If “God” is a Vacuous Concept, We Could Mean Anything at a Time We Need to Mean Loving Justice
I recently had the blessed fortune to attend the Jesus’s Seminar Spring Scholars Conference, the Westar Institute’s meeting in California. It was amazing: instead of merely presenting esoteric papers and discussions about the dating of writings, how they related to each other, and what in them could we believe Jesus as actually saying and doing, or such tangential topics such as the role of women in funereal practices in ancient Cartoledge as represented in ancient sidewalk graffiti, we all (not only the seminary scholars) finally realized that we trusted each other and had enough understanding of the origins of Christianity that we could begin to ask: Why was the church failing, and what good is talk of God and the spirit when few of us believed such things could be rationally addressed?
As I remember it, that was the substance of Robert Funk’s questions at a dinner conversation with him way back in the ‘60’s. He was concerned that the knowledge we had from using historical and scientific methods in the study of religion get distilled down to our congregations. Yet he gave up hope when he considered the pride of our seminarians, and their fear about employment. For to use intellectually responsible methods as often as not would risk threatening most orthodox Christians and many of the best seminarians were rejecting the institutionalized church.
Be that as it may, the lead speaker at this spring’s seminar was Peter Steinberger, a well respected professor of Humanities at Reed College and author of “The Problem with God: Why Atheists, True Believers, and Even Agnostics Must All Be Wrong.” He presented a very convincing philosophical discussion of the language of god and spirituality, reviewing the pre and post positions of linguistic analysis, as well as a thorough discussion of the arguments concerning God the omnipotent unmoved mover creating ex nihilo. Essentially, everything we say exists has a cause and a beginning. What caused god and when did god begin? Unanswerable, therefore we cannot reasonably connect the notion of existence with the notion of god unless we mean something very different by the term than how it is used in ordinary language. It is absurd, meaningless, and confuses our discussions of religion, actually wasting our time which could be and needs be much better spent if we are to survive along with the world as we know or would like it to be. I recommend his book even with its many repetitions of his basic argument, which needs attention. Now I find myself cringing every time I hear arguments or statements about the existence or non-existence of god or a spiritual world, concepts that violate linguistic boundaries and categories.
However, he does hint, towards the book’s end, that if we state clearly the categorical limits of the language in which we are speaking, be it scientific or poetic, poetic or empirical, we might with honesty and intellectual integrity still be able to use god and spirit concepts with some meaning, not factual but maybe emotional. It was with these considerations and wonderings that I read Robin Meyers’ “Spiritual Defiance: Building a Beloved Community of Resistance,” his rendering of his Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale, one of the most prestigious series presented by foremost seminary scholars. Meyers is the head minister at the Mayflower UCC church in Oklahoma City. The contents well describe his ideas: “Prologue: The Church is Dead. Long Live the Church; One Undone: Faith as Resistance to Ego; Two Undone: Faith as Resistance to Orthodoxy; Three Undone: Faith as Resistance to Empire; Epilogue: Resisting the Reign of the Christian Status Quo.”
Meyers is not as concerned with the intellectual problems of the misuse of god language as with the lack of intellectual and moral integrity of those who talk of God from the pulpits. This lack of integrity they display in the face of the problems of the world and with our human relationships, with each other and with everything in the world. Social acceptance is a seductive force, but not what Jesus sought. He wanted justice for the marginalized. Meyers takes our ministers to the woodshed, at least those who have bought into the courtship of Constantine, resulting in the prophetic force of the church devolving into the justification for Roman power. This new role of the church served its leaders but it left the moral message of Jesus lost somewhere beyond the grave with Jesus for 1600 years.
Steinberger has presented the problems we have due to the misuse of our religious language. Meyers has presented the problems our ministers have faced. With a very few blessed exceptions, because of understandable social and political pressures, most have failed to healthfully resolve them or even provide much guidance to their congregations. John Caputo’s recent book, “The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event,” provides a theological justification for these two books, taking off on Paul’s theme in I Corrinthians,1:25, that the event of Jesus was not powerful, like Rome’s staged events, but weak and foolish. He contrasts the events of religious and moral import, the happenings that constitute what we mistakenly call reality, with our tendency to name the events, and then relating not to the contingencies and demands of the event, but instead making the name we have given it into an idol of our most prideful wants. We make God omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent, the creator of all, everlasting, all powerful, the ruler of heaven and earth, the rule giver, the answer for all problems, the arbitrary king with his worldly court and courtesans. It is Caputo at his best, quickly rounding his Jacques Derridan philosophical analysis of our use of linguistic conceptions in our attempts to master the contingencies of living in a chaotic world. He presents a god who en-forces chaos which we vainfully try to turn into order, sacrificing god’s justice for the attempt to gather enough power over others to achieve a semblance of security and, like the god we have imagined, gain control with an everlasting and beatific life.
Caputo’s work is too deep and significant to briefly review now, but I also recommend Weakness as a good framework for a needed renewal of the significant discussion of a god of justice called out by the prophets, sung to by the young girl, Mary, and acted upon unto death by Jesus and many of his followers. This may be the renewal of his promise to come again, a coming that we all await, pray for, and fear so much we have to give it a Hollywood make over. Later for that.
Thomas Schmidt is a retired psychotherapist and chemical dependency counselor who belongs to the Sufi Ruhiniat International order of Sufi’s and is a drummer in the Spokane Sufi group and an elder at the Country Homes Christian (Disciples of Christ) Church. He is a member of the Westar Institute (The Jesus Seminar people). He studied for the ministry in the late 1950’s at Texas Christian Church and twice married Janet Fowler, a member of a long tern TCU family and a Disciple minister. He was active in the Civil Rights Movement, studying philosophy at Columbia University and psychology in the University of North Carolina university system. He has taught philosophy and psychology, and was professionally active in Florida, North Carolina, and, for 25 years in Spokane. He has studied and practiced Siddha Yoga, Zen Buddhism and, since the mid 1970’s, Sufism and the Dances of Universal Peace. He has three sons and three grandchildren. With the death of his wife, Janet, he is continuing their concentration on human rights, ecology, and ecumenical and interfaith reconciliation.
Um… wow. I think I’ll need to read this a few more times to begin to grasp it, but I do have some preliminary thoughts. For example, on the nature of “existence” of the sort compatible with God and Spirit, I wonder if we can’t proceed by analogy (which is, after all, how we typically proceed from the known to the unknown). For example, from an event (which is bound by place and time), we proceed to consideration of an object involved in that event (bound by space, but not in any practically meaningful way by time), to the principles governing the behaviour of those objects (which I have heard discussed in terms of “quantum information fields,” bound neither by space nor time in any practically meaningful way). Now, if we stick to a pragmatist epistemology on this particular analogical arc, God/Spirit looks like the same sort of thing as a quantum information field. But that is only half the equation; we also approach God/Spirit through moral aspiration, existential contextualisation and aesthetic yearning, to name but a few. So to arrive at any understanding of this Transcendent being, we (as a matter of practice, and I think rightly) follow each of these arcs as far as we can, intending but never reaching what looks an awful lot to us like an asymptotic point of convergence. In other words, all roads may lead to Rome, but it isn’t possible to follow any of them there; the more roads you walk, and follow faithfully, the nearer you’ll get to a city that will always be just beyond the horizon.
Yes, I also would have to devote much more mental effort to begin to understand all the epistemological ramifications. However, I see several holes in what you present. To use analogy it seems to me there are at least requirements: first, all characteristics of the analogy must be investigated unless one were merely pointing to a limited suggestion (God is much more, and less than a Quantum Information Field); and then one must clearly state the nature and limits of his or her language (Esthetics, ethics, history, factual, poetic). There are many types of meaning, and it is dangerous to confuse them. Myers goes beyond the consideration of ordinary language and scientific depiction of facts into poetry and religious meaning. Very important.
Another hole. It seems that when you characterize god as transcendent, you are ignoring the idea, very meaningful, that god is not transcendent but is limited, as in The Weakness of God by John Caputo. A weak god might have more meaning then an all powerful god, which leads us into a lot of problems with little good return. God came to the event of creation to stand with the weak. Paul suggests we should join this weak god.
Tom, I’m interested in what you might think of the idea of God as “holy” in the Ancient Hebrew sense (not the modern idea relating to sin), meaning God is so completely beyond our existence that we have no capability of ever grasping or understanding?