God in my Bones

God in my Bones

Three out of four people in the country say they believe in God, in a general sort of way. But for many he lurks as a dark shadow in the background of their lives. He is not real in the sense of a palpable, inescapable actuality. John Henry Newman said he held his belief in God with a long and intimate familiarity, ‘so that it is part of my rational nature to hold it; because I am so constituted and made up upon the idea of it, as a keystone, that not to hold it would be to break my mind to pieces.’

One of the problems is that God has become a stereotype in people’s minds. And stereotypes distort. Japanese businessmen are efficient, reliable, soft-spoken, we think. Parish vicars spend their time managing jumble sales and other innocuous diversions. In every Muslim we suspect the fanaticism of a Khomeini. God has been cast in the role of a distant manager who created this mess we call the world (couldn’t he have made a better job of it?) and who will judge us one day (but who knows what happens after death?).

This creator/schoolmaster/supermanager God was produced by our collective fears and phantasies. In our Judeo-Christian past the concept began as a genuine experience of our existential dependence. But now the reality of the experience has been lost and we have clothed the concept with our feelings of loyal or disloyal imperial subjects. The squire in the front row who sang the great name of the Almighty, Victorious, who ‘rules with might’ could feel grateful that his earthly lords were themselves responsible to a higher court where the saints ‘cast down their golden crowns around the glassy sea’. But with our present distrust of power and criticism of government an inaccessible, unaccountable superpower in the sky fills us with scepticism, not awe. Small wonder he has become vague; and more distant.

Over- or under-rated?

How important is God in our lives? A recent study on ‘God in Europe’ concludes from research done in many countries that the answer is ambivalent. Three-quarters of the inhabitants of Europe (which includes the UK!) believe in God. Atheists number no more than two per cent. But only six out of ten find God ‘important’ in their lives. And, tested in specific areas of life, this priority rank sinks even lower. When asked what values parents should teach their children, people give religious faith a low rating. For a successful marriage few consider that sharing the same religious belief is a key factor. Ninety per cent do not mention religion as a value they would risk their lives for; a far cry from the time when martyrdom was considered the highest religious honour. Most of our contemporaries would agree with Shaw that martyrdom for one’s religion is utterly silly; excusable for no other reason than that it may be for some the only way of obtaining fame without ability.

Assessing this apparent dwindling of God’s rating in Europe turns out to be even more ambivalent when we examine the associations between God and socio-political realities. Those who proclaim God’s importance are inclined to be more right-wing in politics, more intolerant towards non-conformists and dissenters. This disturbing link between social prejudice and a particular brand of religious fervour, demonstrated by Gordon Allport to be valid for the United States decades ago, has now been validated for Europe as well.

The shadow of the old God of Terror still lies on parts of Europe, it would seem; the God who was thought to chastise his people with plagues and famines; who demanded that heretics and witches be burnt at the stake; who was deemed to give his blessing on the massacre of Protestants in Paris on St Bartholomew’s eve; who reappeared in the ‘Gott-mit-uns’ emblem on the belts of the German SS. If it is the God of the Ku Klux Klan we are talking about, the sooner we see his demise the better. But are we?

Extolled or exploited?

God, or rather the concept, has indeed been used by humankind as a peg to hang a worldview on; a mental pillar to support social and political constructs. George Santayana was right to distrust God’s role in confirming politicians or enriching businessmen. His atheism, he stated, was true piety towards the universe for it only denied gods created by people in their own image, to be servants of their human interests. Which reminds us that the real God may be closer to the atheism of unbelievers than to the superstitions of the devout.

Not so long ago a local newspaper reported the miraculous healing of an arthritic patient. The lady in question was so crippled by her ailment that she could no longer walk. The faith healer, seeing her in her wheelchair, beckoned her to roll forward. Then, placing his hands on her head, he diagnosed her disability as the work of a demon; to her good fortune the kind he could deal with, he said. Fixing his eyes on heaven he called out: ‘God come to my aid’. Then, shouting at the top of his voice, he ordered the demon ‘Go out!’. He took the lady by the hand and, the report claimed, she stepped out of her wheelchair and walked around while the congregation clapped and shouted ‘Praise be to God’. Whether the wheelchair was put up for sale the report did not mention.

Is this what is lacking in our experience of God? Is he so far from us because we do not know anymore how to call on him when faced with an emergency? Is he waiting up there to help us pass an exam, or clear a blocked drain, or get rid of a demon infesting our limbs? Or does this twenty-four-hour-repair-service God belong to the age of gnomes and fairies; of demons and taboos; of angels pushing stars; and cattle, crops and rain falling under direct divine surveillance? With our limited human imagination can we think of no other alternative to a cold, uncaring Creator than this blustering mend-and-patch Jack of all trades?

Arm-twisting or dodging?

Talking of alternatives, none is as ridiculous or misleading as the pseudo-God of astrology. My every step is suddenly determined, not by a benign Big Brother, but by inalterable blind Fate. My being born under the Ram, the Twin or the Virgin, decides my success or failure at work, in the home, when shopping or meeting friends. If I am a Fish and my partner a Scorpion I can look forward to a happy marriage; if she happens to be a Lion or a Bull (watch these male symbols!), our partnership is quarrelsome, disjointed and doomed to end in divorce. No chance to blame the culprit this time, or cry out to him for redress. If you find yourself in a wheelchair, it is all your own fault. Being a Capricorn you should have known that sporting blue on a Wednesday in September is courting disaster.

Merciless blind Fate cannot be appeased. The force of her blows can only be minimised by ducking and dodging. The faith healer can twist the arm of his fumbling God to make him make amends; the astrologer has to beat the tortuous designs of his ruthless goddess by subterfuge and escape. The former prevails upon God by touching his heart; the latter defeats Fate by studying and outwitting her mind. Properly considered divinity is a nuisance, one would think, an obstacle.

How much more convenient it would be if our fortunes could be entrusted directly to our kindhearted faith healer (who wouldn’t have landed us in a wheelchair to begin with!) or our clever astrologer (who would know whom we should marry to feel sexually rewarded and emotionally fulfilled). Or better still: how much more convenient if our fortunes could be left to ourselves. Do we not read in Julius Caesar:

“Men at some time are masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Do we not prove to have the stature of underlings by the Gods we create? Does organized religion not run the risk of clinging to a God who can be manipulated?

From above or from below?

The stereotypes of God which lie at the heart of today’s Godlessness were often forged on the anvil of the pulpit. Our ancestors were builders and organizers. They liked things neatly ordered, labelled and categorized. The universe too, small though it was by today’s knowledge, needed the cohesion of a purposeful design. Everything had to fit into the plan of the Architect. The lower ranks of beings had to serve the higher ones; these in turn still higher ones; till all converged in giving honour and praise to the one enthroned on top of the pyramid. In a world full of monarchy, hierarchy and paternalism the idea of God that made sense was that of the Supreme Sovereign.

Dewdrops, leaves and buds and all,
the smallest, like the greatest things;
the sea’s vast space, the earth’s wide hall,
alike proclaim Thee King of Kings.

In the eighteenth century even a dew-drop and a bud are linked to the image of power; not to daintiness, tenderness and other manifestations of God’s presence. God comes from on high. He rules. He judges. He overwhelms us by his majesty; even if he tempers his awesomeness with acts of condescending kindness — like the autocrat who condemns you to a wheelchair but may, in a whimsical mood, allow you to come out.

The mould for casting this stereotype patronizing Despot was readily found in Scripture. Was he not displayed there as an inscrutable Master, playfully upsetting the course of his creation by prodigies and wonders? The literal mindedness of imperial Bible-thumpers turned the Gospel ‘miracles’ into spasms of capricious power. The cure of the blind, the multiplication of the loaves, the walking on water — such imaginative signs of the spiritual Kingdom breaking through, were now handled as evidence of divinity dispensing frivolous favours. Even the Incarnation itself and the Resurrection, key events that show God to be a God-with-us, ended up as proofs of the Supernatural eclipsing a profane world.

But what if for a moment we were to forget our stereotype God image and allow ourselves to become aware of the mystery of reality on a deeper level? Sitting in my wheelchair I might not see God as that mysterious Power ‘up there’, but — surprisingly — as the wheelchair. A contraption of steel and rubber is obviously not divine and yet in the support it gives me it symbolizes, perhaps, the amazing reality of tenderness and love that is also present in my life. Could this tell me something about Ultimate Reality and why I exist? And why stay with my wheelchair: what about the reality of the pain, the discomfort and humiliation of the arthritis itself?

The French mystic and social activist Simone Weil mentions ‘pain’ as one of the unexpected meeting points between the Source of all love and the individual. She knew what she was talking about. She did hard physical labour in the steelworks and car factories of Paris. The invasion by the Germans forced her into exile — she was a Jew — and she died of consumption when she was thirty-four. Simone was not a morbid masochist who enjoyed pain. But her experience was that the moment of suffering and pain can be also a moment of enlightenment, a moment when we suddenly pierce the infinity of space and time and have a glimpse of what God is really like. ‘When an apprentice gets hurt or complains of being tired, the workmen have a fine expression: “The trade has got into his body”. Each time we have some pain to go through we can truly say that it is the universe, its order and beauty and the mystery of God that has got into our body.’ Amazingly, the pain of arthritis could bring us closer to God than a miraculous cure! What next?

Within or without?

Here I am sitting in my wheelchair. I know only too well I am not divine — my creaking joints remind me of it all the time. Yet, do I not carry in myself a clue to what the world is all about? What is this desire for happiness in me? This hunger to know and understand? This will to be myself and realize whatever I have got in me? What is it that I reflect in my inmost being — something that seems to transcend in spiritual power the frame of my flesh and bones? I may be a fragile soap bubble destined to sparkle for no more than a few seconds; yet I mirror a light of intelligence and knowledge that spans and transcends the whole physical universe. Could the light in me be God? Why then always think of God as something or someone outside myself, over against me so as to say, different from me and external to me? Why not realize that he is my deepest source, the infinite well from which my own self with all its inspirations draws life? A touch of pantheism might do me good. Do I not believe that I have been created ‘in God’s image’? Does this not mean that the more I penetrate into the mystery of my own personality, the better I understand God?

If God exists at all, he is overwhelming reality. We should meet him in all the high points of our life, on all horizons of our awareness. Why restrict our experience of him to flood, lightning and earthquake? Why not see him even more present in a gift of kindness, in true human belonging? When someone approaches us in genuine love why not look on this as an act of God? It certainly reveals more about him than the terrible misfortunes we cannot insure ourselves against. Without the sexual overtones implied in Tantric yoga, God’s presence in love is decidedly closer to the experience of God conveyed to us in our Jewish and Christian sources.

The truth of the matter is, of course, that whatever we say or think about God will be utterly inadequate anyway. All images we apply to him derive from our own ways of perception and thus fall short. We know him only in a mediated fashion but not with less certainty for that. We have to acquire a new literacy so that we can ‘read’ his signs. Could the Sufis be right when they tell us that all people carry the book of knowledge with them but most use it as a pillow?

As a Christian I believe that we know God best through Jesus Christ; not through what he said but through the kind of person he was. ‘Who sees me sees the Father’, he declared. And what the disciples were made to see was not the majestic judge of the Sistine Chapel, but the Jesus who died on the cross. ‘Look at my wounds’, he said on Easter Sunday. The living God defies expression in stereotypes.

John Wijngaards

published in Updating God compiled by Walter Schwarz (The Guardian Debates. Faith to Faith Series, Marshall Pickering 1988).