Explorers like Columbus framed their existence on the unproven reality that the Earth was flat and had an edge -- until they explored the ocean blue and found that it was, in fact, round. Still, there is a small group of people tucked in the tundra of Alaska who remain thoroughly convinced that the world is flat; they call themselves the Flat Earth Society. They claim that people like Columbus got it wrong, writing in their mission statement:
"Then, in the year of our Lord fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, it all changed. For decades a small band of self-proclaimed 'enlightened' individuals had been spouting their heretical nonsense that the Earth was in fact round. Citing 'proof' based on nothing more than assumptions, half-truths and blind guesses, they dazzled the populace with their 'undeniable mathematical and scientific evidence [...] that the world is shaped not like a pancake, but an orange!'"
I wonder if the spirit of the Flat Earth Society exists in our churches, mosques, temples, and Holy Scriptures? Let me explain. We have evidence -- gravity, a curved horizon, and images from space -- demonstrating that the probability that the Earth is round is far greater than the probability that it is flat. Most people would agree that the Earth is round. You are not going to see a report on CNN about two countries battling each other over whether the earth is round or flat.
But you might see two countries killing each other on the topic of whether God is on their side or not.
A few months ago, I spent a month in Pakistan doing peace development work. Sometimes, as I engaged in casual conversation with Muslim friends who knew that I followed Jesus, they would comfortably request that I pray to God for them. Not Allah, but God.
Did you see what I just did there? I made a distinction between Allah and God, even if my Muslim friends intended no such distinction. Somewhere in my psyche, I had come to regard God and Allah as if they were individual Greek gods battling for power over the cosmos. This discovery piqued my curiosity to find out what the word Allah means in Arabic, and to my amazement, I found that it means "God." Not "the god of Islam" or "the god of the religion who has terrorists fighting in its name," but "God." It's simply the Arabic name for the creator and sustainer of all life. In Christianity we use the word "God" to describe the genderless spirit that presides over not only those who follow him but all of creation. To the Jews the word for the same spirit is Hashem; to certain Hindus it's Vishnu.
To assume that God resides or expresses himself in just one faith tradition is to assume that God is minute in size, power, and influence. To assume that the creator of the universe can have only one name is like saying that everyone's middle and last name is irrelevant to his or her identity, especially in a society where the last name tends to be especially tied to identity. Claiming that God is unique to Christianity (or Islam, or Hinduism, or Judaism, to name a few) is very much like the members of the Flat Earth Society who will still claim that the Earth is flat regardless of the evidence to the contrary.
Jonah was an Old Testament prophet who lived in the eighth century B.C. In the story, he believes that God (or Yahweh) is calling him to preach to his enemies, and he isn't a fan of the idea. Assuming that Yahweh is a territorial deity, a god of the land like the other gods he used to follow, Jonah jumps on a ship and flees to the sea, thinking that Yahweh can't possibly go there. As we all know, Jonah becomes a whale's Happy Meal.
After his human sushi experience, Jonah decides to go through with preaching to the nearby city, and its inhabitants decide to turn from their way of life. But Jonah, unhappy with the way things have gone, decides that he doesn't want to be around for the celebration, so he takes a walk outside the city. Again, Jonah doesn't get it: he thinks this new God is only a god of the seas and some of the land, but not all of it. He doesn't want to talk to this new God. But when Jonah finds a tree outside the city, this new God withers it. It's a reminder that God is everywhere. Some people might need this same reminder.
Joshua was an army captain for the Israelite people whose responsibility was to lead these desert nomads into their new home. In the story of one of the more pivotal battles, Joshua gets a visit from an angel, and like any good army leader, he wants to know whose side God is on. "Neither," the angel responds. The angel then gives Joshua a command to take off his sandals, telling him that he's on holy ground. Even in enemy territory, the Divine is present.
God doesn't take sides. People do. God is for everyone.
Maybe what we need is to come to a place where we can be reminded that God is the God of the Jews, the Gentiles, the Greeks, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, and all of creation. Maybe if we can all agree that we don't have a patent, trademark, or copyright on God, then we can work together under the banner of this one deity and the world can begin to heal. This isn't to say we shouldn't sustain our traditions, liturgies, or practices within our specific faith traditions; what it means is that we should stop trying to own God, and that we should celebrate with one another the diverse worldviews on who God is and could be.
This isn't New Age or emergent or progressive; this is simply my offering as a person who has learned of, spoken about, and seen firsthand the unnecessary bloodshed of brothers and sisters who, because of mere semantics, don't get along. My intent isn't to cheapen the opportunity to open dialogue with one another; it's to encourage everyone to chase after God with its many nicknames. The moment we do this is the moment we accept that God is bigger and beyond all our definitions and cognitive understanding. It's the moment we realize that we each have the divine spark out of which we are all learning to live. It's the moment when humanity can work together to make the world a better place. The moment we do this is the moment we begin learning what it means to be the new humanity in light of our one Creator.
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