Most of us know people who aren’t inclined to speak for themselves. People who, when asked where they’d like to eat, what they’d like to do, or what they’re interested in, respond by deferring to either group opinion or a kind of verbally confused pantomime. They don’t want to step on anyone’s feet, and they’re very polite. All this comes from a good mix of civility and conscientiousness, but we’ve also seen when it can work against them. Their significant others or siblings walk all over them, or we, ourselves, knowing their proclivity to defer, manipulate them in ways we wouldn’t others.
I’ve noticed I’m this person sometimes. I can sink into a swamp of uncomfortable silence, produced by my inability to speak courageously – to question the authoritarian assertions of others, especially when these deal with God. I want to be sympathetic to the deeply held beliefs people I talk with understand themselves by, although I can’t help thinking there is tremendous moral and spiritual value in following one’s beliefs to their logical ends. These logical ends are rarely found in the wilderness of the psyche, though. There are moments I think back to shameful experiences that keep me trapped, stultifying any ambition to be someone other than who I have been. In these instances, overwhelmed by emotion and passions that are irreducible to any rational systematizing, the thought of “logical ends” is nonexistent.
And so my awareness of my own faults makes me wonder: what if, at bottom, when I’ve explored my faith to its deepest level, I find nothing more than a well-intentioned six-year old version of myself yearning for acceptance – from my friends, my parents, and the gods of my small world. It frightens me to consider, but is all this talk about God no more than seemingly self-effacing statements about loving others, statements perniciously motivated by a selfish quest for self-transcendence?
If we say with Nietzsche that the sky is empty, then what use is there in being clear about what we mean when we talk about God? Isn’t it better to leave divinity in the ineffable and inarticulate realm of the emotional? There are many things we experience that we can’t really articulate or define, like the smell of a cup of coffee. But this doesn’t make the experience less real. Perhaps it is here, deep within our inner selves, that we experience, maybe just for a moment, a transcendence pervading and exceeding everything about which we may speak.
We find ourselves living in what is called “postmodernity.” Postmodernity is, to a certain extent, defined by its opposition to claims of ultimacy, manifested in the forms of pluralism, feminism, and other such movements. This has its place, being a well-warranted critique of our propensity towards systems of oppression and domination. There are side effects, though, and they may not be readily apparent. Postmodernism has a subtle tendency to harbor in some a fatalistic denial of clear expressions of self, making it difficult to distinguish who we are and what we want, of what we understand our intentions to be and what they really are. We have become justifiably fearful about standing on ground that is too firm. But when rationality is seen as nothing more than a symbol of oppressiveness, our experiences lose the significant element of critical reflection and become too groundless, too fluid to be grasped at all.
A discussion on the concept of God seems, in part, impossible for those of us living in a postmodern age. We are wary of strictly rational inquiry, fearful of its domineering gestures, finding any claims to objectivity senseless, for who can see anything – let alone the divine – from all angles? To be everything for every person, to be omniscient, is the demand made upon claims of truth in our day. But maybe this isn’t the kind of articulation appropriate for communicating the meaning of God. Maybe, to harken back to the first centuries of the movement, the meaning of God is closely associated with personal testimony.
On my pantheon of theological heroes sits, above all others, Rudolf Bultmann. His work involved articulating the Christian faith to the modern world, without recourse to metaphysics or supernaturalism—the very mission of Christianity Now. When Bultmann encountered soldiers returning from World War I, he discovered traditional ways of talking about God and the Gospel were inadequate to the realities World War I brought to pass, not only for the soldiers he met but the German intellectual scene in general. He developed the project of demythologizing to open a pathway where theology could avoid the Christian message’s traditional dependence on Greek philosophical concepts. Jettisoning this first century worldview which no longer held, he proposed relying more firmly upon modern ways of understanding ourselves and the universe. He intended to place Christian thought in its appropriate context of modern thought.
By aiming to disabuse all who believed that thinking about God in general, logical statements was the only way in which thinking about God should, or could, occur, Bultmann placed the lived experience of faith as both central to the theological project and our talk about God. He does this, in large part, by leveraging the insights of Rudolf Otto: religious experience encounters the divine as that which is uncontrollable and omnipotent. This means that we cannot bend the divine to human purposes, cannot rationally conceive of the divine, nor can we live outside the divine’s reach. It follows, argues Bultmann, that traditional logical conceptions of God which attempt to grasp God’s reality through arguments and proofs are both sacrilegious and nonsense. We must turn to lived experience to understand God.
To talk about anything is to objectify that which we talk about, because talking about something involves making observations, standing on the outside of what we speak, and identifying the object of speech with the descriptions we give. Compare talking about love and being in love. Describing the chemical processes that occur while one is said to be “in love” is different from the experience of being in love. In other words you won’t find love in scientific textbooks.
Similarly, the objectifying way of speaking about God isn’t the same thing as encountering the divine, Bultmann says, because the concept of omnipotence, of the uncontrollable, for religious people precludes any attempt to escape the divine’s grasp or reach. The person who believes in God cannot stand outside God, cannot exist outside God’s power, and talk about God as some thing other, an object apart from one’s lived experience. Objectifying ways of speaking, ultimately, reduce the sacred to the profane, either morphing the unapproachable, uncontrollable reality of the divine into a supernatural super-human being, or sterilizing the depths of experience with bland, bloodless generalities.
The path Bultmann forged some half century ago still holds significance today for those thinking about the Christian message in light of the progress of science, changes in culture, and the postmodern turn in philosophy. If part of the essence of the divine is that it is inescapable, then we don’t have to project beyond ourselves or look for general logical truths to reflect on its reality or meaning. We must instead critically and rationally reflect on our experiences, the good and the bad.
We are no longer in the stronghold of claims to ultimacy. But this doesn’t nullify our responsibility to be clear and honest with ourselves. Conceivably, if I go deep enough into my experiences, beliefs, and frames of reference, I might discover that the God I’ve testified to for so long is no more than a reflection of myself. And yet, through this jarring realization, I’ll be free for the first time to destroy that idol, opening myself up to new ways of thinking and experiencing, and, if I’m fortunate enough, attain liberation from my own self-imposed purgatories. Only when we stand on the grounds of honesty and sincerity are we able to testify to the God that is real beyond our concepts of God—a God that is truly transcendent, inescapable, and liberating.
The extreme rigidity and totalizing character that rationality can sometimes take fails to speak to the reality of the divine. Likewise, the anti-rational stance that too often accompanies postmodern attitudes debilitates and destabilizes us to such an extent that we are unable to become aware of, and question, our desires to speak of the divine in the first place, keeping us from the very confrontation we must have in order to authentically speak of God at all. If, with Bultmann and the demands of the modern world, we cease claiming ultimate truth for our conceptions of the divine, we must learn how to testify to our experiences, to give voice to our liberations and struggles, to our ways of being and ways of thinking. And this involves questioning who we are at our deepest levels: to stand under question.
Beginning the conversation about what it means to say “God” will require the courage to reflect critically about our experiences and ideas, and courage it will take to be open enough to consider alternative perspectives and to speak for oneself, even though we may always be wrong. If we cannot journey into the wilderness of our psyches to make our best attempt at understanding God, ourselves, and others, calling ourselves into question under the demands of clarity and love, then we’ll be devoured by our unconscious motivations, and our talk about God will be empty and idle.
[i] Rudolf Bultmann. “What it means to speak of God,” 1923.
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