Glynn Cardy 13th August 2023
The story in Genesis 37, popularized by Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat, is part of the foundational stories of Israel. Weber’s reading of this episode is simplistic in painting Joseph as a bright star and his brothers as jealous and violent. The text is more nuanced with the father, Jacob (also known as Israel), playing favourites amongst his sons, as he had with his wives, and thus sowing the seeds of emnity. And the 17 year old Joseph flaunting his favoured status and his giftedness in his brothers’ faces. As the story progresses the brothers undergo a conversion, repenting of the violent wrong they did to Joseph and trying to create a better future. But Jacob and Joseph show no signs of any awareness of their self-centredness, and continue to see themselves as the sun around which all worlds should orbit.
You might not have noticed but God has disappeared. There are no longer any wrestling matchs or stairways to heavens like earlier in the Jacob saga. I’m sure some would say that Joseph’s dreams were from God, but I’m not so sure that we should ascribe the political rise to power, or forewarnings from the dream world, or for that matter historical events, as the handiwork of God. Where can we, if anywhere, detect God? What or who is God? Where might God be hiding?
This morning I want to give a brief snapshot into the thinking of five theologians on this question of where is God.
I’ll start with Meister (or Master) Eckhart, a popular German Dominician theologian and philosopher from the 14th century. During his life many of his teaching were formally condemned and suppressed, and in his old age he was tried for heresy, but died before his conviction and papal censure.
Eckhart believed that virtually all human concepts of God tell us more about ourselves than about God. God is not an old man, or humanlike, or even a ‘he’. God is not good or wise or just—those are all human attributes. God, he explained was not a being, or a supreme being, but being – existence – itself. Eckhart thus considered the question, “Does God exist?” to be meaningless. How can one question whether existence exists? God is incomprehensible, pure mystery.
Eckhart dedicated himself to teaching others how to gain a heightened awareness of the divine presence within themselves. ‘God is in all things,’ he said. ‘Every creature is a Word of God.’ ‘My ground is God’s ground, and God’s ground is mine.”
Eckhart’s approach challenges us to stop projecting our own concepts and agendas onto God and instead focus on an experience of the divine that leads to lives of love and service. For those brought up with a deity who stands separate from and yet in charge of the world, demanding our obedience or else, and needing religious institutions to manage all that, Eckhart’s is a profoundly unsettling message.
Then, chronologically progressing to the late 18th and early 19th century, I want to come to Fredrich Schleiermacher, a Prussian Protestant theologian and philosopher who is accredited with reconciling the insights of the enlightenent with Protestant Christianity. He develops a method for Christian theology that reconciles faith to modern thought and culture.
Experience now gets the first and prime word in theology. The object of theology is no longer God in the most direct sense, but rather the experience of God. This way of imagining Christian thought came to be called “Liberal Theology” and has had a huge and lasting impact.
Next, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was an English mathematican and philosopher and the parent of process philosophy and theology. Traditional western philosophy spoke of static, discrete beings, enduring substances and essences. This is why the traditional formulation of Jesus being God and a man was so problemmatic. But Whitehead viewed the universe as an interconnected organism, with every event effecting everything else, and God being within this framework not outside it. Therefore God is affected by processes, and changes. The ‘God-space’ within process philosophy is the divine urge, or energy, or life of the universe. Another way of saying this is God is an immanent persuasive Spirit rather than all-powerful external Being.
The process God is part of the interconnected universe and is both in everything yet more than the sum of its part (so panentheism not pantheism), working in us and the world, affecting and affected by the events of the universe. An enduring characteristic of process theology is a rejection of other theologies that privilege ‘being’ over ‘becoming’[i].
So God is not unchanging, but is affected by temporal processes. As Whitehead said, “It is as true to say that God creates the world, as that the world creates God.”
Next, Gordon Kaufman (1925-2011) was an American theologian and professor. Like Schleiermacher and Whitehead he also tries to reconcile the then contemporary understanding of science and philosophy with theology.
Kaufman is motivated by today’s ecological crisis, caused by human actions, which he says is a bigger issue than Christianity has ever faced (it is before been preoccupied with existential questions of guilt, sin, happiness, and so on), and Kaufman concludes that traditional Christianity may be in the way of finding solutions to this crisis.
Kaufman is also aware that the developments of science have shown us a much bigger universe than was once thought to exist. A personal God is not an idea that is comprehensible in this context.
Starting with the notion offered in the Bible of God as creator, Kaufman offers a proposal of God as serendipitous “creativity”. Creativity as an ultimate mystery that somehow was involved in the initial coming into being of the universe, in evolutionary processes, and in human symbolic creativity. This conception connects the understanding of God with contemporary ideas of the Big Bang, cosmic and biological evolution, the evolutionary emergence of novel complex realities from simpler realities, etc. It also eliminates anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism from the conception of God.
Kaufman goes on to say that this mystery of creativity (a.k.a. God) is awe-inspiring calling forth emotions of gratitude, love, peace, fear, and hope, and a sense of the profound meaningfulness of human existence. In Kaufman’s words this mystery of creativity called ‘God’ serves as “a living symbol in our culture.”
Then lastly, Rosemary Radford Ruether, an American Roman Catholic professor, was one of the foremost feminist theologians of the 20th century. Ruether, like other liberation and feminist theologians, cannot divide how we understand God from how we act, theology from ethics, divinity from justice. To each theology and theologian of the past she would bring questions of: ‘So what?’ ‘Does believing in your God encourage or discourage the struggle for justice for the oppressed?’ For if your God is not working for justice in real people’s lives, then your God is working to prevent justice becoming a reality.
Ruether understood God (which she wrote as ‘God/-ess’ to try to move past the patriarchal impoverishment and manipulation of God) as an empowering matrix, manifested in many ways and historical contexts. Like the other thinkers I’ve mentioned this morning, Reuther held that God is not the preserve or property of any faith or religion.
She recovers the image of the divine as the primal matrix, the womb within which all things are generated, the ground of being. While it suppressed feminist images, the biblical tradition nevertheless understood God as liberating. The Bible’s critique of idolatry means that the divine must be understood as both male and female, and yet neither male nor female. God/-ess is Ruether’s way of signifying that we as yet have no adequate name for the divine.
As well as the maleness of God, Ruether also criticized the parent metaphor. Making God into ‘Father’ or ‘Mother’ or ‘Teacher’ leaves us infantile, and not a metaphor empowering us to get active, get creative, and get committed to changing the world.
It is tempting to keep going and share with you further insights of further theologians and thinkers. But I wanted to speak briefly about these five in the context of God’s disappearance in Genesis 37 text today, and then God’s reappearance in other texts (like the next book, Exodus), and then disappearance in later books (like Esther or Song of Songs). For God keeps appearing and disappearing, by which I mean of course (following Eckhart and Schleiermacher) how we understand God keeps appearing and disappearing, in our texts and histories and language.
These five thinkers have helped us, whether we’ve known it or not, to move from the distant authoritive supreme being God who loves and judges the earth, into understanding God in our lives and in all being (Eckhart), our experience (Schleiermacher), in the changing processes of becoming (Whitehead), as creativity itself/herself (Kaufman), and as an empowering matrix as we work for social change (Ruether). God might not speak or command, but in and through us God can be and act. Because we can and must deconstruct the old patriarchal power-God who continues to serve powerful partriarchal interests, does not mean we can’t find or be found by an empowering (flowering?) God in the love and mutuality we share and in our work to create and recreate justice on earth.
[i] Like Aristotle and Aquinas did.