Three years ago, I reluctantly gave in to requests to preach on the subject of prayer and I devoted my sermons during the season of Epiphany to the subject of prayer. I have been asked to re-post those sermons. In the course of three years, my theology has continued to evolve. However, I have resisted the temptation to edit the sermons and so the manuscripts are what they are, an exploration of sorts. Here’s the Second sermon in the series. I shall repost the seven sermons in the series over the course of the Season of Epiphany.
Prayer #2 – Pray to a Super-natural Deity or a Panentheistic God? preached on Epiphany 2B, 2012 – listen to the sermon here
Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1-10, The Flowing Light of the Godhead by Mechthild of Magdeburg, John 1:43-51 – Our worship began with the singing of the old song, I Come to the Garden Alone.
Last week we began a sermon series on prayer. We are spending the season of Epiphany exploring what it prayer is like after you give up the idea that God is some grand-puppeteer in the sky. We spent some time exploring the description of the Voice of God that we find in the Hebrew Scriptures. In ancient Hebrew the Voice of God is described as the Bat Cole. Which translates literally as the daughter of a sound. Our English bibles translate the Bat Cole, the daughter of a sound as the Still Small Voice of God. It is sometimes translated as “the thinnest silence.” I asked you to spend sometime during the week, listening to the Bat Cole that emanates from deep inside of you. Today, I want to talk about what it means to listen.
What does it mean to listen to the voice of God? What does the voice of God sound like? How do you know that the voice you are hearing is God? What are you supposed to do if you think you hear the voice of God? I’ve been thinking about these questions all week long and I’ve got to say that these questions have driven me more than a little crazy. Earlier in the week, a colleague sent me a recording of televangelist Pat Robertson talking about his latest message from God. It seems that God has told Pat Robertson exactly who the next president of the United States is going to be. God has also, rather conveniently told Robertson not to talk about it. So, Pat’s not saying who it will be. But he is saying that God has told him that the current president; that would be Barak Obama, “holds a radical view of the future of the United States that is at odds with the majority” so the nation should expect chaos and paralysis.”
It strikes me as all too convenient that God just happens to hold the same views as Pat Robertson, so I’m not about to listen to the voice that he hears. But then, how do I know that the voice that I hear is God and not just me impersonating God? To hear Pat Robertson tell it, he hears a clear voice and has no doubt that it is God doing the talking. I on the other hand have never heard a clear voice. In fact I’m pretty sure that if I stood up here and told you all that God spoke to me in a clear voice, you’d begin to wonder about my sanity. I mean hearing voices is a clear signal that something has gone terribly wrong and we have all sorts of medication for that. So, if hearing voices is symptomatic of mental illness, then why in the world would we bother listening for the voice of God?
Before we can even begin to understand what the so much of the Christian tradition means when they talk about listening to the voice of 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.
Because panentheism may be new to some, I want to suggest some ways of understanding God in ways that move us beyond the super-hero. When we 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. It also confused the what’s it out of me. So, I’m going to stop for a moment. And I’m going to do something that I was warned not to do in seminary. After introducing a complicated idea, I’m going to ask you to respond to what you’ve just heard.
What follows is a rough transcript of our conversation, (you might want to listen to the audio provided at this link)
Janet: “…Has anybody else seen the video by David Suzuki?”
“…just towards the end of it. He’s talking as a scientist and he says that until fairly recently we all thought that space was empty and that the planets and everything were going around in empty space. He said, that now we know that every molecule attracts. And so he said, space is not empty it is full of, he described it as full of these little tendrils of attraction. And then he said, which some of us call love. Or I thought, which some of us call God.”
“So, you said something like that.”
“Yeah, one of the things that I intentionally left out of this, cause it is so hard to grasp this, for me, not being a scientist. But more and more, we’re learning from science what theology used to teach. But, which we have left behind because it’s more difficult to comprehend.
Part of the reason, did you notice what happened when we sang Just a Closer Walk With Thee? You all changed. Something happened. Music has a way of doing this. And particular pieces of music with particular lyrics can do it in an amazing way. I’m never sure which one is gonna do it. But there can be hymns…I can manipulate you guys. ….laughter….and what this did…it opened you up. The Irish call it a thin place. It opened you up. Nostalgia is not a good enough word to describe it. But it took you back to a moment in time or to an experience that you have had where you were closely related to someone, or to God, or to an experience. So, it took you to another place. For me, that particular hymn always takes me to a place when faith was simple. When I understood that God was in HIS heaven and all was right with the world. It’s called naiveté and there’s nothing wrong with it. There’s nothing wrong with returning to that naïve state either. We all need it. It’s a resting place.
David: “I want to make my old case for not either or, but for both and.”
“The thing about it is and I want to say it clearly. If super-natural is like transcendent and panentheist is like immanent, it strikes me that, what I want is to think of God as a person, a super-natural person whose chief activity is love and that love is what God’s presence here, which is other, is also the doing love which connects us all to not only God but to each other. Why I want this is it strikes me that love bridges gaps. It jumps, it takes two separate things and joins them together.
One of my friends who is not Christian once said to me, “one thing I envy about you Christians is whenever things are really horrible, you are never really alone.” So there’s a sense of the presence of God but also there’s a sense and it’s a sense through the psalms and through all our personal histories of absence of God. It’s a wonderful movement back and forth that includes separation and relation and I want all of those things. And panentheism for me only has half of that.”
You notice I said there are two strains through Christianity. It’s because you can’t tell the story of God without both of them. And so, I’m not suggesting one over the other. I think we have our feet in both places. We have different needs so we need to move back and forth. What I am suggesting is you can’t just stay in the supernatural. Because when you do that, you limit God and you become an idolater. Unfortunately, the church has trained all of us, myself included to practice idolatry. And that is to deal with a person; a super-person if you will. And so, when we think about praying, we have to pray to that super-person to try to convince that super-person to do what we want the super-person to do. And when it doesn’t happen, it impacts the relationship we have. What I’m suggesting is that unless you are prepared to understand that God permeates all of creation and is at the heart of creation and is beyond creation… it means that prayer is something different than just a supplication to a super-person. It opens….for some of us this is terrible…and we’ve been experimenting with this in worship for the past year, almost two years now…people say to me, “Who do I pray to now?” Who do I pray to?
And who is going to answer you? And what do I do when I don’t hear the answer? And those are all perfectly valid questions. And what I hope to be able to do over the course of the next few weeks is to address some of those questions. I don’t expect that we’re going to answer them. But we are going to be able to look at them from different perspectives. So, what I want us to do is to move away from God as the super-person for a while.
You notice that in our prayers in our liturgy we’re not directing them to a super-person. We haven’t been doing that for almost a year now. Occasionally, we’ll slip in and we’ll do “you” but I understand “you” as more broad. Ok. It’s not “You” in the singular. It’s plural because if we’re really seeing God as that which permeates creation, then God permeates us. So what we are trying to do is awaken something in us when we pray.
I’ve got a clock going here. That’s the danger of this kind of preaching….you never know how much time to take.
But what I want you to do, I want you to think a little bit during the course of this week about how it would change your prayer, recognizing that you yourself are an expression of the Divine. You are an expression of God. What does that do to your perception of your neighbour who is also an expression of God? And more terrifying, what does that do to your enemy who is also an expression of God?
Juergen: “I’ve grown up in church, different denomination and for me prayer is something else and I find that the way it is working for me: silence. To listen. Words never can express or do a proper communications. And the other aspect: it is intriguing me on how many levels, from time to time, there’s a close connection, without I can explain….somebody is talking to me? No. …but it’s its nevertheless very strong and then all of a sudden it’s gone and there’s disappeared ….nothing
Yes….I’ll pay you later ….laughter…that’s precisely where we’re going next week. You just did a promotion for next week.
You notice I didn’t answer the question: How do I know that it is God who is speaking to me? That was intentional because I think we need to go there next week (referring to the previous speaker). I think we need to….I don’t want to move too quickly through this…I realize that this is agonizing for some of us because we want to race to the finish line. But I want us to dwell in this for a while. I mean its Epiphany. There is enough light to keep us going. We’ll be all right. It’s the season of light, we’ll be ok. We can dwell in this for a while.
There was one last thought that I wanted to leave you with. This comes from a friend of mine who is Hindu and he assures me that there is a Hindu teaching that says that all images and ideas of God are educational toys. They’re just designed to teach us something. We’re supposed to learn something from them. We are not supposed to worship them. I would say that’s probably true of the super-natural understanding of God as well as the pantheistic understanding of God. These are tools to help us relate, to make those connections that the scientists are talking about. I think that the silences, which we talked about last week quite a bit, are the places to begin our playfulness around the issue of prayer.
We take it very seriously. Those of you who were in the Education Hour, I talked about, when you try to untangle what we’ve always felt comfortable with you’re not just dealing with ideas you’re dealing with emotions. It was nice to go to The Garden. We loved to go to The Garden. I don’t want anyone to ever tell me that we can’t go back to the garden. But from time to time we have to leave it and explore other places to deepen relationship. Amen.