Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Where is God? Christians tired of being "misrepresented" need to work harder to show what they believe

Where you locate God affects how you relate to social justice. One location allows you to keep your religion separate from social change and political discourse, the other insists these cannot be viewed separately.

If you have or choose to read previous essays and speculations published here, you will come to recognize that my views on religion and spirituality are nuanced and fluid. For example, I find the declaring belief or lack of belief in God to be an impediment rather than a useful clarification (at least for myself). And while I rarely use the word much in my personal life, I often use "God" when writing about religion and spirituality as a shorthand for the deeper, grander mysteries of life and existence that transcend a human capacity for (full) comprehension or control.

I eschew adjectives such as "personal" and "impersonal" when it comes to discussions of divinity, with the use of the word "God" revealing an orientation toward understanding and experiencing existence. Neither strictly as an ideal nor as a specific object, but a larger unity underlying and pervading all we are, all we know, all we can be. Again, at least when I'm writing about this stuff or pushed to ask what kind of God might make sense to me. There isn't much need to worry about such depictions or definitions of God for my daily living. In practical terms I tend to leave "God" unfettered by words and overly specific expectations.

So if you're trying to figure out which category my views belong in when figuring out what angle I'm coming from in relation to the topic at hand, it's one of those really open approaches that drives some people with more fixed notions of what God must (not) or can(not) be to distraction. Yet I bring this up for more than honest disclosure about my own take on the idea of something like the concept of God. Because how one thinks about God shapes how one thinks about the value and purpose of formal religion in state-level societies as well as the larger global community.

If I had some need to worry about it, I suppose it would make sense that "God" (used here to represent the central concern or focus of religious notions of spiritual depth and personal transcendence) would be omnipresent yet not limited to any particular place or time. One of those weird sounding ideas theologians and philosophers talk about, this is sometimes rendered as being immanent (it's here with us) and transcendent (it's far beyond us) at the same time. There are ways of discussing how this works, including a kind of split-level monism in which immanence and transcendence reflect differences in perception and thus represent different modes of awareness, but we aren't getting into anything so heavy here. Not today.

But why does it matter where God is "located"? And what does it have to do with how those who identify as Christian behave and how they are perceived?

Where is God?

Now, just so you know, if you ask Christians, particularly those with some formal or even informal inclination toward theological reasoning and debate, you could get quite a bit from them about God being either immanent, or transcendent, or both, or neither. Most of them would justify their views by emphasizing the incarnational aspect of Christian theology, that is, God becoming human in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. That's all well and good for such debates and for those who adopt such theologies.

But it seems to me that for many Christians, regardless of their views on things like transcendence and immanence, God in fact only seems to exist in their own beliefs.

This is not a dig at religion, to say that "God only exists in their imaginations and therefore isn't real!" That issue is neither here nor there at the moment (see above). Rather it is to say, "God only exists in their imaginations and therefore isn't real to them" or in some cases "God only exists in their imaginations and therefore isn't relevant to anyone else." Both are problematic.

Let's deal with the first part, "God only exists in their beliefs/imaginations." What I am getting at here is that there is this constellation of related words, concepts, and images in a religion like Christianity that tend to become ever more inwardly focused and self-referential. They each point to and reinforce each other. This perpetual reification gives a sense of "something there", or at least "something somewhere", with a kind of social mass and psychological gravity of its own.

So, when you mention God in this context and there are these images and concepts that get stirred up, but if you ask someone to point it out to you, as in "Where actually is God?", the issue becomes a conundrum. If the answer is that God is transcendent (other-worldy), then there is nothing to point directly at, and the only thing that is accessible is that constellation of feeling and images and ideas associated with the religion. This is how those debates and arguments begin about whether those ideas and feeling count as evidence -- where did that constellation of ideas and feelings originate? Was it divinely inspired? One could also try to point at examples of recent miraculous claims associated with the religion, but these are controversial and problematic as well.

I pause here to point out that I am not rehashing such debate or inviting others to do so. Don't bother either trying to defend contemporary miracles or to ridicule them. The issue is that transcendence is sometimes used as an out (to oneself or others) for what this fuzzy constellation of things in people's heads is pointing to other than itself.

The other major option is to emphasize that God is (to some degree) immanent or this-wordly, but, the same kind of problem emerges. What specifically ties the everyday observable world to that specific constellation of beliefs about God? Where is God in the immediate world we inhabit?

Now, this can get into some deep philosophy about any set of assumptions and beliefs and their tether to the world around us, but again, that's not the point. We aren't going that deep.

The point is that the constellation in question tends to be self-sustaining, self-referential, and self-contained. So if you point to an incarnational theology showing that some aspect of God is (at least) a part of the world and is therefore directly connected to and concerned with it, then you are locating God (or at least God's interests) somewhere observable. For the transcendent angle, if people are somehow connecting to some larger realm beyond normal experience, again, it is relevant because it is connecting that greater reality or other-wordly awareness to our more conventional sense and experience of existence. To "this" world.

Or, to short-hand that, if such a constellation of thoughts, feelings, and symbols regarding a religion only points to itself it fails to be useful to anyone else not adopting that worldview. If such a constellation points only to itself, it must reinterpret everything in the more broadly shared and conventional view of the world to serve itself:

Why believe or act a certain way? "Jesus."

Why does that matter? "God."

And why does that matter? "Jesus."

And why does that matter? "The crucifixion/resurrection."

And why does that matter? "God."

And why does that matter? "The Bible."

And why does that matter? "God."

And why does that matter? "Jesus..."

When enthralled by such a constellation, it seems self-justifying and self-explanatory. Yet eventually, a half-way thoughtful Christian will begin pointing to things outside of the constellation. To claims about conventional miracles connected to Christianity. To reports or anecdotes about how believing somehow helped the faithful. Or how it led to actions and movements that helped others regardless of their belief. And so on.

Christian tired of being misrepresented by conservative traditionalists and regressive fundamentalists

So yes, it matters where Christians locate God and God's priorities. There is a tendency on the part of some Christians to want to be apart from the conventional world, and therefore to keep their religion away from issues surrounding social change and related political discourse. God is strictly transcendent and lives in that self-referential constellation of thoughts, feelings, symbols, and ideas associated with "Christianity". Salvation is a ticket to relocating to a heavenly realm after death. Charity with a "this-wordly" focus is OK as long as it is limited and doesn't suck you into larger issues and make you take sides.

In a sense, this makes sense for some non-fundmentalist Christians who are wary of seeing their fundamentalist counterparts injecting their fundamentalist Christian beliefs into politics and politics into their fundamentalist Christian beliefs. Those non-fundamentalists feel that their own beliefs are based on timeless values and that their beliefs shouldn't be weighed down or diluted by becoming overly intermixed with, or even contingent upon, particular stances regarding current social and political topics. So church is church, and the rest is separate except for some non-controversial charitable works. God and Jesus and the rest are tucked safely away in the pure constellation of beliefs and symbols, where they become largely ineffectual and irrelevant to everyone else.

It is one thing to have a constellation of images, feelings, and values that are set above the specific details of current social and political debates, it is another to refuse to try to translate those values for new generations and to tackle recurring sets of challenges. Or to do so in a wrecklessly overly cautious way that is always waiting to see which way the wind is blowing and taking up the rear of the parade. Sure, it makes sense to keep something like "God is love" or "Jesus is the icon of redemption" in the cloud of tradition, but what good are such views if they aren't taken out and exposed to the current problems facing individuals, communities, and societies? Go ahead and pass on "God is love" to the next generation, but also give them your own best effort at showing what that actually means, what it might look like, rather than allowing it to degrade into a hollow platitude. Otherwise the images and concepts stored in that self-referential constellation lose any sense of meaning outside of themselves, as per the sample dialogue provided.

I have had Christian friends tell me they are tired of being misrepresented, and there is even a Facebook group using that sentiment as their name. I understand where they are coming from. I understand their frustration. But they are at least as responsible for their own representation as other Christians are for such "misrepresentation".

Take marriage equality as an example.

In the United States, two of the most socially progressive Christian denominations are the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church (of the United States of America. Or, the UCC and ESUSA. As of 2005 the UCC's national body has encouraged its member congregations to recognize marriage equality for the LGBQT community, but given the UCC's structure that is all it can do and there has been definite resistance this recommendation. While the has UCC also recommended recognizing LGBQT people as full members of the church and promoted non-discrimination policies, again, its member congregations are not bound by the national body on such issues. Only a small percentage of them have officially adopted an "open and affirming" statement regarding LGBQT individuals.

The ESUSA made headlines in 2003 when an openly gay priest in a committed relationship with another man was installed as Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. The elevation of the now retired Bishop Gene Robinson caused an acrimonious split between the ESUSA and many parishes who didn't approve of an openly gay bishop, especially a non-celibate one. Yet in 2006 the denomination's General Convention rejected a proposal to allow priests in Massachusetts to officially recognize marriages between gay couples.  Other General Conventions in 2009 and 2012 have given Episcopal bishops the option to allow the blessings of same-sex unions in their own dioceses, and to do so with an official liturgical prayer, but the wording of these resolutions is clear in stating that this is not an official endorsement of same-sex marriage.

Let's be clear also. Unless the Unitarian Universalist Association is included, which is arguably a post-Christian church, we are talking here about two of the most LGBTQ friendly of the major mainline denominations in the US.

To provide some context, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has a congregation-focused set up akin to the UCC and its national body officially endorsed an option for blessing same-sex unions in 2009, while the Presybeterian Church USA allows such blessing as long as the distinction between such unions and actual marriage is clear. The United Methodist Church (UMC) still does not recognize same-sex marriage and made the news after starting an in-house trial against a pastor who performed such a ceremony. Other pastors have also broken with the official policy regarding such ceremonies and may also face sanctions. Finally, some smaller denominations active the United States such as the Metropolitan Community Church endorse same-sex marriage and perform same-sex weddings.

And then there are all of the denominations and unaffiliated congregations who have no policy on the issue or are clearly and staunchly opposed to marriage equality.

The picture is one in which national leadership of some of the mainline denominations have tried a political solution of being somewhere in the middle on the issue of marriage equality by allowing individual congregations or dioceses to bless or perform sex-same unions so long as they aren't technically performing a wedding and sanctioning an actual marriage. Yet the number of parishes and congregations actively participating in programs to welcome LGBQT individuals, let alone to to actively promote marriage equality in their own houses of worship, is still underwhelming. And receiving a few kudos by virtue of standing out as being somewhat accepting of LGBQT people because so many vocal Christian groups are indifferent or outright hostile to the rights and dignity of gay and transgender individuals isn't exactly a badge of honor.

I wonder how many of these mainline dioceses and their parishes (or for those with a different structure how many congregations) are involved with equality and non-discrimination organizations such as PFLAG? After all, technically many of the mainline Protestant denominations at least mention an accepting attitude towards the LGBQT people somewhere on their national organizations' websites. Is that and the odd national committee on equality supposed to be an adequate response to the anti-LGBQT movement fueled by the religious right? To consequences such as teen bullying of gay and transgender youth and the associated suicides?

There are certainly other issues besides marriage equality and the challenges facing the LGBQT community, but given how loudly the anti-LGBQT horn is being trumpeted by those that are supposedly misrepresenting many of these Christians who are worried about the presentation of their faith, the issue is certainly a fair measuring stick. But hey, let's also look at issues like opposing war, eliminating nuclear weapons, promoting voting rights, and ensuring basic housing, nutrition, and healthcare for all. Other than social media slogans, standing committees, and a press release here and there on the national level, what are members on the ground working through local congregations doing?

Misrepresented by whom?

So who or what exactly is misrepresenting the Christians who do not endorse the views of the religious right in the US? The implication is that it would the religious right itself, but who else may be involved?

The national bodies representing these denominations and their slow and "safe" triangulation of how to please as many of their members as possible?

The large number of members in the various congregations and parishes who are not ready for or comfortable with more progressive views and activities?

All of which prompts the question: Are these socially liberal-leaning to politically progressive Christians actually being misrepresented? Or are they the outliers?

Perhaps more importantly, what are they actively doing in their own congregations and communities to live out their values and change such perceptions of Christians?

If that sounds like a challenge, you read it right.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. How is that related to the complaints by some Christians that they are being misrepresented by the religious right? In North America Buddhists tend to view themselves as more moderate or progressive politically, and perhaps some politically conservative Buddhists feel left out.

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    3. how do you know your even asking the right question? Maybe the right question is... how can I stop people from being tortured?

    4. bate=worm=sentient being=buddha
      buddha said not even to be attached to the teachings.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.


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