Several weeks ago Jeff introduced the notion of ‘functional atheism,’ in his sermon. This label refers to the inclination many of us have to feel that all the work of the church is dependent on us and not God. Functional atheists may not give voice to this feeling directly but when you listen to the way they talk about the church it seems that their faith is summed up by saying, “If it is our efforts, our contributions, and our energy that do the work, then what need is there for God?”
In challenging our inclination toward ‘functional atheism’ I think Jeff was prodding us to encounter God on a deeper level than many of us are used to doing. I confess that I have at times been so busy, whether doing the work of the church, or doing my own thing that I neglect to ask, who or what is the God that I say I worship. Jeff challenged me to reflect on my understanding of the nature of God and ask myself, “Is God simply an abstraction, a religious convention or is there a God that is much more than that, awesome beyond my imagining.” Today I want to share with you some of that reflection, but with the qualification that trying to define my own understanding of God is an ongoing process, indeed a lifelong process. And I’m not done yet.
A few days ago, I was driving my grandson Coston from our home to his parents’. Coston is not quite two years old so our conversation was mostly repeating words like “Mama” and “Dadda” and “Nana”. Then to my surprise he came out with the word “Poppa”, which is what we are teaching him to call me. And with that one word the world shifted a little for me and I experienced what I can only describe as a moment of bliss. I felt deep in my bones how good it is to be alive, how good it is to be part of a family that loves and includes me, how good it is to be part of the human community that connects me to the experience of billions of others who participate in the nurture of the future and at the same time links me to humankind’s shared past.
That moment is one example of what I mean when I speak of God. For me, God is deeply part of who I am, so deep that I can hardly draw a line between myself and the Spirit. This is the God of whom our second hymn speaks when it lists so many ordinary things in life and points out that the sparrow and the whale and the swirling stars are all part of this awesome universe that is not just a complex arrangement of molecules, but is infused with the divine Spirit which gives it meaning and purpose, a Spirit that longs for a world of love and harmony, a Spirit that is within me at the same time that it extends to Alpha Centauri and the galaxies beyond.
The church has struggled to understand the nature of God almost from the beginning. A thousand years ago St. Anselm of Canterbury expressed that effort as “faith seeking understanding.” He did not mean that our task is to replace faith with philosophical or metaphysical proofs of God’s nature, rather our task is to provide a framework in which our limited human capacities can conceive of the God who is, as Elaine told us on Transfiguration Sunday is “unutterably mysterious”.
That word “unutterable” points us to what I think is at work here. There is something about God of which it is impossible to speak. For me as for many of us, that is why music is such an important part of our worship and of our relationship with God. Despite the fact that we use words when we sing, our hymns are much more than the ideas they may express. They express our longing. They grip our hearts. Often I find myself unable to sing because I feel my chest tighten and my throat close with emotion. Our opening hymn this morning is one of the hymns that does that for me. “Holy, Holy, Holy” opened every service of worship when I was a kid. If I analyze the words, I will reject much of what it says about how we are to understand God. I love the images of cherubim and seraphim and the glassy sea, but I don’t believe they tell me much about God. What matters for me is that when I hear that hymn, I am transported to a time when God was glorious and mighty and that felt like a good thing. I was protected and sheltered, like those chicks under the wings of Jesus. I am taken back to standing beside my parents in the midst of a community of faith where I understood almost nothing but felt everything and it was good and warm and I was safe.
We humans are so used to being able to use language to define and describe abstract concepts that we don’t realize that a great deal of our mental experience takes place without words at all. The right brain, which is incapable of speech, is the realm of the unutterable, it is the seat of emotion and intuition, the place where we first receive information from the world outside our skin. Our right brain is a simmering stew of sensation and sentiment that has no ability to give utterance to what it is experiencing.
Our left brain gets bombarded with wordless messages from the right brain, messages that are like most of the sounds my grandson makes as he is trying to convey to me what he is feeling and experiencing. Our right brain is communicating that something is going on in there and then, using language, our rational, logical, language-centred left brain creates stories that try to explain what we are feeling.
There is a danger of oversimplification when we analyze things by dividing them into two. The brain is far more complex than the image of left and right hemispheres with discrete functions that I have just outlined. There are more neuronal connections in the head of each of us than there are stars in the observable universe, about 86 billion by the latest count. Nonetheless, dividing things into two can provide useful clarity if we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that that’s all there is to say about the matter. This is especially so when we are speaking of God.
The church early on identified two contrary aspects of the nature of God when it recognized that God is both transcendent and immanent. Transcendence refers to what Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendum – “the awesome mystery”. God, he said, is wholly other, completely unfathomable and unknowable, entirely beyond our comprehension – in a word, unutterable. At the same time God is, as our second hymn said, “near at hand” and “God of the loving heart.” This is the nature of God that Jesus evokes with the image of a mother hen. This is the experience of God that my grandson evokes in me.
It can be challenging for us is to hold onto both of these very divergent, even contradictory, characteristics of God at the same time. How can God be both beyond understanding and as close to us as the protective wings of a mother hen or the blissful whisper of a baby’s breath?
To deal with the unutterable, our left brains, the logical, rational, analytical part of our nature, gets to work. We attempt to resolve the mysteries of the world in which we find ourselves so that we can understand it. One of the most powerful illustrations of that process comes from Sir Isaac Newton’s discoveries about the nature of light. When he was a mere 17 years old, the greatest scientist of the 18th century enlightenment explained the relationship between light and colour that had long puzzled humanity.
Newton was the first to explain that colour is not the result of impurities contaminating the white light that comes to us from the sun, as had long been thought. What appears to us as white light is made up of all the colours of the rainbow. A prism, be it water vapour after a rain or the window in your house, can break that light up into its constituent colours. What we call white light is in fact full of colour – so much colour that our brains cannot process it all at once and so they take a short cut. Instead of trying to create internal representations of every colour of the rainbow, our minds ignore the different colours and register only the phenomenon of brightness, which is invisible in the sense that it has no colour component at all. What a prism does is separate out the colours so that we can process the information in smaller chunks and thus make sense of it.
Our perception of light as white or pure brilliance is similar to our experience of God as transcendent, unutterably mysterious. And yet this God whom we experience as awesomely mysterious is somehow as knowable as our own thoughts.
God is invisible because God is part of every ‘colour’ of human experience. We don’t have a Newtonian prism that breaks God into the constituent colours, but when faith seeks understanding that is what we are trying to do. Perhaps that is what Paul meant when he said ‘we see now as through a glass darkly.” Our prism is imperfect and does not break out all the colours of the rainbow that is God. It breaks out some colours more clearly for some of us than for others. It breaks out different colours at different times. Sometimes one or other of those colours can seem to be the whole of God, but we need to remember that God is invisible, not because God doesn’t exist, but because God is so multi-faceted, so full of colour, that we cannot take in all of God at once.
The tendency to “functional atheism” of which Jeff spoke can be accounted for by our inclination to focus on only one colour of the rainbow that is God, rather than accept the mystery and ultimate invisibility of God. Isaac Newton can help us again here. He is perhaps best remembered for his theory of gravity, which provides the explanation for why the planets stay in orbit around the sun, rather than go flying off into space. The discovery of the physical laws of nature that govern the solar system and the natural world was at the heart of the 18th century enlightenment.
This discovery led to the development within Christianity of a system of religious understanding called Deism. Deism is wonderfully summarized by the phrase “a watchmaker God”. It is the notion that God created the universe and established the natural laws that govern it and then stepped back to let it run on its own. Deists retain a belief in God, but not in the belief that God is active in the world of human affairs. The God of Desists is so remote and aloof that images like that of a mother hen hovering over her chicks are impossible to accept.
My own guess is that many of us who may reject the label “functional atheist” are “functional Deists” at least some of the time. When I ponder the suffering that is in the world and cannot fathom why God does not intervene, I often find myself resorting to this image of God, even as I am not satisfied with it. In doing so, I am taking one colour in the rainbow that is God, that image or colour of majestic transcendence and awesome mystery and saying that is all there is. But that does not describe or account for other experiences of God that I have, and so I find myself called to acknowledge that God is ultimately hidden and unknowable, not because God is absent, but precisely because God is so much more than any one aspect of the divine. The unutterable God is seen only as absolute brilliance and not as discrete components that are visible to the naked eye.
The church can be for us, however partially, that prism that unravels at least some of God’s complexity. The church can allow us to experience that powerful and protective God that the psalmist speaks of and it can allow us to experience the God who empowers us to act beyond our individual capacities by combining our gifts with others. In the church, we can discover God through study and learning, through meditation and prayer, and through music and communal singing.
God is invisible not because God is a watchmaker who has left creation to run according to laws God created, but because, like light, God is so full of colour that we can neither process nor comprehend our experience of the divine. What I heard from Jeff and Elaine in their recent sermons to which I have referred was an invitation to seek out and make use of the prisms that will enable each of us to experience more of the rainbow of colour that is that mysterium tremendum that we call God.
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