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Going Beyond Theism

Mark Nepo tells a wonderful story about a boy named Robert who needed to clean out his fish tank. So, he filled the tub with water and put the fish in there while he scrubbed the film from the walls of their glass house. When he was done, he went to retrieve his small friends and was surprised to find that, even though they had an entire tub to swim in, they were huddled in a small area the size of their tank. There was nothing containing them, nothing holding them back. Why, then, weren’t they swimming freely, happily even, in this wonderful, big tub?

I think this is probably an apt allusion for our understanding of God, Jesus, and much of Christianity.  Most of us probably grew up, and perhaps even spent much of our adult lives, swimming in a small fish tank of theology and doctrine that was taught to us when we were younger. I personally believe that small fish tank denies us a deeper understanding of the divine and of life, and may sometimes even be detrimental to our personal, emotional, and spiritual health and growth. Hence, our sermon series for the next 6 weeks on “Going Beyond.” Let’s risk swimming past the old boundaries, push the edges of our past thoughts and ideas, explore new concepts and let go of old ones. Some of what I say may be old hat to some of you, but whether this is old or new, hopefully this will be a thought-provoking series for you.

We begin the series by going beyond theism. Theism is the understanding of God as a supernatural being out there somewhere past the boundaries of this world, endowed with supernatural power and periodically intervening in human history to answer prayers or to impose God’s divine will upon life in this world. If you grew up in the traditional church, this probably sounds like the God you were taught. And this God was mostly named Father, Lord, Almighty, Savior, and Holy Ghost.

With more modern times, more science and more education, many people are struggling with this concept of God. We no longer believe that God controls hurricanes to wipe out the “bad” people. Or that God causes illness because God wants “another angel in heaven.” We no longer believe that God is a being up in the clouds… we’ve flown up there, we know better.

There is another way of understanding the divine, and it is just as ancient and Biblical as this theistic understanding. It is the concept of God as Being itself.

Elizabeth Lessor talks about the divine as the creative energy flowing between all things, as well as between states of consciousness. God is in all things and yet more than all things. This is called panentheism. It moves us away from a white, bearded guy on a throne in the clouds, and challenges us with the notion that God energy flows everywhere, even in us! This concept is not unusual and is found in all the major religions in the I AM statements. From the Hindu Upanishads to the Hebrew scriptures, to the “I am” statements of Jesus (I am the bread of life, I am living water, I am the light of the world, I am the way, the truth and the life). Rumi, the famous Sufi mystic has a wonderful poem which begins “I am dust particles in sunlight…” and continues with many I am statements, poetically claiming oneness with the divine.

Sixty to seventy years ago, theologian Paul Tillich, argued against a God of supernatural theism and stated that God was “Being-Itself” or “the ground of being.” He denied that God existed, because to exist meant to be separate, to be a thing (a rock, a tree, a person, etc.). God does not exist in that sense; rather, God is

The April 8, 1966, cover of Time magazine asked the very scary question: “Is God dead?” At the time, 97% of Americans believed in God. The article didn’t go over well, but the question was a pertinent one. In the wake of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, race riots and lynching… where exactly was this God who supposedly loved us, vanquished the enemy and controlled everything from the heavens? Fast forward 52 years to a survey done by the Pew Research Forum in 2018 and we find that now 80% of Americans still believe in God, but only 56% believe in the God of the Bible. And on 43% of 18-29 year-olds believe in the God of the Bible.

People are slowly but surely letting go of the theistic, Biblical concept of God because it doesn’t work anymore. Perhaps this is the death of God that was talked about. God may be all-loving, but is clearly not all-powerful or some of these horrendous things in our history would not have happened.

I know it is hard to let go of the idea that there is someone out there who is controlling things, who will protect us from all the bad things, who we can appeal to for help. We all want that. We want the genie God who will grant our wishes and save us from the car accident, and we’ll do whatever “must-do” list the church comes up with in order to have our child healed, or our marriage fixed, or our parent stop drinking or whatever… sadly, you and I both know it doesn’t work that way.

But it is no reason to give up on God… there is lots more swimming room in the bathtub if we’ll take the time to look around.

Our task is not to create another larger space to hold God. Our task is to go beyond boundaries for our understanding of the Divine, which brings us back to God as Being-Itself. God is not a thing, a noun to be related to, or obeyed, or appeased. God is a verb to be lived. God is a presence to feel.

Can you imagine how it would it change the world if we truly understood God as Being-Itself?

What would it mean to know that Being-Itself is within every molecule, every breath of air, every tree, plant and rock?

To know that the Divine is within our relationships, our interactions, our connections?

To know that even when we are alone, or feel most alone, that we cannot possibly be separated from the presence of the Sacred Essence?

To trust that Being-Itself is within you, me, and all the people of the world… even the worst of the worst? And, while that Essence doesn’t enable us to wiggle our noses and make life perfect, it does offer us strength, guidance, insight, courage. And all we need to do to find what we need is reach within, connect to our True Self, the core of our very being, the ground of our being… Being-Itself.

Now we don’t have someone waiting for us to mess up so we can be judged. We don’t have to be saved or worry about others being saved for Heaven. Now we don’t have to say the right prayer, worship the right way, or believe the right thing to be given help. It is with us always.

It was the apostle Paul who said in Acts 17:28, that God is that in which we “live and move and have our being.”

As John Shelby Spong says: “God is revealed in me and through me… God is the name for the power and the source of life… God is the life force made visible when we live fully” and “There is no God external to life. God, rather, is the inescapable depth and center of all that is. God is not a being superior to all other beings. God is the Ground of Being itself.” 

The more we live authentically and with integrity to our True Selves, the more God, Being-Itself, is visible.

So we have begun here, by going beyond theism… but it will domino into other areas of Christianity and faith, as we’ll see in the coming weeks. Hang in there with me.

Love & Light!