As I continue to work on this Sunday’s sermon, (see earlier posts here and here) Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the gospel text Luke 11:1-13 begs the question: “To Whom Shall We Go?” Liberated from perceptions that reduce images of God to those of a cosmic superhero who abides up or out there ready to manipulate events here in the world at the request of those who pray, the activity of prayer takes on a whole new meaning and shape. Our images of who, where and what God is will direct our prayers in ways that impact our expectations of prayer. Who do we pray to and what we expect of the One who hears our prayers will shape how and why we pray.
Before we can even begin to understand what so much of the Christian tradition means when it talks about praying to God, we need to take a step back and look at what we mean when we say the word “god.” Throughout the Jewish and Christian traditions you can trace two very distinct ways of understanding and talking about God.
The first and most familiar way of understanding God is as a supernatural being. God is described as a sort of person, a supernatural person. The term supernatural describes it all, super means beyond the natural. God is understood as a being beyond the capabilities of most beings. God is personified; given the characteristics of a person; only it is as if God has the powers of a super-hero; someone far greater than we can even imagine. This way of thinking about God comes naturally to us. As children many of us had imaginary friends, and so it’s easy to move from our imaginary friends that share the same characteristics as us (except for the fact that they are invisible) to thinking about a God as a kind of super-imaginary friend. God is often understood as a person who exists out there or more often up there; separate and apart from us, who from time to time intervenes or speaks to us. But this is not the only way to think about God.
Within the Christian tradition there has always been another way of thinking and talking about God. This way of thinking about God reminds us that God is not a person who exists out there, but rather as the it says in the book of Acts, God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. According to this way of understanding God, God is the one in whom we live. God is not out there or up there, but right here all around us. God is the encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is. This other way of understanding God has a fancy theological name: panentheism – “pan” means everything, “en” means in, and “theo” means god = everything is in God.
Panentheism is a way of understanding God at a non-material level or layer or dimension of reality that pervades the universe. God is described as being all around us and within us; the universe and everything in it permeated with the presence of God. This less familiar way of understanding God may be less familiar to us than supernatural theism, but Panentheism is just as ancient and just as Christian.
Panentheism, is nothing new. It is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. It is found throughout the scriptures. Unfortunately, maybe because it is easier, the church for the most part has opted to use supernatural theism in worship. So, liturgies and prayers are created in ways that relate to God as a super-person. But when we think of God as a super-person it constrains our understanding of God.
God is so much more than a super-person. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with relating to God as a super-person. The problem begins when that is the only way we think of God. Eventually the super-person himself becomes an idol and we are left practicing idolatry.
God is more than a super-person. God is the force or spirit that permeates the universe and everything that is in the universe. God is not the universe, nor is God anything that is in the universe. The universe is in God. We are not God, we are in God.
When we think about God as the one who permeates the universe we then have to look differently at everything that is in God including our very selves and especially our neighbours. Panentheism may be new to some, so let me suggest some ways of understanding God in ways that move us beyond the super-hero.
When we say I, “I believe in God,” I am not saying that I believe in that God is some other-worldly super hero. I see god as the Unconditional, the Ultimate, the Divine, who is present in all, and is All—all of life, all persons, all creatures, all the universe, and I believe that there is more than we can perceived or comprehend, a dimension beyond the apparent world of time and space.
The commandment to “love God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength is a commandment to love creation, to love experience, and to love the radical mystery that is at creations’ center, with all my heart, with all my mind and with all my strength. The knowledge that God is present in all our fellow beings explains why the commandment to love God is violated when we fail to love our neighbour.
When we look at God from the perspective of panentheism we begin to see ourselves and our neighbours not only as in God, but also as potential expressions of God. Back when I was in seminary, I remember being blown away by this particular way of relating to God. It changed the way I think about myself as a human being and as a Christian and it changed the way I pray.
Panentheism moves us beyond the image of God that we have created and opens us to the reality of the force that lies at the very heart of creation; a force that lives and breathes in, with, and through us. When we move beyond seeing God as a super-person, to understanding God as that which permeates all that is, we are compelled to open ourselves to a power beyond our ability to name. In the presence of such a deity our prayers can seem hubris at best, ridiculously childlike, or even useless and so we are all too often reduced to a silence born out of frustration rather than intention. But however, we arrive at the silence, it is out of the silence that God comes to us and we hear the Bat Cole, the daughter of a sound, the still small voice of God who dwells in, with and through us.
As I work towards writing this Sunday’s sermon on prayer the videos are helping me to organize my thoughts.