About God....

Thoughts on the Divine

(Especially addressed to those allergic to God)

I frequently run into religious imagery of people or angels adoring God, looking only to God, thinking only of God, and dedicating everything they do to God. Great! ... except that on first glimpse, this may come across looking like (to those of us allergic to traditional Christianity) a fruitcake cult with mindless peons slavishly obeying every word of some guy with a yard-long beard and a halo. Even substituting in the image of some powerful guy (yeah, still stereotypically male) on a throne radiating light, the people looking to him may still look an awful lot like brainwashed, spineless idiots. (Granted, you'd have to be pretty societally jaded to feel this way, but I've been there and sometimes still go there.)

What kind of person or thing would be worth that kind of single-minded attention, adoration, respect? Hard to imagine, sometimes. In these cynical times, we rarely speak of people who adore others, much less God, and the very word "God" itself can make some of us (who have seen the word misused too often) shudder.

But as C. S. Lewis once pointed out (though not in quite these words), we are happy to praise our favorite music, bands, and singers, our favorite TV shows, movie stars, sports heroes, and even interesting computer games. We find it natural and easy to praise or even worship some of these things (most of us know someone who can't bear to miss an episode of some particular TV show, or who goes to every concert by band X). Would God be any less deserving of respect and attention?

Well, if a person honestly did not think God was good (or even existed), then I should hope that said person wouldn't worship an image of something less than holy. Many people can't conceive of God as good and holy, and they know, at heart, that they should only love what is good. Ironically, then, their hearts are loyal to Goodness, which is used as the measure against which some common stereotypical images of God fail.

In fact, I think the big problem here is that too many of us can't picture the goodness of God. Too many have been hurt by reckless people claiming to represent God, and by images of God as a guy in a robe who tosses people into Hell for asking the wrong questions.

....So let's start away from all that, and look instead at good things that people do admire, deep down. Perhaps we can look for the common thread in our human adorations and see how they might apply to the bigger picture.

Ignore wealth, political clout, and physical beauty for now. I think that most people, at some level, are envious but not really admiring of wealth or power. We may admire the hard work someone else used to get wealth (or the perfect body), the wisdom with which the person dispenses with wealth, or we may admire the aesthetics of a beautiful house or body, but the mere ownership doesn't feel truly praiseworthy (except, again, in an aesthetic sense).

So what does seem praiseworthy? Or even just noteworthy? Let's start with small pieces of our lives. A spectacular sunset might cause us to pause in the parking lot and look out in awe across the sky. The scent of a flowering tree might make us pause on the way to work, to take a deep breath. A friendly, tail-wagging dog might make us stop in the middle of the sidewalk to give it a pat. The cry of a lost child might make us forget our shopping and seek him out and offer help. A scene of injustice you see on the street might spur you to finally write a letter to the newspaper, or maybe even call up a few friends to see what you can do on your own. A coworker might unexpectedly offer help during a particularly stressful day --- or you might do the same for someone who seems to be down in the dumps.

Now, ask: What calls to you to take that pause, to stop and appreciate --- or to seek and find and help?

Expand these moments out further, to long periods of time that might last a lifetime. Most of us have heard of extraordinary people who seem to live for some intangible dream. There are journalists who defy persecution and death threats in their pursuit of truth and the destruction of corruption. There are scientists who sacrifice all their time, energy, even health for the pursuit of knowledge and insight. There are novelists, musicians, artists and even game designers(!) who starve, scrimp, and scrape while they try to eke a living out of creating art. Many teachers survive off terrible wages, live in terrible environments, and fight for the futures of their students. There are people who give up all their personal luxuries in order to devote their time to the poor. There are rescuers who risk their lives, or sometimes give them up, to save people in serious trouble. There are even normal, everyday people who sacrifice their own material desires to save for their kids' needs, or their friends' needs, or their neighbors' needs.

What drives them? Sure, one can say they have an "inner drive" to do something. But what is that drive?

Maybe the artist is someone who has seen something astoundingly beautiful, and is driven by the desire to show its beauty to the world; poverty will not deter him. The scientist, mayhap, has fallen in love with the mysterious intricacies of nature; he is so caught up in the joy of seeking, striving, thinking, and finding, that money or power or even the need for sleep could not divert his focus. Meanwhile, perhaps the journalist has seen outrages that demand to be exposed, examined, excised, and healed over; she cannot rest until injustice has been addressed, despite the threats to her life and career. And maybe the teacher has seen children's eyes filled with despair, and, knowing how much better it could be for them, is determined to turn the despair to hope --- despite the depressing statistics, the low pay, the physical and emotional exhaustion.

What could be so moving, so profound, so thrilling that a person can and will withstand low pay, or great physical discomfort, or maybe even threats and torture --- to yet march on with a search for truth, a vocation of teaching others, a dedication to justice, or a mission of compassion and mercy? What could be so powerful? Is it the call of Truth? Of Beauty? Of Love? Or maybe all of these, woven together into a single inseperable whole that we, deep down, recognize as greater than ourselves?

And aren't these people's courage, conviction, and persistence the very things that one might expect of those whose hearts and minds are, as the religious stereotype goes, fastened on God?

God! Yet this is not a dottering old man with a beard demanding worship, nor even a powerful entity sitting on a golden throne to whom angels bow; this is not a mere human with some superhuman powers who bosses us around. The Divine is something greater. It is in the brilliance of the night sky, the magnificence of mathematics; it is in the soothing murmuring of the surf, the purring of a cat, the smile of a child, the laughter of friends --- and the struggle of those who care enough to appreciate, understand, explain, and protect these treasures. Think of infinity; think of the Good that we wish to pursue; think of that which gave us the thirst for truth; think of an Intelligence so magnificent that all this might come from it. Yes, all of this, and more! What secretly speaks to you of things too personal, too wonderful for words? And what secretly calls you to be appreciated, studied, protected, cared for, or rejoiced over?

Look at some of the things that we already hold sacred in our heart, things that urge us to action for their sakes (even at risk to ourselves) ... and see if God is not reflected there already. We do not have to be brainwashed slaves of an unworthy tyrant; we can instead be the willing agents of an awe-inspiring Deity who calls us to do what we already, deep down, love to do.

Back to the main spirituality pages

First version of this page, written as a stream-of-consciousness. Perhaps more powerful in its directness ... but I leave it to those who will find it.

Other notes

  1. Still, we might be left with a conception of God as simply a mindless 'force' of good in the universe. (I am not disputing the existence of such a force, only the equating of God with such a force.) This is not adequate. If good things ultimately come from a mindless, purposeless source, then that renders them meaningless, and impotent. So, if you are able, consider the idea that the sacred aspects of life have, behind them, a single, unimaginably powerful, caring, wise, and knowing intelligence. To imagine a living, thinking, caring mind as the singular source of the most beautiful things we can imagine (and to remember that the source is greater than the products) is to gaze in amazement at infinity. To then believe that such a being wants to help us and speak with us --- in fact, cares deeply about us --- is an exercise in awe. To think of ourselves (small and fallible as we are) as children of that Spirit is to know fear --- of our own ability to affect the world by our imperfect decisions --- and hope, for our own improvement.

  2. We may also be prone to taking our immediate desires and mistaking them for Divine instincts as they are. Those who have seriously undertaken the task of separating selfishness from selflessness knows how difficult it is! It is a mistake to forge ahead with a "calling" if it is tinged with greed or envy or fallible pride ... at least, not without being aware of their possible existence, and having the willingness to battle them or override when they crop up in one's mind (and hey, they probably will). Here are two examples of "good" gone wrong.