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?

The Sentinel Speaks

Gentle Reign Square

Sermon – September 10, 2017

With hurricane, flood, fire and wind battering our land – and our senses through the media – the question always comes, “Is God trying to tell us something?” The truth is, God is always speaking, but we are a people with hard hearing. The prophet Ezekiel was called to speak to God’s people whether they listened or not; to be a sentinel announcing words of warning and repentance. What might Ezekiel have to say about hurricanes and floods and fire today? What word of warning or hope might we hear from the Sentinel? –

Click here to listen to the sermon

10 Things You Can’t SAY While Following Jesus – Mark Sandlin | God’s Politics Blog | Sojourners

I have a confession to make.  There are a number of things people of faith say to others that drive me insane.  Now, I know that these things are often said with every intent of caring and showing compassion.  I also know they are said because we are not sure what else to say.  (A word of advice – a listening ear is always a better – and safer – than moving lips). I came across this blog which summed up my list pretty well.  You may find it instructive, challenging, even a little annoying.  It is a good exercise in thinking through our faith and avoiding superstition. Any other things Christians say that bother you or trouble you? – Pastor Tim

10 Things You Can’t SAY While Following Jesus – Mark Sandlin | God’s Politics Blog | Sojourners.

Disaster in Oklahoma and the Presence of God

So, I was thinking that not to speak in the face of the devastation of the most recent disaster in Oklahoma is well, unthinkable.  What I share here is in part, some of a letter shared with the congregation – so pardon any redundancy.

The pictures of the devastation wrought by the huge and protracted tornado are heart breaking and even beyond comprehension.  The fact that our own area has listened to sirens warning us of the possibility of similar threats over the last two days brings the destruction closer to home, even if only in our imaginations. “What if….?” What if I were the one trying to imagine where my house used to be.  What if this town was being featured on the news feed.  We might even utter “Thank God it was not here” knowing immediately that our thanks is not really gratitude, but relief.  The images and the possibility of such an event happening means that fear becomes a companion in times like this.

Reminds me of a story you may know:

One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out,  and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger.  They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm.  He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:22-25)
Who is this Jesus; this sleeping presence and stiller of storms?  None other than the God who over and over says to us, “Do not be afraid.” But letting go of the fear can be hard.  Especially when we wonder if it isn’t precisely this God who somehow allows, or even causes these disasters and storms.

I am thinking that soon, if not already, some morally upright, emotionally uptight, self-proclaimed proclaimer of “truth” will announce that this disaster was God’s punishment for something or another.  Listen: No matter what anyone tells you, the God revealed in Jesus Christ and worshiped as the Holy Trinity does NOT punish people with tornadoes — or disease, or earthquake, or any other such thing.  This God does not have a “plan” that called for a tornado to strike Oklahoma yesterday to serve some mysterious purpose.  It is true that tornadoes and earthquakes and such all happen within the order of creation, within the providence of the God who orders all things.  But that does not mean God points a divine magic wand to conjure up the tragedies of life.  They happen as part of the natural course of things. Tornadoes happen because rain falls; cancer happens because cells grow and sometimes, do so out of control. The God I have met in Jesus Christ does not inflict such things, but bears them instead.  You see?
So, where is God in this disaster?  Look at the cross — God is on the cross, suffering, bearing the brokenness and crying out for mercy. Look to the devastation itself to find God in Oklahoma. God is in the rubble, in the cries of the broken and grieving.  The God of the cross is present in the one who races into the rubble to find the person wailing for help and in that very wail.  God is already working to bring new life and resurrection from this disaster – and every other incidence of suffering, pain, grief that happens this day – even if it never makes the news.  God is with you as you tremble with fear and draw your kids close. God is with the people and working through the people.

God be with all who weep and mourn and clean-up today and in all the days ahead. God be with us as we battle fear and seek faith.

Pax Christi,

Pastor Tim Olson