He is not in danger upon his surging waters

1 05 2019

“The God who is met in the measured expectations of our own desires and imagination dies in his own impotence and irrelevance.” Ronald Rolheiser

The pastor of the church my wife and I attend recently shared the above quotation during a sermon. It reminded me of a blog post (do people still read blogs?) about a particular quotation I’ve been meaning to write for years now but haven’t had the energy, time, courage, I-don’t-know-what to actually do it. I started writing little facebook notes on passages from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet in 2014.  I said pretty much all I wanted to say about that work but there was a quote in an addendum to the book that I found particularly profound:

“O ye men, when they bring you God, the good docile dogs who have fetched him at risk of their lives, then take him and fling him out again into immensity. For God is not to be brought to the shore by the good docile dogs. He is not in danger upon his surging waters, and a great wave that is still to come will lift him on to the land which is worthy of him.” (from Journal March 1901)

I’ve come to a point in my life where nearly anything said about God or the afterlife or the will of the universe (etc.) leaves me feeling a mixture of indignation and apathy (“How do you know?” bleeds into “Who cares?”). It’s almost laughable to me at this point that we, mere human beings, often believe that we can know anything about God or God’s will or even God’s existence. To think that the entirety of God’s will can be determined from a collection of 66 theologically diverse books, dubiously assembled, is a thought that is far too confining of any God worthy of the name.  The various versions of god described in these books, molded into one by the passage of time and the “desires and imaginations” of theologians into one vague idea of a Christian “God” that no one can seem to completely agree on, eventually die, as Rolheiser says, in their “own impotence and irrelevance.”

It’s obvious to me in many ways that while religion does wonders for building communities and getting people to behave better and more charitably in certain circumstances, it also does a great job of dividing people into tribes and driving them into fear-based captivity. Robert Wright states the following in his book The Evolution of God: “Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed” (430).  I would take it a step further and say that any religion whose theology divides people into categories of “saved” and “unsaved” and whose eschatology doesn’t include the final salvation of all is a religion whose time should pass. All this isn’t to say that I know for a fact that God is definitely like this, or that he/she/it is most definitely merciful and has a benevolent plan for the universe. As Wright states,

The bad news for the religiously inclined, then, is that maybe they should abandon hope of figuring out what God is. (If we can’t conceive of an electron accurately, what are our chances of getting God right?) The good news is that the hopelessness of figuring out exactly what something is doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Apparently some things are just inconceivable–and yet are things nonetheless (446-7).

This is why, at this point in my life, I can’t seem to make myself adhere completely to any codified, doctrinally-established religion, including the one I outwardly seem to subscribe to based on the places of worship I attend.

If I seem to be stubbornly refusing to believe in the God that others believe in, it’s not because I haven’t tried (with the exception of the whole eternal hell thing; that belief is and always will be beyond the pale for me). I miss the certainty I once had of a loving God who wants the best for all of us, but I still have hope that all will be well in the end, that God, whatever God is, has an ultimate plan that will make everything we endure in this life make sense.

Wright, in the last paragraph of his Afterword to The Evolution of God, says the following, which I feel represents rather well some of what I’ve stated above:

Though we can no more conceive of God than we can conceive of an electron, believers can ascribe properties to God, somewhat as physicists ascribe properties to electrons. One of the more plausible such properties is love. And maybe, in this light, the argument for God is strengthened by love’s organic association with truth–by the fact, indeed, that at times these two properties almost blend into one. You might say that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that by partaking of them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn’t have to be crazy to say it (459).

To sum up: If anyone tells you what God is definitely, exactly, precisely like, the God they bring you deserves nothing more than to be flung out into immensity. God, whatever “God” is in actuality, is beyond our comprehension and should be discussed keeping this in mind. I can only hope to one day be worthy of such a God.