A pioneering voyage into a postmodern world
A Fresh Cup of Tolerance
JUST WHO IS THIS GOD GUY OR GAL ANYWAY?
(ON THE NATURE OF GOD)
"I should like to speak of God not on the borders of life,
but at its center, not in weakness, but in strength,
not in man’s suffering and death, but in his life and prosperity."
The Many and the One, The One and the Many
The most basic Universalist theological premise is unity. An example of a church that embodies this is the Universalist church in South Florida, whose very name, The Church of the Way of the Messiahs, sends a revolutionary message which advocates that all humans are Messiahs-in-potential, Christs-in-possibility, Buddhas-in-time. Like all Universalist groups it has incorporated many seemingly disparate theological strands from various Eastern, Western and Native traditions into its faith system. Yet, upon close examination they are not so disparate. Common themes and spiritual patterns soon emerge. This is clearly laid out in the church’s 1997 revelatory document, A Universalist Manifesto, particularly in the tenth principle:
10. We recognize and affirm the limitless beauty and truth of the Divine Creation Spirit, the Holy Spirit that reveals itself through the many religions and peoples of faith throughout history and throughout the world. We acknowledge that a Divine Creation Spirit of all nations, of all peoples, of all creatures appears in many forms of Revelation through Divinely-guided Teachers, oral and written scriptures, and individual inspiration among all the peoples of the world. We call these revelations, inspirations, and teachings the loving, universal, divine truths of Great Spirit that shine through time, culture, personality, history, and geography.
From this it is clear that God has not come only through one human being or through one religious tradition. For example, as much as Universalists love, admire and honor Jesus, they would not especially disagree with Christian theologian, William Sloane Coffin, who stated in effect that God may be defined by Jesus, but not confined to Jesus. The more one investigates various spiritual heritages, teachings, and scriptures, the more one comes away with the distinct feeling that God has been speaking with one voice through many voices; that, despite the cultural, literary, historical and geographical differences between these spiritual voices, there is an essential truth underlying all religions. This is not a new message. Karen Armstrong points out that Islam not only has a long history of tolerance of other religions, but even carries a Universalist flavor.
"The religion of al-Llah that Muhammad would shortly begin to preach in Mecca had begun not on Mount Hira but on the day of Creation. God had made Adam his kalipha or vice-regent on earth and after that time He had sent one prophet after another to every people on the face of the earth. The message had always been the same, so all religions were essentially one. The Qu’ran never claimed to cancel out previous revelations, but in principle one cult, one tradition, one scripture was as good as another. "
Muhammad himself told overzealous followers more than once, “Say not that I am better than Moses.” And, another time, “Let none of you say that I am better than Jonah.” He knew the revelation from Gabriel quite well, in which it says, “We make no distinction between any of His messengers.” (Qu’ran, Surah II, 285) All of the Qu’ran’s prophets and messengers (including Jesus and Mary) are very special ones called to God’s work, but none is greater than the other in God’s eyes.
Closer to home, in 1893, the Hindu Swami Vivekananda addressed the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago and brought that staid body to its feet with his compelling, fresh advocacy of Universalism learned at the feet of his teacher, Ramakrishna (1836-1886), the great Hindu Saint and religious reformer mentioned earlier. Lewis Hopfe and Mark Woodward report of Ramakrishna, once a priest of Kali, "He later became convinced that behind all religions was a single reality that might be called God. His religious experience with Christians and Muslims, as well as Hindus, convinced him that truth was essentially one."
Pursuing this idea that critical theological truths are essentially one, Universalist Theology also has an interesting take on the nature of the Supreme Being. As odd as it may seem to a Christian, Jewish or Islamic theologian, Universalists may perceive God from both a monotheistic and pantheistic perspective. The Pantheism of most indigenous, shamanic peoples around the world and throughout history views the Creator and Creation as one. God is experienced throughout all of nature and all of nature is alive. God dwells within and through everything. Thus, for us there is one God and this God is part of all things. The modern Christian Panentheistic Theology of Charles Hartshorne, Matthew Fox, and Jurgen Moltmann has come achingly close to embracing this same principle of pantheism. Alan Gragg provides Hartshorne’s definition of panentheism as "…that literally everything exists in God and that God, like the universe, has no external environment. All actualities are actual in God, and all potentialities are potential in God. He is the Whole in every categorical sense, all actuality in one individual actuality, and all possibility in one individual potentiality. Panentheism thus differs from traditional theism by asserting that all the world is entirely inside God instead of outside him….."
Richard Bauckham expands upon this as he notes Jurgen Moltmann’s "growing stress on the immanence of God in creation, as his eschatological panentheism (the hope that God will indwell all things in the new creation) has been increasingly accompanied by a stress on the coinherence of God and the world already. As the Spirit, God is already present in his creation, both in suffering the transience and evil of the world and in anticipating the eschatological rebirth of all things. "
This is a God who is both transcendent and immanent , holy individual and wholly community. It is not particularly necessary to explain this seeming paradox, for it is simply one of the many Mysteries of God. This can be seen through the first, fifth, and seventh principles in A Universalist Manifesto:
1. There is one Divine Creation Spirit of All That Is, Seen and Unseen, Known and Unknown, Understood and Not Understood.
5. The Divine Creation Spirit is the One and the Many, the Many and the One. The Divine Creatress-Creator is female and male, infinitely large and infinitely small, Spirit and Substance, Light and Dark, beyond understanding and wonderfully simple, Manifest and Unmanifest, Mind and Heart. The Great Spirit is All That Is.
7. Along with all our relations, we are constantly in Oneness with Great Spirit, knowingly or unknowingly, in lightness or in darkness, in the physical or in the spiritual, as we are all the divine manifestation of Great Spirit, and in All That We Are, we are the Many and the One, the One and the Many.
Ninian Smart might observe within his Experiential and Emotional Dimension that Universalist theology seems to combine the two poles of religious experience he postulated. At one pole there is Rudolf Otto’s sense of the numinous; God as Other. This outside, holy Other is a Mystery beyond comprehension. At the other end is the contemplative experience where there is no outside Other, only an inner truth or non-other. Clearly, Universalism is an integrationist theology. Consequently, within this expansive universe of meaning, one is at liberty to experience the presence of God as Mother and Father, as communion and community, as partner and friend, as outer Other and as inner Self. If God is the Many within the Oneness (the diversity within the unity), then why cannot God be experienced this intimately and personally? More and more God is emerging as a personal experience in the postmodern world.
It is not just church teachings and scripture that help us define our theological identity, but also our biography, our life experiences. Where we are born, when we are born, who raises us, and what community or society we live in will have more influence on our views of our God, ourselves, and our world than almost anything else in the world. In other words, our religious affiliations and beliefs are almost solely a result of geographical, historical, and cultural context. Recognizing the sociological (family and societal), geographical, historical, and anthropological (cultural) influences on our development, it will make a world of religious and theological difference if you are born in Jakarta, Rome, Cairo, Calcutta, Llasa, Buenos Aires, Stockholm, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Shanghai, or Detroit. It will make a world of religious and theological difference if you are born in 1450 BCE, 300 BCE, 300 CE, 1450 CE, 1900 CE, or 20013 CE. With this in mind, then, let us look at a few ways God can be experienced.
As Elaine Pagels tells us, the early Gnostic Christians used to start their prayers to both the Divine Mother and Father. One can almost sense the comfort received in their prayers to a nurturing set of protective, loving parents in a hostile world of Roman occupation and persecution. Fast forward 2000 years and we discover Christian Womanist and Mujerista Liberation Theologians for whom God is personalized to their own life experiences as African-American and Latina Women, both as individuals and within their specific communities. With this in mind Stephanie Mitchem shifts the theological playing field by noting that black women understand God “as a partner in life rather than a distant observer,” and asking,
"Where is God in the experiences of black women? By what name should this God be called? What does it mean to live a life of faith? How should black women respond to God’s call? "
God as black woman in Harlem or African woman slave? God as Latina women in the slums of Peru or Los Angeles? Why not? How long have we had to accept the narrow, European and North American definitions of God as fact and reality? God as old white grandfather on a throne. Jesus as pale, slight, light-haired North European. God is far more expansive than anything we could envision, so perhaps our hopes, our dreams and our imagination are the best places to begin. A limitless Creatress-Creator requires limitless vision.
So carrying our mandate of expansive definition even further, Sallie McFague, feminist liberation theologian and Christian minister, suggests the idea of God as friend—and even as lover.
"God as lover is the one who loves the world not with the fingertips but totally and passionately, taking pleasure in its variety and richness, finding it attractive and valuable, delighting in its fulfillment. God as lover is the moving power of love in the universe, the desire for unity with all the beloved."
According to Shahram Shiva, this same sentiment resounded long ago through the great 13th Century Sufi founder and poet, Rumi, whose spiritual transformation made him an “enraptured lover of God.” Julian of Norwich, the remarkable English Christian mystic from the 14th Century, spoke of her God in enraptured terms, as well. In one vision, she calls Him, “my Maker, Lover and Keeper,” and later observes His joy in a soul returning to Him: "He says sweetly, 'My darling, I am glad you have come to Me. In all this misery I have ever been one with you. Now you see My loving, and we are made one in bliss.'"
Within these expanded definitions of God, God is creator; God is creation; God is guide; God is comforting, healing, nurturing, birthing mother; God is liberator; God is Lover; God is the Holy Shekinah Spirit, She Who Dwells Within; God is All That Is; God is part of you; and God is part of me. As an aside, within this definition one can hardly not be an environmentalist, for this indwelling nature of God in all things is a foundation of Christian Green Theology, where even the Vatican and the Southern Baptist Convention in 2008 finally weighed in on the Christian duty to protect the environment and prevent global warming. Mother Earth, all her creatures, and all God’s creations are meant to be honored and protected on behalf of God, for God is within them as well. Thus, there is no limit to this God. The great rabbinical sages partially comprehended this:
"They conceived the idea of a God who, as it were, is able, at will, to expand and contract, to concentrate Himself into a small space, or to fill all space and more, and who…remains always, in His final and ultimate essence, eternally one and the same. They were helped in the development of this idea…by their doctrine of the Shechinah, or the Indwelling of God."
To be fair, and at the same time further stir up the brew, I must also add that Universalist Theology is both theistic and non-theistic. If this seems confusing, it can be pointed out that one translation for Wakantanka, the name of God in the Lakota language, is “Great Mystery.” The Lakota believe it is the height of absurdity to attempt to anthropomorphize the Creator of All That Is, which is also All That Is, for the Supreme Being is beyond human understanding. This is not unlike the Muslim distaste for idle doctrinal speculation (zanna) about the ineffable nature of God and theological matters, which is considered merely “human projection and wish fulfillment.” Principle 24 echoes this conviction, which underscores our oneness and our need to be in oneness.
24. It creates imbalance and disharmony to over-analyze and over-interpret the Divine Creation Spirit or Great Spirit's works. An equally wonderful name for the Divine Creation Spirit is "Great Mystery", a mystery far beyond our limited vision in the physical plane. Staying only in the limited human mind, without the love and inspiration and reason of Divine Mind and Holy Spirit, has created much suffering throughout history in war and division. Divisiveness, separation, judgmentalism, nationalism, and theological hairsplitting were not the teachings of the divinely guided teachers who came to assist us. In splitting theological hairs over the "correct" beliefs, laws and rituals, that is, in following what was thought to be the letter of the law, we have sorely missed the spirit of the whole thing. There is no justification for war against, hatred for, or separation from any of our Brothers and Sisters, and no divinely guided teacher would justify such.
For this reason Universalist Theology can be as comfortable with the Hindu concept of Brahman as Ultimate Reality, the sexless, eternal, infinite, unfathomable and unknowable force of creation that is beyond time and space and is a part of all things; as it can be with the Tao, The Way, which is the creation energy flow of all things; as well as the Buddhist Dharma, Absolute Truth. Each in their way describes the energy flow of the universe as an intelligent, organized foundation of everything, but not in terms of an intellectualized human concept of a Divine Being. John Dominic Crossan puts an interesting spin on this topic as he notes that God is Order for Confucians, a Force for Taoists, a State of Mind for Buddhists, and a Being in Western religions. Maimonides, the eminent Jewish Sage, although an Aristotelian theist of sorts , sums it up thusly, “…the human mind cannot comprehend God. Only God can know Himself. The only form of comprehension of God we can have is to realize how futile it is to try to comprehend Him.”
Normally, we might have ended this section here, but throughout this exploration of the House of God, there has been a nearly hidden foundation stone, covered by centuries of mossy propaganda and distortion debris. In order to complete our discussion of the Creator, and to remain true to our universal heritage and history, we can no longer ignore Her. Riane Eisler, Monica Sjoo, Barbara Mor and other archeological revisionists have discovered significant scientific support and historical information that argue an interesting conclusion: God was female for almost all of the last 200,000 years of human life on earth.
"[The] cave sanctuaries, figurines, burials, and rites all seem to have been related to a belief that the same source from which human life springs is also the source of all vegetable and animal life—the great Goddess or Giver of All we still find in later periods of Western civilization. They also suggest that our early ancestors recognized that we and our natural environment are integrally linked parts of the great mystery of life and death and that all nature must therefore be treated with respect."
If this is the case, then we can no longer overlook the divine feminine that governed so much of our planetary religious history, and we remember that it has not been totally forgotten in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Sophia (a Greek feminine noun) is the Wisdom aspect of God, originating from the original Hebrew Chokmah, a feminine noun and later translated as Sapientia, a Latin feminine noun. There is more material on her than anyone else in the scriptures except God, Moses, Job and David. She is found in the Old Testament’s Proverbs, the Book of Job, the Wisdom of Solomon and the Book of Sirach (or Ecclesiaticus), and she carries a distinctly feminine voice. In Proverbs 8:27-31, Sophia tells us:
"When God set the heavens in place, I was present.
When God drew a ring on the surface of the deep,
When God fixed the clouds above,
When God fixed the vast wells of the deep,
When God assigned the sea its limits—
And the waters will not invade the land,
When God established the foundations of the earth,
I was by God’s side, a master craftswoman,
Delighting God day after day,
Ever at play by God’s side,
At play everywhere in God’s domain,
Delighting to be with the children of humanity."
Likewise, in the Talmud, Rabbi Judah, a great Jewish Sage, refers to the Holy Shekinah (a Hebrew feminine noun), the in-dwelling spirit of God, as a mother who follows the children of Israel, “her children,” into captivity. In other Talmudic discussions pertaining to the tradition of covering the head, the majority view eventually accepted that it was “impertinent to allow the Shekinah, the female manifestation of God, to see their bare heads below Her.” In the Jewish Kaballah Movement the Shekinah is “the crowned bride of God.” The Jewish Shekinah later evolved into the Christian notion of the Holy Spirit, a nurturing Advocate, Healer and Comforter (John 14:16-26 and Acts 9:31), and even perceived as an indwelling spirit by the Apostle Paul (Romans 8:8). Finally, Julian of Norwich goes so far as to call Jesus “our heavenly Mother, Jesus,” for his all-encompassing love is likened to a mother for her child.
Although it is worthwhile to mention these surviving remnants of the Goddess, it is not possible to do justice to the fall of the matriarchal world some 7,000 years ago under the onslaught of the nomadic, patriarchal tribal groups with their male war gods. At a minimum, that is a complete academic field of inquiry unto itself. However, Universalist Theology carries an imperative to honor and comprehend the role of the divine feminine. It is part and parcel of Universalist worship, for it affords a great opportunity for planetary healing and for once again bringing equilibrium to the Yin and the Yang, the feminine and the masculine. Jennifer and Roger Woolger so eloquently describe this paradise lost.
"Seen from the larger perspective of world religion, the cultures of Western civilization are like the children of a family that has suffered a terrible divorce. The children now live only with the father and are forbidden to mention the mother’s name or remember those warm and happy times they once spent in her embrace. With only a father to guide us, despite his love, we have become hardened, relentlessly heroic, and grimly puritanical in our effort to forget the lost security and sensual trust in the earth the Mother once gave us. Long ago, we dimly sense, there was a primordial unity, when an Earth Mother and a Spirit Father enjoyed happy and harmonious union. But that paradise is lost, and in our estrangement we have been forced to swallow the embittered propaganda of a guilty, yet all-powerful Father. The Mother herself is disempowered: her cults scattered, divided, unattended, persecuted."
It is long past time to bind her wounds, his wounds, and our wounds. It is time for a renewed inspiration and revelation of All That Is.
CHAPTER IV ENDNOTES
79. The Church of the Way of the Messiahs, A Universalist Manifesto, ed. Thomas Norris (Miami: The Church of the Way of the Messiahs, 1997), 6-7.
80. William Sloane Coffin paraphrased in Marcus J. Borg’s The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 89.
81. Karen Armstrong, Muhammad (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), 87-88.
82. Ibid, 87.
83. Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (Rocherster, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1983), 102.
84. Christoper Isherwood, Ramakrishna and His Disciples (Hollywood: Vedanta Press, 1965), 320-321.
85. Lewis M. Hopfe and Mark R. Woodward, Religions of the World (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001, 9th edition), 102.
86. Note the slight difference in spelling between panentheism and pantheism. It is almost like these Christian theologians could not take the last step and acknowledge how pantheistic their ideas were.
87. C. Alan Anderson and Deborah G. Whitehouse, New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2003), 89.
88. Alan Gragg , “Charles Hartshorne,” Makers of the Modern Theological Mind, ed. Bob E. Patterson (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1973), in Religion Online [database on-line], religion-online.org; accessed June 14, 2005.
89. Richard Bauckham, “Jurgen Moltmann,” in The Modern Theologians, ed. David F. Ford (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 221.
90. The transcendent God is the High God in the sky; pure, holy (separate), and far above us and creation. The immanent God is the down-to-earth, intimate, up close and personal God.
91. A Universalist Manifesto, 3 and 5.
92. Smart, 167.
93. As Dietrich Bohhoeffer suggests in his Sanctorum Communio, quoted in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ, ed. John de Gruchy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 49-50, and 60.
94. Linda Moody, Women Encounter God (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996), 30
95. Smart, 194.
96. Edward Antonio, “Black Theology” in The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, ed. Christopher Rowland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 67-68. For example, Antonio discusses James Cone’s refusal to concede the absolute existence of universal truths and revelation. Theological perspectives, instead, are based upon the historical context and experience of the person formulating a position on the divine. Your theology will be quite different from the slavemaster, if you are the slave, and vice versa.
97. Pagels, 49.
98. Mitchem, 22-23; and Ada Maria Isasi Diaz, Mujerista Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 71-72, 77-79.
99. Ibid, 48.
100. Ibid, 23.
101. Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological New Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), x and 133.
102. Jalal Al-Din Rumi and Shahram Shiva, Hush Don't Say Anything to God: Passionate Poems of Rumi, trans. Shahram Shiva (Fremont, CA: Jain Publishing, 1999), available from http://www.geocities.com/ostercy/rumi.htm; Internet; accessed March 25, 2005.
103. Dame Julian of Norwich, The Revelation of Divine Love in Sixteen Showings, trans. M. L. del Mastro (Liguori, MI: Liguori/Triumph, 1994), 67.
104. Ibid, 120.
105. Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos, Reimagining God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 55, 59, 64, and 70.
106. Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is (New York: Crossroad, 1996), 86; and Pagels, 52-53.
107. CNN.com, “Vatican lists new sinful behaviors, “ March 12, 2008, http://www.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/wayoflife/03/10/vatican.updates.sins.ap/ (accessed March 20, 2008); and Dallas Morning News, “Southern Baptists change stance, say stopping global warming a biblical duty,” in Local News/Religion, March 9, 2008, http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/religion/stories/031008dnnatsouthernbaptists.31bd4ca.html (accessed MArch 20, 2008).
108. As John B. Cobb, Jr. and other Christian Theologians affirmed from the 1970s onward. John B. Cobb, Jr., “The Role of Theology of Nature in the Church,” in Liberating Life: Contemporary Approaches in Ecological Theology, ed. Charles Birch, William Eaken and Jay B. McDaniel (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990), in Religion Online [database on-line], religion-online.org; accessed July 13, 2005
109. G. G. Montefiore and H. Lowe, A Rabbinic Anthology (New York: Schocken Books, 1974), 15.
110. James R. Walker, “ Walker’s Outline of Oglala Mythology,” In Lakota Belief and Ritual, ed. Raymond J. DeMAllie and Elaine A. Jahmer (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 51.
111. Ibid, 70-74; and Barrett Eaglebear, Lakota Sundancer, “Lectures on the oral teachings of the Lakota Elders” in many workshops and seminars, 1990-2004, Miami and Sunrise, Florida.
112. Armstrong, Muhammad, 98, 100.
113. A Universalist Manifesto, 12.
114. Hopfe and Woodward, 82.
115. Lao-Tzu, Te-TaoChing, trans. Robert G. Henricks (New York: Ballantine, 1989), xviii-xix.
116. Masao Abe, “Buddhism” in Our Religions, ed. Arvind Sharma (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 76; and Robert Linssen, Living Zen (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1958), 68.
117. John Dominic Crossan, “Past and Future” in the Chautauqua Institute Great Lecture Series, September 16, 2001at Chautauqua, New York.
118. Ehud Z. Benor, “Meaning and Reference in Maimonides' Negative Theology,” Harvard Theological Review 88:3 (July 1995) in Library and Information Resource Net [database on-line], Infotrac; accessed March 25, 2005.
119. Maimonides, “Guide for the Perplexed,” I, 59, quoted in Mary Pat Fisher, Living Religions: Eastern Traditions (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003), 25.
120. Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor, The Great Cosmic Mother, (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 46, 49; and Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1987), 3-6.
121. Eisler, 3.
122. Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is (New York: Crossroad, 1996), 86-87.
123. Susan Cole, Marian Ronan, and Hal Taussig, Wisdom's Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration (Lanham, MD: Sheed and Ward, 1997).
124. Johnson, 86-87.
125. Montefiore and Loewe, citing Lamentation Rabbah 1:33, on 1:6, 518.
126. George Robinson, Essential Judaism (New York: Pocket Books, 2000), 28.
127. Leah Novick, “Encountering the Shechinah, the Jewish Goddess,” in The Goddess Reawakening, ed. Shirley Nicholson (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1989), 206.
128. Michael Lodahl, Shekinah Spirit: Divine Presence in Jewish and Christian Religion ( New York: Paulist Press, 1992), 56.
129. Julian of Norwich, 171.
130. Eisler, 43-44.
131. Jennifer Barker Woolger and Roger J. Woolger, The Goddess Within (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1989), 16.