Who/What is God?

May 17, 2014 § 8 Comments

I think I’m done with this series on What is the Religious Society of Friends for? I plan to organize these essays into one coherent monograph and publish it somehow in the next few weeks. Though my wife Christine and I just bought a house in Philadelphia and sold our house in Hopewell, New Jersey, and will be moving in those weeks, so maybe it will take longer.

Meanwhile, however, I want to return to some of the ideas and themes that came up in that series, and I want to start with a big one: an exploration of “God”.

In one of the early posts in the series, I defined “religion” as “the spiritual life, the faith and spiritual practices, of a community, the things a religious community does to renew its communion with the Divine.” I then went on to say:

This begs the question (again) of just what we mean by “the Divine”, which is one of Liberal Quakerism’s placeholders for whatever it is we are experiencing, when we don’t think it’s the traditional triune Christian God. I have dealt [so far] with this problem by using “G*d”, letting the asterisk stand in for whatever your experience is. Speaking this way, however—speaking around a more explicit naming of God—just throws us back into individualism, casting ourselves again as a society of individuals practicing our own spiritualities, rather than defining ourselves as an integral community with a clear focus for our worship.

And at the heart of the Liberal Quaker conversation about “God” is Jesus. Who—and what—was (is!) Jesus—and the Christ: Jesus Christ? Is Jesus the Christ God? If we cannot worship him, as our Quaker forebears have done for centuries, then whom, or what, or how, do we worship? And what is our relation to Jesus? And to the Christ?

As I said in that post, I think this is the key question for Liberal Friends. It certainly is for me. How can we call ourselves a religion when we cannot define our “God”? Can a community that just defines itself in terms of values and practices, without claiming any coherent or substantive content, call itself a religion?

Does worship require a discreet sentient being with whom we could have a relationship, and is it necessary to share an understanding of God to “worship in spirit and truth”, as the gospel of John puts it?

And can we continue to call ourselves the Religious Society of Friends at all if we have abandoned Jesus Christ as the Source of our joy, as the Gatherer of our community as a peculiar people of God, in whom we have our very name (from the gospel of John)?

I’ve been thinking about these questions for a long time, only gradually getting closer to clarity about them. The basic problem for me is that my own answers to these questions and the answers I would like to give for the Society are really not the same.

This is why I started the series before What is Quakerism for? that tried to develop a theology for Liberal Friends. That series turned into an extensive treatment of the gathered meeting because I feel that the gathered meeting offers some answers: we do have the experience of being gathered in the spirit, even though we are not in unity about the object of our “worship”. So something is happening in the gathered meeting for worship that tests the boundaries of traditional Christian theology.

But even then, I found myself having to answer the question of whether “God” or more pointedly, Christ, is the “gatherer” when we are gathered. And is my “G*d” a being or not? I use “G*d” so that the asterisk can stand in for whatever my readers’ experience of God is, and because, while I do have experience of spiritual beings with whom one could have a relationship (and I do have a relationship), I have no experience of “God” as the traditional supreme being. But, this leaves a lot of these questions unanswered.

So I think I’m starting a new series that will explore where I am with “God” and with Jesus Christ.

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§ 8 Responses to Who/What is God?

  • Olivia says:

    I agree with Naomi’s points. For me, part of the original post misses the DIvine or God. It says “How can we call ourselves a religion when we cannot define our “God”? Can a community that just defines itself in terms of values and practices, without claiming any coherent or substantive content, call itself a religion?”

    I think I understand why the original post valued knowing Who we’re talking about, and being able to keep talking about that, listening to that, communicating that to others…. and we DO need room for those things.

    But at the same time, I don’t want to be a part of a community that defines God smaller than the wild reality that feels Divine to me. This smaller “God” has hounded me in my faith journey too often over the years. To me, it’s just society, it’s just human beings not expressing their best traits. That’s not actual-God. Actual-God leaves everyone with room to breathe and be more whole, not some inside the fence and some outside. I feel that there is a certain (perhaps unintended) lack of humility when one thinks they actually can and should “define God”. I know this is maddening for the average Christian who would simply like to feel safe and supported in being a Christian.

    Even though I came into the liberal-Quaker-fold as deeply Christian, this deep Christianity has been enriched and expanded by the challenge of universality that I find among Liberal friends. I can talk deeply (now) with Christian Quakers but I also have found among the “nontheists” and Buddhists and Sufis and Jewish folk, etc…. I have found new ways to understand God (not define, but move toward some understanding and experience of).

    For example, in personal prayer time recently this message came to me “now trust only in me and don’t worry about “God” any more. let me be a mystery to you for a while — because as you trust the Light given you, that is more God than “God” is. ”

    ha This Light referring us within to that very bright Light coming through us and saying only seek the Light, call for the Light, cry out for the Light, or whatever….but not define the Light. What can you do with a Truth that big but to let go and let it just take over??

    My previous feeling that my Christianity was threatened or didn’t have enough room among these folks has been replaced by a clarity that they enrich me in new and expansive ways… and that — some days — I enrich them in new and expansive ways too. Also the discovery that these other people are actually gracious to me about Christianity when I do speak from the expanse of my wild Christianity, rather than from my fear or drawing lines of mental understandings around the Divine. I think they hear this wild unboxed Christianity no matter what faith they practice. It is actually a universal language.

    I feel drawn by God toward more of that, not toward defining, which puts other people on the outside and me on the inside of something. (and somehow leaves me feeling that God was what was left outside in the process)

    in peace.

    • Howard says:

      Beautiful, Olivia! I felt so moved reading your comment. It articulated why I am so moved by and grateful for the liberal Quaker tradition. It draws us to the truth beyond words . . .

      • Olivia says:

        Thank you, Howard. I am reminded that so often these discussions seem to be because some people find more joy in knowing God one way and some find more joy in knowing God another way — one version seems to be God as mystery. The other version seems to be God as known. Both seem to be valid, and both have their weaknesses…but for me the value of the Liberal tradition is in that great UNKNOWABLE grace, the grace of not drawing the lines too tight / too small around this thing. Thanks for understanding! I know you do.

  • Steven, congratulations on the new home and your move…and on turning this series into a book. I can see this series (book) as being used as the basis for Quaker Conversations or other conversations,because of the questions that they raise in the reader.

    Thinking about your comments about God and Jesus…It seems like many Quaker discussions include a “sidestep” around some phrase or concept that we cannot agree on. It is as if disagreeing is part of Quaker practice.

  • Howard Brod says:

    I would suggest that for liberal Quakers Jesus is really our founder (rather than the theology of the apostle Paul that is the foundation for most of Christianity, and even evangelical Quakerism). Jesus was the one who emphasized the importance of having an experience with the divine. He is the one who was obsessed with love and its premiere importance to the successful survival of humanity. Jesus did not seem obsessed with his own importance other than that of providing to humanity a role model of living a life of love in relationship with the Source of all life.

    Why can’t we just leave it at that, because that is the truth of what our religion is about. To go any further “doctrinally” is conjecture. Elias Hicks came to these same conclusions. And his admission of the truth, led to the great Quaker schism and our wonderful liberal Quaker tradition.

    So be it.

    • Jim Schultz says:

      Howard I think the problem with leaving it at that is that by doing so you might give the impression to others that there is no more. That there isn’t more of Jesus to know. That the power Jesus manifested in living His life isn’t available to us in this day and age. The very thing that drove George Fox to the edge of insanity was he couldn’t settle for living less than a perfect life. He had to strive to overcome the flesh and it was to this condition that he found Jesus could speak.

  • naomi paz greenberg says:

    Where to begin.

    First, I’m not sure I fit squarely in to a definition of ‘Liberal’ Quaker, and that may be part of the problem in defining God, Spirit, the Christ within for liberal Quakers.

    My background is Jewish and when I joined the Society of Friends I joined as a Jewish (ethnically) Quaker (my faith). This is still true for me.

    I may not fit well into any definition: I have never doubted the existence of God and have always had a relationship with God; but I have never believed in any messianic tradition, so it’s not a question for me whether Jesus is the Messiah or whether it’s someone else, but rather that the very concept of Messiah was never true for me; I am certainly not a Pastoral or Evangelical Friend; it might be that I am a Conservative Friend except for the fact that Jesus Christ is not my personal savior (sorry); So by exclusion, I must be a Liberal Quaker (probably).

    I am not sure that the central problem for Liberal Friends is a definition of God.

    In my experience, a problem, perhaps a central problem for Liberal Friends is an inability to articulate what they believe as a group.

    I think that in the past that was not a problem. Friends have been described as Practical Mystics, and as such Friends had certain ways of gathering in worship, ways of testing leadings, ways of discerning God’s Will, that ‘s the practical part. The mystical element is not available for articulation. The closest word for me for engaging with the mystical is agape. And being mystical in that way means engaging with the unknown. And to have a lifelong relationship with such an unknown is deeply meaningful and valuable to mystical Friends and mystics in any tradition.

    I think that in the United States during the Vietnam (in Vietnam they call it the American) War years, parents who wanted to protect their children from the draft joined Quaker meetings, and young people who needed to define themselves as pacifist joined Quaker meetings.

    While I am a member of that generation I did not join for those reasons, nor at that time. But I have heard many personal theologies from among my peers that go something like ‘God, or Spirit, wants us to be friendly.’
    And with that as one’s theology, everybody is a Friend.

    Which in another sense may be true, but not in the superficial niceness of dispensing with theology so as not to offend anyone.

    Another aspect that bears mentioning:

    It is not for nothing that God’s name in Hebrew is unpronounceable. To capture and to normalize that by saying Jehovah not only misses the point but borders on sacrilege. Observant Jews who read that unpronounceable formulation in the Torah say “Hashem” literally “The Name.” Perhaps that practice warns Jews and perhaps all believers from the outset that while we can love Hashem and seek his/her Will, we cannot be overly familiar, we cannot know, we are governed by an Unknowable Greatness…. Definitions are about borders, and every choice of words excludes other words….

    Now, coming at the question of ‘Who/What is God?’ from a different direction, when I first learned about Quakers, after some months of worshiping with Friends, I began to read George Fox’s Journal. And for someone with a Jewish background the Journal can be difficult to read, it is written in a Christ-centered vocabulary. But what would I expect given Fox’s background? He had no other vocabulary of faith available to him at that time, perhaps not at any time in his life. So if I wanted to read his Journal, I had to believe that Fox was talking about the same God that I knew (to the extent that that is possible) but that he had a radically different vocabulary. I didn’t read the entire volume, but reading what I did with that translator in my head made it very easy for me to sit with Christ-centered Friends, Friends who can only talk about Spirit and even Friends who call themselves atheist, very easy to sit with them in worship, as long as they did not try to persuade me of the superiority of their own approach to and concept of God.

    Going back to my original discussion of a problem for Liberal Friends, it really only applies to those who have no clarity about what they do believe.

    Being clear myself, I am comfortable with others who are clear in what they believe, even if we have a different vocabulary of faith, and even if we believe differently.

    • Roger D-W says:

      My understanding of ‘the Trinity’ begins with ‘Hashem’ – however you experience that-which-is-beyond-and-within, there is always another dimension. So there is ‘the source of all that is good’ – the Creator; and there is the intimate understanding, the never-aloneness of accepting Jesus as he-who-was-inhabited … (and had to deal with the consequences); and there is ‘the Presence’, the awesomeness that makes it difficult to breath.
      This isn’t ‘Father-Son-Holy Ghost’ trinitarianism, but it is the best understanding that I yet have of the my experience.

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