Friday, December 25, 2009

What Does it mean to "Believe in God?"

What Does it mean to "Believe in God?"

I'm writing this on Christmas morning, 2009. I just read that someone jumped the rope at St. Peter's in Rome and knocked Pope Benedict down during Midnight Mass. No such high drama here. I went to Mass at St. Paul's in Westerville at the Christmas Vigil. Not the best sermon, not the best music - just little people trying to work out what it means to be a Catholic Christian in a secular, nonbelieving age.

I have been asked a few times over the years if I still "believe in God." I am sometimes tempted to answer by saying "define 'God.'" Do I believe in a superman in a nightshirt who answeres petitions? No. Do I believe in a cloudbound deity who smites? No. Do I believe in an extraordinary spirit who works through time and space? Getting closer, but I would still say no.

I cannot even define God myself. Certainly not a human being, but not a ghost. Could "God" be the sum total of all our works, aspirations, dreams? Could "God" be the reality of existence? Could "God" be our own understanding of what is good in the world/universe? Does "God" necessarily remain larger than all of physical creation - a billion-billion stars, galaxies? Is God "the eternal Now?" Is "God" actually very very small, like the whisper that the prophet Elijah heard after hearing thunder and earthquakes? Is "God" a kiss, an act of forgiveness, a pat on the back? Is "God" Presence (not "a presence;" there's an important distinction)?

I'll leave it to the theologians to figure out which one is correct (likely none of the above), and whether more than one is correct, and whether any or all are heresy. I guess one of the reasons I remain Catholic is that Catholics (at least officially) believe that God is a "Mystery." That may sound like a rhetorical cop-out (you should at least theoretically be able to solve a mystery). And it gets worse from there - if Jesus is the "Son of God," what does that mean? I get dizzy just trying to construct the questions, let alone answer them.

The most beautiful writing in the New Testament is John 1:1, where God is described as both "Word" and "Love." I accept that definition as both mysterious, powerfully moving, and poetic. The "powerfully moving" part may just be my cultural ethos speaking, yet "true." I think it was William James who wrote that mysticism can be both profoundly true for the individual, but not necessarily transferrable to another individual. I can certainly get behind the idea of God as Love, and that Jesus and his teachings on love of God (returning love to love) and love of neighbor (love to mankind), are a good standard on which to base a life. But for me, the big question is whether that love can be metophorical or not.

I told a friend once that I believed God is "real" in the same sense that good poetry is "true." Is a thing beautiful because it is true, or is it/can it be the other way around? Is a beautiful woman "real?" Is a Dutch landscape painting "true?" Is the Catholic conception of Jesus/Logos/Love beautiful because it is true, or true because it is beautiful? I don't know. When I say that my battered, troubled, imperfectly held faith is true, or recite the Credo witha straight face, it is partly because it is beautiful. Whether that's good enough, I don't know.

Once in a different life I volunteered at a soup kitchen run by the Catholics of Toledo. I planned it as a Lenten project and stayed for ten years. It was dirty, smelly, cold in winter, sweltering in summer, and full of revolting sights and sounds. But, "when charity and love prevail, there God is ever found." If charity equals love and love equals God, even in a metophorical way, I will continue to believe in the metaphor. Poetically speaking.

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