As we begin our preparation for Confirmation it seems appropriate to ask the question, ‘Who, or what… is God?’ Initial responses to that question from the group that met last Sunday night included, ‘parent figure… creator… guide/conscience… spiritual force… energy… love.’ I wonder which of these resonate with you, and what additional responses you’d like to include?
Ever since our species developed language and consciousness there appears to have been some sense of an energy which cannot be seen with the naked eye – but can be felt. Animism is probably the earliest form of religion and in this people believe that there is energy everywhere but it is particularly strong in some places – in the forest, in the bush… under a particular tree… in a particular cave etc. The energy seemed to have different characteristics so people thought that instead of a single form of energy there were different kinds – in the same way that there are different kinds of people. To name that understanding I think we’d have to move from the term ‘spiritual energy’ to the term ‘spirits’.
If you have a world view in which there are ‘spirits’ that have a powerful influence on the physical world then you’d be inclined to keep them happy, and on special occasions even ask them to do things on your behalf. If the ‘spirit’ seems to be particularly powerful then they could be thought of as a ‘god’ in a world that seems to have many spirits/gods. To keep the gods happy people thought you had to live in particular ways, give the gods food, or sacrifice an animal to the god, or in some religions even sacrifice people. By doing such things it was hoped that the relevant god would make the sun come back after winter; make the rain come back after drought; make domestic animals would bear young; make an army successful in battle; make a food garden grow plenty of food; help a woman become pregnant with a son… etc.
Polytheism is simply a way of saying ‘many gods’ and we find polytheism alive and well today in the world’s third largest religion known as Hinduism. We find other expressions of polytheism reflected in the names of ancient Egyptian Gods, and in Greek, Roman and Norse mythology.
Somewhere between 4000 and 3000 years a family somewhere in the Middle East came to the conclusion that there was only one God (monotheism) and they were called by that God to be that God’s chosen people. The family was led by a man called Abraham who felt led by God to leave his land and go to a new place. In addition Abraham believed that God promised that in time his descendents would become a great nation. We call the religion that thinks of itself as God’s chosen people – Judaism. Those who follow Judaism are called Jews and these days there are at least sixty different kinds of Judaism! Nevertheless Judaism was the first of the world’s monotheistic religions.
Interestingly the next monotheistic religion to emerge came from Judaism. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew who lived in a land we think of now as Israel. This land had been invaded by the Roman army and was administered by them as part of the Roman Empire. So the story of Abraham is important not only to Jews but also to the religion that formed around the life and teaching Jesus. We call this religion Christianity and there are again at least sixty different kinds of church within Christianity
About five hundred years later the prophet Mohammed also named Abraham as his ancestor but developed a new monotheistic religion we call Islam. People who follow Islam are called Muslims and there are again at least sixty different kinds of Islam in our world.
For the people who wrote the wisdom writing of the Jewish faith (known as the Torah), the Christian faith (known as the Bible), and the Muslim faith (known as the Koran), there was a similar three tiered understanding of the universe. In this the earth was flat; just the other side of the clouds was a place of glory and light where God and heavenly beings lived; and underneath the earth was a dark, hot, place of suffering called hell. We might smile at this understanding but when you see a shaft of sunlight coming through dark clouds it does look like there might be something wonderful going on up there. So for the ancient mind, uninformed by sending people to walk on the moon, or satellites to photograph other parts of our solar system, it is understandable that they understood the world in this way.
Indeed this three-tiered way of understanding the world has influenced humanity’s thinking about God for a long time. In the West this has found great expression in paintings by the famous Italian artist Michelangelo who lived between 1475 and 1564. Last Sunday we looked at his enormous wall painting titled ‘The Last Judgement’ which is found on the wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. In this painting a muscular Jesus is depicted judging humanity at the end of time. Those who made the grade are being welcomed up into heaven, and those who failed to make the grade are being dragged down to be tortured by demons.
For all kinds of reasons I think we have a very different world view today in the 21st Century and I think this impacts on the way we imagine and name our experience of God.
I want to highlight a few people of the many people who have helped to shift this three-tiered world view:
A Catholic priest from Poland called Nicolaus COPERNICUS (1473 -1543) worked out through his study of mathematics and astronomy that the earth orbits the sun, not the other way around! That may not sound surprising but the Christian church had taught for over one thousand years that the earth was at the centre of God’s creation. Copernicus’ ideas were not welcomed by church leaders who tended to kill people that disagreed with them!
The English physicist, mathematician and theologian, Isaac Newton (1643 -1727), suggested that there were quantifiable rules that governed why things happened. Among many other things he identified and proposed three laws of motion. This shift in thinking was significant and can be understood thus: the apple did not fall on my head because I had done something to upset God, rather the apple fell on my head because gravity pulled it down to the ground after the stem broke. At the time of Jesus people thought you got sick because you’d done something wrong and upset God, whereas these days we recognise the impact that bacteria, virus’ and cancer have in making people sick.
The English biologist Charles Darwin (1809 -1882) put forward the theory that living things changed over time in order to successfully compete with other species and survive. Again the shift in thinking was very significant – instead of human beings being made in a few minutes from a piece of clay, we instead accept that we have spent millions of years changing over time in order for our species to emerge with its unique gift of consciousness.
We live in a world informed by scientific theories and research. We live in a time when there is unprecedented access to information through the internet. We take astonishing technology for granted… and think that through our medical knowledge and hospital systems we will have long lives.
In the midst of all this is there space for God?
Is God one who inspires, comforts, challenges and enables? Or is God rather an artificial construct that people fall back on like a safety blanket when things go wrong?
Who, or what is God for you? I asked the Sunday group to each draw a picture which showed God and them. Was God near or far away? Did God have a human shape – or something less clear? For each person the response was different – for one person God was far away and in the past, whereas for another God was inside their heart. For another person God was like a protective barrier, while for another God was like a fog surrounding everything. For one person God was far away and all creation was inside God, while for another all creation was in God… but God was bigger than that. One of the themes that emerged towards the end of the session was the suggestion that the purpose of God was to know fullness of life.
Unresolved questions include:
• If God is love then why is there so much suffering in the world?
• If life is God’s gift to us… what do we do with it?
If you have not drawn a picture please take five minutes to draw on an A4 piece of paper how you and God look together on the same page!
For those preparing on-line please take some time to reflect upon the highlighted questions in the text and respond to at least one of them. You could respond to the group using the blog, or you could email me directly for a private ‘conversation’ on email@example.com
We finished our session by praying together an Alternative Lord’s Prayer that was published in the Anglican Prayer Book of New Zealand in 1989. I would like each of person in the group to try and pray this prayer aloud each day this week, and hope it is a blessing.
Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven;
May your scared name echo through the universe,
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world,
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings,
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope
and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us,
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and forever.