Recently I preached a series of sermons on “The Seven Most-Googled Questions about God and Religion.” This was Question #2–“Is There a God?”–and I preached it (as I did all these questions) with the help of a “conversation partner,” sitting at a table in the same place where the pulpit usually stands, having a conversation about one of the most important things of all. I hope you will enjoy it and learn from it.
Jim: Welcome back to this series on “The Seven Most-Googled Questions about God and Religion,” and again I have asked a member of the Millennial Generation to join me as a conversation partner as I understand that it is these young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 who are doing most of the Googling. Today I have with me Justin Williams, a brilliant musician who teaches orchestra at Clover Hill High School, and who played the violin for us here just a few weeks ago. Justin is married to the former Roxanne O’Brien, who is also a gifted musician and a member of this church. Welcome, Justin!
Justin: Thank you.
Jim: Justin the question we are asking today—“Is there a God?”—has been a real question for you, hasn’t it? Tell us a little about that.
Justin: Yes, I was a very devout Christian in college: maybe a bit too legalistic, but I considered myself a true believer, a lover of God, and a witness for Jesus. But some of the questions I ran into like the problem of evil and the accuracy of the Bible were hard to answer. I began to read books like Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel, and Evidence, by Josh McDowell, but realized that unless you assume the Bible to be true, many of their arguments are unconvincing. So, I read on. I read a book by William Craig called Is God Real? I read Francis Collins’ book, A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. I even read the Richard Swinburne trilogy, Is There a God? etc. But in each case I found their answers relied on poor reasoning or creative but misleading analogies. There were too many questions and I wasn’t finding good answers for even the best resources. I ended up doubting and finally disbelieving most of what I had been taught.
Jim: Wow, that’s quite a journey, Justin. Thank you for being so honest with us.
Justin: Well, that’s just where I am. I am still open to discovering truth and changing my mind but I’m not still searching for an answer to the “God question.” I don’t need the concept of “God” to explain the way things are in the world, and even if I were convinced that God was real and the Bible was true, I would have a hard time serving a God who does some of the things recorded in Scripture. I mean, really, have you read some of the Old Testament?
Jim: I have!
Justin: That said, I love First Baptist Church! Roxanne and I tithe to the church each week and I love what you’re doing here. I’d like to be a part of it when and where I can fit in.
Jim: Well, thank you. I love this church, too, and one of the things I love about it is that it is a safe place to ask questions like this one: “Is there a God?”
Justin: Wait, Dr. Somerville…
Jim: Yes ?
Justin: I don’t think you heard me. I’m not asking that question any more.
Jim: Right, but there may be some people here who are, and if you can believe it the journey you just described is a journey that many thoughtful Christians have taken. It’s just that their journey didn’t end there.
Justin: OK…tell me more.
Jim: Do you see this beautiful visual aid I’ve brought?
Justin: Yes, it’s gorgeous.
Jim: Thank you! I made it myself. These are Tinkertoys, and when I was a kid we had a huge set of Tinkertoys. I used to get up on Saturday mornings and make structures taller than I was (of course, I wasn’t very tall back then). But for our purposes today I’d like to let this little structure represent our “framework of understanding.” You see, I grew up in a Christian home, too. Mine may not have been as conservative as yours but when I asked my mother, “Who made the world?” she would say, “God made the world.” She may not have known it, but in those early days she and my dad were helping me build my framework of understanding, and, back in the 1960’s, most of the people I encountered shared the same understanding. If I asked my neighbors or my Sunday school teachers who made the world they would say the same thing: “God made it.” So, when I went off to school for the first time, I took my framework of understanding with me, and I was fine, until somebody said, “God didn’t make the world,” and that didn’t make sense.
Jim: I talk about it like this sometimes: if I go outside and a bird flies by I say, “Right. Birds fly.” I have a place to hang that experience on my framework of understanding. But if I go outside and a cat flies by I either have to say, “I didn’t really see that,” or I have to re-build my framework of understanding to include the experience of flying cats. And we really don’t like to re-build our frameworks. We’re very protective of them. It’s easier to justify our old understanding than to accept a new one. So I might say, “That cat didn’t really fly; someone just threw it across my field of vision.” Does that make sense?
Jim: So, when we go off to school with the framework of understanding our parents helped us build in our conservative Christian home (what some people would call our “Christian worldview”) it shouldn’t surprise us that not everybody will share our understanding. It often happens for young people when they go off to college: they encounter different views, different understandings. Their pastor always told them that the world was made in six days but their science professor tells them it evolved over billions and billions of years, and maybe for the first time in their lives they are presented with conflicting voices of authority. They have to decide: “Which voice will I listen to?” And if they choose to listen to the science professor it can be very empowering. It can make them feel that they have finally grown up. The only problem is that they have to decide what to do with their old framework of understanding. Can they just rearrange their Tinkertoys to accommodate this new concept? Or will they have to take the whole thing apart and start from scratch?
Justin: Yep. That’s where I was in college.
Jim If it’s any comfort to you, some of the most brilliant people I know have been in that same place. A scholar named Marcus Borg, whose writings I have appreciated, grew up in a comfortably conservative Christian home, but struggled with doubts in early adolescence.[i] Those doubts turned to disbelief in college and by his mid-twenties he would have described himself as an atheist. Only later did he realize that he didn’t have to replace his Christian worldview with a secular worldview, but he did have to replace it with a different kind of Christianity, and it started with his concept of God. His old concept was something he calls “Supernatural Theism,” (which sounds amazing, doesn’t it? “It’s super, it’s natural, it’s supernatural!”). It’s the concept we find in much of the Bible: God is a supernatural being who made the world and everything in it and who is now “up there” somewhere, above us. Borg says that if you had asked him in childhood what God looked like he would have pictured his old Lutheran pastor, Pastor Thorson, standing in the pulpit shaking his finger (and apparently he was a finger-shaker). Or maybe someone like Santa Claus, who “sees you when you’re sleeping, who knows when you’re awake; who knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.” The message Borg got, even in childhood, was that if you are good, then, when you die you get to go to heaven, but if you are bad, well, “you better watch out”!
In biblical times that concept of God worked pretty well. People who lived back then didn’t know what we know now. They believed the world was mostly flat, and that the sky was a hard dome over it, like some of the big sports arenas today. The stars were like little lights fixed to the underside of the dome and the sun and moon moved on tracks from one side to the other. All the human action was going on down here, on the floor, but God was up there somewhere, in the skybox, watching. And that was mostly comforting. God wasn’t very far away. But during the Enlightenment we learned that the world wasn’t flat, it was round, and there wasn’t a hard dome over it, there was a universe! If God was up there somewhere he wasn’t anywhere we could see with our telescopes. He must be very, very far away. Some theologians solved the problem by saying God was transcendent, he was “radically other,” you couldn’t get near him if you wanted to, while others suggested that God was immanent, that he was very near, but only through your experience of him, only “in your heart.”
Neither of those answers was very satisfying to Borg. He kept looking, and found that before the Enlightenment some Christians were comfortable talking about a God who was transcendent as well as immanent; one who was not only “up there,” but also “right here.” Borg uses the word panentheism to describe this view, and that’s going to take a little explaining. If you look at the Greek roots pan means “everything,” en means, well, “in,” and theos is the word for God. Panentheism means, literally, “everything is in God.” It’s different from pantheism, which means everything is God, and which has been denounced as a heresy. No, panentheism simply means that everything—including the universe—is in God. And that’s a pretty big idea. Are you still with me, Justin?
Justin: Sure! Nothing I love more than Greek words.
Jim: Me too! So, one of my favorite theologians has described panentheism by talking about the way a baby exists inside its mother’s womb.[ii] In there it may be aware of its mother’s heartbeat, the distant murmur of her voice, the fact that it is surrounded by warmth and love and sustained by the nourishment she provides, but it may not be aware of much more than that. The mother, on the other hand, is texting on her smartphone while picking out paint swatches for the nursery. She’s out there in the world, and fully aware of everything. Now, suppose that we are like that baby, reaching out with both hands to get a better understanding of who God is and what God is like, but not doing a very good job. We are limited by our ability to apprehend and our capacity to understand. God is bigger than we are. And yet we cannot deny the reality of our experience. There’s something there, something all the world religions attest to, something William James once identified as “The More.”[iii]
Justin: OK, but now you’re raising one of my questions: what is the evidence for God? How do we know we are “in” God and not just in the solar system or in the universe?
Jim: Good question. A lot of people point to the universe itself as evidence. They say that it couldn’t exist as it does if there were not some intelligent mind behind it. That may be true, but I don’t think it has to be. The universe is big enough, and complex enough, that we could actually be the product of random chance. It’s possible. And then there’s the Bible. Our call to worship from Psalm 19 insisted that “the heavens are telling the glory of God!” But if you don’t believe the Bible, if you don’t think it’s true, then that’s not very compelling evidence, is it? Some people might say, “Well, you can’t know these things, you just have to accept them on faith,” but that often seems to be only another way of saying, “In order to be a good Christian you have to believe unbelievable things.” So, we end up with experience, and experience is admittedly subjective, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.
Look at love for example. I’m assuming that at some point in your life you’ve had an experience of something you would call love. You might even say that you love your wife (and if you’re smart, you will, because she’s sitting right there). It’s hard to come up with evidence of your love. You might have said at one point, “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t think of anything but Roxanne,” but that hardly qualifies as evidence. Someone who had never been in love might think you had insomnia, or an upset stomach, or a weird obsession with people who play the French horn. But someone who had been in love would read your experience in a different way. She would say, “Oh, that’s easy. You’re in love.” And there are thousands, probably millions, maybe even billions of people who would agree with her diagnosis.
So, if there are billions of people in the world who say, “There is a God,” you would want to take them as seriously as you would want them to take you. Their experiences may be different, they may not talk about them in the same way, or in the same language, or in the same religious tradition, but if billions of people are saying, “Yes, there is something More than we can see and hear and touch; there is a spiritual reality just as surely as there is a physical reality,” that would at least serve as a good starting point.
So, Justin: I know I haven’t answered all your questions. You had a great question about communication, for instance. You said, “If God is God why doesn’t he do a better job communicating? I mean, I’ve got my cell phone right here!” I loved that, and I’m going to get to it in a later sermon, but for today I’d like to leave you with this thought: maybe your old way of thinking about God needed to be dismantled. Maybe you were exactly right to pull those Tinkertoys apart. But maybe, someday—when you’re ready—you can add to your framework of understanding a new understanding of God: not so much as a supernatural being who is “up there” somewhere, but as the loving Presence who is both “up there” and “right here,” the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being.[iv]
—Jim Somerville and Justin Williams, ©2016
[i] All of this is from The God We Never Knew (HarperCollins, 1997).
[ii] Jurgen Moltmann, according to Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, pp. 156-7.
[iii] In the last chapter of his classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
[iv] Quoting from Paul’s speech in Acts 17.