I Don’t Believe in (G)od

I recognize that for a pastor’s blog, the title of this article might seem like click-bait. I cannot claim total innocence on that front. I can, however, say more precisely that I do not have faith in the (G)od discussed in current debates about whether God is real or not.

I have friends who are self-described atheists. They ask me to prove that God exists as an objective reality. Some measurable, mathematical, physical accounting must be made in order for God to be tangible; to be real. I understand the request. I also have friends, colleagues, and people of faith who want me to make a “case for God” because they are absolutely certain that objective arguments exist and can be made. They want me to help. I understand the desire.

Writ larger than my own world, there is the neo-atheist movement of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens et. al. who assert that with no objective proof of God, religion is a childish means of manipulation or an ignorant means of explaining big questions. On the other side, there is the Creation Museum in Kentucky which takes on the challenge and builds an objective argument for the existence of God, offering explanations and theories that point to a creator who is an objective player in the grand scheme of the universe.tillich

My problem is that, if I am to talk about God in the most general terms (which is not really my wheel house – I’m a preacher and speak of God in particularities, mostly), I don’t believe in the God creationists and fundamentalists are sure exists. Nor do I believe in the objectively provable God that atheists demand.

Paul, preaching to the Greeks in Athens, points to the gods they seek and worship saying,  “(God) is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’.” (Acts 17:27-28) The very fact that we are points relentlessly to a ground for that being. Paul’s roots in Hebrew scripture, which posits the name of God as the mysterious, I Am (Exodus 3:14) lead him to a God larger than objective reality.

St. Augustine said, “If you understood him, it would not be God.” Existence itself rests beyond our finite limits. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.” Objectifying God makes a lower case god, who is, in fact, largely about manipulation and denial as the atheists insist and as the fundamentalists forget.

In the fact of our existence and the consciousness that our existence is beyond us, Paul Tillich points to God as being: “The fact that man never is satisfied with any stage of his finite development, the fact that nothing finite can hold him, although finitude is his destiny, indicates the indissoluble relation of everything finite to being-itself.”

The reawakened contemplative tradition is reconnecting with this understanding of God through the teaching of people like Father Richard Rohr, who says, “This utterly grounds our deeper notion of God as Being itself, rather than God as a Being, alone and apart.”

David Bentley Hart is a professor of the Philosophy of Religion, and an astute (if not sometimes a little arrogant) voice for this classic understanding of God. He asks this question of those who demand – on both sides of the question – an objective proof of God. How, after all, could the existence or nonexistence of some particular finite being among other beings provide an ultimate answer to the mystery of existence as such?” ― David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

As to what this has to do with Jesus Christ, well, that is a word for another day. I will say that this deeper, non-objective understanding of God leads to an encounter with Jesus Christ that is far beyond what the materialism and objective world can offer. That Christ is the incarnation not of some objective force within creation, but of the ground of being itself — well, that is ultimate good news.

Let me leave you with a quotation from Hart which summarizes what I’m getting at much better than I can manage: “God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being.”
― David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

Pax Christi, Tim Olson

 

copyright © 2019 Timothy V. Olson

 

 

The Heron

“Just walk down to the end of the parking lot and you’ll see the path toward the lake. Follow the grass path around the lake. They keep it closely mowed… mostly. You’ll be fine.” These were my directions to find a place to walk while at the abbey for a couple of days. So, I followed my nose to the end of the parking lot. There was the well mown path that headed to the water. I was on my way, on a beautiful morning.

As I rounded the first curve of the lake, I was absorbed in my own thoughts on a solitary exercise. When I looked up, I found I was not alone. There, maybe fifty yards ahead, was a heron standing at the water’s edge (Great Blue Heron, perhaps – but I’m no ornithologist). The majestic, graceful creature stood looking in my direction, then began to walk up toward the path. As I got closer, the heron took flight – effortless, powerful. As the long neck and head stretched forward and the long legs trailed, I could, for just a second, see the prehistoric ancestors of this bird – pterodactyl and such. The great creature landed on the path farther down the line. As I approached again, it winged its way onto a stout tree nearby. Then again, to the water’s edge at a place where the path was less visible – and I was unsure where it turned. The heron, my companion, flew off into the trees ahead. I followed. There I found the  neatly mowed path once again.

“Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars and genes from the sea creatures, and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin in the radiant tapestry of being.”

Lots of folks might see God in this encounter. Many would conclude that the Heron had been sent to guide me – its presence would be all about me. I don’t buy that for a minute.  More likely, it was fleeing my presence. I had probably interrupted its breakfast. Too often we think that creature and creation are all here for us. We’re terrible narcissists in that way. We don’t see that the Heron exists all on its own, with its own communion with God. It would have been there had I explored the path or not. We need to be careful seeing every butterfly and bird; every tree and sunrise as a message from God just for us. In the same way, we need to see that the resources of creation are more than consumable resources out here for me and you to use.

The gift this beggar received from this beautiful creature was in the transformation of my solitary, self-absorbed walk into a journey with something; dare I say, with someone? The One who created us both? From the moment that bird flew off, I was unable to be alone. The little white and purple flowers were all around. A hawk crossed the path ahead of me. A big green bug in the path and dozens of other creatures were all around. These creatures, made and beloved of God, are not pests, weeds, interlopers or guests in my world. We are, as St. Francis would say, brothers and sisters. Maybe, if we humans would see this more clearly, we would stop, or at least slow, our drive to be the most invasive, viral species to bring death to the planet.

Perhaps this is what theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson is getting at when she says, “Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars and genes from the sea creatures, and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin in the radiant tapestry of being.”(1) We are called to love God with our whole being and called to love our neighbor as ourselves. Who is our neighbor? Certainly, as the Good Samaritan story tells us, it is anyone in need. Perhaps any-thing in need. On that day, my neighbor was a heron – and hundreds of God’s creations too numerous to count. It is so every day, if we will look, listen and be aware of the neighborhood of life. That is this Beggar’s Take.

© 2018 – Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved
(1) Johnson, Elizabeth A., Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (Bloomsbury Continuum) Kindle Edition

What Belongs to God

LINK: Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22 – 20th Sunday after Pentecost; October 22, 2017

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God,” Jesus says. (Matthew 22:21) A coin became a prop in this story and it bore the image of Caesar. So, in a way, it belonged to Caesar. The question then becomes, what bears the image of God? Well, according to Genesis 1:26, we do! Imagine what the world might be like if we all gave to God what belonged to God – gave ourselves without reservation. Scripture is full of the miraculous ways God takes what we give and turns into something more than we could imagine. Remember the two fish and five loaves? Remember one human death on a cross? What if you gave to God what belonged to God?

Malcontents for Jesus

The news this morning heralded a new high in lows. A lone gunman had broken the U.S. record for a single killing spree: 58 dead, more than 500 wounded. As if I am watching some distorted, despicable, dystopian game, I wonder how long it will be before the record is broken again. There is something deeply wrong with the world.

We are more divided than ever along lines drawn by race, gender, sexuality, political party. Hate and vitriol control even the most mundane conversations. Social media, which was to bring people together, instead tears us apart. There is something deeply wrong with the world.

processional cross

The normal response to something being broken is to “fix it.” So, most discussions about the problems of the world jump to fixing this or that problem, then it will all be well. A little more data, some innovative thinking and we’ll be good to go. Like a car with a bad starter, it just needs a new part. Unfortunately, we are one part of the whole system known as “the world.” We are so enmeshed with what is causing the suffering we can’t just “fix it,” because fixing “it” means fixing us, and we can’t even see the problem clearly.

There is an old Hasidic saying that says, “To a worm in a jar of horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.” The worm doesn’t know anything but horseradish, so what is to change? Our world is shaped by violence, hate, judgment, competition, a sense of scarcity, greed and a hundred other things that are not just around us, but in us. The cross of Christ is the ultimate unveiling of the world’s foolishness. The ways of the world murdered God! God gave love, and the world (we) hung love on a tree to die.

Eugene Peterson, in his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, says that the first step in becoming a disciple who follows Jesus Christ is to wake up and realize that “the world” that shapes us and causes us so much pain is broken. We have broken it and we are clueless as to how to fix it. He says:

“The first step toward God is a step away from the lies of the world. It is a renunciation of the lies we have been told about ourselves and our neighbors and our universe.”

Discipleship begins when we turn away from the lies of the world and toward the life-giving promises of God in Christ. This is the classic definition of repentance – to turn away from the wrong way to the right way. We need to be malcontents in this world – unsatisfied with the way things are and committed to what can be in Christ. We renounce the world to embrace Christ.

This turning can hurt, at first. It means we leave behind what we know – like the rich man to whom Jesus said “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) The man couldn’t do it. His wealth was too important to him. But, it was that piece of the world that kept him from God’s reign.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this:

“Grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

The thing is, once we make the turn, we come to see that all it really cost us is our captivity to the violent, death-dealing lies of the world. What it grants is life in Christ, the reign of God, the peaceable kingdom. As the cross reveals the deathly nature of the world, the resurrection of Jesus reveals that the way of Christ is the only way to life, in this moment and in all future moments. How do you know this for sure? God has raised only Christ from the dead. Caesar, Washington, Lincoln, Rockefeller and everyone else is still dead. So, who are you going to follow? Me? I’m a malcontent for Jesus.

 

copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2017

Christian Tourists

Every year I spend time asking folks what they would like to learn about in the adult classes I teach. Every year one of the most requested topics is: “How do I live my faith in daily (real) life?” Part of me rejoices at this, because it is what people who profess to follow Jesus should be asking about. Another part of me sighs. I sigh because, while I have graduate degrees is divinity, theology, and preaching, none of these make me an expert on following Jesus. As a pastor, I’m on the same road you travel when it come to living my faith. In some cases, I may be down the road another exit or so, but I’m still working at it right with you. I also sigh because I know that folks are not always going to like the answer to the question.

This week, in our adult class (which meets at 7:15 PM Wednesdays) we looked at how we live in a world that has trained us to demand quick fixes, easy formulas, and immediate results. Eugene Peterson, in his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, observes:

Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments. It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. (16)

The result of the instant, quick fix mindset is that we “play” at living our faith. We make it an extracurricular activity, an option. The phrase, “I’m spiritual, but not religious” is all the rage today. Frankly, I worry that if I hear it again, I’m going to be sick. It is not that I don’t understand that the empty traditions and rote practice of a religion can rob it of its spiritual center. I get that. But, I suspect most often this is another way of saying, “I want to be spiritual in a quick and easy way that does not intrude on my life.”

Peterson thinks that the problem we have in this world where “busy” is the stock answer to the question, “How are you?” is that we have become Christian tourists:

Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure. (16)

We go to church, when we have time, to fit in a little spirituality to our already planned and scripted lives. Like planning a trip to the lake, we plan to set aside time to go look at the stained glass and strange people you can find at church. We leave no more (maybe less) affected than a trip to Mt. Rushmore or an amusement park. Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt.

Following Jesus is not, however, a tourist opportunity. The two words used to describe followers of Jesus most often are disciple and pilgrim. The first denotes a long-term relationship between master and teacher. Peterson notes: Disciple (mathētēs) says we are people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. (17) Wow, living faith in daily life takes a lifetime devoted to Jesus!

The second word, pilgrim, Peterson points out, “tells us we are people who spend our lives going someplace, going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way, Jesus Christ. We realize that “this world is not my home” (17)

Following Jesus, which is what living your faith in daily life is all about, is not a quick, easy, instant process. It is a long-term relationship with a master, a teacher, a Lord named Jesus to whom we apprentice ourselves to be trained to be human beings, created in God’s image.

In the end, living or faith everyday is about loving God and loving others. It is about a lifelong journey that takes us deeper and deeper into the very heart of God.

love shoes

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book Being Disciples describes the daily living of Christians, the following of Jesus:

 

 “We follow him, not simply to the ends of the earth, to do his work and echo his service; we follow him to be next to the heart of the Father.” (13)

There are no shortcuts in the journey of discipleship. It is not a quick trip. But, God promises it to be a blessed and joyful journey. Just look who you get to follow!

 

copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2017

Following Jesus: Easy or Hard?

A man once told me that following Jesus never presented him any struggle. I was impressed. I mentioned that things like loving my enemies and forgiving people who had wronged me always gave me pause. He explained that those things were not the key parts of following Jesus. Then he proceeded to tell me about a Jesus he followed who I never encountered in Sunday School. Miraculously, his Jesus had never challenged him to think or act differently; never had changed his mind about anything. His very personal Jesus would be easy to follow.

This encoutner always makes me think of the story in Mark (10:17 ff) where a rich man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus tells him to follow the commandments – no murder, no lying, no adultery, honor his parents and the like. The man says, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” My (rather loose) translation of the Greek is, “That’s it? That’s easy-peasy ! Haven’t you got anything else?” The man is thinking that this Jesus is offering a pretty easy path. So, Jesus adds, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (10:21) Suddenly, the path to eternal life gets steeper, longer, and harder for the man. He turns back, unable to follow.

I would think that most folks, if we are honest, would say that following Jesus seems hard. There seems to be a lot of rules, demands, and requirements. The way of Jesus calls us to give up things we love; to change when we like things just the way they are. Like the rich man, we all have an idea about where we won’t follow Jesus. It is just too hard.

But what if we are looking at it all wrong?

wrench

One day, when I was a kid, I went out to the workbench in the garage and got busy building or fixing something (I don’t recall what it was). The task at hand called for me to drive a nail into a piece of wood. So, I found a nail and a tool for pounding – my father’s pipe wrench. I was wacking away at the nail, making very little progress, when my dad appeared and asked me, “What the heck are you doing?” I stated the obvious. “Pounding a nail.” He asked how it was going, and I had to admit that it was not going very well at all. He grabbed the wrench, handed me a hammer. I drove the nail in easily. He the told me never to hammer things with a wrench. He was a wise man. I was making something easy very hard.

Eugene Peterson, in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, insists that following Jesus is actually the easy way. What makes it seem hard is that we have been living the hard way for so long. We’ve been driving nails with a pipe wrench or screw driver and a hammer seems weird. He says, “In the course of Christian discipleship we discover that without Christ we were doing it the hard way and that with Christ we are doing it the easy way. It is not Christians who have it hard, but non-Christians.” (Peterson, Eugene H. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Kindle Locations 1427-1428). IVP Books. Kindle Edition.)

We are created in the image of God, but we spend lots of time fashioning ourselves into our own or someone else’s image. We have been shown what it means to be a human living in the image of God in Jesus Christ. We would rather find our own way, follow our own path instead of walking in his footsteps. We receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to stir our hearts to love and serve, to orient us in this world to the hope of God’s future. We ignore the voice within and listen to the voices of the world calling us to forsake our birthright. We are surrounded by a creation and creatures all dedicated to the same God, but, we treat them all as personal possessions.

Jesus beckons us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) 

It is the way of the world that kills, creates violence, and robs us of meaning and purpose. We were built for peace, the world drags us into conflict. We were built to love, but the world divides and conquers us through hate. We were built to live in community with others, the world calls us to go it alone.

We were made to follow Jesus. Maybe we just need to stop resisting; stop wacking nails with wrenches.

 

 

copyright © 2017, Timothy V. Olson