Shuck and Jive

Monday, May 18, 2009

"God" and Hope

I am happy to see Mystical Seeker blogging again. A post of interest is a reflection on the concept of "God" by Michael Dowd and another is comment on a video in which Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan also speak about what they mean by "God." I was less happy with the video as Crossan comes across as snippy, dismissive, and not altogether accurate about atheism.

I have a soft spot for atheists in part because they are a marginalized group in our country. To illustrate, the two groups on ETSU's campus who have their posters torn down or defaced on a regular basis are the LGBT group and the Atheist group.

I have much in common with the atheists I know as we engage in projects for LGBT rights, reproductive choice, separation of religion and state, and advocacy for the environment, social justice, science, and peace.

I am amused and delighted by their critiques of the supernaturalism of my fellow religionists. This supernaturalism expresses itself in everything from creationism to a belief in an interventionist deity who cares that I find a parking space at Wal-Mart (but for some reason leaves the hungry and impoverished to their own devices).

Atheists have been helpful in regards to interpreting sacred texts. They embrace higher criticism and point out my inconsistencies in interpreting these texts. In fact, I identify philosophically and ethically more with many of my atheist friends than I do with religious believers, including those in my own denomination.

I do take a different path, however. I value the religious imagination. I still use the symbol "God" (although I don't know how to spell it--G-d or Godde or God/dess). I don't use this symbol as an explanation for how the universe works. I embrace science for that. I don't use this symbol as an explanation for ethics or morality. Reason and compassion do as well or better than following the dictates of an ancient holiness code.

I exercise my religious imagination and all that goes with it (wisdom texts, sacred celebrations, sacred songs, liturgy, communities, and so forth) because of its hopefulness. Perhaps it is corny. Maybe I am engaging in little more than infantile regression. To be clear, I am not saying that atheists are not hopeful. Atheists are some of the most courageous and hopeful people I know.

It is just that for me, the religious imagination (including the symbol "God") shows me a light at the end of the tunnel. Religious imagination provides me with the poetry of sorrow and the possibility of surprise.

I have been told that the next twenty years will be nothing like the last twenty. The planet has reached its tipping point in supporting a human population that is intent on ravaging its hospitality. All of our ideologies, theologies, and philosophies will be tested to their limits. I like to think that the Universe is rooting for us. My religious imagination is how I express that hope.

Whether atheist or religious, we have common ground. We have a common planet. May we find a way to get beyond our posturing and find a common future.

Since it is the season for commencement addresses, I recommend this one from Barbara Kingsolver. She spoke about hope at Duke last year. You can listen too.

You’ll see things collapse in your time, the big houses, the empires of glass. The new green things that sprout up through the wreck –- those will be yours.


  1. Thank you for the mention. :)

    I agree, Crossan was a little snippy. Telling people to "get over it" is a little too pat. On the other other hand, I think what he was trying to get across was just that there is a straw man that is easy for atheists to knock down, and those who feel dogmatically opposed to religion need to understand that religion can be more sophisticated than that. The problem I have is that I feel like there is this big argument between atheists and orthodoxy, and I wasn't invited to the party. I object to orthodoxy for all the obvious reasons, but I also object when some atheists make sweeping statements about religion that I think don't take into account those of us who don't fit into a certain paradigm. Religion for me is just a way of channeling awe and mystery into an overriding metaphysical framework. It doesn't mean believing in fairy tales or divine magic, or at least for me it doesn't.

  2. I was going to do the polite thing and comment at your place that I posted here and you appeared before I had a chance!

    You mentioned a word with which I have had a struggle. Metaphysical.
    I have had a tough time getting that word.

    What do you mean when you use it?

  3. That's a good question. Maybe that's a poor choice of words.

    When I am using the term, I am thinking in terms of a deeper, organizational framework. For me, God is the essence or depth of being, a way of interpreting the physical world that we live in. I probably should just drop the word "metaphysical" because it has a lot of different uses. Whitehead's philosophy is termed metaphysical, I think because it offered an overriding way of defining all of reality. I am borrowing a term from philosophy when I use it, but I'm not sure I actually understand the term myself enough to use it appropriately.

  4. Thanks. I have often thought of it also from philosophy back when philosophy spoke about "the big picture." I think Whitehead was one of the last.

    Joseph Campbell (I think it was) said metaphysics had become psychology.

  5. I think you are right that Whitehead was possibly the last of the philosophers to formulate a grand theory of everything. From what I know of the subject, I think that later philosophy went in other directions.