I want to begin with a question.
How many of you feel that your definition of who God is comes mostly from:
What your parents or family raised you to believe?
From the Bible?
From a church?
From a spiritual or enlightening experience?
From personal life experience?
Perhaps some of you answered this question strongly with one of those options. Or, maybe there are a couple of those options that resonate with you.
Regardless, most likely you identified strongly with these options:
-Parents or family beliefs
-Personal life experience
Yes, it’s true. Most of us [and I mean almost ALL of us] do not define who G-d is based on the Bible or some spiritual experience of enlightenment.
In my vocation I encounter a lot of people who want to talk about religion or spirituality or G-d, and many of these conversations start with assumptions about belief itself. For example, many assume that the Christian G-d is a certain way. If that person is not a Christian, he/she has learned something from the TV or other media or most likely, they’ve just heard it as second or third-hand information from family or friends or acquaintances. If he/she does not have much contact with people who identify as Christians, the assumptions begin to grow into perceptions and eventually, they get solidified. He/She ends up saying and thinking:
All Christians believe this or that. They all think G-d is like this or that…
Of course, today this is happening much more to Muslims than to Christians. Islamophobes really do exist. They group all Muslims together, as if every single Muslim in the world believes the same things and practices their faith in the same way. They assume that all Muslims say and think the same things about Allah and life in general, and so the beliefs and actions of so-called terrorists like ISIS are no different than say, the Muslim family down the street or the guy at work who pauses to pray from time to time, or the female doctor who wears a hijab. Even though terrorist groups are not considered Muslims by practicing Muslims, it doesn’t matter to Islamophobes. They’ve made up their minds already. This kind of thing also happens to Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, etc., but we know that in this country Islamophobia is most prevalent.
So because I have Muslim friends and colleagues and work frequently with Muslim communities, people come to talk to me.
I do my best to fact-check their statements and to clarify that there is not just one way of looking at things and that every Muslim is unique just like every Christian is unique.
Then the conversation usually shifts to me.
But aren’t you a Christian? So don’t you then believe that there is only one G-d, and that Jesus is the only way to salvation? Aren’t you supposed to believe that?
My response reiterates:
Just like Muslims, not all Christians believe the same things or practice their faith in the same way.
But then they scratch their heads and act confused. And for some, that’s the end of the conversation. For some, I cease to be a Christian in their minds.
What we’re talking about here is theology, or simply how we think about G-d.
I asked you the question at the very beginning about how you think you come to beliefs about G-d. I’ll tell you why this matters.
Religious prejudice and discrimination, Islamophobia, harmful rhetoric, propaganda, fanaticism, and even violence occur because of theology.
For example, if you think that G-d does not exist or if you think that there’s no way to be sure that there is a god, then that affects the way you look at the world. You’ll most likely be skeptical about all religions. You’ll certainly balk at any religious folk who try to convert others. But you may also be very accepting of all religious and non-religious people, because again—you are not sure that there is a god in the first place. And finally, you won’t feel the urge to attend a church, temple, mosque or whatever, because prayer and worship don’t make sense if there is no object for prayer and worship.
Likewise, let’s say you aren’t atheist or agnostic, or a secular humanist. Say you do believe in G-d, and that’s been part of your perspective since you can remember. That clearly affects the way you see the world and other people. Perhaps you see G-d as a creator of all living things. Maybe G-d is a cosmic judge, too. And if you believe in this kind of G-d, most likely you spend a reasonable amount of time in worship services, prayer, or Bible reading. You do that, because you believe G-d is watching, and also because G-d deserves your time and attention.
Take it a step further.
Say you do believe in G-d, but you were abused in the past—either physically, verbally, or religiously. Or a combination of all three. You see G-d much differently. You may see G-d as a divine rewarder and punisher. You may see G-d as completely distant and unfeeling, because how could G-d allow the abuse to happen? Or, if people used religion to control and manipulate you, perhaps you see G-d as someone or something that as power over you; and you are afraid of this G-d.
I’m sad to say that I know too many people who think in this way because of abuse.
Back to the original question. Almost all of us are conditioned to believe something about G-d by other people. And then some of us, via personal experience, come up with our own conclusions.
But very, very few people actually believe something about G-d based on Scripture itself or some spiritual enlightenment.
Someone can read the Bible many, many times and then say that he/she believes in the G-d of the Bible. But which parts of the Bible do you mean?
The Bible is chock full of theologies that don’t agree with each other at all.
The majority of what we call the Bible is Jewish, to be sure, but also many, many other Semitic theologies and ancient Hebrew thoughts—including Egyptian.
The smaller part of the Bible, the New Testament, is Jewish and Roman and Greek and Aramaic and African Sub-Saharan and more, in its perspective.
Yes, it’s true that one theology does not fit all—even in the Bible.
What anyone believes or doesn’t believe about G-d is a result of a series of influences, experiences, texts, words, songs, and feelings. No one person can claim that he/she “knows” who G-d is or isn’t. Theology has always been relative to the culture and time period in which it was created. This is why the theology of the 1st and 2nd century in Israel and Palestine looks so much different than the theology of 2015 in Philadelphia. It’s just normal for this to happen.
The Psalms of the OT are a great example. They are completely human expressions of what people feel and think about G-d.
Consider Psalm 85, for example. It’s nationalistic. It’s about Israel. It’s written by someone who is in the midst of troubling times. There’s war. Notice that the writer expresses perspectives about G-d formed because of personal experiences. For this writer, G-d is a celestial being who protects a certain nation. This G-d gives fortune to certain families. This G-d forgives them when they make mistakes. This G-d is also capable of getting mad. Eventually, the tone of the Psalm shifts to a challenge.
Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?
This person believes that G-d is angry with him and his nation. And yet, the writer coerces G-d as well. It’s as if the psalmist is subtly reminding G-d how G-d should act. Aren’t you loving, G-d? Don’t you care about us? You did before, so….
And then the writer even goes a step further, saying what G-d will actually do and say:
God will speak peace to the people, to the faithful, to those who turn to God in their hearts.
And, a desired result for himself and his nation:
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
There’s a reason, in my opinion, why certain Psalms are not appropriate for us to read in worship services. They reflect a certain worldview and time period and sometimes they are looking for revenge, or war, or punishment.
And now, I will say something that for some might be going too far, and that’s okay.
Sermons are Wizard of Oz speeches, because always when you listen or read them, you should use your brains, your hearts, and your courage.
Friends, we create theology. There is no “right” or “true” or “orthodox” theology.
We create for ourselves what we would like G-d to be or how G-d should act.
We ourselves connect experiences in life to things we read in the Bible and other sacred books; we listen to what people teach us and say about G-d and we make choices about what we actually think.
I am fortunate. My parents did not force a certain theology on me. G-d was never a punisher or a cosmic judge. I was conditioned to see G-d as love. I saw that love in my parents. But many people I know were not so lucky. They were raised to fear G-d. Some were taught that G-d rewarded certain moral behaviors and punished others. Others were raised in a church that excluded lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender folk; or people of other cultural backgrounds; or people who didn’t believe in things like the trinity. And as I mentioned before, some were abused.
What I hope you take from this is some encouragement. For those of you who have been raised in an abusive environment, know that what you were conditioned to believe is not true and certainly not based on any Scripture or enlightened spirituality. It’s fear-based theology created to push you down or keep you down. Over time, you can be free of it.
If you were raised to think that G-d is jealous and craves human devotion, rewarding it with heaven, then your life may be focused on what you have to do or believe in order to go somewhere nice when you die. But that limiting theology can keep you from discovering that your day to day life on this earth is the most important and treasured thing. G-d isn’t dividing people between some place called and heaven and some place we call hell. Courageously use your heart and mind to consider that G-d is concerned with your personal well-being and also present when you’re hurting or suffering.
And if you were raised to think that Jesus was and is THE ONLY savior of humankind, and your ticket to heaven, then probably it’s hard for you to interact with others who are not Christians and most likely you struggle with accepting those who follow another spiritual or religious path, or none at all. But what if Jesus is bigger than that perspective?
Courageously using your brains and your hearts, consider that Jesus of Nazareth existed and taught and lived because of love. Consider the possibility that G-d didn’t send one person to be a martyr, to die on a cross for people’s sins like a sacrificial lamb. Consider that Jesus came, as he was known to say, to seek out the lost and marginalized. Consider that Jesus challenged religion itself, and the status quo, and instigated a new type of community that considered everyone to be neighbor and family.
For those of you like me who were fortunate enough to be raised in an environment of questioning and openness, we have a responsibility. We cannot promote one view over another or lord over anyone with our theology. And we must reach out to those who have been abused, and help them to heal, and to move with them from fear into love.
For indeed, what is at the core of G-d’s being and our being. Are we not essentially love?
Regardless of what you believe [or don’t believe], may your perspectives and beliefs be rooted in the honesty that they are part conditioning and part experience. And may you always fact-check your beliefs by returning to love. Does what you think and believe come out of a place of love?