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What Does 'God' Mean?

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WHAT DOES GOD MEAN
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When did you give up God? Or did you?

I started doubting at an early age. My problem is that I never seemed able to access this God of love and mercy that the minister talked about. In the pain of my childhood and adolescence, my prayers seemed to go no higher than the ceiling. When your momma leaves and your daddy drinks and your guts are spilling out in anguish, what good is a God who says, "Look, I just work here"? I mean, what good is a God if you can't see Him, hear Him -- if you can't converse, for heaven's sake? Maybe there isn't a God at all, I concluded.

I've been a minister myself for over 25 years now, but that doesn't mean I've given up wondering about God. In fact, I confess that when I use the word God, I have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about. And yet, paradoxically, I've staked everything there -- with this Mystery that I cannot comprehend with my finite mind.

The part yearns for the whole. The incomplete, for the complete. The self, for that which is beyond the self. In all cultures and in all times, this yearning is felt. We give names to the unnamable. We say the Tao, we say Atman, we say Jehovah, we say King of Kings and Lord of Lords, we say the Goddess, we say Beloved, we say She Who Is, we say the Ground of Our Being, we say Father, we say One Whose Name I Cannot Know, we say Holy One, we say Higher Power, we say the Divine, we say the Infinite, we say Ein Sof, we say Oversoul, we say Allah, we say Yahweh, we say Gaia. "As a deer pants for brooks of water, so my self longs for You, O God," says the Hebrew scripture. We thirst, we are desperate for that which gives life.

At the same time that our spirit yearns, we are in a world in which truth is known through the senses, through observation and experimentation, through logic. We will not accept what we cannot see. "Show me," we doubting Thomases say. "Let me place my hand in the wound. Then I'll believe." And rightly so. Haven't we spent the last 400 years ridding ourselves of superstitious nonsense? No more hanging of witches, thank you very much.

But what about the yearning? It's still there. It's not answered by science alone. And so we reach out beyond what we can know -- and wonder if our reaching makes any difference at all, if the Great Mystery gives a flip about us, personally. About the pain and injustice in the world. About the future of this despoiled planet.

We cry out, in our most vulnerable moments. The child is very ill. Or the lover has deserted us for our best friend. Or the diagnosis is pending. "If I ever needed you, God, I need you now. If you exist, please answer. I'm on the other end of the line. I'm listening, God, for once in my life I'm really listening." But our pleading gives way to silence. We get nothing. Nada, nada, nada. So we may just decide there is no God. There can be no proof of God's existence, we say. True enough.

It's painful when we become existentially aware that God really is dead, as Nietzsche told us back in the 19th century. A man before his time, Nietzsche died on the cusp of the 20th century, and now we know the power of his prophecy. The disappearance of an all-powerful divine presence, The One That Is In Charge, has left us empty and anxious. Having outgrown the God of our childhoods -- the Santa Claus God, the Good Parent God -- some of us never find a deity more in keeping with our adult experience -- or as far as that goes, the contemporary experience.

Paul Tillich, one of the greatest theological minds of this century, used to be challenged by doubters from time to time. When someone would say, "I don't believe in God," Tillich would typically respond, "Tell me about this God you don't believe in." As the individual spelled out his problems with the Old Man in the Sky, Tillich would simply say, "Well, I don't believe in that God, either."

So what do we do, then, with this void? How do we address our longing?

Perhaps the mystics can help us. Their message has been essentially the same, in all times and in all faith traditions. They are anathema to church hierarchy, for they are the heretics to theological certainty. They say that words and beliefs are mere idolatry, that we have to enter into the presence of the Holy. They say that prophets are flashes of light that point to the Source of all light. They say it is good to not know, to just sit with the emptiness. It is good to be innocent, to be a beginner, for the Holy One is beyond words. And where is the Holy? Everywhere and nowhere. "The world is shot through with the grandeur of God," says poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Listen to voices from various traditions. The Buddha said, "There is an unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed; therefore, escape is possible from the world of the born, the originated, the created, the formed." From the Indian scripture, the Upanishads: "There is a light that shines beyond all things on earth, beyond us all, beyond the highest, beyond the very highest heaven. This is the Light that shines in our heart." From the ancient Jewish scripture, the Kabbalah: "The essence of divinity is found in every single thing -- nothing but it exists. Since It causes everything to be, no thing can live by anything else. It enlivens them." From the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart: "God's nothingness fills the entire world; His something though is nowhere."

How can we then relate to this God, then, that is nothing less than What Is? We can't set up a statue and think that statue is God. We can't find a person -- whether it is Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed or whatever -- and say that person is God. We can't find a holy book or a piece of music or a mountain and say that is God. We are the finite speaking of the infinite, and so we cannot name the Nameless.

Those who insist on remaining in the literal dimension must either cling unquestioningly to the Father God of our ancestors or simply reject God entirely. God has stepped out of personhood, and is not on "our side" in war or football games, and will not save us if we trash the planet. That God is stone dead, a dusty relic.

But that doesn't mean that the numinous dimension has disappeared from existence. When I accepted my first call to ministry, a dear friend sent me a small bronze plaque, which remains prominently in my study: Vocatus atque non, vocatus deus aderit. "Bidden or not bidden, God is present." We don't have to invoke the presence of God, we don't have to wonder where God is. God just IS.

What we can do is to be fully present in each moment of our living, receptive to the Light, which hints of the fire that permeates and animates all that exists. I find this Light in strange and wonderful places -- in ordinary and extraordinary days of my living. I find it in the taste of cornbread, fresh from the oven and layered with sweet butter. I find it in the faces of children, who have not as yet learned to hide their delight or their pain. I find it when I get up just before dawn on Sunday morning and walk out on the front porch and look upon the morning light just beginning to creep through the branches of the two huge trees that stand there blessing and guarding me. And yes, I have found it also in the terrifying roar of a hurricane. I have found it in the voices of the dying, who are apt to say, "I'm all right with this." "The world is shot through with the grandeur of God."

This is not to say prayer is to be foregone, because it is in our heart's opening that we become known even to ourselves, and then sometimes a path is revealed, a path to unity with others and with God. Scripture may be helpful. Poetry. Meditation. My spiritual director is a nun, a brilliant academic who speaks six languages, and she tells me she "prays without ceasing." She is in constant communion with her God. On the other hand, I have never felt any comforting presence during prayer. We are variously gifted, or not, spiritually speaking, so each of us must find our own way. There are many windows in the Divine house, many sources for light to shine through. In my experience, it's the letting go that is the critical part.

Let me clarify. The spiritual life is not about belief or unbelief -- it's all about letting go of ego. It doesn't matter whether we count beads or sit in meditation or pray or do none of these. It's about taking self out of center and putting something bigger than self in the center. It's about relinquishment. It's understanding that our highest calling is simply to be a conduit of the Holy, in whatever incarnation is right for the moment.

Who is God? What is God? I don't know, I just work here. In my own spiritual life, I have been so lost I couldn't imagine ever being found. I have found myself in the darkest of nights. I have been pushed into stillness and into emptiness. I have known what it means to let go even of God. That's when the encounter begins, out of the void, when I become raw and naked, innocent enough to receive. That's when I stumble uncertainly into right paths. There is a Light beyond all things.