'God Is': From Biblical Literalism To A Mystical Understanding Of God

I was talking to a woman at Church on Sunday who has been through more than her share of hard times. She wears her life in the lines on her face and along the scars and blemishes on her fragile hands. Through it all, she's held on to her faith in God.

But the relationship has, at times, been strained by hardship.

"I know everything happens for a reason," she said, "but sometimes I just can't imagine what the reason is. I know I shouldn't but I just get so mad at God from time to time." I reassured her that any God worth believing in can likely handle a little bit of human anger. I reminded her of the scene in the movie, "The Apostle," when Robert Duval rages against God up in his room.

"I love you, God," Duval hollers, "but I'm mad at you!"

The woman smiled and thanked me for assuring her that simply being mad wasn't cause for eternal damnation. What I didn't tell her was that I disagree with her belief that everything happens for a reason. Sometimes, the universe is a chaotic, violent and unreasonable place. To suggest there's a greater reason for it all seems to limit the Divine to the confines of human nature and logic.

This mentality about everything happening for a reason comes mainly from the constructs we build up around who we believe God is. As Jean Jacques Rousseau said, "God created man in his own image. And man, being a gentleman, returned the favor."

There's a fear that, if we don't construct an image of God we can identify with, we will lose our connection. If we take the more anthropomorphic descriptions of God in scripture metaphorically, we then have to wrestle with what is left. For some, like Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Thomas J. J. Altizer, it leads them to proclaim, "God is dead."

It's understandable why this might feel terrifying for those still struggling to articulate what they believe. But there are those, like John Caputo, who approach Christianity from a deconstructionist point of view and show that Christian faith can be pretty exciting for those willing to wade into unfamiliar waters. Here, deconstruction doesn't negate the role of faith but keeps it open so that it might be expressed in fresh ways that aren't limited to our all-too-human images of God.

Following is an excerpt from a description of Caputo's book, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?"

"Deconstruction is not destruction but rather a breaking down of the object in question so as to open it up to its own future and make it more loyal to itself. This is because in deconstructing, the undeconstructible is revealed, in this case, the eternal truth of God revealed in the gospel."

The title of this article comes from a frequently used paraphrase of a Buddhist koan (a poem used to provoke thought) attributed to Zen Master Linji, founder of the Buddhist Rinzai sect. The saying is, "If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Kill Him." Though this sounds a little bit shocking, its intent is to shake the reader out of their spiritual or intellectual slumber to consider the deeper truth of the koan.

On the website, Daily Buddhism, Brian Schell explains the heart of this particular koan as follows:

"Whatever your conception is of the Buddha, it's wrong! Now kill that image and keep practicing. This all has to do with the idea that reality is an impermanent illusion. If you believe that you have a correct image of what it means to be Enlightened, then you need to throw out (kill) that image and keep meditating."

For some like Nietzsche, the deconstruction process led them to believe that there was nothing left at all. No God, period. For Caputo and fellow postmodern theologians, the deconstruction process actually is a liberation of God from the preconceptions we have built up about who or what God is.

It's easy to assume that such theological perspective is a product of 21st century philosophy. In fact, this way of thinking has been centuries in the making.

St. Augustine said, "If you comprehend it, it is not God." He lived from 354-430 CE.

Thomas Aquinas said, "The highest human knowledge of God is to know that one doesn't know God." His work, though more than seven centuries old, still influences our way of thinking about faith today.

Meister Eckhart, a 13th-14th century philosopher, prayed that God would rid him of God.

Even the Jews of the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, never dared to utter God's true name, because to do so was to try in vain to pin down God. In Exodus 3:13-15, God orders Moses to lead the Israelites, to which Moses responds, "If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' they are going to ask me, 'What's this God's name?' What am I supposed to say to them?"

God's response: "I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, 'I Am has sent me to you.'"

A literal interpretation of such a text might argue that this passage supports an anthropomorphic image of God: a God who speaks directly to humanity in an actual, audible voice. Taken in cultural and historical context, however, many scholars understand that the Jewish narrative was told generally in the form of parables, much like the stories Jesus himself told his followers.

Although such stories are not considered to be factual (the emphasis of literal, historical fact came along centuries later as a more Western way of thinking), they each contain an important truth that the reader or listener has to reveal for themselves, much like the Buddhist koan. The central message of this passage as it relates to the nature of God:

God is.

One can imagine Moses following up with something like, "You are what, God?" longing for more clarity. But instead he gets the message that God simply is what God is.

There's a long-standing debate about theodicy, which questions how God could be both all-powerful and entirely good while such pervasive evil exists. It's easy to get tied up in knots over this, especially if you conceive of a human-like God, with something resembling human consciousness and will. With this come all the questions about why a loving God would cause horrible things to happen, or would at least allow them to happen.

But all of this presumes an awful lot about the nature of a God we know really very little about. By killing all preconceptions we have about who or what God is, we do indeed free God simply to be, as stated in Exodus and by great theologians and philosophers ever since. Arguments about theodicy dissolve, claims that God punishes certain people selectively for whatever reason we deem valid lose their teeth.

In the preface of his book, "The Weakness of God," John Caputo responds to the tendency of many pastors to try and explain away the devastation caused by the 2004 Tsunami in the Indian Ocean:

"Many religious leaders have been rushing to the nearest microphone or camera to explain that, while these are all innocent victims, we cannot hope to explain the mystery of God's ways -- implying that this natural disaster is something God foresaw but chose not to forestall. Others are telling us that God has taken this terrible occasion to remind us that we are all sinners and to dish out some much-needed and justifiable punishment to the human race... Those are blasphemous images of God for me, clear examples of the bankruptcy of thinking of God as a strong force with the power to intervene upon natural processes... the decision depending upon what suits the divine plan."

In letting go of these proscribed human constructs, we actually free ourselves from a great deal of suffering, some of which we tend to blame on God. God is. We are. Let that be enough.

(Special thanks to Phil Snider, who contributed to this article.)