Thursday, August 20, 2009

Why Do They Think It's Comforting?

I was recently talking with an old friend with whom I'd long been out of touch. At one point in the conversation he said that he envied me my faith in God. "It must be comforting," he said. "Not at all," I replied, and I only just held back the thought that was in my mind -- sometimes it makes my life a living hell.

First I need to be clear -- when I use the word "God" I don't mean the Old White Guy with the Long White Beard hanging out in the clouds tossing down judgements and lighting bolts. (What a teenager in one of the congregations I served once called "Santa on Steroids.") I don't mean the Puppeteer or the Cosmic Cop. I don't even mean a person -- certainly not male or female -- in any way I can understand it.

In fact, one of my favorite descriptions of the way I understand what I call "God" is to quote no less an authority than the Christian theologian and Catholic "church father" St. Augustine who wrote, si comprehendis non es deus. ("If you understand it, it's not God.") Or, to quote Zen Abbot Daido Loori, "once you say, 'I've got it, you've lost it.'" The one thing I know about what I call "God" is that I can't comprehend it -- it's too big, too small, too far away, too close, too Other, too much the same. And yet I have experiences which tell me that in some way I can not fully explain I am in relationship with "it" and, so, I use the word "God" so as to have a name to use.

I also like the philosopher's definition of God -- "that than which no greater can be conceived." In other words, whatever else "God" may be, it is the ultimate. So if you have two contending understandings of God, whichever one can be objectively judged to be the greater one must be the correct one because God, by definition, must be the greatest there is. There can't be anything greater than God.

And so, oddly, a God who is not involved in every detail of our existence--pulling the strings, calling the shots, the synchronicity behind coincidence--seems to me far greater than one who is. Why? Because a God who is pulling all the strings has a lot of explaining to do: why is there suffering? Why do the good die young? Why does evil exist? Why do the unjust prosper? Oh, sure, there have been explanations offered -- it's all part of the plan -- but do any of them really make sense? Would a truly good God make such a convoluted and painful plan?

No, from my perspective, a greater God would be one who -- because of freewill, perhaps -- is not able to do everything. Such a God could still be technically omnipotent for those who care about such things. (A philosopher friend once said that omnipotence could be understood as being able to do anything that was able to be done and that, perhaps, some things just couldn't be done, even by God.) Perhaps the notion that "God is love" means that God can do what love can do. Perhaps the idea that God is like a parent means that, like a parent, God must watch as we children do things that are sometimes going to hurt each other and ourselves.

So right there some of the "comfort" my friend expected me to find in my faith disappears because I don't believe in that God -- the one I can call on to swoop in and save me (or my favorite sports team) from imminent disaster. But why do I say that my faith sometimes makes my life a living hell?

Because I do think that what I call "God" is involved with my life. Like a good parent, perhaps, God is proding me and provoking me; encouraging me to be the very best I can be. Like love, God is calling me out of my comfort zone and expanding me and the circle of my concern. This isn't always easy. In fact, this is usually pretty hard. Perhaps this is one of the reasons virtually every Biblical encounter with an angel begins with the angel saying, "Be not afraid." People knew what they might be getting into!

And yet -- and there had to be an "and yet" or no one would do this -- there is comfort, too. To keep with the parental metaphor, for those who've known loving and supportive parents (or any loving, supportive elders), it can be tremendously comforting to know that these people are in your corner, are there when you need them. You can feel their strength and their wisdom flowing in you and through you even though you know that they can't walk your road for you. And that's how I've found it to be with what I choose to call "God."

In Gassho,

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