naming names :: God in public

On the cutting edges of our postmodern culture, anyone who is willing to say “God” in public while knowing what she means is liable to be understood as downright dogmatic, if not a fundamentalist. We the people of the grand tradition known as Western culture seem to be cultivating a grand suspicion of any specificity with regard to the transcendent. We prefer to acknowledge (agnostically, of course) the presence in the cosmos of a general transcendent fog with emotive and motivational powers, but are allergic to attributing personality, or worse, a NAME (!!) to any being we can’t poke with a ten foot pole. Furthermore, suggesting that the named deity in question has specified particular forms of adherence and enlightenment is subject to even more suspicion. In most circles (but not all), it is socially advantageous to be “spiritual” (lest one gain a reputation for shallowness or materialism), but being “religious” is akin to a minor case of leprosy. At the very least, admitting that one names God along with others in an (gasp!) organized fashion is a social sin that must be overcome by one’s personal charisma or alternatively established social status.

First of all, let’s be honest, “spirituality” characterized by avoidance of anything so structured as dogma, doctrine, or theology is a set of beliefs as well, however disorganized. In fact, it is a theology, (albeit a minimalist one where less is more!). Is there any reason to prefer this “standard” cultural theology to a more historically rooted, orthodox brand? I’m willing to admit a few:

(1) No one will ever fight a religious war, burn a heretic, or exclude someone else in defense of his or her own private “spirituality.”
(2) Sitting alone and thinking about what God/god/the Beyond is like tends to yield something vaguely foggy and powerful – …so we’ve got naked Cartesian reason on our side.
(3) We avoid a few of our other postmodern allergies – authority, tradition, institutions, ethical pronouncements, and awkward potlucks. Spirituality allows us the politically convenient assertion that everyone is equally right (or equally wrong!). Because truth is something personal and inward, whatever is personal and inward is (at least privately) true!

Doesn’t that settle it? Well, given the popularity of suspicion these days, I’m inclined to apply a little bit in the opposite direction. I hope the rather flippant tone of this little essay doesn’t convey any hostility toward the vaguely “spiritual.” I don’t have an ax to grind on anyone’s nose. But I am suspicious that we should be so generally convinced that particular religion is a thing of the past, replaced in our enlightened times by the freedom to assemble a collage of beliefs, practices, and affiliations with regard to the divine. Answering from my own very particular Christian tradition – to which so much “spirituality” seems to be a reaction – let me attempt to provide a few reasons that an alternative vision might be less-than-desirable in comparison.

(1) Authority, tradition, institutions, ethics, and potlucks don’t “go away” altogether when we liberate ourselves from religion (maybe the potlucks do…). Instead, by claiming them for ourselves we are left to our own devices and our own resources. The frequency with which I realize that I’m wrong, misguided, and acting foolishly makes me hesitant to set myself up as my own ultimate authority, to blaze the trail in my own tradition, to found an institution of one, etc. I recognize that no other human is in an inherently “better” place to serve in these functions, but I’d rather trust thousands of people who have thought carefully and discussed things together over thousands of years, than any religion I can cook up in the span of four decades (much less a four-day personal retreat). Freedom is bought with arbitrariness and lack of assurance included.

(2) I wonder if our embrace of spirituality might be a thin cover over a disdain for the concrete realities of history, a foundational denial that history can contain any comprehensive meaning. The “meaning” found in most spirituality consists in a daily escape (or future escape) from the particular messiness of the world to a transcendent place of peace. “Escape” worries me because a disdain for the messiness of history quickly leads to a disdain for the messiness of the people around me, and I lose motivation to make things better for my (actual, historical) neighbors. If we are convinced that God and history never meet in tangible, external, and perceptible ways, then our religion will tend to avoid the tangible, external, and perceptible.

(3) Relatedly, if God (or a god) were to part the seas, rend the clouds, show up in history, and speak his/her name, would we be bold enough to speak it “in public”? What if this had happened 20 years ago (and we still had photographs), would we be willing to trust those who told us about it? 50 years ago, but with only a sound recording? 2000 years ago? In other words, is our vague agnosticism an immovable presupposition or an authentic “not-knowing?”

(4) As to the particular historical messiness of my own Christian tradition (the aforementioned burnings, wars, patriarchy, and exclusion), we should really do some good historical research together to understand the whole situation before we fling these examples out as “automatic” defeaters for the truth of the whole faith. This is not the place for that sort of endeavor, but I’ll offer a few general comments anyway. The ethics that Jesus preached contain a better critique than we could ever put forward against violence of all sorts in God’s name. The truly Christian vision of authority is of service – “the greatest among you is the servant of all.” To point back to this ethic is not to minimize the long history of acts (individual and institutional) transgressions against it, nor does it negate the need to apologize and repent, coming to terms with the whole of our heritage as Christians. It does however radically undermine the Christian-ness ascribed to the actions we find reprehensible.

(5) Finally, with all the options out there, I have yet to find someone I’d rather follow (and have all my neighbors follow as well…) than Jesus. I have yet to find any god who speaks and acts with the concrete and coherent vision of service, love, truth, and power that I see in the God-who-is-human, Jesus. To push the point one step further, I have yet to be called by any other God to follow, and Jesus has yet to turn me away. Another disciple (a bit older than I…) said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And so it is – the religion of the crucified God, raised to new life; this is my spirituality. God’s name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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