Congregation at Duke Chapel

How I See God

For the ears, you can listen to an audio recording of this presentation. [high fidelity audio playable under all personal computer operating systems via VLC media player, Microsoft Windows Media Player with the Xiph.org codecs for FLAC et al, OS X QuickTime with the XiphQT plugin, etc., on many Android-based mobile devices, and on iOS-based mobile devices via apps such as FLAC Player or Golden Ear]

How I See God

presentation at Adult Forum by
Rev. Mark Rutledge
UCC Campus Minister for Duke
April 28, 2013

Outline for How I See God

by Mark Rutledge, originally for April 5, 2006 Abrahamic Faiths Panel
  1. Introduction. My experience at age 20. Led to seminary and a 45-year career in campus ministry. It has led to a lifetime of searching, reading, study, and reflection. What have I learned about God in these 51 years?
  2. I’ve learned that God is ultimate Mystery. If we are thinking of a reality that may or may not exist we are not thinking of God. We can speak of God only in metaphor, poetry, and symbols drawn from our human experience. Yet we live in the face of mystery.
  3. I’ve learned that all of our concepts and images of God are human imaginative constructions. This does not mean that God is not “real.” Our images may change through the years, even if God does not. We all carry around at least three mental pictures in our minds: the God of our group; the God of our private understanding; and God as God is in God-self. But our images are not God.
  4. I distinguish between concepts and images of God on one hand, and the character of God on the other.
  5. I believe that our concepts and images matter. When someone tells me they don’t believe in God I get curious about what kind of God they imagine they don’t believe in. Most often it is the image of supernatural theism. God as a cosmic person; a supernatural person; a big daddy in the sky who will intervene to take care of us; a person-like being separate from the universe. This model of God is no longer credible for many people. Modern scientific views of the universe have rendered this image incomprehensible, and rendered the mythical matrix that supported it unbelievable. God is not up there or out there.
  6. One of the emerging models I prefer is Panentheism. Everything is in God and God is in everything. God is right here, all around us, and imminent within all of life; yet God is more than right here, transcendent.
  7. Some theologians have suggested we give up using the term God and replace it with terms like the Holy, the Sacred, and Spirit. But the symbol God has a history in human affairs that serves functions too important to let go. The symbol God contains many complex, inter-related threads of meaning, which link our human destiny to something greater than ourselves; and promises salvation, meaning, purpose in the midst of the vast time and space of our universe. Who am I and what am I doing here?
  8. The symbol God also functions to humanize our life and to relativize the finite things we put our false trust in (what have been called idols: country, family, self, money, work, affluence, self-image, achievement, pre-occupation with self, etc.).
  9. Let’s look at some biblical threads: There are many masculine images: God is imagined as king, a shepherd, a lord, a warrior, a husband a judge, and a lawgiver, an artisan. But there are also many feminine images: a mother suckling her children, a mother hen brooding over her chicks , a seamstress, a midwife, a woman in labor, a woman seeking a lost coin, as Sophia wisdom. And there are non-anthropomorphic images from nature: fire, the wind, as cloud, as mustard seed. These are metaphors or analogies drawn from experience of the everyday world. We don’t take these literally. They are metaphors, imaginative constructions. But the Bible also says that no one has ever seen God and that God cannot be directly known by us. ‘Your ways are not my ways…’ God is portrayed as beyond human knowing and experiencing.
  10. Now there are many other threads in a “history of God.” Greek philosophical images appear, like the trinity, a specifically Christian, highly imaginative creation of the early church. In some early doctrinal constructions it is hard to separate out the biblical from the philosophical strands; for example, in our Nicene Creed we say, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, … begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father…”
  11. Modern theologians have posed many other images. Sally McFague, for example, speaks of the earth as “God’s Body.” Paul Tillich talks of God as the “Ground of Being.” Process theology speaks of God as always in the process of becoming. Sam Keen has playfully imagined some other names: the quantum leaper, the beyond within, the whence and whither, the web master, the cosmic DNA, the womb of time and space, the creative destroyer, the eternal not yet, etc.
  12. One image that resonates with me most recently at this stage of my journey is Gordon Kaufman’s concept of God as serendipitous creativity. Rather than speak of God as Creator, he identifies God as the process of creativity itself within evolution and history, which makes for greater humanization. He paraphrases the opening chapter of the Gospel of John this way: “In the beginning was creativity, and the creativity was with God, and the creativity was God. All things came into being through the mystery of creativity; apart from creativity nothing would have come into being.”
  13. As a Christian I bring images of God into connection with the power of the story of Jesus. This helps reduce the vagueness and abstraction of concepts and images. It provides a bridge for ways to talk about the character of God in more concrete and practical terms.
  14. The story of the human Jesus provides concrete models for life in the spirit and the Christian life. It means to take seriously the things he took seriously. It means to try to get a glimpse of the world as he saw it—a world filled with the glory of God.
  15. The character of the Jewish God of Jesus was justice. But what kind of justice? Psalm 82 provides the best example of where Jesus plugged into his Jewish tradition according to biblical scholar John Crossan. And it tells us how we are to be judged by God. The psalm imagines a mythological scene in which God sits among the gods and goddesses in divine council. They are dethroned, but not just because they are pagan. They are dethroned for injustice, for divine malpractice, for transcendental malfeasance in office. They are rejected because they do not demand and effect systemic justice among the people of the earth. And that justice is spelled out as protecting the poor from the rich, protecting the systematically weak from the systematically powerful. Such injustice creates darkness over the earth and shakes the very foundation of the world. (Crossan)
  16. Jesus, like other enlightened spiritual teachers, also experienced the character of God as compassion and love. The word compassion in Hebrew means “womb-like.” It bears connotations of nourishing, giving life, embracing, perhaps suggesting feelings of tenderness. God loves us.
  17. The sequence of justice and compassion is significant. Where there is justice without compassion there will be revenge, anger, violence and murder. But compassion without justice can degenerate into patronizing, sentimental do-goodism. As Crossan puts it, “Those who live by compassion are often canonized. Those who live by justice are often crucified.”
  18. If the character of God is both compassion and justice, inextricably linked, what does this say about how I might live as a Christian? My aim is to try to imitate the divine character—to live a life of justice and compassion.
  19. How do we do it? What are some spiritual practices that flow from this understanding of God? How do we put ourselves into places where God can get at us? Prayer (understood as meditation and listening); study (as a sacred discipline); acts of compassion for others; acts of justice which take politics, economics and public policy seriously; worship where the community re-commits itself to the struggle for justice and peace. Being open to and actively pursuing beauty, truth and goodness. The point is not to “believe” in God, but to live in relationship with the Mystery. This can lead to a life of spiritual transformation.
  20. I do not see Christianity as exclusively true or the Bible as the unique and infallible revelation of God. I think God is known in all of the enduring religions of the world. I do not claim to speak for all Christians. I have spoken of some choices that I’ve made as to where I want to plug into the multitude of Christian options that abound today. I think we all have to make such choices in relation to our respective traditions. We have to take responsibility for the religion that we create through our disciplined study and in our imaginations. We are born in Mystery. We live in Mystery. And we die in Mystery. Now for 15 minutes I’ve spoken about the unspeakable. It’s this creative Mystery that I call God.

Resources for talking about “God”

By Mark Rutledge, 2-15-2012
  1. Quote from “The God of Jesus” (my review of Patterson’s book) – “As a 1st century Jew, Jesus trusted in God as a basic reality running through all of life whose character is love, and whose parables imaginatively expressed that way of seeing things and invited others into it.”
  2. My article from Duke interfaith presentation: (God is Mystery)
  3. Michael Dowd: God is reality as a whole, the largest “nesting doll” — the one and only creative reality that is not a subset of some larger more comprehensive reality. God is that which sources and infuses everything; yet is also co-emergent with and indistinguishable from anything. If “God” is not a rightful and proper name for the One and Only Creative Reality that transcends and includes all other creative realities, then what is?
  4. Dowd again: God is a personification not a person. Reality is my God and integrity (living in right relationship with my reality) is my religion. “I believe in God, only I spell it “Nature.” (FLR)
  5. Dowd yet again: (reviewing some ways of understanding and experiencing the divine): a) theism; b) deism; c) atheism; d) pantheism; e) panentheism; f) creatheism; g) apatheism.
  6. Gordon Kaufman: God is Mysterious Creativity, a “cosmic serendipitous creativity” which manifests itself through trajectories of various sorts working themselves out in longer and shorter stretches of time. This way can help us humans discern our place within the evolutionary-ecological universe that is our home.
  7. H.R. Niebuhr: God is a great hidden mystery, that which dooms our human causes, the great void out of which everything comes into being and passes away. In faith humans may come to have confidence, hope and trust in this last power. We may experience a transition from God the void to God the enemy, and from God the enemy to God the great companion.
  8. Nigel Leaves: Is God real or simply a symbol of our ultimate concern? Can the perception of an objective God be replaced by a concern for the preservation and continuation of the cosmos? Can nature become the locus of the sacred? Is God a human invention or is there a great mystery out there but we are involved in its interpretation and never get it with complete purity? (Are you a realist or a nonrealist?)
  9. Crossan: God is Justice. Justice is process. (Is Jesus a manifestation of God?)
  10. Crossan: Whether you argue for theism or atheism, does it bother you that while you are enjoying this ancient debate the thugs are taking over the earth?
  11. My article on science and religion: a) can God be known? And b) there is a difference between talking about i) images and concepts of God, and ii) the character of God.
  12. How shall we understand what Bishop John Spong calls “The God Experience?”
Which paths will you walk?

Someone once asked Martin Buber, the great Jewish theologian, why we shouldn’t give up using the word “God,” so abused and misunderstood as it has become. This was his response:

MARTIN BUBER (1878-1965) on the word 'God'
"Yes," I said, "it is the most heavy-laden of all human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it. The generations have laid the burden of their anxious lives upon this word and weighed it to the ground; it lies in the dust and bears their whole burden. Human beings with their religious factions have torn the word to pieces; they have killed for it and died for it, and it bears their finger marks and their blood. Where might I find a word like it to describe the highest! If I took the purest, most sparkling concept from the inner treasure-chamber of the philosophers, I could only capture thereby an unbinding product of thought. I could not capture the presence of the One whom the generations have honoured and degraded with their awesome living and dying. I do indeed mean God whom the hell-tormented and heaven-storming generations mean. Certainly, they draw caricatures and write 'God' underneath; they murder one another and say "in God's name." But when all madness and delusion fall to dust, when they stand over against Him in the loneliest darkness and no longer say, "He, He," {sic} but rather sigh "Thou," shout "Thou," all of them the one word, and when they then add "God," is it not the real God whom they all implore, the One Living God, the God of the human race? Is it not He {sic} who hears them? And just for this reason, is not the word 'God', the word of appeal, the word which has become a name, consecrated in all human tongues for all times? We must esteem those who interdict it because they rebel against the injustice and wrong which is so readily referred to 'God' for authorization. But we may not give it up. How understandable it is that some suggest we should remain silent about "the last things" for a time in order that the misused words may be redeemed! But they are not to be redeemed thus. We cannot cleanse the word 'God' and we cannot make it whole; but, defiled and mutilated as it is, we can raise it from the ground and set it over an hour of great care.