Playing with God

Two Kinds of Spirituality

“Queer people aren’t coming for your old gods, we’re making God anew,” Tracey Anne Duncan declares in HuffPost.

It’s an interesting declaration, as “making God anew” would seem to imply some kind of mastery over God. Of course, if God can be made anew – if we can define him however we please – the implication is that he doesn’t actually exist. Not outside our minds, anyway. Duncan writes:

I loved all the religions I knew about as a young child. From the sweet-faced Jesus my great-grandparents talked about to the stern big daddy God of my Pentecostal cousins to the muddy femme spell-craft of my Appalachian kin, it didn’t seem strange to believe in it all.

Yes, there’s no reason you shouldn’t believe in all sorts of gods and religions – as long as by “believe” you mean “willing suspension of disbelief” – the sort of thing you do when you watch a movie or read a book. There’s no reason I can’t immerse myself in the world of Harry Potter one day, and the world of the Marvel superheroes the next. And I can find truth and meaning there, too: I can use the characters as role-models and cautionary examples for my own life, draw practical applications from their experiences, and find symbolism in their narratives. But it isn’t actual belief, it’s a simulation of belief. Or rather, it’s a belief in simulations, as simulations – not as real people. A make-believe person affects my life in an entirely different way from a real person.

“The God in me”

Likewise, the changeable, made-to-your-convenience kind of God exists only inside the believer. And that’s the point. He (or She, or They) is merely an abstraction of humanity, a representation of our aspirations and deepest desires. That conception of God is appealing to many people, and so it has become very mainstream in American society. For example, at the close of an episode of his series The Story of God, Morgan Freeman says:

God is so many things to so many people. The warm light of the sun, the sound of sweet music, an inner voice that drives us forward, a friend. If you ask me who God is, I would say there’s a bit of the Divine in all of us. There’s God in you, there’s God in me. The God in me is who I really am at my core. The God in me is the best version of me. The God in me is who I strive to be, who I was meant to be.

That’s the secret of postmodern religion. It isn’t always said explicitly, but from time to time it slips out: “I am God” is the core doctrine of our age. What could be more different from the traditional view, the idea that God is God, and I am me? I suppose at the end of the day, that is the root difference between “progressive” and “traditional” spirituality. Is God a being who exists independently of us? Or is he, as Morgan Freeman puts it in The Story of God, merely “your inspiration, your power”?

Not a Tame God

Story-time belief in a friend whom you know, deep down, is really just yourself – that is something you can control. But real belief in a being outside of yourself… that, you cannot control. And that’s dangerous. You never know what you might be asked to do, or not do, by a God that exists outside of your own self. You never know what that God might do to you. It might turn out that his aims and his value-system are entirely different from yours.

That’s probably why so many people like to keep their spirituality personal. Inside yourself, you can be God. Outside yourself, it is obvious that you are not God. If you peer out of yourself, even for a moment, at the wide, wild world around you, and look for God out there, you are in danger of realizing what a small and helpless thing you really are. It’s better not to look out at all.

This choice isn’t new, so it doesn’t merit a new answer. People behaved the same way in the time of the prophet Isaiah in the 8th century BC. He had this to say about it:

The carpenter measures with a line
     and makes an outline with a marker;
he roughs it out with chisels
     and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in human form,
     human form in all its glory,
     that it may dwell in a shrine.
He cut down cedars,
     or perhaps took a cypress or oak.
He let it grow among the trees of the forest,
     or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.
It is used as fuel for burning;
     some of it he takes and warms himself,
     he kindles a fire and bakes bread.
But he also fashions a god and worships it;
     he makes an idol and bows down to it.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
     over it he prepares his meal,
     he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
     “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
     he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
“Save me! You are my god!”
They know nothing, they understand nothing;
     their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
     and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
No one stops to think,
     no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
“Half of it I used for fuel;
     I even baked bread over its coals,
     I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
     Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”
Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
     he cannot save himself, or say,
“Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?” (Isaiah 44:13-20, NIV)

Nobody is “coming for your old gods” – or “making God anew.” Nobody can, because God is not in our power. God is not an imaginary friend to play with. We are only small creatures in the wide world, and the wide world is a small thing in the hands of God.

And as Bilbo Baggins wisely said: thank goodness for that!

Further Reading

Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.

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