Sunday, September 19, 2004

feel the force

Bad God - Good God

I keep having great spiritual discussions in unlikely places. After the penultimate performance of our play, we went back to stay at one actor's house, since we were stranded in South London with nowhere to go. I had to go out in the evening to see some old friends from school, and when I got back, he was the only one left up. As often happens to me and my friends at midnight, we got talking about life, the universe and everything.

The great thing about admitting to being a more 'liberal' or 'mystical' Christian is that people are more willing to talk about my beliefs. They don't have to fear my sermonising anymore, nor put up with a great deal of noise about hell. We can simply sit and share things.

He was another friend who did not smile on my conversion last year (for more on this please see earlier). To him, Christianity seemed to be more about wearing WWJD bracelets than spiritual realisation. I had previously mentioned that my beliefs had changed somewhat since last year, but that I still remained steadfastly Christian. He found me reading Meister Eckhart backstage during rehearsals a few weeks before and had shown an interest.

Anyway, he brought up the topic, and we proceeded to chat about our respective beliefs. He said he didn't like the rather fenced-in creed that comes from being a Biblical inerrantist. I said I agreed, the Bible has become more useful, interesting and valuable to me since I stopped stifling it with the addage 'Word of God' (Maggi Dawn has a great post on this). I had noticed a few Bibles around his room, which he has been reading as part of his English degree at Oxford. 'The Bible is such a monumental work of Western Literature that it is impossible to avoid it' he said, before mentioning that he would quite like to learn Hebrew so that he could read the original Old Testament. He then compared the portrayal of God in the OT with Homer's portrayal of Zeus in The Odyssey. He probably never would have told me this had I still been an evangelical.

It turns out that he is very sympathetic to more impersonal ideas of God, saying that Buddhism would be his first port of call if he felt compelled to religion - I think that is the case for most Westerners who are even slightly existentialist. However, they miss the fact that their culture is saturated by Christian thought, even today. The 'alternative' God they imagine is wholly compatible with, in fact even integral to, Christian theology. The benevolent force that so many Westerners prefer to the old-bearded-god-on-a-cloud is the Holy Spirit, or even the entire Trinity. The old geezer with the beard is Zeus.

The stories we get with mythology are fantastic - whether the immanent Jesus & Krishna, the temperamental Zeus & Yahweh, or the transcendent Trinity, I reckon they're all invaluable to good healthy multi-faceted theology.
Ah but what is interesting is the difference between Zeus and YHWH. In Homer, my friend said, the gods are like people. They eat and drink and go to sleep. When Zeus appears, Homer tells the reader where he had been, what he had been doing etc. In the Old Testament however, God just IS. Abraham calls to God, and God is there. There is much less of an anthropomorphic tendency in Hebrew literature. I would argue further with all the iconoclasm of the Hebrew prophets, and the ministry of Jesus, we move further away from the angry old man God. By the time you reach the mystics of Christianity, such as Eckhart, Pseudo-Dionysius, Augustine, John of the Cross and the Cloud of Unknowing, we begin to see uncover the ineffablity of God more and more. Call this the death of theism if you like, but I'd prefer to see it as the widening of how we view God. As Houston Smith, a contemporary pluralist scholar, points out God is 'transpersonal' - not personal and not impersonal, but both those things and more. In today's day and age, the very mystery of God is what is so vital in our pluralist age. If we think we know God like we know our cat or our next door neighbour, then of course we will vaunt our religion over another. But the less God becomes knowable by mind alone, the more inclined we are to respond well to the visions of God in other religions.

It would be interesting to consider the two polarities of the divine. Zeus on one side, and Nirvana on the other. The Christian God can be anywhere between those two opposites, such is the flexible nature of the Trinity.

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