I have started working in earnest on a book whose working title is Finding God in Ordinary Time. During a hash session at the When Words Count Retreat last week, someone I respect told me that if I was going to write a book about spirituality, I really needed to be clear within myself about what I believe about God. I prayed about it by the fireplace that night, and the next morning got up and wrote this.
I believe that God is less interested in right answers than in right relationship . . . less committed to creeds than to how we treat one another.
I believe that God wants to be intimately involved in each person’s life. Don’t ask me how the math works. But if Eve can love her six children as fiercely as Eileen loves her two, then God, being God, can love the whole world that way.
I believe that St. Augustine knew what he was talking about when he said, “to understand all is to forgive all.” God knows us better than we know ourselves, understands the complicated threads that lead to our worst behavior, and would much rather help us untangle those threads and lead us back to wholeness than just throw the whole mess in the trash can and start over. There’s a little story about judgment day, how everyone has entered the pearly gates but Jesus is still standing at the top of the escalator (yes, in this story there’s an escalator to heaven). Jesus is peering down wistfully when Peter comes out and says, “Lord, come on in! We’ve got quite the party going on. What are you waiting for?” Jesus replies, never taking his eyes off the escalator, “I was hoping that Judas might have had a change of heart and would still be joining us.” The story is ridiculous, but dammit it makes me cry every time, even just typing it. I think it gets me because it says something true about the heart of God, overflowing with mercy.
I believe that God wants me to be my best self, and consequently doesn’t let me get away with anything. If I criticize someone harshly for a mistake or a weakness—even in my own head—I’m almost bound to make or manifest the exact same thing any day, and feel from across the room God’s eyebrows humorously raised in my direction.
I believe that God suffers with us. To me the most powerful thing about the Incarnation of Jesus was the idea that the almighty, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient God would choose to become limited, helpless, and earthbound. That he would eat and drink and sweat and shit and go to parties and have good friends and get betrayed by some of them. That he would struggle to pray, to figure out his mission, to communicate his vision to people predisposed to skepticism or religious fanaticism. That makes him a person I want to get to know better.
I believe that the suffering of God and the omnipotence of God are hard but not impossible to reconcile. On the one hand it’s the pesky free-will thing. Much of the pain that comes our way is from other people’s (or our own) misuse of God-given free will. But if we are not free to do terrible things to one another then we are not free to do amazing things either; we’re just puppets here for God’s amusement and what’s the point of that? The catch for many people, I know, is the whole miracle business. When one person narrowly escapes a harrowing accident or beats the odds of a cancer diagnosis, people of faith are quick to call it a miracle and thank God for the intervention. But why, then, does God not always intervene? At least in the case of deserving people—young children, mothers of young children, scientists on the brink of curing the cancer that afflicts young children—why does God withhold the magic wand? Well I have an answer for you, and it’s this: I don’t know. But I do know that CS Lewis said when we get to heaven we will not learn all the answers; we will just discover that we were asking the wrong questions. So I’m okay dwelling in that particular mystery.
I believe that “everything happens for a reason” is one of the worst bits of pop theology ever to hit the charts—which is why I published a whole article about it. Quick synopsis: the things we say we believe have to be true even in the hardest circumstances or they were never true to start with. So if you can’t stare at the Rwandan genocide or the tsunami that hit Fukushima and say, placidly, “Everything happens for a reason,” then don’t say it when you miss the plane that had engine trouble and get bumped to business class on the next flight. And for God’s sake don’t say it when somebody’s baby dies.
I believe in the “paschal cycle” . . . the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I believe that Jesus’ radical love and defiance of authority landed him where it lands most people, but that somehow—insert mystery here—death, for him, did not have the final word, and that he continued and continues to be a real and active presence in the lives and hearts of his followers. And because of this, I am tuned in to the way that paschal cycle plays out in our own lives as well . . . that we suffer, “die,” and rise to new life many times in our lives, as tragedies take us to our knees and somehow we stand up again. (Which is the topic of my article “The Faithful Wait.”)
I believe in prayer. Sometimes that means sitting quietly in a church or a garden, very intentionally “descending from my head into my heart.” Sometimes it means taking a text—whether a piece of Scripture or a Mary Oliver poem—and ruminating on it, letting God lead me deeper, revealing something God wants me to know. Sometimes it is so much less formal . . . the running dialogue in my head as I’m driving, or off for a long walk, or doing the dishes. Although I do most of the talking, sometimes God does weigh in. Or at least that’s what I call it when the thought that pops into my head is both clear and also nothing I would have scripted. (I’m sure other people call it the subconscious mind at work. I’m okay with that as long as I’m allowed to call it the voice of God.) And sometimes—often—prayer is a communal experience. See next point.
I believe in liturgy. Good liturgy. Liturgy that becomes a trellis on which our meandering thoughts can raise themselves together towards higher things. I am firmly committed to liturgies with beautiful music that is also theologically sound, to well-proclaimed readings and thoughtful preaching and intentional ritual. And while I firmly believe that we should commit ourselves to common worship because of what we give, not what we get, I also think that the people in charge should make sure there’s something to be gotten.
I believe there are many paths to God, many roads up the mountain. I believe that the faithful practitioners of any tradition have more in common with each other than they do with the lukewarm or fanatic practitioners of their own faith. I believe religious people should spend less energy trying to convert others to their own denomination and more energy converting hearts—their own included—into a thriving, consequential relationship with the God of their understanding.
Can I get an Amen?