When skeptical people take an interest in church, they often have found themselves not only longing for God but also wanting to find a way that they can talk about God without jeopardizing their integrity. When such people try out a progressive church, they may be a little puzzled by the fact that church members do not talk much about what they believe concerning God. The question of believing does not seem to interest them very much. A visitor my need a time of careful listening to discover what different sorts of Christians mean when they speak of God.
When Christians speak of God, they may be talking about what Stephen Hawking had in mind when he announced that the universe began with an intensely concentrated bit of matter about the size of a shriveled pea. Then came the big bang and everything that followed. When they talk about God, Christians may be speaking about their sense of awe and amazement when they wonder how everything came to be.
Or it may be that when they speak of God, they are talking about the way human beings recognize how the world is, as opposed to the way they know the world ought to be. We know the world is a terrible mess—filled with crime, war, catastrophe and disaster—and we know it ought to be filled with justice and peace. When they talk about God, Christians may be referring to whatever process planted in their minds an awareness of what is as opposed to what ought to be. When they talk about God, followers of Jesus also may be speaking about the ability they have to adopt metaphors that take them further toward the way they know the world ought to be.
The God metaphor preferred by many Christians is the one that appears in the gospel of John: “God is love.” John, or the editor who used his name, did not say that God is loving or that God gives us love, but that God is love. The composer James Quinn caught the spirit of this figure of speech when he wrote:
God is love,
And where true love is
God himself is with us.
Even people who dislike using male pronouns for God can appreciate Quinn’s observation: followers of Jesus often talk about an experience of love as if it were an experience of God. People of various persuasions who do not believe in God may see that Christians choosing to think of God as love can have a positive influence on society. They are bound to judge all their actions by the standard of the greatest love for the greatest number of people. They must try to make the world around them a more loving place.
Love may not always be the dominant theme of experiences that Christians associate with God. One of these different themes is glue. They may not use the metaphor “glue”, but most of them will speak of God in reference to occasions when they felt like they might have fallen apart, but did not. Looking back on the worst week in his life, a young father whose daughter was diagnosed with leukemia a few days after he lost his job, wondered how he had ever managed to cope without going to pieces. Most Christians would describe such an experience by saying they felt that God must have been with them. The young father meant much the same thing when he reported that God was the glue that held him together during the ordeal.
Another way in which church people speak of God is in reference to the “You” to whom they direct their prayers. They do not have to believe that God is really out there listening, or that God intervenes in nature or in human affairs, for prayer to be a sustaining practice in their lives. When they speak about God, they simply may be talking about developing the capacity to name their deepest fears, their greatest longings, their most intense anger, and their fondest hopes. They also may be talking about the “You” to whom they address all that is trivial and mean about themselves. Once a psychiatrist, Joe Tarantolo, spoke to his congregation about “the God to whom I pray and whine”. Many Christians whine in their prayers. Down deep inside they feel that they are something that others don’t want to know: petty and mean. God is where they can direct their pettiness and meanness. They realize that only in prayer do they have the capacity to approach the truth about themselves with something like honesty.
God is also the "You" to whom they give thanks as a way of reminding themselves that all the good coming their way is largely the result of random luck. Both anger and thanks can be the result of the same experience. I was thinking about retiring early in order to get on with building a network of progressive Christians, but I didn’t have quite enough money. Then my older sister died and left me half of her retirement fund. At the very same time in my prayers, God was the one to whom I directed outrage over my sister’s dying so young and the one whom I thanked for the money that opened the way for new possibilities in my life. I don’t think God killed my sister so that I could have a good life in my old age. But in my prayers, I hold God accountable for her death because I feel that somebody should be required to answer for this injustice.
Often when Christians speak of God, they are talking about their desire for justice and accountability in this world. God is the one to whom they can direct all their rage over what went wrong so that their anger won’t leak out onto somebody who bears no responsibility for an illness or an accident. Then they are free to use the energy of their anger in positive ways.
All these examples of what progressive Christians might intend when they speak of God could be summarized by the observation of Canon Tony Barnard, former Canon Chancellor of England’s Lichfield Cathedral: “God is that which gives meaning and purpose to my life.”
Critical thinkers, who normally shy away from church, may find that progressive and liberal Christians help each other in the search for meaning by talking openly about what they have in mind when they speak of God. As a rule, such Christians welcome skeptical people to join them in honest talk about God. Church people and skeptical people are often able to encourage each other in their mutual quest for truth.