Location and Times
 

Library Learnings: “No Word Does God Justice”


 
 
In early summer, Deutsche Welles Christoph Strack—DW is Germanys international broadcaster—riddled the massive decline in 2019 in membership in both Protestant and Catholic churches in his nation: over half a million Germans turned their back on organized religion. In that one year alone! He concluded his treatise urging, “…society needs to reflect on religion, and on that which so many people call God. Lets.
 
And lets do it by considering three books, all of them suasive and wise, all new additions to the SSUC Library: Saving God from Religion: A Minister’s Search for Faith in a Skeptical Age, by Robin Meyers; The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion, by Barbara Brown Taylor; and Naming the Unnameable: 89 Wonderful and Useful Names for God—Including the Unnameable God, by Matthew Fox. And also a particular poem by SSUC favourite, Mary Oliver, one Fox mentions: Mystic and praise poet Mary Oliver in her poem, ‘At the River Clarion,’ which explores who God is, sings about how every creature—the river, the stone in the river, the moss in the river, we humans, tooare all part of holiness. 
 
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“God” is not a four-letter word.

 
Even so, it’s not much spoken at Southminster-Steinhauer United Church. On Sunday mornings, there’s mention sometimes of “spirit,” “sacred,” “divinity”, but not “God,” not often. 
 
Maybe that’s because the SSUC community includes agnostics and atheists? Maybe it’s because the word…the name…has been used, misused, abused, forever, and it’s lost its meaning? Or is it that it means different things to different folks, and no definition or understanding is shared by one and all? 
 
Of such circumstances, Robin Meyers is understanding: “This book,” he explains in the prologue to his most recent volume, Saving God from Religion, published just this year, “is written for everyone who is struggling with the old and narrow definitions of God, but has yet to see any coherent and comprehensive way to reimagine the Ultimate Mystery.” 
 
There, in that preface, he pokes fun at himself for taking up this topic: “Authors are told to write about what they know, which makes any book about God inherently absurd…. …writing a book about God is literary presumption on a cosmic scale. The subject matter is both the most important and the most impossible.” But he makes an assured attempt anyway: “If there is at the heart of creation a deep and dependable equilibrium”—and he marshals his forces to confirm this conclusion—“then ‘God’ is as good a name for it as we can come up with.”   
 
Robin Meyers is no novice at rescuing figures of the godhead from orthodoxy. Eleven years ago, he tried Saving Jesus from the Church. For decades the minister at Mayflower Church in Oklahoma City, he retired at the start of this year; this United Church of Christ congregation prides itself on being the most progressively Christian house of worship in the state. He himself played a starring role [so to speak] in the recent, acclaimed documentary, “American Heretics,” all about forward-looking clerics in the United States. 
 
In his new book, he embraces what he refers to as “a theology of consequence”. In his chapter on prayer, Meyers writes, “Answers are what humans give. Consequences are what God mysteriously enables.” He recalls how his grandmother used to say, “‘There are no coincidences. There are only times when God wishes to remain anonymous.’”
 
He thinks so, too. “Humans are fascinated by whether there is ‘order’ in the universe, or whether every outcome is completely random. The appearance of randomness, however, may be the result of our limited perspective and the infinite number of variables at work. What appears chaotic, in our lives as well as in the universe, may in the end have an elegant though incomprehensible symmetry.” And again he suggests, “…results that appear chaotic may, in fact, be ‘ordered’ at the outer limits by some mysterious ‘boundary’. …Some people have compared this boundary, this strange attractor, to God.” 
 
Meyers urges that we “become mindful of both our choices and the infinite power of their consequences.” “…we are making or unmaking the world by even the smallest act.” “To choose…is life’s most powerful, most spiritual, most God-like activity.” 
 
It’s here that he introduces and quotes a fellow author, Barbara Brown Taylor: “‘Whatever else you have faith in, have faith in this: there is a strange attractor at work in your life that will not let you fly off the page.” It’s from her 20-year-old book, The Luminous Web, which will be taken up next. As Meyers explains, she uses “this surpassingly beautiful name for God,” adding, “At Mayflower these days the most common name for God, besides ‘God,’ is ’the Luminous Web’.” 
 
Certainly, he embraces this notion wholeheartedly: “Every act, no matter how small, hidden, or unlikely, spreads out in the Luminous Web like a virus until we are all infected. If that virus is built on fear and hatred, we will die. If it is built on love, mercy, sacrifice, and equality, we will have life and have it abundantly…. …trust in the power of the Luminous Web….”
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Listen to the river talking
 
An excerpt from Mary Olivers poem, At the River Clarion:
 
“…I was sitting in the river named Clarion, on a water-splashed stone, and all afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking. Whenever the water struck a stone it had something to say, and the water itself, and even the mosses trailing under the water. And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me what they were saying. Said the river, I am part of holiness. And I, too, said the stone. And I, too, whispered the moss beneath the water. 
 
“…Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then keep on going. Imagine how the lily (who may also be part of God) would sing to you, if it could sing, if you would pause to hear it. And how are you so certain, anyway, that it doesnt sing? I dont know how you get to suspect such an idea. I only know that the river kept singing.
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In Sunday school, Barbara Brown Taylor recalls, “I learned to think of God as a very old, white-bearded man on a throne, who stood above creation, and occasionally stirred it with a stick.” She’s come to think otherwise: the “shift in my image of God is so radical,” she confesses in her book, The Luminous Web. “…what I see [now] is an infinite web of relationship, flung across the vastness of space like a luminous net…. Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out; God is the web…. …This is the God who is not somewhere, but everywhere….”
 
Very nice, but, hey, life is chaotic, not predictable—think of the pandemic and climate change and BLM. “…there is an essential messiness to life that cannot be controlled,” she admits. But, “no matter how random things may seem, how crazy and out of control, there is a hidden symmetry in them, ‘like a face’—and here she quotes George Johnson in this book, Fire in the Mind—’peering from behind clouds’. You may make of this what you will. As far as I am concerned…you may call it God.” 
 
Taylor’s book, in the words of its publisher, Cowley Publications, “describes her journey as a preacher learning what the insights of quantum physics, the new biology, and chaos theory, can teach a person of faith.” A renown homilist, Taylor famously walked away from her calling as an Episcopal priest to become a professor at a small college in rural Georgia. The move proved to be eye-opening, she reports in an essay she penned this July for Christian Centuryoccasional “How my mind has changed” series:
 
In venturing from church to classroom, she “met Jehovah’s Witnesses, Messianic Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Latter-day Saints, and Holiness Pentecostals for the first time in my life, along with Muslims one generation away from Afghanistan  Libya, Mali, and Sierra Leone. A student from mainland China dropped my world religions class as soon as she discerned how many of her classmates believed in God. For a while, there was a small clutch of neo-pagans on campus who prayed to the Goddess. In short order, I realized how limited my experience of the divine was….” 
 
She sees her book as speaking to “people who want to believe in God, but who have a hard time with all the requisite beliefs, especially those that seem to contradict natural law.”
 
A panentheist now—she rejects pantheism, “since that belief system makes no provision for a God beyond creation”—Taylor writes of the big bang, when “the universe was born,” when “there was an explosion at the beginning,” but acknowledges that “no one can say who lit the fuse in the first place. …there is always the problem of a first cause.” 
 
It’s here that she points to “the God…who will still be here (wherever ‘here’ means) when the universe either dissipates into dust or swallows itself up…. Paul Tillich’s name for this divine reality was ‘the ground of all being’. The only thing I can think of that is better than that is the name God revealed to Moses: ‘I Am Who I Am’.” To her, that epithet “sounds like the singular utterance of the only One who ever was, is, or shall be, in whom everything else abides.”
 
In the here and now, “we see through a glass darkly,” Taylor observes. “When the fog finally clears, we shall know there is only One.” It’s as the writer of Ephesians has it, she adds, “‘There is only one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.’”
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His intention and his hope
 
An excerpt from Mary Olivers poem, At the River Clarion”:
 
I dont know who God is exactly. But Ill tell you this: If God exists, he isnt just butter and good luck. If God exists, he isnt just churches and mathematics. Hes the forest, Hes the desert. Hes the ice caps, that are dying. Hes the ghetto and the Museum of Fine Arts. Hes van Gogh and Allen Ginsberg and Robert Motherwell. Hes the many desperate hands, cleaning and preparing their weapons. Hes every one of us, potentially. The leaf of grass, the genius, the politician, the poet. And if this is true, isnt it something very important?
 
Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and each of you, too, or at least of his intention and his hope. Which is a delight beyond measure.
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In the very first book he ever wrote, Thomas Aquinas points out, “Even the very ones who were experienced concerning the Divinity, such as the apostles and prophets, praise God as….” And here the 28-year-old someday-saint records 49 names for God, most mentioned in the Bible, everything from “dew” to “the Ancient of days,” plus “all the other beings attributed to God as cause.” Pshaw! “…the Divine One is none of these,” he disputes, finally, “being insofar as God surpasses all things.”  
 
Episcopal priest Matthew Fox finds these statements on “the multiple names for God so startling and so germane to this book,” that he includes the passages in their entirety as the only appendix in his 2018 book, Naming the UnnameableEven though he counters Aquinas’s conclusion: in our world, “…there are trillions upon trillions of names for God.” Indeed, he opens his book with this report: “The ancient Vedas of India tell us that, ’The One Existence the wise call by many names.’”
 
Fox wonders if we “have permission—and maybe a serious responsibility—to change our understanding and naming of God as we mature as individuals, and as we evolve as a species, and as we face a critical time, a ‘turning time,’ in human and planetary history?” He answers his own question: “As humans undergo deep changes, so too does our understanding of God and Divinity. …Divinity evolves. …our names for God increase in possibilities, and evolve as evolution continues all around us.” 
 
The author of something like three dozen books—the SSUC Library has a horde of them—Fox, lionized for developing and teaching creation spirituality, goes on to tally 89 of them, and to expand briefly on each. “What ‘God’ even means,” author Nancy Abrams says of the volume, “explodes in this little book like fireworks in the mind.” Fox shows off “humanity’s capacity to envision God,” she adds, “showing every way of looking at God is legitimate, if it raises the aspirations of its adherents and their ability to carry them out.”
 
In the process, Fox cribs from the likes of Aquinas, but so many other theologians, mystics, and philosophers, notably Meister Eckhart, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rumi, Deepak Chopra, David Bentley Hart, Julian of Norwich, Thich Naht Hahn, and Hildegard of Bingen. And God gets imagined as being everything from the Web of Life to Chaos, from Gaia to the Universe, from the Ground of Being to “I am”.  
 
But, when all is said and done, it may be that these five words—found in his introduction, “God has a trillion faces”—that best sums up this rumination, this quest: “…no word does God justice….” 
 
Ken Fredrick