We are continuing our teaching times based on chapters of “The Heart of Christianity’, written by Marcus Borg. Last week I introduced a metaphor that Borg calls the “ongoing conversation”. Humans have always been in this conversation about faith. Even though people may drop in and drop out, the conversation goes on. The questions and answers change over time, as do our ways of expressing ourselves- but at heart it is a conversation about God, and how humans relate to God. Each person, each generation, each culture brings different words and concerns to the conversation.
The emerging paradigm of Christianity says documents gathered in the Bible came from communities that were engaged, as we are, in this ongoing conversation about God. The writings in the Bible naturally reflect how the people in these communities thought about God and how they understood the world around them. It turns out that how we understand the world has a major influence on how we think about God.
There are people who hold a religious view of the world, and those who have a non-religious worldview. The religious worldview says there is more to reality than can be seen. There is a non-material layer or level to reality, that depending upon where you are from, gets called God, the Spirit, the sacred, or Yahweh, or the Tao, or Allah, or Brahman or Atman- there are many different names.
The non-religious worldview says there is nothing more to reality than what we can see and measure. The universe is made up of matter and energy, and everything, including our thoughts and feelings can be explained as the interaction of matter and energy. This view is a product of the Age of Enlightenment in the seventeenth century, when scientific observation and theory began to displace religion. Science emerged as a way of looking at the world, that had little interest in anything that could not be measured or proven. This kind of viewpoint does not easily take into account the life experience of people who have visions, dreams, mountain-top moments, encounters with mystery that change their lives.
Borg makes the interesting point, that on the edges of post-modern science, there are theoretical physicists who now say the only way they can imagine, to explain how the universe works, is that there are fundamental processes that underlie the whole of reality, that take place outside of space and time. In other words, there must be something more.
I watched an interview yesterday on a CBC podcast. Jian Gomeshi, the host of the show “Q” talked with Colonel Chris Hadfield, of the Canadian Space Agency, who is currently living on the International Space Station. It was fascinating to watch him let go of the microphone, and see it just hang in the air.
It was also quite inspiring to hear Colonel Hadfield reflect on the meaning of his experience in space. He said, “Living in space is just a constant rush of stimulation… there is all this stuff going on, and its only when you float over to the window and pause for a second, and look at the huge impermeable permanence and beauty of the world that’s underneath you, this great reassuring wonder of it, and it makes you thoughtful, to combine the high paced action that we are doing on board with this magnificent planet that is out the window at all times. “ (from an interview on “Q”, January 25, 2013)
Hadfield’s words brought to my mind the words of an author named Frederick Buechner, who encourages us to open ourselves to the way that God speaks to us in the events of our daily lives:
“Listen to your life. Listen to what happens to you because it is through what happens to you that God speaks. It’s in language that’s not always easy to decipher, but it’s there powerfully, memorably, unforgettably.”
I just loved hearing an astronaut reflect on beauty and reassuring wonder. There is so much more to life than science. When I was very young, the Soviets and Americans were competing for supremacy on earth and in space. Propaganda out of the Soviet Union, officially an atheist country, said that none of the cosmonauts who left the earth had ever seen God.
Those barbed comments were targeted at anyone who still believed in things they could not see. They were also aimed at a particular cosmology, or understanding of the universe, that sometimes gets called the three layer cake model. We live on the middle layer of the cake. Below us is the underworld or hell, and above us, above the atmosphere, and the dome of sky that holds the stars in their places, there is heaven. This was how most people in the ancient world pictured things, including the people who wrote the Bible. It is hard to know for sure if they really believed it, but that was their poetic way of describing the universe. So far none of the cosmonauts and astronauts who have slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the sky have cracked through the dome to get to an actual physical place- a heaven where God lives.
A lot of religious thinking, especially amongst Christians in the last couple of hundred years has depended upon this placing of God in a slightly out there place- not quite with us in our world, but also not too far away- our prayers still have to be able to reach wherever God is. We talk about heaven, and often look vaguely upward when we do. But it is extremely hard to reconcile this idea of a supernatural God figure who lives somewhere, with all that we are learning about our solar system, our galaxy, the universe. Where is the where, where God is?
Marcus Borg points to two ways of imagining God that are present in the Bible. The one I have just been talking about is what he calls “supernatural theism” that conceives of God as a personlike being, that exists “out there”. Borg says when people come to him and say that they simply cannot believe in God, it is generally this kind of God that they have rejected.
There is another way of imagining God, present in the Bible, and in sacred texts of other religions. A technical term for it is “panentheism”. God is imagined as a spirit that encompasses everything that exists. Our world, our solar system, our galaxy, the entire universe exist in God, rather than separate from God. Pan means “everything”. En means “in”. Theism comes from the Greek word for God, “theos”.
I have mentioned before my admiration for the music of Bruce Cockburn. I want to play one of his older songs for us now. It comes from 1976, and it is called “Lord of the Starfields”.
In the Book of Acts, Saint Paul is said to describe God as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” God in all things. Not God really far way, out there somewhere, somehow beyond space. If we can imagine God in all things, perhaps we can begin to imagine that God is in us, in our lives. Amen