If I say the word God, people run away.
They’ve been frightened–sat on ’till the spirit cried ‘uncle.’
Spirituality is our experience of the larger reality of which we are a part, the Mystery that connects and upholds all life. Many people call that Mystery God. But the word God is a challenging one. Some people have a hard time with it. A few may stop listening immediately. Others may call to mind particular beliefs and images from their own religious community that are difficult for them. Some may be very clear what it means to them, and very assured that everyone else is wrong about it. Some may be moved with emotion, wounded by the betrayals of those who used that word in hurtful ways. Others may feel a sense of confusion, perhaps tinged with longing. The word is powerful and charged with conflict. I want to wrestle with that word.
When I was growing up, there was a TV game show called, “To Tell the Truth.” Three contestants each claimed to be the same person. The first would say, “My name is Jane Doe.” The second would say, “My name is Jane Doe.” The third would also claim to be Jane Doe. A celebrity panel tried to guess which one was telling the truth. At the end, we all learned the truth when the game show host commanded: “Will the real Jane Doe please stand up!”
Don’t we wish sometimes that there were a game show host to shout—“Will the real God please stand up?” If only it wasn’t so confounding and mysterious! We know that this is not merely a debate about ideas. People fight wars and hurt each other over the issue of whose God is the real God. And, if God is real, others ask, why is there so much trouble in the world? Why aren’t our prayers answered when we are suffering? Why doesn’t the real God just show up, make it all clear?
Wendell Berry asked that question, too, through his character Jayber Crow, who was the town barber in a fictional village called Port William, Kentucky. Jayber was very troubled by the war going on—it was the time of the Second World War—troubled by all the pain it caused. He says: “In the most secret place of my soul I wanted to beg the Lord to reveal Himself in power… to lay His hands on the hurt children. Why didn’t He cow our arrogance? …Why hasn’t he done it at any one of a thousand good times…?” He goes on to say:
I knew the answer. I knew it a long time before I could admit it, for all the suffering of the world is in it. He didn’t, He hasn’t, because from the moment He did, He would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be His slaves. …From that moment the possibility that we might be bound to Him and He to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.
Berry asks how could we be human beings if God appeared in the sky and took away our ability to search, to struggle, to think for ourselves, to love? As soon as God stood up, the game would be over—the adventure of human life would lose its meaning. There would be nothing left to do.