What We Talk About When We Talk About God (EXCERPT)

I realize that when I use the word God, there's a good chance I'm stepping on all kinds of land mines. Is there a more volatile word loaded down with more history, assumptions and expectations than that tired, old, relevant, electrically charged, provocative, fresh, antiquated yet ubiquitous as ever, familiar/unfamiliar word God?

And that's why I use it.

From people risking their lives to serve the poor because they believe God called them to do it, to pastors claiming that the latest tornado or hurricane or earthquake is God's judgment, to professors proclaiming that God has only ever been a figment of our imagination, to people in a recovery meeting sitting in a circle drinking bad coffee and talking about surrendering to a higher power, to musicians in their acceptance speech at an awards show thanking God for their hit song about a late-night booty call, when it comes to God, we are all over the place.

Like a mirror, God appears to be more and more a reflection of whoever it is that happens to be talking about God at the moment.

And then there are the latest surveys and polls, the ones telling us how many of us believe and don't believe in God and how many fewer of us are going to church, inevitably prompting experts to speculate about demographics and technology and worship style and this generation vs. that generation, all of it avoiding the glaring truth that sits right there elephant-like in the middle of the room.

The truth is, we have a problem with God.

It's not just a problem of definition -- what is it we're talking about when we talk about God? -- and it's not just the increasing likelihood that two people discussing God are in fact talking about two extraordinarily different realities while using the exact same word.

This problem with God goes much, much deeper.

As a pastor over the past 20 years, what I've seen again and again is people who want to live lives of meaning and peace and significance and joy -- people who have a compelling sense that their spirituality is in some vital and yet mysterious way central to who they are -- but who can't find meaning in the dominant conceptions, perceptions and understandings of God they've encountered. In fact, those conceptions aren't just failing them but are actually causing harm.

We're engaged more than ever by the possibilities of soul and spirit, and by the nagging suspicion that all of this may not be a grand accident after all; but God, an increasing number of people are asking -- what does God have to do with that?

I've written this book about that word, then, because there's something in the air, we're in the midst of a massive rethink, a movement is gaining momentum, a moment in history is in the making: There is a growing sense among a growing number of people that when it comes to God, we're at the end of one era and the start of another, an entire mode of understanding and talking about God dying as something new is being birthed.

There's an ancient story about a man named Jacob who had a magnificent dream, and when he wakes up he says, "Surely God was in this place, and I, I wasn't aware of it."

Until now.

The power of the story is its timeless reminder that God hasn't changed; it's Jacob who wakes up to a whole new awareness of who -- and where -- God is.

Which brings me back to this moment, to the realization among an increasing number of people that we are waking up in new ways to the God who's been here the whole time.

I'm aware, to say the least, that talking about this and writing a book about it, naming it and trying to explain it and taking a shot at describing where it's all headed, runs all sorts of risks.

I get that.

We're surrounded by friends and neighbors and family and intellectual and religious systems with deeply held, vested interests in the conventional categories and conceptions of belief and denial continuing to remain as entrenched as those traditional conceptions are. There are, as they say, snipers on every roof. And being controversial isn't remotely interesting.

But love and meaning and joy and hope?

That's compelling.

That's what I'm after.

That's worth the risk.

The great German scholar Helmut Thielicke once said that a person who speaks to this hour's need will always be skirting the edge of heresy, but only the person who risks those heresies can gain the truth.

And the truth is, we have a problem -- we have a need -- and there's always the chance that this may in fact be the hour.

First, then, a bit more about this God problem...

When I was 20, I drove an Oldsmobile.

Remember those?

It was a four-door Delta 88 and it was silver and it had a bench seat across the front with an armrest that folded down and it fit seven or eight people easily and in a feat of engineering genius the rear license plate was on a hinge that you pulled down in order to fill up the gas tank and the trunk was so huge you could put five snowboards in at the same time or a drum set, several guitar amps, and a body if you needed to. (I'm just messing with you there, about the body.) My friends called it "the Sled."

It was a magnificent automobile, the Sled, and it served me well for those years.

But they don't make Oldsmobiles anymore.

They used to be popular, and your grandparents or roommate may still drive one, but the factories have shut down. Eventually the only ones left will be collector's items, relics of an era that has passed.

Oldsmobile couldn't keep up with the times, and so it gradually became part of the past, not the future.

For them, not us.

For then, not now.

I tell you about the Sled I used to drive because for many in our world today, God is like Oldsmobiles. To explain what I mean when I talk about God-like Oldsmobiles, a few stories: My friend Cathi recently told me about an event she attended where an influential Christian leader talked openly about how he didn't think women should be allowed to teach and lead in the church. Cathi, who has two master's degrees, sat there stunned.

I got an email from my friend Gary last year, saying that he'd decided to visit a church with his family on Easter Sunday. They'd heard a sermon about how resurrection means everybody who is gay is going to hell.

And then my friend Michael recently told me about hearing the leader of a large Christian denomination say that if you deny that God made the world in a literal six days, you are denying the rest of the Bible as well, because it doesn't matter what science says.

And then there are the two pastors I know who each told me, within days of the other, how their wives don't want anything to do with God. Both wives were raised and educated in very religious environments that placed a great deal of importance on the belief that God is good and the point of life is to have a personal relationship with this good God. But both wives have suffered great pain in their young lives, and the clean and neat categories of faith they were handed in their youth haven't been capable of helping them navigate the complexity of their experiences. And so, like jilted lovers, they have turned away. God, for them, is an awkward, alien, strange notion. Like someone they used to know.

And then there's the party I attended in New York where I met a well-known journalist who, when he was told that I'm a pastor, wanted to know if all of you pastors use big charts with timelines and graphics to show people when the world is going to end and how Christians are going to escape while those who are left behind endure untold suffering.

I tell you about Cathi sitting there stunned and Gary hearing that sermon and me at that party because whether it's science or art or education or medicine or personal rights or basic intellectual integrity or simply dealing with suffering in all of its complexity, for many in our world -- and this includes Christians and a growing number of pastors -- believing or trusting in that God, the one they've heard other Christians talk about, feels like a step backward, to an earlier, less informed and enlightened time, one that we've thankfully left behind.

There's a question that lurks in these stories, a question that an ever-increasing number of people across a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives are asking about God:

Can God keep up with the modern world?

Things have changed. We have more information and technology than ever. We're interacting with a far more diverse range of people than we used to. And the tribal God, the one that is the only one many have been exposed to -- the one who's always right (which means everybody else is wrong) -- is increasingly perceived to be small, narrow, irrelevant, mean, and sometimes just not that intelligent.

Is God going to be left behind?

Like Oldsmobiles?

* * *

For others, it isn't that God is behind or unable to deal with the complexity of life; for them God never existed in the first place. In recent years we've heard a number of very intelligent and articulate scientists, professors and writers argue passionately and confidently that there is no God. This particular faith insists that human beings are nothing more than highly complex interactions of atoms and molecules and neurons, hardwired over time to respond to stimuli in particular ways, feverishly constructing meaning to protect us from the unwelcome truth that there is no ultimate meaning because in the end we are simply the sum of our parts -- no more, no less.

That all there is is, in the end, all there is.

This denial isn't anything new, but it's gained a head of steam in recent years, this resurgence seemingly in reaction to the God-like Oldsmobile, the one more and more people are becoming convinced is not only behind, but downright destructive.

I was recently invited to participate in a debate at which the topic was "Is religion good or bad?" Here's the kicker: the organizers wanted me to know I was free to choose which side I'd take!

How revealing is that?

All of which brings me to Jane Fonda. (You didn't see that coming, did you?) Several years ago in an interview she gave to Rolling Stone magazine the interviewer said this:

Your most recent -- and perhaps most dramatic -- transformation is your becoming a Christian. Even with your flair for controversy, that's pretty explosive.

It's a telling statement, isn't it? You can sense so much there, as if there's a question behind the question that isn't really a question -- that hidden question being what the interviewer really wants to ask her: "Why would anybody become a Christian?"

That's a question lots of people have -- educated, reasonable, modern people who find becoming a Christian an "explosive," not to mention an inconceivable, thing to do.

In her response, Jane Fonda spoke of being drawn to faith because "I could feel reverence humming in me."

Reverence humming in me. I love that phrase. It speaks to the experiences we've all had -- moments and tastes and glimpses when we've found ourselves deeply aware of the something more of life, the something else, the sense that all of this might just mean something, that it may not be an accident, that it has profound resonance and that it matters in ways that are very real and very hard to explain.

For a massive number of people, to deny this reverence humming in us, to insist that we're simply random collections of atoms and that all there is is all there is, leaves them cold, bored and uninspired.

It doesn't ring true to our very real experiences of life.

But when people turn to many of the conventional, traditional religious explanations for this reverence, they're often led to the God who is like Oldsmobiles, the one who's back there, behind, unable to keep up.

All of this raising the questions:

Are there other ways to talk about the reverence humming in us?

Are there other ways to talk about the sense we have that there's way more going on here?

Are there other ways to talk about God?

My answer is yes. I believe there are. But before we get to those others ways, I need to first tell you why this book comes bursting out of my heart like it does.

One Sunday morning a number of years ago I found myself face-to-face with the possibility that there is no God and we really are on our own and this may be all there is.

Now I realize lots of people have questions and convictions and doubts along those lines -- that's nothing new. But in my case, it was an Easter Sunday morning, and I was a pastor. I was driving to the church services where I'd be giving a sermon about how there is a God and that God came here to Earth to do something miraculous and rise from the dead so that all of us could live forever.

And it was expected that I would do this passionately and confidently and persuasively with great hope and joy and lots of exclamation points. !!!!!!!

That's how the Easter sermon goes, right? Imagine if I'd stood up there and said, "Well, I've been thinking about this for a while, and I gotta be honest with you: I think we're kinda screwed."

Doesn't work, does it?

I should pause here and say that when you're a pastor, your heart and soul and paycheck and doubts and faith and hopes and struggles and intellect and responsibility are all wrapped up together in a life/job that is very public. And Sunday comes once a week, when you're expected to have something inspiring to say, regardless of how you happen to feel or think about God at the moment. This can create a suffocating tension at times, because you want to serve people well and give them your very best, and yet you're also human. And in my case, full of really, really serious doubts about the entire ball of God wax.

That Easter Sunday was fairly traumatic, to say the least, because I realized that without some serious reflection and study and wise counsel I couldn't keep going without losing something vital to my sanity. The only way forward was to plunge headfirst into my doubts and swim all the way to the bottom and find out just how deep that pool went. And if I had to, in the end, walk away in good conscience, then so be it. At least I'd have my integrity.

This book, then, is deeply, deeply personal for me. Much of what I've written here comes directly out of my own doubt, skepticism and dark nights of the soul when I found myself questioning -- to be honest -- everything. There is a cold shudder that runs down the spine when you find yourself face-to-face with the unvarnished possibility that we may in the end be alone. To trust that there is a divine being who cares and loves and guides can feel like taking a leap -- across the ocean. So when I talk about God and faith and belief and all that, it's not from a triumphant, impatient posture of "Come on, people -- get with the program!" I come to this topic limping, with some bruises, acutely aware of how maddening, confusing, frustrating, infuriating and even traumatic it can be to talk about God.

What I experienced, over a long period of time, was a gradual awakening to new perspectives on God -- specifically, the God Jesus talked about. I came to see that there were depths and dimensions to the ancient Hebrew tradition, and to the Christian tradition which grew out of that, that spoke directly to my questions and struggles in coming to terms with how to conceive of who God is and what God is and why that even matters and what that has to do with life in this world, here and now.

Through that process, which is of course still going on, the doubts didn't suddenly go away and the beliefs didn't suddenly form nice, neat categories. Something much more profound happened. Something extraordinarily freeing and inspiring and invigorating and really, really helpful, something thrilling which compels me to sit here day after day, month after month, and write this book.

Which leads me to two brief truths about this book before we go further.

First, I'm a Christian, and so Jesus is how I understand God. I realize that for some people, hearing talk about Jesus shrinks and narrows the discussion about God, but my experience has been the exact opposite. My experiences of Jesus have opened my mind and my heart to a bigger, wider, more expansive and mysterious and loving God who I believe is actually up to something in the world.

Second, what I've experienced time and time again is that people want to talk about God. Whether it's what they were taught growing up or not taught, or what inspires them or what repulses them, or what gives them hope or what fills them with despair, I've found people to be extremely keen to talk about their beliefs and lack of beliefs in God. What I've observed is that while we want more of a connection with the reverence humming within us, we often don't know where to begin or what steps to take or what that process even looks like.

So if, in some small way, this book could provide some guidance along these lines, I'd be ecstatic. In saying that, I should be clear here about one point: This is not a book in which I'll try to prove that God exists. If you even could prove the existence of the divine, I suspect that at that moment you would in fact be talking about something, or somebody, else.

This is a book about seeing, about becoming more and more alive and aware, orienting ourselves around the God who I believe is the ground of our being, the electricity that lights up the whole house, the transcendent presence in our tastes, sights and sensations of the depth and dimension and fullness of life, from joy to agony to everything else.

* * *

Now, about where we're headed in the following pages.

This book centers around three words. They aren't long or technical or complicated or scholarly; they're short, simple, everyday words, and they're the foundation on which everything we're going to cover rests.

These three words are central to how I understand God, and if I could CAPS LOCK THEM THE WHOLE WAY THROUGHOUT THE BOOK, I would; or write them in the sky or etch them in blood (on second thought, maybe not) or graffiti them on the side of your house (let's not do this either, though I'd love to see what Banksy would do with them), because they're the giant, big, loud, this one-goes-to-11 idea that animates everything we're going to explore in the following pages.

They've unleashed in me new ways of thinking about and understanding and most importantly experiencing God. They've made my life better, and my hope is that they will do the same for you.

But before we get to those three words, we first have two others words we're going to cover. (Nice buildup, huh?)

It's these two words that will set us up for the three words that form the backbone of the book.

First, we'll talk about being open, because when we talk about God we drag a massive amount of expectations and assumptions into the discussion with us about how the world works and what kind of universe we're living in. Often God's existence is challenged in the conversation about what matters most in the modern world because haven't we moved past all of that ancient, primitive, superstitious thinking? We have science after all, and reason and logic and evidence. What does God have to do with the new challenges we're facing and knowledge we're acquiring? Quite a lot, actually, because the universe, it turns out, is way, way weirder than any of us first thought. And that weirdness will demand that we be open.

So first, Open.

Then we'll talk about talking, because when we talk about God, we're using language, and language both helps us and fails us in our attempts to understand and describe the paradoxical nature of the God who is beyond words.

First Open, then Both.

And then, after those two words, we get to the three words, the words that will shape how we talk about God in this book. The words are (I feel like there should be a drumroll or something...):

With, For, Ahead.

With, because I understand God to be the energy, the glue, the force, the life, the power and the source of all we know to be the depth, fullness and vitality of life from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows and everything in between. I believe God is with us because I believe that all of us are already experiencing the presence of God in countless ways every single day. In talking about the God who is with us, I want you to see how this withness directly confronts popular notions of God that put God somewhere else, doing something else, coming here now and again to do God-type things. I want you to see both the irrelevance and the danger of that particular perspective of God as you more and more see God all around you all the time.

Then for, because I believe God is for every single one of us, regardless of our beliefs or perspectives or actions or failures or mistakes or sins or opinions about whether God exists or not. I believe that God wants us each to flourish and thrive in this world here and now as we become more and more everything we can possibly be. In talking about the forness of God, I want you to see how many of the dominant theological systems of thought that insist God is angry and hateful and just waiting to judge us unless we do or say or perform or believe the right things actually make people miserable and plague them with all kinds of new stresses and anxieties, never more so than when they actually start believing that God is really like that. I want you to see the radical, refreshing, revolutionary forness that is at the heart of Jesus' message about God as it informs and transforms your entire life.

Then ahead, because when I talk about God, I'm not talking about a divine being who is behind, trying to drag us back to a primitive, barbaric, regressive, prescientific age when we believed Earth was flat and the center of the universe. I believe that God isn't backward-focused -- opposed to reason, liberation and progress -- but instead is pulling us and calling us and drawing all of humanity forward -- as God always has -- into greater and greater peace, love, justice, connection, honesty, compassion and joy. I want you to see how the God we see at work in the Bible is actually ahead of people, tribes and cultures as God always has been. Far too many people in our world have come to see God as back there, primitive, not-that-intelligent, dragging everything backward to where it used to be. I don't understand God to be stuck back there, and I want you to experience this pull forward as a vital, active reality in your day-to-day life as you see just what God has been up to all along with every single one us.

All of which leads us to one more word to wrap it up: so. So what? So how do we live this? So is the question about what all this talking has to do with our everyday thinking and feeling and living.

To review, then:

Open, Both, With, For, Ahead, and So.

It's a fair bit of ground to cover, and my hope is that by the end you will say, "Now that's what I'm talking about."