kushner’s case that faith in a God of love requires us to give up on an interventionist God. But what about the Bible? Doesn’t it teach that God is an intervening God? One option, of course, is to give up on the Bible. I didn’t really want to do that—unless I was convinced that the Bible is clearly wrong. But I wanted to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt.
What if we read the Bible in a straightforward way on its own terms? What if we read it as ancient literature, as telling stories, as not making a lot of metaphysical assumptions? That is, what if we read that Bible as it is more than through the lenses of Augustine and medieval Christendom that starts with an all-powerful, never changing, transcendent God? What if we let the Bible’s meaning and even authority follow from what the Bible says rather than being a starting point that forces us to distort the actual content of the Bible? I would like to suggest the term “materialistic” of this reading strategy.
How do we read the Bible “materialistically”? We read it without assuming that “miracles” and God’s direct intervention are historical. We read it as a story that is told in the same world that we live in. We reject the idea (contrary to what I was taught) that in some sense the ways the world works in the Bible is true in our world—if God reaches down to smite people in the Bible that is what God can and does do in our world. This idea leads to mystification and confusion where we act like we believe something when we don’t actually live as if it is true. Rather, we assume that if something doesn’t happen in our world (such as seas being parted and thousands of soldiers being drowned when the waters crash back down), it didn’t happen in the past. When the Bible tells about such an event, the Bible is telling a story, a kind of holy fiction, we could say—something that conveys truths but does not describe actual events.
So, when we read the book of Revelation, we pay attention to the theology of its visions. The point for us is the message that the Lamb that suffers due to its path of love that resists the ways of the Empire is victorious. We recognize that the intimations of judgment are not things God actually will do in history but instead are symbols, metaphors that convey a sense of urgency. And the judgment critiques the structures, institutions, and ideologies of human societies that lead to the murder of prophets and the buying and selling of human souls.
Reading the Bible materialistically helps us find in the Bible a picture of God that actually does jive with life as we know it—a God of mercy who actually does not intervene to stop bad things from happening but who suffers with the suffering and witnesses to the path of love. This certainly isn’t the only picture of God in the Bible, but I want to argue (though not now!) that God as love is where the story that the Bible as a whole leads us.
God is love
So, the reason that God does not intervene is because God is love. It’s not that God could intervene but chooses not to; it’s that love by definition is not interventionist and controlling. The power of God is not the power of domination and control, top-down power. It’s the power of empathy, the power of mercy, the power of connection. God’s power and God’s weakness are two sides of one coin. God also suffers when children get sick and die. But God empowers love, we could say, the kind of “intervention” children most need.
I want to say, yes, that God is love. I also want to say that love is God. By that, I mean God’s is the power that moves people to give their lives for their friends, the power that energizes resistance to evil, the power that brings life back in face of brokenness. This is the power of love, the power of God. It’s like the singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn affirms in his song “Where the Death Squad Lives.” In the midst of crying out against the violence of Latin American militarist violence against people who resist, Cockburn affirms, “around every evil there gathers love, bombs aren’t the only things that fall from above.”
The writer Rebecca Solnit addresses this dynamic in her terrific book, A Paradise Build in Hell. She does not call the paradise-creating power “God,” but I think she could have. She writes about various massive disasters such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1917 Halifax explosion, 9/11 in New York, and Hurricane Katrina. She discovered what I would call the presence of God in the midst of these terrible events—not in preventing them but in working within them through human love that unexpectedly created powerful communities of healing.
If I were to teach Philosophy of Religion now I would use a book called The Female Face of God in Auschwitz by Jewish theologian Melissa Raphael. In moving detail, she recounts stories of women caring for other women in the Nazi death camps. She argues against the common belief that God was absent during the Holocaust. God was indeed present, right in the midst of the suffering, when people showed love toward one another. These relationships of care invited God’s presence into that place on earth that seemed most godless.
Now, a God who is simply love and cannot intervene with controlling power may not seem like God. That’s fine—I’m more concerned to affirm love than to affirm the metaphor “God.” I can’t say “God exists” as a fact. But I can say that “love exists”—I not only believe love exists, I have seen it.
Now, love is fragile. It can be stifled. It’s not interventionist. I think what most matters is this: How do we cultivate love? I happen to believe that linking love with God is a way to say that love is what matters most. It’s a way to affirm the universal character of love. It’s a way to recognize that all of life is sacred, that every human being and every other living creature deserves respect and care. For me, to say God is love is a way to assert that war and the death penalty and any other kind of lethal violence toward any human being is wrong, blasphemy in fact.
Let me close with another Bruce Cockburn line: “If you love love, then love loves you too.”