God is a word. What does the word mean?
Everybody thinks they know what the word "God" means. How many times do we hear it, "O God!" If everyone's saying it all the time, they must understand it, right?
Well, not so fast. Is "God" in fact Allah, or is he Krishna? Or Yahweh, or Zeus? Or is she Aphrodite?
"Oh well," others reply, "that's a very narrow pettifogging approach. It's evident those are just all the different names we give to the single Supreme Being, all different routes to the same truth which is revealed in different places under different aspects. And, by the way, this Supreme Being is very kind and good and wishes we would all just get along, and that means we have his/her permission to run all the names together."
Now hold it right there. Where are we getting this information from? People who claim it must be very smart, because there are other people who say very clearly only Allah is God, and that's it. And still others say there is no God at all. So they obviously don't have their hotline to the truth.
Is there a hotline at all?
Isn't it more likely that "god" is a sound we make to evoke a complex of human feelings and relationships to do with ultimate power and meaning, and that this is all we can know for sure. The anthropology of Rene Girard digs deep into this area and claims it was violence that gave birth to the primal word/concept "god' (or "deus" or "theos", etc.) and the word packs into itself a deep stratification of anger, fear, calm, peace, gratitude, all rolled up around a dim distant memory of a victim who was the incarnation both of all evil and all good. And then, later--I would add--there is probably a layering of Greek speculative metaphysics, about First Mover, Mind, the Highest Good, etc. So the primitive feelings are overlaid with some sophisticated ones.
"Come on," you say, "it's nothing like that at all! The thought of God as it has come to us in the West is highly specific and personal. God is a powerful Creator who has done a lot of concrete things in regard to his creation and holds out a promise of eternal happiness on the one hand and a threat of eternal damnation on the other. You can't get much more precise than that!"
But isn't this now in contradiction with what we were just saying above about a benign universal concept of a Supreme Being? You see what I mean? Really, we have very quickly looped in a big circle and it's a hard one to get out of. Either on the one hand we're diffusing the thought of God into vague generalities or on the other we're making God highly personal and, with that, really rather demanding!
So are we not driven again back to the the idea simply of god as a word, a human production, full of human elements? Indeed if we look closer at this last received notion of God in the West we can see there is a very obvious human element or category at work, and that is "property" or "possession". And it has had a very definite role in making "God" seem so real and concrete.
God made us, and set everything up for our good, giving us a paradise to play in.
Then we screwed up badly and got thrown out.
Then this God sent his Son to save us literally from a fate worse than death, from eternal damnation which is the consequence of our screwing up. But now all we have to do is agree with the contract that God has made, by means of his Son, and bingo! we're good to go.
This scenario is all about property and things. We're things that belong to God. We stole this thing away from God. So God sent this thing, his Son, to pay the thing back. And now this thing that we are, is safe. Unless of course we don't get in on the contract and then this thing we are is doomed to go to a very bad place/thing, which is hell. And in the midst of all this God appears as the main thing.
The whole thing is thingified, because the meaning comes from one of the most basic human practices, barter or economic exchange, which is all about things. There's nothing that objectifies the world more than economic exchange. It's all literally about having or not having. I've got this thing which I'm willing to give up so long as you give me that thing you have. But should you renege on the deal, should you steal my thing or not give me what you owe, then all hell breaks loose. Exchange is very close to violence; in fact violence lurks behind it and gives every-thing involved in it its intensity and power. It makes everything involved in exchange a real thing!
So me, God, the blood of Jesus, heaven, hell, these are all incredibly real in Western imagination because of the power of exchange. But it's precisely the violence behind all that which causes disgust and then makes people back off into vague generalities and for which unfortunately there is no clear warrant.
But now think about it, and here we have come to the real point of the foregoing. What if an individual should come along in the midst of time, in the midst of human history, and claim that only he knew the Father God, and then proceeded to live and die in such a way to give evidence with his life, that this Father God is in fact Love, and all the way. Love that went to the bottom, no conditions, unto death and even beyond death....
What if a man should come into the world who lived and spoke, acted and died in such a way that the whole story about him continually changes your way of thinking? And not just in speculative terms, moving the pieces of furniture about inside your head, but in terms of the tools of thinking itself, giving you an entirely new set of furniture, a new set of signs, in fact a whole new house to dwell in?
What if this man lived and died in a way that was so profound he subverted the whole order of thought itself? What if every sign associated with him sets up a resonance inside you that begins to change the very construction of your mind and it does so in relation to others who are similarly being changed, because this meaning really can only work collectively, in love?
What if the signs associated with this man gradually began to isolate love and nonviolence as the best definition of life and so we begin to see him as a medicine for our meaning, establishing only the fluid relationship of love rather than the violent exchange of things? And especially rather than he himself as the supreme object of violent exchange! What if empties the universe of things entirely because in fact he empties it of violence and fills it with relationship alone?
Would not this individual then change the very meaning of God along with everything else, and he alone have the right to do so? Would he not in fact teach us that Godself is willing, and always was, to take the side of the victims of history--victims of a violence which is the huge and almost inevitable risk of human freedom? Would not God as Creator then be rightly understood, not as violent power, property and ownership, but, actually its reverse, a movement of self-surrender in love? And then last but not least, would not the one who showed us this himself evoke-- in a moment of recognition that he single-handed had changed the human-system including the meaning of God--the amazed exclamation, "my lord and my god!"
The only adequate image I can find for this thought of Christianity is the old one of the caterpillar and the butterfly. Except even that does not work entirely. But going with if for the moment we see the caterpillar does not have to have its soul saved and float off to a heavenly otherworld in order to become a butterfly. It simply goes into a deep self-reimagining, a deep self-deconstruction and reconstruction according to a code that it is somehow placed in the caterpillar-self. And shazam! a totally new beautiful creature. So good so far, but the code for a new humanity does not come organically inside of us but through the story and person of Jesus who is himself the code. Embrace Jesus and all the signs associated with him and shazam! a new humanity!
But even that is not entirely adequate, because it doesn't happen shazam! and it doesn't happen simply with individuals on their own. So perhaps we should shift our image to bees! Together they share a code that enables them to build a beautiful honeycomb filled with honey. None of them can fulfill the code individually, but they do collectively, and they do so over a period of long labor. Are not Christians the Jesus bees infected with the Jesus code which enables them cell by cell, drop by drop, to create a new universe? One filled with the truly divine honey of love! And because it is code, one developed through Jesus for humanity, it also means that other people who do not call themselves Christians can pick it up anytime anywhere. So perhaps that benign Supreme Being stuff is just a poorly articulated way of recognizing the Jesus revelation of honey!
Tony Bartlett Theologian-in-Residence