THE BLOG
10/06/2015 09:47 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2016

Where is God?

Doug McKinlay via Getty Images

Where is God?

It seems like a child's question, a theological query during bedtime prayers or following a holy day at church or synagogue. Usually, the first answer we learned was simple, certain, and reliable: God is in heaven.

But "Where is God?" is not really a child's question. It is a question many people are asking right now - one that often arises in the wake of troubling events, such as Roseburg, Aurora, or Sandy Hook. It was asked as the World Trade Center collapsed, as people drowned in New Orleans, died from Ebola, are tortured by terrorists and warlords, or murdered for the crime of being different. Where is God in the midst of this mess? There appears no reliable answer, and no reply completely trustworthy or logical. This theological question is roiling around a chaotic globe, and is being asked by so many people, that it may have emerged as one of the most consequential questions of our time. And it is a question that we have to answer for ourselves because the answers once proposed no longer seem to make sense.

For centuries, most religions taught that God was in Heaven. There existed a three-tiered universe with God at the top in Heaven with angels, us muddling about here on Earth, and Satan and demons below us in Hell always presenting the possibility of eternal punishment. Heaven was far away and the God who lived there an inaccessible divinity - a King, Ruler, Master, Judge, or Father. That God needed mediators, such as Jesus, Mary, and the saints, the church, prophets and preachers, sacraments, dogma, commandments, rules, and rituals, to communicate with us that we might learn and do what is good, right, and holy. The distant God served as the cornerstone of much of western religious life, and provided untold millions through the ages with meaning and comfort.

Yet there were always troublesome implications to it all: Was God only watching us, like a spiritual voyeur? Was God a puppet master, making us do all these things to conform to some mysterious divine plan? Was God a judge, ready at a moment's notice to punish us? Was God a disappointed parent whose love we sorely tested?

Over the last few decades, more and more people have concluded that such a divinity is absurd, looking either powerless or like a monster. What good is God-in-Heaven when the problems are here? Why won't a benevolent God stop human suffering and fix everything? Where is that God, the one who is supposed to love and care? The perfectly logical response to these questions - especially now - is that there is no God. Thus, humanism, agnosticism, atheism, and post-theism are all on the rise.

For it seems clear: a distant God will no longer do.

And this is the point where trends and polling data about religion become confusing. It is true that the number of those opting for no God have increased. But larger numbers have left church, synagogue, and other forms of conventional religion (often calling themselves "spiritual but not religious") while still insisting that they believe in God. And some (perhaps many) continue to identify as "religious" but no longer maintain either traditional practices or a theology of the distant God. The idea of God is not the problem. People are not necessarily rejecting God. Rather, they are rejecting a particular conception of divinity while, at the same time, attempting to relocate God in their lives.

Where is God? Not up "there" in heaven. Rather, God is here. With us.

Often unnoticed or misunderstood by commentators and even some religious leaders, a theological shift is happening around us, a revolution of divine nearness. People use a new spiritual vocabulary to describe it - God is in the sunset, at the seashore, in the gardens we plant, at home, in the work we do, in the games we watch and play, in the stories that entertain us, in good food and good company, when we eat, drink, and make love. In the midst of the problems and challenges we face, the distant God is being replaced by a more intimate presence. Millions of people are experiencing God as more personal and accessible than ever before. This is not a romanticized greeting card divinity, but it is a God who is robustly present in the chaos, suffering, and confusion surrounding us, the Spirit who invites us to save the planet and make peace with the whole human family, and who is a companion and partner in creating a hope-filled future. This is the God that many are reaching toward, realizing that a far-off God will not do. A God who is not with us cannot be for us. The only God that makes sense is a God of compassion and empathy who shares the life of the world.

This is the grounded God, the presence at the center of a spiritual revolution growing from the ground up, an earthy faith that insists on the importance of the planet and its people. Instead of living in a disconnected three-tiered universe, we are discovering that we inhabit a dazzling sacred ecology where God dwells with us. God is in nature and with our neighbor, whose "face" can be seen in both creation and human community.

This piece was inspired by Diana Butler Bass: Grounded: Finding God in the World. A Spiritual Revolution available here.