It started as a random comment posted by a friend on Facebook. The statement concerned God’s need for companionship, with a little twist at the end. I thought it humorous, checked that I like it, and moved on. Within a couple of days, however, there were comments from mutual friends asking our friend to show a little more sensitivity and acceptance of their beliefs. It was a fair request, I suppose, but one that struck me as odd coming from well-educated individuals who generally demonstrate a great sense of humor.
Being the serious, thoughtful, analytical, philosopher-theologian of which I fashion myself, I responded with a diatribe concerning Christianity’s need to re-think its descriptions and characterizations of God. This was not the first time I have written at length about how people perceive or experience God. My dissertation was on this very theme, and somewhere in the vast data bins of the internet are 100+ pages of my waxing on the variations of experiencing God the subjects in my study shared with me.
The idea of God has perplexed me for the better part of my life. I grew up in a Lutheran pastor’s home, attended private Lutheran schools all the way through college, and then spent the first half of my adult life working in Lutheran congregations. (I emphasize Lutheran because Martin Luther is considered the “father” of the Lutheran movement within the church, and many view him as the first existential theologian.)
In spite of this religious education, the youth retreats, “in-depth” Bible studies, and a multitude of late night “philosophizing” on the matter of God, I felt at odds with the dogma and doctrine in which I am so deeply rooted. In the first half of my adult life, I listened to people describe their experience of God as everything from a deeply personal, intimate, tell-all relationship, to God as the Great Rewarder of Good Stuff. I listened to people blame God for their bad circumstances, as well as others explain how they do not make one decision on a daily basis without first consulting God.
This wide chasm of experience was brought home again by the Republican presidential campaign when Rick Santorum took time off from his campaign to be with his youngest daughter who suffers from Trisome-18. I heard Mr. Santorum talk about he and his wife’s commitment to being pro-life and accepting the challenge of their daughter’s condition. I listened as he implied God would bless their commitment to life, and my stomach churned.
Nineteen and a half years ago, my wife carried a little boy with Trisome-18. Trisome-18 is the existence of three chromosomes, instead of the standard two, at the 18th chromosome. The 18th chromosome controls all the involuntary functions of the body—breathing, heartbeat, urination, and so forth. Very few pregnancies involving a Trisome-18 baby make it to term, and the majority that do are stillborn. Those infants who make it past birth have impossible odds of living very long without artificial assistance.
Our son was born in the seventh month of the pregnancy, and because we chose not to take any extraordinary measures, he lived only 90 minutes after his birth. His birth, and subsequent passing, is an experience I will never forget. My relationship to Timothy (yes, we named him … and baptized him in good Lutheran tradition and teaching) is an active one. No day passes without some thought of how life might be different were he here.
So, what does all of this have to do with God, and experiencing God? Some of my friends wonder why I have not turned my back on my belief in the existence of God. I often respond by telling them that when I played football, sometimes I was hit so hard that the air was knocked out of me, but that did not mean I stopped believing in the existence of air. Other friends, most of whom are pious, deeply religious people, encourage me to accept this as part of “God’s Plan.” Both seem extreme to me for various reasons, yet this experience encapsulates my struggle with what it means to experience God.
I believe that to dismiss the idea of God or existence of God is intellectual cheating or perhaps intellectually lazy. God as a mysterious and mystical idea challenges one to wrestle with the unexplained and the unexplainable. On the other hand, to perceive God as a grandfatherly figure with magical powers, or as the universal law enforcer, or even as a person’s best friend borders on deception and maybe even magical thinking.
More recently in my journey, I have identified strongly with Tillich’s description of God as “the God beyond God” or that which goes beyond our ability to conceive or understand concerning the Divine. From another perspective, Tillich describes God as “the ground of our being.” So much of Christianity’s language about God is rooted in modern thought and early scientific discovery, which has little relation to a post-modern world of space shuttles, multiple universes, and quantum thought.
Because of the community in which I live, I work with clients who wrestle with “the what, the how, and the who” of this being or force called God. Often, their experiences of God runs counter to what they were taught to believe. In addition, they receive little to no support from their faith community in exploring the confusions and questions of their struggle. I assist my clients in deconstructing what they have learned about God, as well as guiding them through a process of reconstructing a belief system that is life giving and renewing.
Assisting my clients with their own questions and struggles provides me insight into my own perceptions and experiences of the Holy and Divine. I am still in process, and my perceptions and experiences of God are changing and growing, but I am more willing to explore, which in turn reassures my clients in their exploring.
Oh, and by the way, I still think what my friend posted about God needing companionship was funny.
— Steve Fehl
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