I’m exploring what it means to use the word God and to engage in “god-talk.” Before I can say what I’ve learned, I have to speak about the experiences of my childhood that gave me a way to think clearly about belief words.
My dad began his medical practice in the late 1930s before Penicillin was widely used to fight bacterial infections. Yet by the early 1950s when I visited his office, I watched him examine bacterial cultures he had grown in Petri dishes in his own little laboratory. Peering through a microscope, he could see which particular bacterium was causing an infection and could prescribe the proper antibiotic for his patient. Watching my father at work was my introduction to the scientific method: ask a question, gather information, formulate a hypothesis, do an experiment, analyze the data, draw a conclusion, communicate the results.
I didn’t do well in my theological studies in the 1960s. It took me six years to finish three years of work. There were too many words and too little experience, too many thoughts and too few emotions. The more words, the less they stuck. The word stream went in one ear and out the other. Finally, in a religious studies seminar taught by the Ecumenical Institute in 1968, I discovered what it was like to dig into the life experience behind the belief words: God, Christ, Holy Spirit, and Church. The practice of digging into life experience stuck and became the basis of a life-long project—action research into the meaning of belief words and God-talk.
Human beings do action research all the time. We test the limits of our parents’ patience as “terrible twos” and learn the limits of our own independence. We experiment with different personas as we grow up. We learn what feels like “me” and what helps me connect with others. We date to try out different partners and break up with the one’s that don’t fit with our expectations.
Without my realizing it, I was informally introduced to action research by my Sunday School teachers Wes Yard, Bill Godfrey, and Leora Stutes. Grade school and high school students in my church were involved in a research project about character formation conducted by the Union College (Schenectady, NY) Psychology Department. The project was called the Character Research Project (CRP) and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1–12, Jesus’s teaching: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” etc.) were the foundation of our lessons.
This Sunday School curriculum was classic action research. We didn’t memorize a thing. We talked about Jesus’s teachings and made plans to experiment with them during the week. I remember one week’s investigation in particular, probably related to Matthew 5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” One of my high school classmates was a girl who was overweight and shunned by the “popular” kids. My experiment was to simply treat her with respect. We weren’t really friends, but I decided not to ignore her and to be friendly when our paths crossed. When our little Sunday School class met each week, we talked about what it was like to live the lesson from the week before and what difference the experience had made in our lives and in the lives of others.
Over the course of three years in this remarkable Sunday School class, four words—used to capture the essence of Jesus’s teaching—were deeply etched into my mind: universe, magnanimity, vision, and vicarious sacrifice. This was my first introduction to meta-words—words about words. I wasn’t aware of their importance for many years, but these four words helped me understand four truths about human life. These four meta-words described the nature of four Christian belief words. In a sense, the meta-words told me where to look to find the source of the inner experience that lies behind the letters that spell out each belief word: G-o-d, C-h-r-i-s-t, H-o-l-y S-p-i-r-i-t, and C-h-u-r-c-h.
What follows is an interim report on an ongoing experiment into the Question of God.
The word universe hints that the word God is about the largest possible context of reality—the entire universe or, we might say, all of creation. If a statement about God isn’t a statement about the way life is for everything and everyone, it probably is not a statement about God.
The word magnanimity alludes to the way Jesus related to the people and situations in his life. It suggests that “large heartedness” is The Way to live. (The Latin roots of the word magnanimity mean “great soul.”) If a statement about living like Jesus isn’t about generosity of heart, it misses the main message of Jesus’s life and teaching.
The word vision points to the experience of a kind of energy called “holy spirit” because it creates an inner light that allows us see through psychic shadows, an inner sight that allows us to see possibility, and an inner perspective that allows us to rise above and get to the heart of matters. If talk about Spirit doesn’t include the openness to see all available perspectives, the curiosity to explore the unknown, and the energy to both freely create life and dismiss what is not life giving, it probably isn’t about the Holy Spirit that animates the universe.
The words vicarious sacrifice describe the mission of the Church as an institution that seeks the life-giving transformation of society and of Christians as individuals to focus their lives on healing service to others. If talk about the Church doesn’t include this core element of transformative self-offering, it probably isn’t about the movement that Jesus sparked.
This whole train of thought has brought me to what I consider the crux of the matter: the crucial relationship between belief and experience. What do beliefs have to do with experience and what beliefs lead some people to experience what they choose to name God?