Want to Know God? Get Religion.
Tony Jones has asked some of us progressive Theobloggers to chime in on God, you know, perhaps some kind of definition or doctrine (that word many of us progressives despise). You can read his invitation here. Tony doesn't want us to talk about Jesus, per se, but about God. I get that. He's in his evangelical context and he gets tired of all the Jesus talk. Lately it seems that the Emergent conversation has been all Jesus all the time. Now, that doesn't bother me, but then again I feel that in my end of the progressive mainline (free church progressive) we don't talk about Jesus enough. We talk about God all the time. Jesus, well, he's a bit of an enigma. What else is there to say? Nevertheless, Tony's invitation is an interesting one and I'm willing to chime in.
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One caveat: I'm doing this as a way to speak of one Person of a Trinity. To speak of the One is, in many ways, to speak of the Three and the Unity. But this is just a blog post and not a 20-page essay. So ... yeah.
My answer: If you want to know God, get Religion. (Have you got good religion? Certainly, Lord!) Religion is a combined set of activities embodied by people. These activities are not limited to but may include the following behaviors: liturgy, charity, politics, and even theology (mystical and systematic), and doctrine. Religion can be communal or individual. Religion is the principal craft by which we know (cognition) and understand (hermeneutics) God.
The first passage of scripture that came to mind in responding was this one about Moses asking a similar question. "So ... Um … God, who the heck do I tell them sent me?"
But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I SAY I AM."
God gave God's answer: "I AM WHO I SAY I AM." Here's the starting point. But, that's not all God said.
God said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.':
This is my name forever,
and this is my title for all
So, to give Tony a rather succinct answer and, hopefully, to get a conversation going here, I want to place all the God-talk in this verse. It's a great story about spiritual encounter, real-world politics, and how a people understand themselves and explain their actions. God is the God of a people alive and working in the world. God is a God of ancestors. As Chesterton said, “Tradition is the democracy of the dead. It means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes: our ancestors.” Finally, God is who God says God is. Encounter matters.
God is the God of a people. How do we know God is real? Religion. Well, religion and people. People do this thing we call Religion. People make it. No religion exists except that someone(-s) crafted it from imagination, emotion, the stuff of their lives. Even in our eclectic religious culture (spiritual, but not religious?) we're just as often borrowing from one another's religion as we are inventing our own. It may not be particularly "organized" but it is still religious. Why? Well, there's stuff involved. Intellectual stuff. Behavioral stuff. Spiritual stuff. God claims a people. Sure. The people also claim God ... even haphazardly.
God is a God of ancestors. Some of our religious expression (tradition) is inherited; modified from community to community to one degree or another, but inherited. We can also borrow all we want. It may irk some, but we do it. What we need to remember is that we're borrowing the spiritual practices of previous generations. Also, an ancient practice was once new. Someone invented it. A community tinkered with it, developed it, kneaded it into the icons, banners, prayer flags, candles, scriptures, creeds, and altars that we all know and use, even eclectically. The past has a voice. Even our desperate attempts (and often righteous attempts) are in one sense, a conversation with that peculiar lobbying group, the dead. Paraphrased: We all worship in Cook Co., Ill.
Now, this is where it gets interesting.
God is who God says God is. God is bigger than the craft that is religion. God is not what we do. Nor is God some Collective Self. God is more than we can contain in even our most imaginative moments. God is more than the people who have claimed God over the years. God is more and thus, when we want to know God we have to pull the Moses Hat out of our bag and ask the Almighty "Who do I tell them sent me." God is a Who. This is recognition of an encounter with the Divine and it leads, when we're brave enough to listen and engage, to some version of Moses' question which can be summarized as, "What would you have me do?"
I believe that the dichotomy of spirituality versus religion is a false one. God is who God says God is. God is a God of ancestors. God is a God of people. People use religion to express, communicate, pray, inspirit, embody, and even, as much as I hate to say it, be political beings all because or encounter (or "revelation"), because of who God says God is. Similarly, I'm not sure that one can talk about God without talking about the bodies or the people who worship. Whether I have a generous notion of the Imago Dei or not, I cannot say. All I know is that we meet God through religion and through spiritual encounter. It's all of a piece.
I know this is a quick gloss. It may be unsatisfying to many for that reason, but I'm trying to respond to Tony at the same time as I'm trying to get a conversation rolling. So ... have at it!
For further reading:
Jay Emerson Johnson had this response: "In God We Trust" - But Which One?
Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher offered this: God-Talk: Acknowledging the Individual and God
Rev. Jennifer D. Crumpton shared this: How Do Femmevangelicals Talk About God?
Johnathan Wilson-Hartgrove brought atonement theology: A Response to Tony Jones: Radical Practice Needs Deep Roots in Doctrine
Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" atAngloBaptist.orgFollow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.
Wooden crucifix photo, cosma / Shutterstock.com