Shuck and Jive

Sunday, August 07, 2011

God and Nature: A Sermon

Nature and God
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

August 7th, 2011

Wisdom from Ecclesiastes

Watch your step when you go to the house of God.
Being ready to understand is better than offering sacrifice
with fools
who haven’t even the brains to do any real evil.
Be in no hurry to speak,
and do not think of uttering anything hastily before God.
God is in the sky and you’re on the earth;
therefore let your words be few.

This is a gift from Nature.
And I believe that whatever Nature produces
will surely endure forever;
for to it nothing can be added,
and from it nothing can be taken away.
Nature has so arranged matters that people may stand in awe
of it.

Let me tell you what I’ve come to realise:
It’s good and proper simply to eat and drink,
and take satisfaction in all the work
we do on the face of the earth.
After all, this is our human lot
during the limited days of life that Nature gives us.

Translation by Lloyd Geering, Such Is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010), p. 171-192. Ecclesiastes 5:1-3; 3:14-15; 5:18.

Historical Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg, has become a highly respected teacher in progressive Christian circles. We have a number of his books in our library. He has written books on the historical Jesus, God, and the Bible that takes both an historical and a metaphorical approach.

He has been very helpful for many including me to find new meaning in Christianity. One of his earlier books is entitled,
Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. I often offer that book or his book Heart of Christianity to folks for whom the literal model or the default model of the faith no longer works for them.

Marcus Borg taught religion for many years at Oregon State. In Heart of Christianity, he wrote the following about his students and their struggle with “God”:
Every term one or more of them says to me after class, "This is all very interesting, but I have a problem every time you use the word 'God', because, you see" - here there's usually a pause and a deep breath - "I really don't believe in God." I always respond in the same way: "Tell me about the God you don't believe in." Invariably, it is the God of supernatural theism. I then tell them that I don't believe in that God either. They are surprised, for they know that I believe in God. They're simply not aware that there is an option other than supernatural theism.” pp. 68-9
A question that we might have is, well, what is the other option? If “God” is something other than a supernatural being, then what could that possibly be?

Many people who attend this congregation also have struggles with “God”. One person quipped that our congregation is BYOG or Bring Your Own God. An increasing number of young people are quite open about their dissatisfaction with traditional teachings about “God” and religion. One of the largest growing categories in religious polling is agnostic or atheist. Many others understand themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Unpacking what all this means is a challenge. I think it means at least for some people that traditional concepts of God, Jesus, and the Bible are not credible or interesting. This is true for people even within the church. They are becoming less shy about saying so.

Others, particularly people in the church who seem to be fine with traditional theology, may have a negative value judgment on that development. They may equate loss of belief in traditional forms of Christianity with increased immorality, lack of ethics, or loss of faith and so forth.

That isn’t necessarily so. It could be that people recognize that they are no longer interested in simply repeating their parents’ or grandparents’ religious beliefs. They think for themselves and have more questions than answers. “Just believe it because it is good for you” is not persuasive to them.

Katherine Keller is a theologian and teaches at the Theological School at Drew University. In her book, On the Mystery: Discerning God in Process, she wrote about this modern movement toward disbelief that she calls “God allergies.” It is a snarky little quote that I like. She writes:
"Of course, some can catch subtler meanings behind the popular cliches of a God-man who "comes down," presumably from Heaven Up There, dons a birthday suit, and after gamely sacrificing himself "for our sins" soon gets beamed up again....But far too many thoughtful people, through too much early exposure to the Big Guy in the Sky, develop life-long God allergies.

Allergic reactions, I hear, can only be treated with a bit of the original allergen. In other words, the literalisms of God-talk can be cured not by atheism but by an alternative theology." p. 16
Keller and Borg and others have not given up on the word “God” but interpret the symbol in creative ways. “God” can be everything or no-thing. God can be creativity, or the process of evolution, another word for Life, or Love, Reconciliation, Nature, the Universe, the unknowable, the non-definable, and so on.

As New Zealand Presbyterian minister and scholar, Lloyd Geering says:
"To ask whether God exists or does not exist is a nonsensical question until you define the word "God". But if the word "God" is indefinable, then you cannot ask the question."
Or as our friend, Qoheleth wrote from 23 centuries ago in the Book of Ecclesiastes:
Be in no hurry to speak,
and do not think of uttering anything hastily before God.
God is in the sky and you’re on the earth;
therefore let your words be few.
Good advice.

Those are the words of the person who is skeptical of those who speak so self-assuredly for God. There are certainly people who will tell you all about what God wants. They have his book after all, and know exactly what it means. Usually it means that you are wrong and bad unless you believe it just as they do.

It is hard to know what Qoheleth meant when he used the word elohim that we translate as God. It literally means gods in the plural and most ancient religion was polytheistic. There were gods and hierarchies of gods. The point of worship was to make sacrifices to these gods in hopes that these gods would make crops grow, wombs fertile, and illnesses pass.

Qoheleth didn’t seem to think that the gods as such existed. For him, you could go to the temple and sacrifice like a fool and it won’t make any difference. For him, God seemed to be another word for Nature.

That is how Lloyd Geering in his book on
Ecclesiastes, Such Is Life, translates elohim in many cases. God or Nature is a personification of the universe itself. Nature is not interested and not able to be manipulated by sacrifices or prayers.
God is in the sky and you’re on the earth;
Therefore let your words be few.
Your words aren’t going to do any good anyway.

Qoheleth’s advice is the following:
Let me tell you what I’ve come to realise:
It’s good and proper simply to eat and drink,
and take satisfaction in all the work
we do on the face of the earth.
After all, this is our human lot
during the limited days of life that Nature gives us.
The more I read Ecclesiastes the more I am amazed that it made it into the Bible. This fellow is a full-blown skeptic. He uses the word “God” but it means nothing like it means to most of the other biblical authors.
  • This God makes no covenants.
  • He sends down no fire and brimstone.
  • He makes no speeches.
  • He fights no enemies.
  • He punishes no sinners.
  • He rewards no righteous.
  • He is opaque.
  • It is as if he set things up and took a long nap...and is still napping.
He is kind of like the bus. It goes from place to place and back again. People get on. People get off. The bus doesn’t care. It is indifferent.

We might raise an eyebrow at Qoheleth. What are we supposed to do with his view? You mean life is a spin on this big blue boat 70, 80, 90 times (if we are lucky) around the sun and it's over? That God is another word for the Universe? Is that what we are supposed to believe?

No, you are not supposed to believe anything. BYOG. Bring Your Own God. That is the whole point. I think the view I described is the view that Qoheleth had or something close to it. But his was a minority voice. I am not saying Qoheleth is right or wrong. But my point is that he is in the book. There is room in the Bible, perhaps grudgingly so, but there is room for the skeptic.

“I don’t believe in God,” says the young college student to the professor.

The professor responds, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” After hearing, the professor says, “I don’t believe in that God either.”

Now, at that point, things can get interesting. Now we can have a conversation and a life-long search. What are the options? They are out there. Ready for your exploration should you desire. At that point the shackles of
  • “what we are supposed to believe” and
  • don’t question the authorities” and
  • oh my, you’ll go to hell if you think that way”
begin to loosen their hold.

Ecclesiastes was written in response to those who claimed to know what God was all about. We live in a similar time to the extent that many claim to be certain as to what God thinks about regarding everything from marriage to taxes.

When Christopher Hitchens writes a book with the title, God is Not Good: How Religion Poisons Everything, I disagree but I understand his sentiment. Just this past week I have spoken with people who have had to deal with the poison of a certain kind of punitive religion. It is poison. It hurts people.

I think there is a positive role for religion. I think there is a place for God-talk. I also think there is a place in church for those who don’t particularly need God-talk. I think there is a place within church to challenge and to explore even what we might think is basic and foundational, even the concept of God itself.

There is much in our religious history and in current religious practice that is beautiful and edifying. I think the line between beautiful and ugly, between living water and poison, has to do with respect and freedom in regards to one’s conscience and to the consciences of others.

In the words of Theodore Parker with which I will close:Link
Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere;
its temple, all space;
its shrine, the good heart;
its creed, all truth;
its ritual, works of love;
its profession of faith, divine living.


  1. There is a theory that the books of wisdom are there as a counterpoint to prophecy. They talk about creation as we find it and our relation to our creator through creation. Just as an aside, right now I'm working on developing a thesis around the philosophy of Wittgenstein (I know, a glutton for punishment). One of the things I'm reading up on is the role of "natural philosophy" and whether it is dead end, that is that there is no logical ontological proof of God's existence or even need for one (Wittgenstein argued that God language existed on a "higher" or perhaps different plane than the language of logic). And yet we still persist in a belief that nature points to something beyond itself. The next step of the argument is that humans seem hard-wired to require that it does and I don't think this is the worst thing. Thanks for posting your sermons. I certainly appreciate them.

  2. Another from my favorite heretic is on its way to both my Unitarian friends and colleagues in the UU Christian fellowship we started, AND to my CPE class, which is made up of an assortment of conservative Christians, who are learning to minister to people who may not think the same way they do.