What’s in a Name?: Is ‘God’ in Need of Upgrade or Obsoletion?

I must admit I’m certainly not one of the most original thinkers; a thinker? yes, original? probably not so much. I try to counter-act my apparent lack of originality by at least being well-read. I’m usually reading between 5-7 books simultaneously and I scour the Internet and social media for articles of interest with the hopes of happening upon an unseen connection that may spark a bit of inspiration.

In one of many meanderings into social media and forays into the world-wide-web of information I came across an article on Michael Dowd‘s website entitled, “God is Reality Personified, Not a Person.” A great title for sure and an intriguing read.
In the article Dowd’s primary thesis is simply this: “God is not a person; God is a mythic personification of reality…not an invisible friend or otherworldly entity.” Agreed! He goes on to specify that “ALL images and concepts of God are more or less meaningful interpretations and personifications.” Anthropologically speaking, this point simply can’t be overemphasized.
In this regard, Dowd highlights the fact that “we humans have always been in an inescapable relationship with a Reality that we could neither fully predict nor control.” Similarly, I do think the concept of ‘God’ was an important stepping stone in the evolution of humanity. At one time it was an idea that held an immense functionality (Prof. Lloyd Geering gives a wonderful talk on precisely this point, you can find it here). It served as what Ken Wilber might call a “Theory of Everything”. However, as Wilber explains a good theory of everything is “not fixed or final” but, rather is one “that has served its purpose if it helps you get to a better one” (xiii). In other words, ‘God’ functioned as a kind of a prehistoric/ancient innovative technology, and like most technologies, over time may have become outdated, outmoded, and obsolete. In this regard, I wonder if perhaps theologians, in their total reliance upon what they believe to be the necessary preservation of the ‘God’ hypothesis, are, in effect, trying to force dial-up to function optimally within a Broadband world.
It seems that many theologians and religious thinkers, whether liberal or conservative, radical, orthodox, or heterodox, weave such an elaborate, complex, and, an often contradictory tapestry in an effort to make the idea of ‘God” work, one cannot help but think to ask, “if it takes such an immense amount of effort and strain to justify a particular idea, perhaps the idea itself is fundamentally flawed?” Even though I have garnered much from various theological thinkers and many religious academic or intellectuals, I still wonder if ‘theology’ carries far too much baggage to be genuinely helpful and if ‘God’ is far too value-laden to be of use. Paul Van Buren goes so far as to suggest suggests that terms such as ‘theology’ and ‘God’ are “either meaningless or misleading.” Thus, the more I have ventured into the studies of history, human origins, language, ethology, ethnology, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, and ecology, the more I think that Geering has a point, perhaps as he suggests ALL ‘talk’ regardless of what it is about cannot be anything other than ‘human talk’, and ‘theology’ is nothing other than anthropology (Geering, 3). (This is not to say, however, that I think that there are not paths to think beyond the ‘human’; see The Ecological ThoughtEcology Without NatureLarvel Subjects.)
It seems then, (although I may be mistakenly oversimplifying) that we have one of three options. Though I can’t say at this time which if any of the three are better or more helpful:
1) neologism  –  in this case that is re-naming ‘God’, inventing new words, phrases, concepts, or ideas to be used in place of ‘God’.  This seems to only offer more confusion rather than more clarity, as it would only be an elite or select few that would maintain any sense of familiarity. Here, I think of Caputo’s “Event”. This is a beautiful concept but, as a friend of mine astutely observed, “what everyday person hears the word ‘God’ and thinks of the event?”
2) re-appropriation – in other words, preserving the verbiage, rhetoric, and ‘name’ of ‘God’ while reformulating its contents and meaning. For example, another friend of mine takes the Paulinian idea, “God IS Love” quite literally, suggesting that whenever and wherever there is love, there is God. In his usage Love is God. Here, he simply uses “God” as a kind of symbolic place holder/synonym for love. While I can sympathize with this move to an extent and while I’m sure this re-appropriation works for him individually. I think it similarly succumbs to the same pitfalls of neologism. There seems to be a break down of practicality, praxis, and performance. We simply do not engage with “god” and “love” in interchangeable ways when observing the realm of everyday religious practice. Love is a verb, not a noun, personal or proper. Love is not and should not be an ‘object’ of devotion, worship, prayer, veneration, or observance. Love is an action, it is enacted, it is performative. (But, in this idea’s defense, perhaps, ‘God’ needs to go through a re-verbing process.)
Dowd, too, alludes to a kind re-appropriation in his article:
[W]e see an enigmatic power operative in our everyday lives, giving us our life and all good gifts yet also limiting us in nearly every conceivable way, and finally taking our lives away. This is real life! This is reality as it really is, whether or not we like it. There can be no argument whether or not this reality exists. If you don’t want to call it a power, call it a force, an up-against-ness, or simply the universe as it really is. As Bultmann points out in his essay, we are not talking about some metaphysical idea here. We are talking about an unavoidable actuality. Words may fail us, but we all know this reality intimately, personally.

Here, Dowd says that “For me to look into the awe-filling fullness of life and pronounce the name “God” means a commitment of my life to reality-based living…Reality is my God, evidence is my scripture, and integrity (living in right relationship with reality and helping others do the same) is my religion.” Yet, Dowd, when quoting Rudolf Bultmann. poses what I think is an important question to consider: “Why call this mysterious power ‘God’? Why give the enigma, the mystery that drives us this way and that and hedges us in, any other name but ‘the enigma’, or ‘fate’?” These are questions I have constantly asked myself when it comes to ‘God’. Perhaps, we should simply let our yes be yes and our no be no, in other words, perhaps, we should simply let ‘Love’ be love, let love stand on its own two feet, unmasked and unfettered. Why can’t we simply let the enigma be the enigma and let mystery be mystery? Are these not strong enough ideas and words on their own? Or am I being hypocritical here? Elsewhere I have written about how much I admire the philosophical use of language, that is, the way in which philosophy dramatical alters the meaning, significance, and content of common place everyday language in ways that are then anything but ordinary.

Finally…
3) rejection/abandonment – letting go of ‘God’, disengaging from its usage, dismissing its utilization, and declining its employment. Many credible thinkers that are steeped in theology suggest just such a route (Geering, Cupitt, etc.). This needn’t be an antagonistic maneuver. It can be reverent as it can recognize that these ‘theorizations’ have been useful in the past but, they have served their purpose.
 As a committed non-theist/atheist I must confess that I greatly lean towards rejection and abandonment, as I have no use spiritual or transcendent aspects of ‘God’ but, as an equally committed academic student of religion I still recognize that there is a kind of ‘power’ and magnanimity in the word and concept of ‘God’, especially in its ability to encapsulate and evoke that which is of ultimate concern.  I cannot say with any absolute certainty that complete rejection is actually the best way forward. I am simply unsure. Consider the immense immanence, materiality, and earthenness found in the following passage by Zen Buddhist priest Brad Warner from his book Hardcore Zen:
 
Everything is sacred. Every blade of grass, every cockroach, every speck of dust, every flower, every pool of mud outside a graffiti-splattered warehouse is God. Everything is a worthy object of worship…Truth announces itself when you kick away a discarded bottle of Colt 45 Malt Liquor. Truth rains on you from the sky above, and God forms in puddles at your feet. You eat God and excrete truth four hours later. Take a whiff—what a lovely fragrance the truth has! Truth is reality itself. God is reality itself. Enlightenment, by the way, is reality itself. And here it is.

Do we replace the word ‘God’? Do we invent whole new trajectories of ‘God’ language? Do we maintain its usage, its structure, and completely overhaul, renovate, and remodel its interior content? Or do we simply walk away, tip our hats, count our losses, and make for the exits, discarding the verbiage by the wayside as mile marker monument to where we have been and how far we have come as a species and culture? I don’t know…

What’s in a name? But, more importantly, where do we go from here?
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It’s Not You, It’s Me (‘Unbelief’ is not a failure)

I recently came across an article on Patrol Magazine written by editor Jonathan Fitzgerald entitled “We are the Reason They Don’t Believe.” Fitzgerald is also the author of a book I’ve recently begun reading entitled, Not Your Mother’s Morals. The book explores the ways in which modern popular culture is changing the very ways in which we engage with and understand morality. Fitzgerald terms this new permutation of morality that now seems to be permeating through current films, art, music, and other mediums, the New Sincerity. This is something of a call to authenticity and a rejection of cynicism.
In the article Fitzgerald shares his reactions to the growing numbers of the social demographic now referred to as the Religious Nones, a subject that I myself have also been quite drawn and have written about previously as well (you can find the post here). Fitzgerald expresses his heartbreak over the angst and “unbelief” of the Nones stating:
I sat up in my bed staring at the ceiling and listening to people my age discuss how they stopped believing, how they’re trying to fill their lives with other things to replace religion, and most heartbreakingly, how they still want to believe, I couldn’t help but feel like I failed, like all Christians fail, to provide a space for the these sincere doubters.
Fitzgerald emphasizes his point stating over and again “We’ve failed them.” He also goes on to say that “As a believer, I want to win those ‘Nones’ back.”  Even though I identify as an Atheist and would certainly have to be numbered amongst the Nones I can sympathize with his point and I appreciate his honesty and sincerity. However, I can’t help but feel that he’s leading off from what I find to be inaccurate assumptions.
To begin with, the religiously unaffiliated should not necessarily be synonymous with “unbelievers.” As an unbeleieve myself I realize that I represent a minority within the Nones. Amongst the Religious “Nones” there has not been an overwhelming abandonment of theism. While this demographic has adamantly rejected religious identification, the clear majority have retained their belief in God. The largest group of nones (68 percent) say they believe in God or a universal spirit. Within that group, 30 percent of them are certain God exists and only 27 percent of nones say there is no God. Clearly, most of those that claim no religious affiliation have not ceased to believe.
Nor have the Nones ceased to believe in ethics and morality. They are drawn to activism and rally around the mobilization of social issues. They care deeply about equality, human rights, as well as social and economic justice. In many regards they have actively embodied “religious” ideals more thoroughly than most religionists. Perhaps here, Nietzsche was more right than we realize when he said that “Christian dogma was destroyed by Christian ethics.” Theologian Don Cupitt explains further that “Christian scrupulosity eventually forces people to admit that they can no longer believe Christian dogma.”
What is it the Nones don’t believe? It’s neither God nor ethics that is most adamantly being denied. They don’t believe in institutions, be they religious or non. They reject the concretizations of hierarchy and bureaucracy. But this is to be lauded. They have sought an autonomous authenticity outside the walls of formalized structures.
In Entertainment Theology, Barry Taylor highlights the that “this anti-institutional posture toward religion does not result in a rejection of the sacred[…] What is advanced instead is a new understanding of the relationship of the sacred and the profane, the spirit and the secular. The sacred and profane are blended into new configurations.” The old binary ways in which we have sought to order ‘reality’, society, experience, and the world can no longer suffice.
In a Big Think video technology futurist Daniel Burrus discusses what the occurrence of “linear change”, that is, change that is distinctly one way, unidirectional, as Burrus says, “Unlike cyclical change, when linear change hits we’re not going back.”
Once you got a smartphone, you’re not going back to a dumb phone. Once the people in China parked their bicycle and get a car, they’re not going to say, gee, lets get rid of the car and go back to the bike. Once people in India get refrigeration for their homes, they’re not going to say we don’t need refrigeration. Now these are one way – they’re not cycles – one-way linear changes that had profound…consequences.
While some of the Nones we may still feel a desire to “believe”, the simple fact remains that, because of the rapid exponential changes of technology, communications, globalization, social media, and the free flow and exchange of information and ideas, Nones are seeking to upgrade from the outmoded technology of the church and can no longer “believe” the way we once did.
Yet, if you look deeper I think you will see that they are reinventing belief, redesigning what it means to believe. Perhaps this is post-religious thought, whole news ways in which one can be “religious” are being innovated. In his article, “Critique of Religion and Religion as Critique: The Secularized Hope of Ernst Bloch, Gerard Raulet calls this “Dialectical Secularization.” Raulet writes that “Dialectical secularization does not abolish religion and its themes, but instead, inserts them into a dialectical secular practice where they retain their interpretative potentials.” He goes on to say that “Secularization, according to Bloch, is defined both as a break with and as the continuation of Biblical hope.”
In many regards, then, you could say that the church has not failed the Nones. The church has failed itself. It is has consistently failed to live up to its own designs, systems, and models. It is not because the church or religion has failed that the Nones became so. Rather religion and the church has failed to keep up with those who have become Nones. Religion has failed to make the strides that the Nones have made on their own.
In response to Fitzgerald’s article I must be clear, I did not choose to be religiously unaffiliated because you have failed me. You are not a failure because I am an Atheist and a None. You have failed me because you have seen my atheism and my religious disassociation as a failure.
 Paul Tillich drew upon such a distinction in his idea of the “latent church.”

In its prophetic role it is the Church which reveals demonic structures in society and undercuts their power by revealing them — even within the Church itself.. And in doing so the Church listens to prophetic voices outside itself, in judgment both on culture and on the Church in so far as it is a part of culture. Most such voices come from persons who are not active members of the manifest Church. But perhaps one could call them participants of a latent church[…] Sometimes this latent Church comes into the open. Then the manifest Church should recognize in these voices the spirit of what its own spirit should be and accept them even if they are most hostile to the Church.

This begs question what if the Nones are in fact the best example of the New Sincerity, what if the most authentic progression of religious scruples is religious disavowal?
What if instead of the church seeking to get Nones to join the church, the church sought to join the Nones? What if religion itself became religiously unaffiliated?