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.