God the Adjective, part 1
Ah, expletives. Expletives do come up when we get to arguing about God. And when we tire of the bickering, we just stop talking about God – which is a shame. The argument about God starts ontological, then gets semantic. At root, however, it is neither ontological nor semantic, but tribal. Let me explain.
It starts ontological: What exists? Is there an entity that knows, desires, and creates?
To the question, "Do you believe in God?" many Unitarians long ago developed the habit of saying, “Depends on what you mean by God.” So then the argument shifts from the ontological to the semantic. What does the word “God” mean? Is it a legitimate use of the English language to use the word “God” to refer NOT to a person-like entity that knows and wants, but only to a source of beauty and mystery; a power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; or the Cosmos: “all that is, or ever was, or ever will be”? Can you say that there is nothing in the universe except what the scientists describe and still call THAT “God”?
Why do people get riled up over semantic arguments about the word “God” when no other semantic argument elicits much concern or passion? I think it's because the real conflict is neither about ontology nor semantics. It’s about tribe. Are you in my tribe – do you speak the tribal passwords, affirming or denying the existence of God, adopting my tribe’s definition of the word “God”? If you’re not in my tribe, then we must fight – or else avoid the subject altogether.
There are meanings of “God” acceptable within the English language that don’t mean person-like or supernatural, so I want to ask you: Do you still prefer not to use the word because of tribal identity? You don’t want anyone to think for a minute that you might be in the Woo-Woo tribe? I think, for some of us, that’s the hang-up. We’re more interested in protecting our self-identity as members of the No-Woo tribe than we are in connecting with other people through the meanings that we share: awe, wonder, beauty, mystery, source of hope and healing that we call by many names.
Let me tell you some of my history with God.
The G-word and I have had an uncertain relationship. When I was in first grade, in Pinetops, North Carolina, where there was no Unitarian Universalist congregation, the neighbor kid sometimes invited me to go along with him to his church. Several times that year, I went, and as a result of the instructions given me at that Presbyterian Sunday School, there was a brief period in my life during which I did a nightly bedtime ritual called “prayer.” “Prayer” involved asking someone named “God” to do, for various friends and relations, something called “bless.”
By fourth grade, I had left behind “that kid stuff.” I was then living in a different small southern town: Carrollton, Georgia. Carrollton didn’t have a Unitarian Universalist congregation either, but it was only an hour’s drive from Atlanta, where, sporadically, I was taken to the UU church. Soon after learning there was a word “atheist,” I decided that I was one. I made this declaration at the UU church, and no one seemed very interested. I made this declaration during lunch at my elementary school cafeteria, and a palpable buzz shockwaved through hall.
The news reached an ardent and incredulous girl a few tables over. She arose, and, flanked by a silent friend to function as diplomatic observer, came over and confronted me. “You don’t believe in God?” she asked.
“No,” I said, suddenly interested in the lima beans on my plate.
“Do you know what the Bible is?” she pressed.
I offered my considered and scholarly assessment. “Just some book by some stupid people,” I said sullenly.
She gasped. The diplomatic observer gasped. The two of them withdrew to tut-tut with others over the lostness of my soul and the rift to their social fabric that my apostasy represented.
That was the beginning of my career in theology and scriptural hermeneutics. In my remaining seven years in the town’s public school system, I ventured no further discourses on religion, but that was enough. Throughout that time I was “the class atheist.”
Back then, it was clear what “God” meant – and clear -- to me – that the universe included nothing that instantiated that meaning. Now, nothing about God is clear: there’s only ambiguity and mystery – beautiful, rich, joyous ambiguity and mystery.
The theist says there is such a thing, the atheist says there isn’t such a thing, and the agnostic says “I don’t know whether there’s such a thing or not,” – but they all pretend to know what sort of thing it is they’re talking about. The universe, however, is more amazing – life is more profoundly awesome – and the Bible’s authors, editors, and redactors were wiser and more insightful – than my fourth-grade self was prepared to comprehend.
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This is part 1 of 3 of "God the Adjective"
Part 2: Thinking God an Adjective
Part 3: The God Life in This God World