What we talk about when we talk about G*d

At this stage of my life, I find myself increasingly seeking simplicity on many questions. While I’ve always been happy to analyze, over-analyze, and problematize important issues about life, language, religious expressions, and the best office supplies, I am now more interested in the irreducible questions at the core of these issues. Right now, I’m wondering what in the world people actually mean when they say “G*d.” And I am deliberately following the Jewish custom of not spelling out The Name, because I believe any conversation about G*d needs to begin by acknowledging we probably don’t actually know what G*d’s name is. Or what G*d’s pronouns are, either. Billions of people use one name, billions more use another, and everyone understands those names differently. I believe that a good-faith effort to understand each other’s “terms of art” can promote religious conversation that is mature, constructive, and, compared to the usual arrogant exchanges, less likely to end in fisticuffs that spoil the party for everyone.

As a child, growing up unchurched in an America where mainstream Christianity dominated the culture, and in a town where church membership was practically a municipal mandate, I was routinely involved in the children’s version of those dialogues. Most of the children in my town were taught to evangelize at all times, and they took that instruction seriously. (I believe incentives were offered, in the form of extra snacks or perhaps a lanyard.) So I was often asked whether I believed in G*d, or what church I went to, or whether I “believed in Jesus Christ” or had “accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.”

I understood the first two questions, but I honestly did not know what the last two questions meant. G*d seemed possible to me, as I had already intuited on my own that the universe was pretty mysterious. I tried hard to understand “infinity” and I felt sometimes that my own consciousness was somehow connected to it. So I had an answer to the first question. I often tried to duck the church question, as really the only choices were Baptist, Methodist, or Catholic, and we didn’t go to any of those places. Then, for a few years, my free-thinking parents would wrestle all five of us children into our Volkswagen bus and drive 45 minutes to the nearest Unitarian Universalist church. We only went for a brief time, but it was enough to give me an answer to the second question, too. Yes, I had a church, but they had never heard of it. I didn’t mind that, either, since it made me feel special.

Is this a “Believe It or Not!©” thing?

But I didn’t know what it meant to “believe in” Jesus, even in the Ripley’s sense, and none of the kids could tell me. I did know the Jesus story. Nice guy; liked children and lambs; believed in love and not fighting. When he’s born, we get presents. Later, in the spring, he dies, and it’s our fault, but a bunny brings him back to life, and we get hard-boiled eggs and new socks.

So I knew the story, but only as a story. I thought that “believing in” someone like Jesus was like “believing in” Santa Claus, who was, I knew, also a fictional character that parents employed as an incentive to good behavior.

Fictional. I understood about fiction, since the first thing they give you to read is a book about Dick and Jane, and they were obviously fictional because they were morons.

So I did not know how to “believe in” a fictional character in the way they seemed to mean. Moreover, not having been enlightened about original sin, I had no idea why I would need a “personal savior” or why, in fact, it should be Jesus, who everyone admitted lived a long time ago.

It wasn’t the children’s fault that this was the extent of their G*d-language; it was all they were taught.

One of my favorite church jokes is the story of a young boy who attends Sunday school every week. One Sunday, the class is discussing nature and the wonders of creation. The teacher asks the boy:

“Now, Justin — what is brown, and lives in a tree, and eats nuts?”

The boy sighs and says, “I guess it is Jesus again.

But it sure sounds like a squirrel.”

Looking back, I understand that the language they used was consistent with the mythic-literal stage of faith most school-aged children inhabit. The Jesus narrative was someone even little kids could latch on to, and so they did.

Childlike wonder is cool. Childlike arguments are not.

But that was then, and this is now, and I believe too many grown-ups discuss religion from a childish worldview that they obstinately protect with arguments devoid of nuance or learning. First of all, not everyone is actually knowledgeable about their religion. Oddly, there is evidence that, on average, non-believers are more educated about religion than believers. But even among knowledgeable people, religious talk often becomes a circular discussion that goes nowhere — no one is enlightened; no one changes their mind; no common ground is acknowledged; no one touches the stars.

You know what I mean: two believers from different traditions try to prove that their team is the right team, and they do it by arguing over their team’s different origin stories, sources of authority, doctrines, worldviews, and usually a list of famous alumni/ae.

They will point to the scoreboards of history, touting the prescience of their prophets (and, usually, radically downplaying the times when their team was dead wrong or committed well-documented atrocities). Team A tosses out “Jihad”; Team B raises with “Crusades.” Hilarity does not ensue.

Or let’s say it’s a believer talking with a non-believer. Too often, each one assumes they know what the other “believes in.” Some non-believers like to assume that the believer’s concept of G*d is no more sophisticated than the famously employed straw man, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. To be sure, as straw men go, the FSM has its uses. But it’s a straw man just the same, and leads the argument into fallacy, where it does not advance the cause of reason at all (unless the goal is to annoy the non-believer).

As another example, a believer might go on the offensive and challenge a nonbeliever to explain how life could have any meaning, or humans any morals, without believing in G*d. The error is that the believer has not inquired whether the atheist might have some other kind of religious faith, as do Buddhists and many cultural Jews and individual seekers who answer “None” on the religious questionnaires. Thus trivialized, the non-believer resorts to trivializing the believer right back, jeering that they can’t even tell right from wrong, let alone act right, without some Big Brother G*d Person watching and judging and getting all wrathful all the time.

Words matter. Some more than others.

Why are we so careless about the basic meaning of the words we use to describe our biggest ideas? We don’t even buy a cup of coffee that casually:

Me, in Starbuck’s:

“I just want a plain, um, coffee…”

“You mean an Americano?”

“I guess.”

“What size?”

“Medium, please.”

“Tall, grande, or vente?”

“I don’t know, dammit. This big.”

I have to point to the freaking cup every time.

These days, we’ll spend precious moments of our lives learning the lingo to ensure we get the right cup of coffee. And there is powerful peer pressure to do so, since if you don’t, you’re holding up the line. But we may not spend any time at all sorting out what either one of us is talking about when we are talking about religion.

How faith claims fail

If I say I’m agnostic, many atheists seem to assume I’m too cowardly to be an atheist, and they sometimes don’t trouble to hide their contempt. Believers, on the other hand, seem to conclude that I’m pitifully asking for even more forceful convincing.

If I say I’m an atheist, believers seem to assume I’m antagonistic to religion, or too prideful to see the truth, or just ill-informed. But perhaps I am trying to convey that even though I sense myself to be part of a larger reality, I have a personal relationship with my own soul and spirit, and I learned my morals in spite of what some theologies teach, rather than because of it.

If I say I believe in something greater than myself, it’s not because I’ve been talked into it by a book or a Sunday school teacher. It’s because throughout my life I have had experiences that seemed to connect me to an infinite and unknowable universe. To this day, I remain open to the possibility that any of those moments represents a chemical glitch; a misfired neuron; an undigested bit of beef. I certainly don’t point to them as any reason you should believe, but I experienced those moments as timeless and holy; numinous, to use Rudolph Otto’s term. So I do not dismiss their importance, knowing that countless other human beings have also experienced ineffable holy moments, for as long as we have been human.

The problem is obvious: How does one describe the indescribable?

Finding the signal in the noise


Unfortunately, from such subjective, indescribable moments have come, throughout history, elaborate narratives to explain them. The narratives are tools to share those images, at first, until they devolve into ways to impose them as the narrative catches on and its power reveals itself. That’s my pocket version of the “History of All Religions”: first, somebody feels something awesome, then they try to talk about it, and then everybody messes it all up.

That’s what’s behind most religious reformation movements — it seems to me they are nearly always promoted as attempts to get back to the purer version of the faith. And yet, as we can see, those purer versions also get complicated, and here we are.

Children will bluntly ask, “Do you believe in G*d?” As adults, we know that’s not a yes or no question. If we are interested in having a fruitful conversation about our ultimate concerns — and I believe it is good for people to do so — we need to ask better questions. When I am getting to know someone, I want to know things like this:

~ What experiences have you had that seem to have transcended the everyday in your consciousness? (Follow-up: “How high were you at the time?” I’m being serious here. There are many ways to explore the mind.)

~If your religious life includes the concept of G*d as an entity, or even a person, how would you describe this entity? Or shall we talk instead about a sense of the universal infinite, that you might call G*d for short?

~ Are there mysteries in the human consciousness that we might fairly call “the soul? How do you account for our sense of self, our capacity to love and to kill, our knowledge that we will die?

I am proposing that our conversations — if we have them at all — could be exploratory rather than defensive; explanatory rather than inflammatory. And I am proposing that by exploring our basic concepts, we may be able to see the complex ones as the irrelevant noise that they usually are.

Search for the source

My wish/advice/desire is that people would stop trying to one-up each other in discussing their beliefs and, instead, listen to how other people describe the ideas most important to them. We would do better to ask, rather than assume; listen, rather than lecture; appreciate, rather than reject. As many wise people have asserted:

Before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes.

Then, when you DO judge them, you’ll be a mile away.

AND you’ll have their shoes.

Go with G*d. Or whoever brought you to this party.

Preaching courage in the face of absurdity. Editor of Real Life, Real/igion — join us for the newsletter Real/igion for the Rest of Us.

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