This sermon[i] is about what ultimately is beyond/beneath all talk, namely g-o-d, or god. God with a capital ‘G’ is a proper noun, and god with a small ‘g’ is improper. So this sermon is full of improper small ‘g’ ; something of a riddle really; folly, non-sense, like a crucified god.
A poem [printed on the back of the service sheet]:
god is dripping,
drip after drop after drip,
One day the drip whispers
(after a prison visit):
‘Is poverty a crime?’
‘Is being brown a felony?’
On another day it murmurs:
‘If we can produce
enough to feed the world
why are so many hungry?’
god is not a tap.
'Can't have a drip
without a tap,'
the theists counter.
They miss the point:
god doesn’t exist;
like an unrelenting drip.
For existence pertains
to a being, a construction,
a noun, which attracts
other nouns alongside.
Best to ignore the drips -
those nuisances, hauntings.
Best to seek the source
and turn them off.
But the source is elusive.
‘God doesn’t exist,’ says
the new atheist. Yet…
why do I still hear a drip?
god dripping defies grasping.
It’s less demanding,
more rational, to debate
the existence of a tap.
Language is, of course, a human construct and works well when describing objects or what objects do. It works less well when there is no visible or verifiable object, like g-o-d. Language also helps us construct meaning through metaphor. But, particularly in religious language, metaphor can easily solidify around g-o-d and begin to take the shape of our needs.
Jewish theologians have long recognised this propensity to make g-o-d into an idol – a solidified metaphor, stuck in the shape of our best projection. That’s why they never said the name of God - for naming is a type of control, a taming of the Holy, a bridle. Others use a small ‘g’ for god to hint at the weakness/folly of god.
As Peter Rollins, an evangelical who supports this weak theology, writes: “The argument is made that naming God is never really naming God but only naming our understanding of God. To take our ideas of the divine and hold them as if they correspond to the reality of God is thus to construct a conceptual idol built from the materials of our mind.”
I prefer poetry’s playfulness rather than systematic theology’s seriousness to talk g-o-d - hence why I began with a poem. Poems often invite puns, and new metaphorical resonances. They mix up usual linguistic patterns. So I began today with theo-poetics rather than theo-logic, as Richard Kearney would say.
G-o-d is always personal, and trans-personal. I first heard god knocking on the door of my heart in 1973. And that metaphor, from Revelations 3:20, shaped the experience; as did the loving community who translated it. An invisible Jesus was there knocking. In the years since god has also been a ‘Father’, ‘beyond’ the Father, ‘love energy’, ‘mutual relation’, a verb[s], strong metaphors like the sea [or this morning a wild horse], and weak metaphors like a lamb or a drip.
The Bible is full of metaphors for God/god. Yes, the strong metaphors dominate – king, lord, father, shepherd… [Note though shepherd originally was a lowly role]. But the weak metaphors are also there: an anxious fretting woman sweeping the room; and – significantly – the metaphor of a criminal ‘Son of God’/god hanging on a cross. This central metaphor for Christianity of God/god-in-Jesus dying as a criminal was both offensive and foolish, revealing upside-down understandings the world, and the divine.
Since 1973, at different times in my life, some language resonated more with me than others. Sometimes I struggled to hold with any metaphor, any image. But what has been constant throughout, whether I wanted to hear it or not, has been a whisper – sometimes soothing, but often disturbing, haunting. As James K Baxter used to say, back in the day, ‘Who in their right mind would follow this God?[ii]
That’s why, in a perverse way, I take comfort from Genesis 32 when Jacob wrestled with God/god’s surrogate at Peniel. It was a holy, divine encounter; and it helped him mentally get through the crisis of the moment [his brother Esau was coming to do him in or so Jacob reasoned]. But Jacob didn’t from that moment on have a blessed life. Indeed he continued to make screw ups. And – and this is my point – that divine encounter didn’t make him stronger but weaker. He had a limp from that day forward.
Thirdly, strong and weak:
In 1989 Jacques Derrida, Jewish philosopher, gave a lecture in New York City where he distinguished between the ‘force of law’ and the call for ‘justice’. It is the law which has all the force – courts, police, jails… Whereas justice is but a ‘call’ whose voice is ever soft and low. The law is what exists, actual and real, albeit culturally and historically conditioned. Whereas the whisper of justice doesn’t exist so much as insists, and it’s unconditioned.
This whisper of justice isn’t so much a reality as a peal or appeal for something just to become real. So we seek to make just laws, so the call of justice can come into effect in law. But what comes into effect in law is a construction and as such must be appealable and repealable, that is deconstructible. Whereas justice in itself, if there is such a thing is not deconstructible. It is always calling, always to-come.
Existence, the force of law, is strong. Its strength is seen in the construction of institutions, their reasoning, and their ongoing life. Similarly God [capital ‘G’] is a strong God that exists in institutions, reasoning, and religious life. Insistence, the call of justice that doesn’t exist, is like a weak god who is always to-come, who disturbs, and whose disturbance is the weak power that leads to events like 95 theses being nailed on a door or the ill-logic of 99 sheep being left to themselves.
John Caputo uses another illustration in addition to Derrida’s ‘justice’.[iii] He talks about the weak call of democracy. The call of democracy is to an ideal. No existing democracy fulfils the promise of democracy. However you define it democracy is a call in which something – let’s say both freedom and equality – is being called for. What is being called for is the possibility of the impossible. And in response to that call we construct systems, and reconstruct systems, but they are always both adequate and inadequate.
god is that incessant ‘call’, a summons challenging our ‘possibles’ [our prisons, our justice, our world economy] with the demands of the impossible.
Fourthly, God/god is not a being:
This is where most of the discussion around theism and atheism exists. God as a supreme being makes god into a thing – a being thing, a construct - which, strong God advocates might argue, is better than making god into a non-thing, non-existent.
Paul Tillich, the godfather of weak theology, wrote in the 50s about God being not a being but the ‘ground’ of all being, or that which gives rise to being. Note the change from God being ‘up’ (the location of God and Gods for centuries) to God being ‘down’, down to the ground. Tillich rails against God as object, and theology as the attempt[s] to prove the existence of this object. He writes: ‘to [such] a concept [God as object] and to such attempts atheism is the right religious and theological reply.’[iv]
Christian mystics similarly prayed, like Meister Eckhart: ‘God rid me of God’. This is mystical atheism. Of God, Eckart would have said, we cannot say a thing. He was trying to free us from a God of our own construction, a God cut to fit the size of our images and theologies. But for Eckart getting rid of God [atheism] does not spell the end of god but the beginning, the genuine entry into praying to the god without God. As Rollins puts it, “God is not approached as an object that we must love, but as a mystery present in the very act of love itself”.
Whether god is ‘ground’ [Tillich] or ‘beyond’ [Eckart], if we are to use any metaphor to speak of g-o-d, I think the only responsible way to use metaphors is playfully, bouncing them off each other, and in doing so suggesting the inadequacy of them all.
Fifthly, a word or two about Matthew 25:37ff.
Six actions: feeding and giving drink, welcoming and clothing, visiting the sick and imprisoned. Before Matthew put his gloss on this it was simply actions Christians did because... because… it was what you did. Works of love and mercy they are not something you can be ordered to do. Works of love and mercy are performed, as Eckhart would say, “without why”. Love is not love if it’s in it for gain. Works of mercy are performed without anything else in view, done without expectation of a reward or fear of punishment. And love without why is a weak god mode, it is folly.
But Matthew constructs a strong God worldview in which to place these actions. He takes the notion in the Book of Daniel of the son of man – which originally meant someone of flesh and bone, one of the nobodies of this world - and makes the son of man into one of the principalities and powers, a High and Mighty Judge over the nations.
But, writes John Caputo[v], how will he judge? These people were hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned, and that was the beginning and the end of it. That was all that mattered to those who helped. The helpers intended nothing else. The call calls, but without force. They could have walked away, but instead they responded. Why? I
It may seem a little mad, but they chose to love, rather than not. It has no further “reason’ than that. If love has a reason, if it makes good sense, you can be sure that what is going on is something other than love. These afflicted people are the body of god, but that is not why those who helped helped.
Matthew turns these acts of love and mercy into a profit and loss economy. Eternal rewards are to be gained for those who helped. Eternal damnation is to be gained for those who didn’t. There is motivation and reason to love!
Lastly, so what? Is there any application of what I’m saying to how we live, or should live?
We shouldn’t get too fixated on language. God/god doesn’t fit comfortably into any language. It is actions – motivated solely by love and mercy and hospitality [without why] that count. So someone who uses strong God language, or weak god language, or no God/god language may be living their life more faithfully to that whisper than you and I.
That said, we are all on a journey and we need to be faithful to the insistent summons that we each individually hear, and find language [or silence, song, prose, or poetry] that expresses that. In communal prayer, like our service today, there is a mix of God/god language [plus silence, song, prose, and poetry] trying to honour the variety among us.
Then there is a reminder in weak theology to turn our gaze from the voice and wisdom of the strong and get down to hear the voice and upside-down wisdom of the weak. That voice might be from someone who is lonely, or depressed, or economically struggling, or just come out of prison, or sick, or dying. Weak theology is not just suggesting we respond sympathetically and practically, but also that’s where we might experience the God/god of Jesus and the call upon our lives.
[i] You might be interested in the ODT exchange on this issue between Ian Harris, Murray Rae, and Lloyd Geering. See https://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/god-happens-our-heads-or-not-case-may-be; https://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/god-our-creator-not-other-way-around; and https://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/god%E2%80%99s-history-thought-world
[ii] Baxter’s Jerusalem Daybook has a few pieces of prose along these lines.
[iii] John Caputo, The Folly of God, p.84
[iv] Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, p.25
[v] Op.cit Caputo, p.121