In the mindset formed during my childhood in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, beliefs had especially to do with religion. Belief in God was the big one, though it was not something my family talked about. We went to church on Sunday, lived our lives during the week, and went back to church seven days later. If you had asked me as a teenager if I believed in God, I would have thought it a slightly odd question, but I would have answered, “Sure.” I had a vague understanding that God was something important to my parents, to other people who went to church, and to the ministers who gave sermons and chaperoned youth groups. But I don’t remember talking too much about God at school or around the neighborhood. Belief in God was an intuited, subconscious, installation of ideas, images, attitudes, and habits that had something to do with how we lived. The subtleties of salvation, fulfillment, theology, and justice were not yet visible to my imagination.
Today, 55 years since my last Sunday School lesson and 45 years since my last exam at a school of theology, the word belief has become unpleasantly barnacle encrusted. So many strange ideas attach to belief words, it has sunken to the bottom of my list of useful tools for almost any discussion, especially a discussion about God. “Do you believe in God?” (Are you a good person?) “Do you believe the witness?” (Is he credible?) “Do you believe in America?” (Are you patriotic, etc.?) “Do you believe in the Theory of Evolution?” (Do you not trust the Bible?) “Do you believe in yourself?” (Are you self-actualizing?) Beliefs are an unruly hodgepodge and I simply run the other way. I want to scream, for example, “Stop! ‘Do you believe in God’ is a crazy-making question.” It begs the question of God and the moment the question is asked, the fog descends on everything that follows.
So what exactly is the “Question of God”? This is an interesting question.
To begin with, god is just a word, albeit a word with a tremendous load of implicit meaning and a remarkable charge of power. Because the word god is such a complex container of meanings, I simply have to unpack the word to even see its contents. People invest the word god with primitive images of the powers that influence human affairs, subconscious images of a better life, hopes for a more just future, aspirations for greatness, a yearning for self-transcendence, and a means of both escaping and discovering deeper meaning within the humdrum of daily living. On further reflection, it becomes clear that the word god has something to do with power, wellbeing, the future, selfhood, becoming, mundaneness, and depth. But what?
For a couple of decades now, I’ve noticed that “God-talk” and belief words have set off small explosions of discomfort and anger inside me. The word God (with the capital G) is used so glibly, so abstractly, and sometimes so maliciously by so many, I just want to divorce myself from it, take a small flat in the city, and lock myself away from anyone who has religiously loose lips. For my own safety, I want to maintain a safe distance from anyone who uses God as a wedge word in politics, a litmus text of personal morality, or a calling card at my front door. What’s going on here?
Discomfort and anger seem like strange reactions to God-talk and belief words unless, like me, you’re a person who grew up in a nice family that went to church, believed in God, valued peace and calm, and hid from the conflicts and emotions that were the content of real life and honest relationships. I grew up pretending to be happy, acting as if I were interested in piano lessons and Boy Scouts. With a studied smile on my face, I largely disconnected from what I was actually feeling. As an adult, I lived a story about myself that bore little relationship to the deep, hidden content of my own interior world. I went through the motions of a narrative disconnected from my own inner reality. And I wondered why I was disconnected from my family, my work, and others—including the church and God, whatever that means. I was past fifty before I began to actually experience both of my worlds, my external engagements and my internal emotions, relationships with others and relationships with myself. I began to see both the visible habits and patterns of my life and sense the invisible feelings and attitudes that touched and influenced all of my engagements and behaviors.
I also began to realize that I was not at all clear about the relationship between the word God, the ideas that the word God represents, and the interior experiences—the emotions—that I was experiencing. I began to notice that I experienced forms of anger—impatience, frustration, annoyance—when someone used God language and belief words with no indication of their internal experience. I was angry with people who used religious words without emotion. I was frustrated when I heard the words but could not feel the experience beneath them. Hearing religious language with no grounding in interior experience took me back to a childhood when I did things and said things like a good boy, with no awareness of the rich inner world beneath my own skin. I had lived a story divorced from my inner life for so many years I was supersensitive to people who used words that didn’t seem to connect with either them or me. I remembered my own “happy talk” as a child. That had been a smoke screen that kept my parents from seeing the little boy who was unhappy, frightened, and alone.
The question of God has yet to be addressed, but I’ve tried to expand the context of the question. The question is not, “do I believe in God,” but rather, “what am I saying about my life and Life Itself” when I say, “The word God is still an important word in my life,” 55 years since my last Sunday School lesson and 45 years since my last exam in theology. The question of God gets my full attention in the next post.