What kind of God do you believe in?

Winter Sun DSC09206

I have never believed in God. Not in your God anyway; the one who looks down onto his chessboard and moves the pieces according to his pleasure, occasionally glancing up at the face of his Adversary with the smile of the one who already knows the outcome. It seems to me that there must be something horribly flawed in a Creator who persists in testing his creatures to destruction, in providing a world well stocked with pleasures only to announce that all pleasure is sin, in creating mankind imperfect, then expecting us to aspire to perfection. …There must be something else, I told myself repeatedly; something beyond sin and solemnity, dust and devotion; something that loved life as indiscriminately as I did.
                                                                Joanne Harris from Holy Fools, p. 32-33.

Throughout history, people have wrestled with the mystery of powers greater than themselves. There are many ways that people have understood these powers—some peoples believed in a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses who ruled various aspects of life; others claimed that there was only one Supreme Being, while still others espoused a belief in natural processes that have unfolded to create the universe as we know it today. We often hear the question now framed simply as: “Do you believe in God?”

Many of us, as children, are presented with one idea of God, framed as if it were the only possible idea of God. If that idea doesn’t work for us, or even hurts our spirits, we may reject the whole notion of God, without further reflection. But there is not just one idea of God, there have been many. People imagine God in one form or another, and it is important to realize that our images of God are not what God really is.

God is a name that some give to the mysterious forces that sustain and uphold the larger reality of which we are a part. These forces are beyond our capacity to actually know or define. We understand them through the use of symbol and analogy. We say God is like this, or God is like that. So, rather than ask, “Do you believe in God,” I think it is much more important to ask “What kind of God do you believe in?” or perhaps even, “What kind of God do you not believe in?” 

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Rune Carvings

Beech Tree Markings 133650002When I sat in the old copper beech tree, surrounded by the hopeful carvings of many human persons, I was reminded of the runes, the early carved alphabet of the Germanic languages. I had earlier taken up the study of runes, because I was curious about the culture and spirituality of my ancient Germanic ancestors. The traditional way of making runes is to carve them into small staves of wood cut from the branch of a fruit bearing tree. The rune letters themselves are sharp and angular, revealing their origins in the markings that blades can make in wood. Each of the rune letters is a symbol of some sacred power in the German understanding of the universe.

Runes were used for magic, for divination, and for communicating with sacred forces. According to some German and Norse myths, the runes were given to the God Odin, after he hung suspended for nine days and nine nights on the sacred tree of the world, Yggdrasil. Odin then shared the runes with humankind. The runes were a gift from a holy tree.

Runes DSC01305Two of the runes are specifically linked to trees. Eiwaz represents the yew tree and Berkana, the birch tree. The yew tree is a symbol for Yggdrasil and is linked to death and the everlasting realm beyond death. The tree is poisonous and its wood was used to make long bows for hunting and war. It lives to be perhaps the oldest tree we know. There is a yew tree called the Fortingall yew, which is situated in a churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland. It is believed to be the most ancient tree in Europe, between two and five thousand years old.

The birch tree, on the other hand, is linked to birth and beginnings. It is one of the first trees to grow in an area after a fire has destroyed its vegetation. Birch branches were used in cheerful springtime rituals, a symbol of new life and the fruitfulness of spring. When Margy and I were looking for a home in Maine, we were feeling discouraged after May and June had passed without our finding anything. We did a reading of the runes, and pulled out Berkana—the birch tree rune. It could be read as a great indicator of prosperous new beginnings coming into our life. But we also decided to take it more literally.

We began to look for houses that had anything to do with birch trees. We noticed an ad for a house on Birchwood Road, and saw another house described as having birch cabinets, and a few others like that. So we came up the last weekend in July to check them out, and then found another house in the newspaper on the last day. The backyard turned out to be full of birch trees. It was also just what we were looking for.

Some people believe that the runes communicate magic messages. But what strikes me most powerfully about the runes is the magic of written language itself. What an uncanny ability it must have been at first—to communicate across distance or time in a way that talking could never match. The root of the word “rune” implies secret or hidden. A message could be carved out by one who knew the runes, and—sent via a messenger who did not know the message—it could be understood by another person far away. The ability of rune readers to communicate in silence with each other would have appeared magical to anyone who witnessed it. These messages could even endure beyond the death of their creators, to be received by those who came after. We have forgotten to be in awe of that power.

Blessed Illusion!

Flowing Water MJ DSC02210The Spanish poet Antonio Machado wrote,

Last night when I was sleeping,
I dreamed—blessed illusion!—
there was a fountain flowing
deep within my heart.
Water, tell me by what hidden
channel you come to me,
with a source of new life
I never drank from before.

Last night when I was sleeping,
I dreamed—blessed illusion!—
I had a beehive
deep within my heart;
and the golden bees
were using old
bitterness to produce
white wax and sweet honey.

Last night when I was sleeping,
I dreamed—blessed illusion!—
a blazing sun was shining
deep within my heart.
It burned because it gave off
heat like a red hearth;
it was a sun that illumined
and also made me cry.

Last night when I was sleeping
I dreamed—blessed illusion!—
it was God that I felt
deep within my heart.
                                                                          Translation by Armand F. Baker.

As I have explored in earlier posts, the word God can be a confusing word. God is hard to talk about—whatever we can say about God, that is not really what God is. Machado’s poem uses these stories and images, these dream illusions to describe a movement of mystery within his heart.  Robert Bly, in a more well known translation, calls the original spanish “¡bendita ilusión!” a “Marvelous Error.”

I believe that Machado knows that words can’t really describe what he has found inside his heart.  Only “illusion”–he calls it a blessed illusion–can begin to point to it.  And yet, what we say about God reflects what we worship in the temple in our hearts. What we say about God matters.  And saying this word God is a good reminder to choose something big enough to worship. Saying the word God is a good reminder not to give our devotion to anything which is not worthy of us.

Raymond Baughan, said,

What is required of us…
Is that we go down
Into uncertainty
Where what is new is old as every morning
And what is well known is not known as well…

What is worthy of our worship? What can lead us into the largest reality of which we are a part? What can open our being to the essential Mystery? What will keep expanding, and never be smaller than what we have already known? It is a process never finished.

“What is Required of Us,” by Raymond Baughan,author of The Sound of Silence: a Book of Meditations, 1965, Unitarian Universalist Association.

Growing a Soul

Fiddlehead New DSC00242Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies said “Life is just a chance to grow a soul.” He was known for standing up against injustice, and working on behalf of freedom, democracy and equality. For Davies, being fully alive meant living according to these values, and shaping the future toward a vision of connection and community. He spoke of the inner life at the heart of his actions:

“There is no mystery greater than our own mystery. We are, to ourselves, unknown. And yet we do know. The thought we cannot quite think is nevertheless somehow a thought, and it lives in us without our being able to think it. We are a mystery, but we are a living mystery… Fern Grow DSC03761_2In the mind’s dimness a light will shine; in the spirit’s stillness it will be as though a voice had spoken; the heart that was lonely will know who it was it yearned for, and the life of the soul will be one with the life that is God.”

For Davies, growing the soul means attuning ourselves to this inner light, becoming one with the life that is God.

The soul is not a passive object of salvation or protection, but a living capacity within all of us for a deepening awareness of connection and mystery. The Mystery Seed is another name for the soul. A seed is meant to be planted and to grow. To grow our souls means to foster our inner awareness of the connections between all beings, our inner awareness of the Mystery that is within us and within all.

Quotes from Davies from an article by Manish Mishra

The Mystery Seed

AcornsWhat shape
waits in the seed
of you to grow
and spread
its branches
against a future sky?
                          David Whyte

Soul is another spiritual word with a lot of baggage. As a child, I learned that my soul was the part of me that lived after I died. If I was good, my soul would go to heaven. If I was bad, it might go to hell. If I was somewhere in between, my soul would go to purgatory before it could go to heaven. And the souls of babies that hadn’t been baptized went to limbo. There was a complex geography of souls to learn, and a lot of fear about what happened after we died.

Many churches tell us they want to save our souls, and I have heard old stories about people selling their soul to the devil in exchange for some favor. A while back, I heard a story of a young atheist who sold his soul on eBay. He got $504 from the highest bidder. I wondered how the highest bidder was expected to take possession of his soul? It turned out that what he actually auctioned off was the chance for the highest bidder to send him to the church of their choice.

Just what is the soul anyway? Is it something we can buy and sell? Is it something to be saved or lost? Just for a little while, try to set aside the definitions of the soul that you may have learned but that don’t work for you. Let us see if we can find some better uses for the word. I want to think of soul in the context of spirituality as we have redefined it. Our soul is our capacity to experience our connection to the larger reality of which we are a part. Our soul is our point of connection to the earth, to each other, and to the Mystery within all that is.

Come with me into the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. When his mother and he are in desperate straits, Jack trades their cow for some magical bean seeds. The bean seeds grow overnight into a vine that reaches up to heaven. There he encounters an evil giant, who eats human beings, but Jack is able to escape with a magical hen that lays golden eggs, and a golden harp that plays by itself. He learns from a fairy that the giant’s castle is actually his very own—he is really a prince whose father was killed by the giant. In the end, he kills the giant, and recovers his hidden inheritance.

So what does this have to do with our soul? The bean seeds enable Jack to connect with who he really is, and with a larger reality beyond the small cabin he shares with his mother. The soul is like those magical bean seeds. We are so much more than we can imagine! We might say that inside each of us is a Mystery Seed, a seed of what we might become, fully alive. This Mystery Seed is our potential to connect with the larger Mystery of which we are a part. This seed is not just in some of us, not just in fairy tales or kings or saints, but in every one of us.

Poem from “What To Remember When Waking,” in The House of Belonging

Trying to Define the Undefinable

I want to delve deeper into the discussion from Karen Armstrong about logos and mythos. Modern religion has taken the language of reason, and attempted to apply it to the realm of mythos. Whereas, prior to the modern era, the word faith meant trust, commitment, and dedication, in the modern era, faith came to mean an intellectual affirmation of unprovable facts about a divine being. When reason was beginning its ascent, many Christian religionists fell into the trap of shifting to the language of reason to try to defend and define the undefinable. They drew further away from the mystical and miraculous elements of the faith stories. The Deists, for example, saw God as an unseen clockmaker, who had set the world in motion like a well-oiled machine.

But as Newtonian science began to explain more and more of origins, there was less and less need for this rational God, and eventually God became superfluous to the scientific endeavor. In the meantime, the logos way of looking at things had become the norm. So when religionists fought back in defense of God, some did so in a literalistic and idea-based mode—they claimed that truth could be found in the literal words of the bible, and that faith required that one believe every word of this literal bible as historic and scientific fact. Of course, some words were emphasized more than others, and this approach to truth fostered intolerance of anyone who held differing interpretations.

We have been so thoroughly immersed in the modern era, that it is difficult to imagine the realm of mythos. If our only option for understanding God is that big guy in the sky, no wonder that another phenomenon of the modern age has been the rise of atheism. Atheism affirms the methods of science and the language of logos as the only reliable path to truth, and concludes that it is impossible to find evidence to prove that God exists. Fair enough! But the only God some atheists are now choosing to debunk turns out to be the God of the fundamentalists—that big guy in the sky.

One of the criticisms of the work of contemporary atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris is that they refuse to debate with theologians who have more nuanced and expansive understandings of religion or divinity. They too can be intolerant of any who disagree. Barred GateBoth fundamentalists and these atheists are relating to a God in a box—a God that is defined and described as if it were possible to say exactly what God is.

There are many attributes of their God that I find good reason to debate—I don’t believe in a God who is male but not female. I don’t believe in a God who is squeamish about sex. I don’t believe in a God who would send His children to the eternal torment described as Hell. I don’t believe in a God who would arrange for his son to be killed, to satisfy his anger at the mistakes of human beings. I don’t believe in a God who would cavalierly destroy this earth, and bring up a few obedient followers to some new place, to gloat over the suffering in triumph. 

But deeper than any of these particular attributes is the fact that I don’t believe in a God that can be defined by human logic. The word define means to place limits around. That God is too small for me. 

Waiting In the Dark

Milky Way

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I want to share with you a little story. I went outside to watch the meteor shower during an August night. I was just sitting in my driveway, on a reclining lounger, watching and waiting. Every so often, I would see a streak of light flash across the sky. But mostly it was just quiet and dark. I was thinking about the Milky Way, and how far the stars were spread out, and how long it took for their light to reach my eyes. I was thinking about the fact that the light from these stars was reaching my two eyes in an ordinary driveway in Maine. Suddenly the sky seemed so much larger than I remembered, and I felt so much smaller, an infinitesimal speck. And yet I was seeing everything, and my seeing was as large as the sky. I was a part of the mystery. What was inside of me felt as large as the sky.

To experience that feeling, I had to go outside in the night and wait. I had the intention of looking for meteors, but there were only a few of those. However, if I hadn’t been waiting in the dark, I wouldn’t have experienced the mystery of that night. To embark on a spiritual journey is like finding opportunities to wait in the dark, however we might do that—waiting in the dark, looking for what we think we are looking for, but sometimes finding so much more.

The goal of any spiritual journey is to lead us into that depth, that place where the known crosses into the unknown. There is a part of the spiritual journey which must be intentional. We must choose to wait in the dark. But the inner purpose of a spiritual journey is to move beyond the capacity of our own intentions, to discover something larger than what we could imagine—a larger reality, a larger love, a larger mystery.

The method by which we choose to wait in the dark we call a spiritual practice. It does not matter so much how we do it, but that we take the time to do it—that we take the time to be quiet with ourselves, or to pay attention to the world around us, or to stretch the muscles of our mind and heart in the questions that we cannot answer.

For some of us, silent meditation may provide a discipline for that inner attentiveness. For others, the practice of journaling may become a tool for deep reflection.
What did I dream last night? What am I feeling today?
What am I worried about? What am I thankful for?
Another practice is to read poetry and collect the words that inspire us, so that we can memorize them, and ponder them in our hearts.
We might walk in the woods or along the shore of the ocean.

Again, it does not matter so much how we do it, but that we take the time to do it.