On episodes 111-114 of Rob Bell’s podcast Rob interviews Pete Rollins on the nature of God. I first heard these episodes a year ago when Natalie and I were on our four month road trip around the U.S. The concepts in the podcast are old and pretty well understood by a lot of theologians or even people interested in Theology, but it was all new information to me, and it changed my life. For four or five years I had been in what I self-termed “spiritual exile” – wandering lost and unresolved in my spirituality. The concepts in this podcast found me and brought me home. I had been estranged from the Superbeing view of God for a long time, but I had never heard anyone articulate any other view. Hearing Peter Rollins description of the Ground of Being idea of God was like having a bright light shone in a dark room. The text in this post is not my own, but are portions of the conversation in the podcast episode. I recommend listening to the episode to get the full effect.
God is man shaped
In this view God is an all powerful, all-knowing (usually male) anthropomorphic being who resides in a literal location in space called heaven while overseeing daily life on earth. The risk of this view of God is that we often create God in our image, instead of the other way around.
Many theologians have said that when we talk about God we often talk about a bigger version of ourselves. In LA you can tell what someone is like by looking at their dog. Whether it’s tiny and cute or big and massive people’s dogs tell you something about their idealized sense of self. In the same way you can look at someone’s dog and work out something about them, you can look at someone’s God and work out something about their culture or their values or their ideals.
It is a problem in many ways that our Gods are simply flattering images of ourselves. We create our God’s and then our Gods create us. They bless our tanks, they bless our freedom fighters, and they condemn those terrorists. God becomes a way of legitimizing our world and our thinking. God is a being- an object that we can think about, we can understand, we can you know technically wrap our minds around. Karl Barth once said When we talk about God we talk about ourselves with a megaphone. So in other words, we talk about ourselves in a loud voice.
It’s like when Homer Simpson prayed for the first time, he put his hands together, and he said, I don’t know if you exist, I don’t if you’re there, but superman, please save me if you can hear me. That’s our God. God is a being – a superbeing.
God cannot be conceptualized.
God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. God is bigger, better, different, than anything we can say about God. The mystics say you can’t talk about God as some sort of dispassionate object you can nail down. Instead you participate in a reality that transforms you, and you have words for that participation, but those words don’t nail it down. Imagine someone has a spiritual experience, and then they want to memorialize it, so they create a church. If you’re a very talented architect, you’ll build an incredible church. And if you’re not a very good architect, you’ll build kind of a little crappy church. One of them is more beautiful than the other. Neither of them define the spiritual experience, and both show a fidelity to it. So in the same way, someone like Thomas Acquinas has an experience, they’re incredibly intelligent, incredibly thoughtful, so they create beautiful architecture of words. And maybe someone else has an incredible experience, but they don’t have the same education, so you know they’re way of talking about it may not be as appealing or beautiful, but neither of them capture the experience, they’re both responses to it. That’s what the mystics are talking about.
We create kingdoms, and God is that which breaks the kingdoms apart. When God shows up, everything we thought we knew is dust. Dust and ash. It’s like a ship that’s sunk in the depths of the ocean. The ocean contains the ship, and the ship contains the ocean, but while the ship contains only a fragment of the ocean, the ocean contains the entire ship. We are saturated in the divine, and this saturation means we always have to de-name God. As soon as you say God is a father, which is saying something about God, you have to “Oh but not like I understand father”, not like as in a 21st century northern Irish guy – that’s different that a 3rd century german peasant. So you name God, you nominate God, but then you de-nominate God which means you de-name. Much of the unfolding narrative of the scripture is writers saying “This is how God is” – and then realizing actually, No. Bigger, wider, beyond my tribe.
So in the Bible there are multiple names of God – one way of not naming something is by naming it in so many different ways. So poets try to speak of the un-name-able and so they speak so much because they cannot articulate what they want – you know- you cannot speak of love, so you use so many metaphors, and sometimes those metaphors clash, so in the same way you’ve God as a warrior, or God as a peacemaker, or God who doesn’t change, or you have a God who changes. The poets is driven to speech by trying to articulate something they can’t articulate. Theology is a discourse that helps us participate in a reality that we cannot nail down. We are taken up in it. Like the ship in the ocean, we are taken up in that which we cannot speak. That’s hyperbeing.
3. Ground of Being
God is that from which everything arises.
Everything that is arises from a ground, and that ground we call God. This means that all speech about God is symbolic, because as soon as I say something about God, there is a subject – me – saying something about an object – God. God comes before subject and object. So as soon as we make God into an object we miss God because God is not an object. God is that from which subject and object arise.
You encounter God – Ground of Being – through ultimate concern, through giving yourself to the world in love, through giving yourself to justice. You can never love God, because Gods not an object. You love an object. You love someone and in loving someone, you love God. So God is not an object that you love, God is that which you discover in the act of love itself. It’s a very subtle but really interesting change.
If you love your neighbor, you love God, and if you don’t love your neighbor you don’t love God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer advocates for what he calls religionless christianity – where you forget about loving God, you act in love towards the other, and strangely in the very moment where you thought you had lost God, because you’re loving the world and people in the world, you actually discover God in that loss.
You will find meaning in life when you can find something you feel is worth living and dying for beyond yourself. If you can find something that floats you that you want to live and die for, that brings life into the world, then that’s how you find God. That’s Ground of Being.
4. God as Event
Gravity and Grace
The world follows natural law. Planets revolve. Predators eat their prey. Affliction is paid back with affliction, suffering with suffering, hatred with hatred, violence with violence, war with war. The fittest survive and evolve, the inadequate fade away as a matter of course.
We call this Gravity. But there is also Grace.
Grace is another reality in the world. It’s peppered within gravity and it’s that which stops us from paying violence with violence, but rather violence with peace, stops us from repaying hatred with hatred, but hatred with love. It’s something speckled in the universe that makes it not one-dimensional, and it calls us to be better selves. And that’s God as event.
This is the most atheistic of the four views, but many argue it’s an essential part of the Biblical tradition. Look through the Exodus story, and for lots of the sages and the rabbis the Exodus story was about slaves being liberated from oppression. You can have all your nice lofty and abstract ideas, but the divine is about liberation within time and space, from whatever you need to be liberated from – Event.
Knowledge vs participation
This is not about getting the right belief, that it’s never been about getting the right thoughts in your head. This is not an exam you have to pass to get into heaven – tick the right boxes and you get in. It’s about a different mode of being. It’s about a different way of life. In psychoanalysis there’s this idea that we don’t even know what we believe. We think we know what we believe, but what we actually believe is actually hidden from us. What we think we believe is often a trap, it’s an idealized form of ourselves that we use to hide. So for example I might say that I love my parents whenever I actually never phone them or go and see them, and actually the truth is not in what I think, the truth is in what I do. Faith is about attempting to orient yourself differently in the world.
Then why even bother talking about God let’s just leave all of this behind?
There’s a philosopher Gianni Vattimo, and someone once asked him why do you call yourself a christian? He says I can’t NOT call myself a Christian. I grew up in a world where that language meant something I am immersed in it I was part of it even if I reject it I’m still in relationship with it.
For many of us this is the language we have and for me the point is not to go from one language to another. You say okay this language of God doesn’t work for me so now I’m going to take on secularism or humanism. That’s fine. The problem might be that you embrace the humanism in the same way that you embraced your Christianity. So at the level of WHAT – things are different, you believe different things – but at the level of HOW, how you believe what you believe, it’s exactly the same. You hold it in the same way.
So if a humanist and Christian are debating and they both simultaneously convince each other that the other is right and then they move to the other side of the stadium, what’s changed? Potentially what they believe is different, but not how they believe it. For me I’m more interested in how your belief functions. For example someone may believe in God, but they believe in God because they grew up in a family where if you didn’t believe in God, you were going to go to hell, or you were going to get kicked out, sent to the orphanage. You may say that person believe’s in God, but the reason why they believe is terrible. Someone else might believe something very different from you, but they believe it in a healthy way. So let’s not to get to caught up in what people believe, but rather how they believe what they believe.