What Do We Talk About When We Talk About God?


What do we talk about when we talk about God? It might seem an odd question to those of us who grew up in what we call “mainstream” churches, whether by that we mean Christian churches of a liberal bent or ones with a more “fundamentalist” perspective– though the fact that that distinction exists should sound a warning bell for us against making too many easy assumptions. In a sense, that’s at the core of today’s talk, a warning against making easy assumptions, whether in our tendency to dismiss “God” out of hand or our tendency to cling to the easy formulations that we were presented with in childhood.

Karen Armstrong, in the introduction to her book The History of God, talks about the rather absurd position that most of us find ourselves in as adults thinking about God. Our early childhood understandings of God—as an old man who lives in a place called Heaven, which is located in a seemingly unsubstantial place in the sky—lingers on. Meanwhile, our understanding of the world in areas such as psychology, politics, family dynamics, patterns of human behavior in groups or societies, and the physical world we inhabit, matures as we mature.

montyMaybe it’s because we spend so much time in the day-to-day world of responsibilities alternating with entertainment that we spend little time contemplating our ideas of what God may be. If we don’t bother developing a more mature idea of what God may be, we are in danger of dismissing the question as simply as we dismiss Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny: useful fantasies for children, perhaps, but irrelevant for the lives we lead as adults.

So, today, I’d like you to consider what you mean when you say “God.” If you still use that word to refer to a childish vision, I encourage you to challenge yourself to grow beyond that. If you call yourself an atheist, I encourage you to consider just what God it is you don’t believe in. In other words, I encourage you to move in the direction of spiritual growth (as I challenge myself), in keeping with our mission.

Oh… my… God! Or OMG, in our contemporary parlance. That’s the reference I hear and see most often in my daily life to this entity called “God.” This use of God’s name in a casual and pretty much useless way was called by my early religious instructors, nuns in the Catholic church, “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” As such, it was counted as a sin, an offense against the sacredness of the holiest entity there is.

It was only as an adult that I realized that this focus on sinfulness is really wrong-headed. Taking the Lord’s name in vain simply means that instead of using God’s name in a useful way, we were wasting it, just as if instead of drinking a glass of water on a hot day, we were pouring it into the gutter. “Taking the Lord’s name in vain” might be a sin because it misuses the name, but it’s a mistake to focus so tightly on the sin, rather than looking at what’s useful in a relationship with God as opposed to what’s useless.

And here, again, not surprisingly, we’re confronted with the question of the day: “What do we mean when we talk about God?”

Sistine ChapelThe God I was taught to believe in as a child was captured most meaningfully in images rather than words. We do seek refuge in the tangible, don’t we? The God of my childhood was represented as an old man with a gray beard and long, flowing robes. He always wore a serious expression, sometimes scowling or even glowering in his disappointment and anger at the human beings he had created who so reliably offended him.

It never occurred to me to ask if he had ever been young and, if so, what he looked like then. Can anyone have always been old? We knew, of course, that there was never a time when he was not—we were taught that he always existed and would always exist, that he was present everywhere, that he knew all things, that he was infinite and eternal.

It’s a difficult image for a child to fit into a child’s worldview. (Truthfully, it’s hard for us adults, too.) God was pictured as a human being whose image was constrained by the same limits of skin and contour as any human being, but could somehow still be everywhere at once. Can a child have no privacy?

Lisboa-Museu_Nacional_de_Arte_Antiga-Inferno-20140917Karen Armstrong (a former nun, by the way) says that the teachings of her Roman Catholic childhood formed a frightening creed. The fires of Hell were liberally cited as the penalty for unforgiven sins, the sins of willful humanity—and those fires were easy enough to imagine.

The image of God, she says, was as a “somewhat shadowy figure, defined in intellectual abstractions rather than images.” The catechism definition she had to memorize was, I’m sure, very much like the one I was encouraged to memorize: “God is the Supreme Spirit, Who alone exists of Himself and is infinite in all perfections.” It says something, I’m sure it means something, but in what way can I relate to it?

One question I’d like you to consider today is whether the God you believe in—or don’t believe in—is a God of abstract qualities or a God with whom you are in relationship. Can God exist without relationship? If God exists only in relationship (a proposition which, I confess, I hold to), then what is the nature of that relationship? Is it one of power? Is it one of love? Is it somehow both? Is it something else entirely?

buddha nyame teacher


And how does your belief or lack of belief in God affect the way you live your life—not in the dreamy abstractions of what you’d like to think is true on a Sunday morning, but in your life as you live it enmeshed in the perpetual conflict the Buddhists refer to as dukkha.

The late Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church, in his book Bringing God Home, starts out with a bit of what I call spiritual autobiography, his understanding as a child of what this mysterious being called “God” was, the God he prayed to take care of him (and his family and friends and everyone he could think of) as he went to bed at night. But, he also talks about the perils of adulthood, the places one tends to go in search of shelter and solace when this early childhood understanding of God no longer suffices.

At a certain time, for most of us, I imagine, the early childhood understanding of God falls away. The danger comes if nothing replaces it or if the things we use as replacements turn out to have destructive results. Rev. Church refers to this time in his life as a time when he “ran away from feelings.” As a result, he says, his first marriage died. He began to drink too much. He was “looking both too high and too low for a fulfillment that continued to elude” him. He calls this place “Limbo.”

He performed the tasks of ministry, he helped build his church, he wrote his books, and his career flourished, but the satisfactions in these things abated and he found himself experiencing a “hollowness.” He recalls something he once heard, “When we don’t believe in God, it’s not that we believe in nothing; rather, we believe in almost everything.” He says that he was “lost in the desert of self.”

He had outgrown his childhood God, but what replaced that was a worship of “much smaller gods, all of which failed (him).” And then, he found himself failing others. He describes alcohol as “another power greater than myself.” His book is, among other things, about the growing faith and confidence he had in the God that he reached out for. I won’t spend more time today on Forrest Church’s personal journey, though I will make use of some of the insights that it inspired.

Where does religion come from, and why does it exist? Why does it persevere? What does it try to do—legitimately do, I mean, not when it has calcified to just another implement for the powerful to exert their power over the needy, the ignorant or the exploited? Karen Armstring cites the belief of Rudolf Otto, a German historian of religion, that the idea of the “numinous” is basic to religion.

The numinous is mysterious. It seems holy, somehow. Its presence can be felt, but not by the senses as we commonly understand the senses. It is compelling. It makes itself known in a way that transports the experiencer to what we might think of as a transcendent realm. It allows us to see that there is more to reality than the mundane. In some cases, it grants a new significance to what we would ordinarily think of as mundane.

In Unitarian Universalism, it is identified as one of the six sources of our living tradition: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and support life.”

Direct experience: that means personal experience, the experience of you and me. “In all cultures”: that means that it is affirmed within cultures, not just as the possibly unreliable testimony of a single individual. In this way, the experience comes first, and the desire to explain the experience comes later; “the desire to explain the origin of the world or find a basis for ethical behavior” comes later. Karen Armstrong says that the numinous was sensed in different ways by different individuals: for some, it led to a wild excitement, for others, a “deep calm” was experienced. Some people felt dread. Others felt “awe and humility in the presence of the mysterious force inherent in every aspect of human life.”

willendorf“When people began to devise their myths and worship their gods, they were not seeking a literal explanation for natural phenomena. The symbolic stories, cave paintings and carvings were an attempt to express their wonder and to link this pervasive mystery with their own lives.” This, according to Karen Armstrong.

In the Palaeolithic period, agriculture was beginning to develop. Is it any wonder that the cult of the Mother Goddess developed, as well? Fertility was transforming human life. The people could sense something sacred in that: life leading to life, cycle after cycle, generation after generation. The Mother Goddess was depicted for hundreds of years as a pregnant woman, and she had many names. In ancient Sumeria she was Inana, in Babylonia she was Ishtar, in Canaan she was Anat, in Egypt she was Isis, and in Greece, she was Aphrodite.


inana isis-PT-10581 Venus

Gaia“These myths,” says Karen Armstrong, “were not meant to be taken literally, but were metaphorical attempts to describe a reality that was too complex and elusive to express in any other way.” The stories that developed were “dramatic” and “evocative.” The stories “helped people to articulate their sense of the powerful but unseen forces that surrounded them.”

In the Tigris-Euphrates Valley of Ancient Mesopotamia, many civilizations—the Sumerians, the Semitic Akkadians, the Assyrians, the Canaanites, the Israelites—all engaged in symbolic actions that aimed to make a connection with the numinous. The gods had somehow brought order out of primordial chaos—could they not show mortal men and women how to sustain effective governments if they were sufficiently honored by means of ritual gestures? Symbolic actions had sacramental value; they allowed human beings to participate in the life of the gods. “Culture,” as Ms. Armstrong says, “was felt to be a fragile achievement, which could always fall prey to the forces of disorder and disintegration.”

“In Babylonian myth…there was no creation out of nothing.” Even before the gods existed there was a “formless, watery waste– a substance which was itself divine.” This sacred raw material had existed for all eternity. Babylonians imagined it to be something like the swampy wasteland of Mesopotamia. Everything lacked boundary and definition, and it took the gods, who emerged from it, two by two, to create something substantial from this sloppy mess.

The Babylonians felt a “direct experience of mystery and wonder” and from that established ways to make connection with the transcendent and imagine ways that the transcendent created order out of chaos. Civilizations, in general, do this.

In place of myth these days, we have science and scientific theories. We tend to marginalize the role of mystery and place the accent on the role of human capacities to transform the world which is seen, more often than not, as raw material for whatever use humans can make of it and whatever profit can be made of that use.

The numinous is marginalized if it is recognized at all. When we do experience those things which seem to spring from mystery and which provoke wonder, we tell our experiences to each other as “strange things” which somehow don’t quite jibe with our daily experience in the material world. Some of us try to establish contact by the use of Tarot cards or ouija boards or the use of mediums, or by prayer.

Most of us just file away those experiences as the anomalies of life, mystical blips in the midst of life in the material world. We’ve adopted a cultural paradigm that says only the material is real, but fascination with the mystical remains. Who ever thought we’d by swamped by vampires? Or visited by angels? The recent movie Ex Machina celebrates the victory of human manipulation of material to the point where robots assume life–and then the machinery assumes the worst aspects of humanity, betraying human trust in a cynical ploy that allows the android humanoid to blend into the larger society. There is a place for the mystical, but it’s a place of distortion and manipulation.

As individuals, though, we have our individualized experiences, and we have the right to interpret them in whatever way makes sense to us, even if we’re atheists. The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich has written a memoir called Living with a Wild God: A Non-Believer’s Search for the Truth About Everything. Her impetus for writing about her search came at the age of 59, when she found, locked away in a trunk, the account of an experience she had had at the age of 14 that she could only describe as mystical. It did not fit into the way she had learned to view the world as a highly educated critic of society based on a life of scientific inquiry. I won’t unpack the whole book of 240 pages, but I’ll share a story with you that she relates near the end of the book.

Dolphins are the free-will stars of the seas. You never know when or where you’ll run into them, in what season or depth of water, and whether it will be a single one or a pod. I was out on my kayak one day when I noticed some furious splashing off to the north. Paddling to the action as fast as I could, I saw it was two dolphins playing some rough, elegant game involving alternating leaps out of the water, and when they saw me, they decided to include me in it. They’d swim alongside the kayak, then vanish under it and pop up dramatically on opposite sides with those wide dolphin grins on their faces. It would have been easy enough for them to flip the kayak over and, if they were so minded, to push me under water until I drowned, but that was not the game they were playing that day. They fooled with me like this for about half an hour, and then zipped off to find a better player.

I described these encounters to a friend as “religious experiences,” and the deeper my studies ranged, the more apt this description seemed.

She goes on to tell how, in history and prehistory, you “will find humans investing animals, especially large and sometimes dangerous animals, with a charismatic quality, a connection to the divine or at least the occult.” The research she did, especially that regarding her own Celtic ancestors, opened up a window that allowed her to look at these experiences as mystical. Of which she says, “This posed a fresh challenge to my atheism.”

anansi bastet golden-calf

Well, I’ll give away the ending of the book and tell you that Barbara Ehrenreich remains an atheist, but one with an open and inquiring mind, looking for ways to understand a world of material things that is yet a lively, vibrant, dynamic world in which such things occur that augur what others would call “God,” and you might, too.

Have you had a “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which (has moved you) to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and support life”? I will share with you one such story (or two) of my own.

The year was 1996, the month was September, and my mother had just died. She died the last day of August, we believe, just a week before my birthday. As the oldest child, I was designated as the executor of her will, a task I was to find out that was loaded with emotional landmines, but at the moment that was in the future and my present was filled with the loss, regret, relief, and angst of mourning. I walked toward Jamaica Pond, as I would on many days, the water gently lapping, the path around it filled with mothers walking their babies in strollers, joggers and bicyclists and lonely old folks and couples in love. All sharing one space, all living in our own universes.

I made a complete loop of the pond, having accomplished nothing but allowing my mind and heart to be open to the experience of being alive while mourning a death and feeling more connected to my mother in these moments than during most of the moments we’d had together in the past few years. I looked up from the path as I prepared to cross the Jamaicaway and saw, for the first time in my life, a full rainbow, beautifully arched across the roadway, the trees, the neighborhood. It signaled something to me, something reassuring, something that spoke of completeness, and mystery, and wonder. And lining it all, or inhabiting it, maybe, was gratitude. And I walked back home in a state that you might call bliss. Or serenity. Anyway, there was an absence of internal conflict and a feeling of deep reassurance.

And then a second thing happened. When I got to the house, I approached the car that was sitting in the driveway. On the trunk, just behind the rear window was as large a beetle as you’re likely to see in New England. I approached it with the tenderness that was yet one more aspect of this blissful serenity and lifted a finger to gently stroke the wings of the beetle. Which, remarkably, sat still for the stroking, not once, not twice, but for three gentle strokes of the wings. It seemed, somehow, only right. I got into the car, backed up into the street and drove into the evening and the rest of my life.

Here’s what the atheist Barbara Ehrenreich has to say:

Since we have long since outgrown the easy answer– God– along with theism of any kind, we have to look for who within what actually exists. No one is saying that the universe, as an entity, is alive, and certainly not that it has motives or desires. But the closer and more carefully we probe, the more it seethes with what life looks like– runaway processes driven by positive feedback loops, emergent patterns, violent attractions, quantum leaps, and always, as far ahead as we can see, more surprises. There may be no invisible creaturely “beings” afoot, either symbionts, parasites, or predators. But there are uncountable algorithms at work in the physical world, writhing and reaching, pulling matter and energy into their schemes, acting out of what almost seems to be an unquenchable playfulness. Sometimes, out of all this static and confusion, the Other assembles itself and takes form before our very eyes.

cernparticles1_11-02 julia galaxy

In Christian teaching, of course, the “Other,” who is God, took form, human form, in the body of Jesus of Nazareth. The simplest of all Christian teachings is “God is love.”  If that seems too much to believe in a week during which we’ve seen the loss of over 260 lives due to earthquakes in Italy and 67 killed or wounded in a bombing and shooting at the American University in Kabul, Afghanistan, it might be better to reverse the order of the words to “Love is God.” That’s the God that we have the power in our own lives to create.



  • A History of God by Karen Armstrong. Ballantine Books. NY, NY. 1993.
  • Bringing God Home: A Traveler’s Guide by The Reverend Forrest Church. St. Martin’s Press. NY, NY. 2002.
  • Living with a Wild God: A Non-Believer’s Search for the Truth About Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich. Granta Publications. London, England. 2014.

Presented by the Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green KY on August 28, 2016.

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