This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Which God Do You Not Believe In?

[This will be in my church's next newsletter.]

Occasionally people share a concern with me about someone — a friend, child, spouse, parent — who has announced that they don’t believe in God.  Marcus Borg, the Biblical scholar,  has something very instructive to say.  When one of his students (he teaches at a college) confesses disbelief in God, Borg asks the question, “Which god do you not believe in?”  Then when the student describes the deity they can no longer swallow, Borg replies, “That’s okay, I don’t believe in that god either.”
The question, “Which god do you not believe in?” is very important.  Some folks think they have become self-affirming atheists, when all they have done is rejected an obsolete, infantile, shallow, and negative understanding of God.  They are mistaking atheism for spiritual maturity.  What we need to do is help such people to move beyond the picture of God they might have received as children, and discover the true God of the Scriptures and of Jesus Christ.
For many, the god they have trouble believing in is the god of magic.  This god reflects an extremely primitive mindset.  He is analogous to Santa Claus, both in the credulity required to accept him and in the attitudes he engenders.  The fairy-tale, Santa Claus god “sees you when you’re sleeping, knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!”  This god of childish superstition rewards good behavior and punishes bad.  
Most of us stop believing in a literal, historical Santa Claus before we are ten years old.  But for many their understanding of God never grows out of this magical stage.  And this understanding of God does appear in the Scriptures, here and there.  But it is far from the only understanding.  And in the Scriptures this version of God is something each generation has to struggle with — and grow beyond.  
But if someone no longer believes God to be an old man with a white beard who lives in the clouds and measures out rewards and punishments... that’s okay, I don’t believe in that God either.  Or, more correctly, my understanding of God is far larger than that rather limited and childish view.
Another understanding of God that can alienate people is the mythic.  The mythic God is a little more sophisticated than the magical one.  The magical understanding has its place, and so does the mythical.  But the mythical God becomes untenable when we assume to take him literally.  Taking this God literally means applying historical categories to God that were completely unknown to the original biblical writers.  And it means rendering this God completely irrelevant by relegating him to the distant past.  Finally, applying the lessons of this mythic God without a mature interpretive strategy often means disaster and atrocity.
When we read of this God suspending the laws of nature in dramatic ways, or raining down horror and terror on people, it can lead to disaster if we take them literally.  The point of a story like Jonah and the whale does not have to do with the likelihood of a person surviving for three days in the belly of a large fish.  Neither is the story of Jesus’ virgin birth about gynecology, or the creation stories in Genesis about geology.  The meaning and power of a story like that of Adam and Eve is not dependent upon whether we believe there was a talking snake.  These stories have higher and deeper meanings beyond the literal.  To focus on the literal is to miss the point rather spectacularly.
When someone reads stories like these and dismisses them as ridiculous, or even harmful, it is because they are mistaking mythic narratives for historical accounts.  When someone refuses to believe in a God who seems to require such a comprehensive suspension of our intelligence, I agree with them.  But the fact is that God is making no such request of us.  God is asking us to listen to these narratives with a mindset rather different from the literal, historical approach we automatically use.  A God who asks us to check our brains at the door?  I don’t believe in that God either.
Once we have moved beyond the magical and the mythic understandings of God — not abandoning and rejecting them but including them in a broader, more inclusive framework — we start to gain some understanding of the God we do believe in and can trust.  Jesus Christ comes into the world to reveal this God to us, and in him we know that this God is first, foremost, and last about love.
God reveals God’s love in the creation, redemption, and sanctification of the world.  Out of this infinite love God gives guidelines for living together in justice and peace.  Out of this infinite love God warns us of the consequences for living in violence, and then out of the same love God suffers with us, and finally delivers us from our own mistakes.  Out of this same love God gives life for us on the cross, and to us in the resurrection.  God sends the Spirit to bind our hearts in the same love for each other, the world, and God.
So, which God do you not believe in?  It is a good thing, a sign of maturity, that we don’t hold onto the same versions of God we might have in the past.  Do you believe in love?  That’s the real question.  Do you believe in peace, justice, goodness, light, and life?  That’s what the God we worship here is about.  Maybe you should join us in getting to know this God, the real God, better. 


John Edward Harris said...


You write "What we need to do is help such people to move beyond the picture of God they might have received as children, and discover the true God of the Scriptures and of Jesus Christ." I agree. What about people that do not want to move beyond their childish go? How can we help lead the enslaved out of the cave into the more pure light of day when they feel more comfortable with their chains than with freedom?

I think many adults still embrace the god of their childhood Sunday School, if they went to Sunday School, rather than an adult faith. While they have moved on from counting, addition and subtraction to multiplication and division and perhaps even algerbra and calculus, they have not moved on from the god of their childhood to the God of a faith seeking understanding.

Paul Rack said...

Yes. I tend just to leave them alone, finding it pointless to prod them into something more mature. Then, when that faith fails them, and usually it does eventually, I try to be there with something more effective for getting them through.

Btw, how did you find my blog? It's nice to have another contact!

John Edward Harris said...

I do not remember how I found your blog. I must have stumbled across a link somewhere, but I do not remember where. I'm started blogging less than a month ago at