Thinking God an Adjective

God the Adjective, part 2

In the years after high school the issue in my mind gradually shifted from being about God to being about "God" – that is, from the ontological question about the way reality is to the semantic question about the way words are used. Might not the word “God” be used, not to make a controversial empirical claim about what is, but to draw our attention, as a good poet does, to certain qualities of existence – qualities which are not subjects about which to dispute, but are a felt reality momentarily overlooked?

It’s not about being convinced or persuaded. It’s not about believing. It’s about being reminded of what we already know deep down: that this present moment – if we truly show up for it – is so sweet and so delicious that we need words like “holy” and “divine” and “God” to help us notice it.

It’s not about what exists; it’s about the qualities of existence: is it wondrous, mysterious, beautiful, awesome? Those adjectives are the crux of the matter, and that’s why I suggest to you today that God is an adjective.

Glen Thomas Rideout’s poem, "god is no noun" is beautiful and evocative (SEE IT HERE) -- and it is dismissive of the idea of God being an adjective. The poem begins:
“God is not a noun and certainly no adjective.”
But I think Rideout overlooks that the qualities of things are more important than the things.

It doesn’t matter much whether it’s a house or a cave if it’s luxurious, comfortable, warm, cozy, affordable, and conveniently-located. It’s those adjectives that matter. It doesn’t matter what we say exists or doesn’t exist if whatever exists – existence itself -- is holy, sacred. “God” is an allusion to the quality that existence has when we are so fully present to it that we perceive divinity there.

Dewey and Bonhoeffer

Let me mention two writers – one of them who did not identify as Christian, John Dewey, and one who did, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They both support this emphasis on the adjectival.

John Dewey said religion, the noun, didn’t do much for him. But he recognized the deep value of religious, the adjective. “Religious” referred to a kind of experience, a special quality that suffuses some experiences. You don’t have to have a religion in order to have religious experience.

The noun, religion, indicates some particular religion, and any particular religion carries a lot of particular baggage – doctrines, rituals, theologies, moral dictates. The religious quality in experience, on the other hand, requires no doctrines, rituals, or moral rules. A religious attitude “may be taken toward every object and every proposed end or ideal,” wrote Dewey.

When something feels profound, or moving, or like a revelation or an epiphany – while on a nature hike, or through involvement in some project – we might say “it was a religious experience!” We wouldn’t say it was a religion. An experience has religious quality when it results in adjustments to life’s conditions, orientation, a sense of peace and security. It might be brought about by devotion to a cause, by a passage of poetry, by meditation. The religious quality is a unifying, connecting quality. It re-orients us, brings a feeling of peace through awareness of interconnection with everything.

Writing along lines similar to Dewey was Dietrich Bonhoeffer -- a German theologian and outspoken critic of Hitler, imprisoned and eventually executed by Nazis. Bonhoeffer called for a religionless Christianity. Wrap your mind around that term: “religionless Christianity.” Bonhoffer wrote in a letter from prison:
“The New Testament must be interpreted in such a way as not to make religion a precondition of faith” (329).
Religion, he said,
“is only a garment of Christianity – and even this garment has looked very different at different times.”
I think Bonhoeffer had in mind the same idea Dewey had: that this noun, religion, denotes some set of doctrines and practices. No single set is necessary for giving experience that religious quality. A wide variety of sets of doctrines and practices can help cultivate the religious quality of experience.

In Bonhoeffer’s way of putting it, the religion of Christianity -- that is, the doctrines and practices -- was only a garment covering over the true Christianity beneath – a Christianity that had nothing to do with doctrine or ritual and everything to do with the experience of transcendence in our lives. Christians discarding the garment of their religion – Christians, that is, who possess “religionless Christianity” – will recognize that very different doctrines and practices – say pagan ones, or Buddhist ones – also facilitate our awareness of that which goes by many names: the oneness of reality, the divine, the ground of being, the transcendent, the awesome quality of the universe, the interbeing of everything, the interconnected web of existence -- God.

Christians discarding this religion garment, said Bonhoeffer, will cease to regard themselves “as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world” (280-81).

So that’s a little conceptual background from Dewey and Bonhoeffer.
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This is part 2 of 3 of "God the Adjective"
See also
Part 1: How We Argue About God
Part 3: The God Life in This God World

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