On my walk to synagogue last Saturday, as I was getting ready to recite prayers in a foreign tongue, I suddenly thought to myself, “Maybe it’s time to give up on God!” I stopped for a moment and looked up, waiting for the lighting to strike.
But no, wait! I don’t mean give up on the being! No, no – not the concept, or the spirit, or the deity, or whatever you want to call it. Just the word, “G-O-D.” Maybe it’s time to drop the word. Because I think maybe it’s not doing us any good, anymore.
It sort of pains me to say this out loud. It pained me to think it. Because, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I am super into God. I mean, really – I’m a rabbi, for God’s sake! God is the organizing principle in my consciousness, the thing which gives my life meaning. The attempt to draw closer to God has pretty much been the central quest of my life for years. To be honest, even to think or say the word, “God” fills me with a sense of peace and strength. So to suggest that this word, which is so precious to me, should maybe retired from common usage, is not a thought I come by easily.
In fact, I’d prefer just the opposite. I wish everyone I knew felt totally comfortable using the word. Okay, here’s how I’d like it to work: I think it would be great if the word “God” was like a reference point for our all of our various attempts to have a similar kind of experience. We would all understand one another when we referred to this type of experience with that ever-so-familiar three-letter word. So the word would serve as a holding place, a way of pointing to something we couldn’t quite say. But we would all use the same word because we would recognize that there was something common in all of our experiences. So instead of “X,” or “whatever,” or ______, we would all fill in the blank with the word “God.” And that way, we could all talk about our “searches for God,” or “the comfort we drew from God,” or the ways that sometimes we felt the “absence of God” in our lives, and we would have a common language for that fundamental human experience that people sometimes call their “spiritual life.” When someone else was talking about God, even if they actually had very different particular beliefs, we would still feel a sense of recognition, and that would help us feel connected to this person. “I know just what this person must mean,” we might think, “I feel that way, too, sometimes. Or something similar, anyway. It’s hard to describe, of course, but let’s just agree to call it God.”
But whether I like it or not, that is just not the way the word God is used in the society I live in. Not usually, anyway. The word God, in our culture, is often taken as a particular reference to a particular image of a particular deity from the mythology of particular religions. In the most extremely particular version of this image, it is a huge old man in the sky with a long white beard who created the world and now sits around judging and punishing people. I mean, I suppose it’s possible that this may actually be what God means to some religious people. It is definitely what it means to many secular people. And so the word has become divisive – maybe the most divisive word in the English language. Especially when it’s used in that go-to question: “Do you believe in God?” And then it sounds like it just comes down to whether you’re with the Big Bearded Guy or against him. Pick a side.
Now, I will tell you that I, who consider myself a deeply religious person, certainly do not “believe in God” in that sense. And honestly, I really don’t think most religious people do. In fact, I don’t think any serious theologian ever has. Now, don’t get me wrong, many people of faith believe that God created the world, or that God wrote (or inspired the writing) of the Bible, or that God watches over us all and answers our prayers, or all kinds of other things you might not believe. But ask one of them sometime if that God actually looks like that big fella painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I’ll bet you the vast majority will shoot you a puzzled look, and quickly say, “No! Of course not! No one knows what God really looks like!” In fact, many of them will tell you firmly that God has no form at all.
And then there are those deeply spiritual people who might say they “believe in God,” but describe their God as a mysterious force or process operative in the universe; or a certain transcendent quality (like love, or beauty, or truth, or all of these combined); or the oneness and harmony of the universe; or simply: everything, all that is, is God. So when these people answer “Yes, I believe in God,” have they chosen a side? Are they religious or are they secular? (Ugh, maybe we need to drop those words, too, actually, now that I mention it…)
On the other hand, ask many secular people if they believe in God, and they will first flatly say, “No!” and then quickly add, “I mean, I believe in something.” And then often their “something” will sound a lot like one of the “spiritual” descriptions above. Or maybe it won’t. Maybe they’ll say, “No, I don’t believe in anything like that, but I do believe in the essential goodness of human beings and the undeniable obligation to fight for justice in the world.” Or, “I do believe that nature is magnificent and I feel a sense of wonder and awe when I walk though a forest or stare at a night sky.” Or, “I do believe in the transcendent beauty of humanity, as expressed through our creativity: art, industry, and technology.” Or simply, “I do believe that life is deeply meaningful.”
So in my ideal world, “God” would be the word we used to refer to all of those descriptions – the religious, the spiritual, and the secular – of some feature of reality that is more than just the material world, but feels just as real, and is hard to describe. And precisely because it is indescribable, we would use a given word to refer to it. And so even though we would be referring to different things, even though I might be referring to an all-knowing creator and you were referring to the mysterious spirit you felt coursing through nature, we would each know that there was something familiar in what the other was saying. Of course we would each still have our own language for naming or describing the particulars of our experiences and, if we wanted to, we could talk about those differences. But “God” would be the word we used to refer to the shared experience. This is the world I’d like to live in, because it is one in which I could share about my spiritual life with those around me, the way I share about my intellectual life, my professional life, maybe sometimes my emotional life.
But that is not the world I live in. In my world, the word “God” is so loaded, it carries so much baggage, that it makes people uncomfortable. It’s often used either aggressively, as if to say, “I’ve got the answer, and you ought to believe what I believe!”, or dismissively, as if to say, “What you believe is dumb and primitive! Get over it already!” And so many of us, understandably, would prefer it not be used at all in most settings. When the word is mentioned at a dinner table or a party, we wince, hoping the moment will pass without too much awkwardness or conflict. “God” has become a fighting word.
And at that point, maybe the word has lost its usefulness to us. Once language creates confusion and discord instead of communication and understanding, it has ceased to serve its purpose. If all it does is and pit us against one another, maybe it’s just time to retire the word “God.”
But I gotta say, I think it’s a shame to lose it. Because we can stop saying the word, but I don’t think we’re going to stop having spiritual experiences. That just seems to be a part of what makes us human. So it would be a pity if we had no language to talk about this part of our lives with anyone outside of a small circle of people who think exactly like us.
Maybe that’s what we need – a new kind of religious language. Or at least a new word.
But in the meantime, I must admit, I’ll probably keep using the word “God.” I just have to be able to talk about this mysterious thing I’m trying to find, and for now, I don’t have a better word for it. But I’m open to suggestions.
How about this? Let’s crowd-source! I hereby announce a contest, for the ‘Best New Way to Talk About God.’ Entries accepted below. The winner gets to be the Messiah. Or, at least, my hero.
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