Saving God From Religion

Column by Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers on 25 February 2021 5 Comments


Let’s be clear, this is an audacious idea.  Writing a book about God is an audacious project.  In fact, claiming to know anything about God is more than audacious—it is intellectual blasphemy.  So, to begin, let me be clear.  I have no idea what I am talking about.  Nor do I possess even a shred of secret, spiritual information about God that is not available to anyone, or to everyone.  Being a recently retired, lifelong parish minister (a “man of God” in the old patriarchal language) provides me no special knowledge either.  Nor does being a person of prayer and meditation.  Nor does it help to have advanced degrees in rhetoric, or to have published other books about Jesus and progressive Christianity.  The Divine Mystery is not a rational idea; it is “trans-rational.”  Indeed, not even being a white man of privilege, with tenure no less, is an advantage.  It may be a disadvantage.  All of which is to say that such a project should not be attempted.  Do not write a book about God.

When I told my wife that this was exactly what I planned to do, she responded, “That’s great, Robin.   At least you picked a small, manageable topic.”

No wonder it took five years.  Books about God make editors nervous.  They do not sell as well as books about Jesus.  Both scholars and the reading public are prone to pick up such books and feel slightly nauseous.  Why?  Books about God usually fall into one of two categories:  1) An extended “proof” that God does in fact exist, since that is what the author believed to begin with.   Or 2) an extended proof that God does not in fact exist, since that is what the author believed to begin with.  Both things, of course, cannot be true.

Such an approach was never my intention, however, since “existence” when it comes to God has never made sense to me.  I have spent my life as an ordained “a-theist” (a non-theist).  Why?   Because everything that “exists” once did not, was brought into being by something that preceded it, and will one day cease to exist—hardly things that most people are comfortable believing about God.  Neither does it make sense that humans could have a subject/object relationship with that which is beyond knowing or naming—unless, of course, we have created God in our own image–the opposite of imago dei–that beautiful idea that we are created in God’s image.

Creating God in the image of humans, however, is exactly what we have done.  Look no further than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo’s most famous fresco, the creation of Adam, depicts the most iconic image of God in the western world.  God is a white, bearded European elder, surprisingly buff, who is surrounded by a heavenly bevy of attendants, one of whom is embraced by Godfather God as if she is a gift that is about to be offered to Adam.  Is that Eve, or is it Mary?  Art historians are not certain, but the real focus has always been on the world’s most famous “gap”—the space between God’s outstretched hand reaching down to touch Adam’s hand, where their fingers do not quite touch.  Theology has been “minding” that gap for centuries, promising to bridge it.

Granted, many people reading this will say that they do not believe, at least intellectually, that God is an old White Guy in the Sky.  Yet studies have shown that until an old image is replaced by a new one, the original image remains.  It is the default image, if you will, and evidence abounds that we are still stuck with this default image of God.  “He” is male (just listen to our liturgies, even in progressive churches); “He” is white (just look at much of the church art hanging in the vestibule), and more dangerous still, “He” is a kind of the heavenly vending machine (handing out favors to God’s chosen, while ignoring, or punishing everyone else—the unchosen?).

God in western theological models is William Blake’s Nobodaddy.  He is a heavenly Partisan, the fearsome and petulant head of the cosmic household, a jealous tyrant who must be appeased with gifts of supplication (obedience, prayers, praise) in order that “His” subjects may be restored to their right relationship with Daddy—who, for some strange reason, wants or needs to be worshipped?  These traits remind us of many earthly fathers, of course, or kings, or authoritarian politicians, and that is no accident.  Western God language is profoundly monarchical, as we crawl into the sovereign’s throne room with our petitions, unworthy wretches, or worms, that tremble as they seek divine favor or beg for forgiveness.  What’s more, “His” eye never sleeps, and he is perpetually disappointed in what “He” sees.  Consider that our image of God is not all that different from our image of Santa Claus:   He sees you when you’re sleeping/He knows when you’re awake/He knows if you’ve been bad or good/ So be good for goodness sake!

There is another way to think about the Sacred Mystery, however.  It is more consistent with many Eastern religious traditions where God is not a “being” at all, but rather no-thing.  Instead of God being just a bigger version of you and me, perhaps God is the animating Spirit of everything that does exit, a kind of evolutionary insurgency in the universe, a Primal Memory of the Big Bang, a transcendent, sacred Mystery that does not initiate discriminatory action, but is action and change itself.  What if we are “entangled” in what Barbara Brown Taylor called The Luminous Web, where all actions have consequences, physical and spiritual.  To assume otherwise, to think that any of us are exempt from the consequences of our actions, is sin, because separation is sin, as Paul Tillich put it. What if the life of faith means acknowledging and embracing the life of spiritual entanglement, and the time has come for the church to replace a theology of obedience with a theology of consequenceBy their fruits you shall know them.

Strange as it sounds, what if God does not do anything, but without God nothing gets done?  What if, as quantum theory suggests, the universe is made up of “non-local stuff?”  What if there is a spiritual version of string theory, so that instead of a God who pulls strings, God is the string?

Since human being are always claiming to know what God is up to, and those claims have done great harm (as when a pastor tells a grieving mother that God wanted her baby in heaven early), wouldn’t it be better to think of God as up to nothing in the world?  Wouldn’t this solve the problem of evil?  What if quantum entanglement proves that everything really is connected to everything else—beyond time and space—in ways that baffled even Einstein?  And what if, as chaos theory posits, there are no variables too small to change the outcome of complex systems?  In other words, what if what we do, down to the smallest choices we make every day, chains out in an infinite and incomprehensible dance of cause-and-effect—rippling across the luminous web for good or for ill like the proverbial stone tossed into the pond?  What if that Luminous Web is God?

What’s more, what if—since we can never know what the ultimate aggregate of any single action may turn out to be—we could return personal responsibility to the life of faith, rejecting the idea that we are helpless and must be rescued.  What if Process Theologians are correct when they imagine that even God is evolving?  What if, instead of pretending that faith means believing things we know are not true in order to get rewards we doubt are available, we could return to the servant model of just trying to do the right thing.  What if, in our small corner of the universe, we acted in love and then trusted in a “this-worldly” faith that Bonhoeffer called “religionless” Christianity?

Dr. King called it the “moral arc of the universe.”  He endorsed the “entangled spiritual life” as opposed to our intensely privatized, individualized gospel when he said, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
Perhaps God is not, and never was, an Old Man in the Sky.  Rather, God is something closer to Pure Relationship.  When we enter into that relationship by trusting in the power of unconditional love, risking forgiveness, offering mercy with no strings attached, imagining the plight of others as if we were the other, and making the world a safer and more welcoming place for the weak and disenfranchised, then we act in faith.

Freed from dogma and doctrine, we could stop believing stuff to get stuff, and live by trusting the power of the choices we make entangled in the Luminous Web.  It is, after all, trust—not certainty—that makes us “believers.”

 ~ Rev. Dr. Robin R. Meyers


I'm agnostic and if it's true there is no hell it would be a relief, but this has raised some questions: What about those who have sinned? What happens to those who have broken some of God's rules or do you not believe in sin either? Or, if you are a guy like me, who couldn’t make up his mind that God does or does not exist? Or what about the very bad men in human history like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc? How will God deal with those mad men who have taken the lives of billions of peoples? Why doesn't God help our world, why does he let there be so much pain and suffering?


Dear Oskar,

I feel the angst in each of your questions. They are so profound that piles of writings throughout history have attempted to chip away at them. First, I’d like to thank you for your vulnerability in voicing them. Second, I’d like to apologize. While I do intend to provide you with a response, I won’t be offering an answer.

When it comes to matters of God, I simply despise black and white answers. Even more, I hate how often people assume they have them. While I resonate with these questions and continue to ask them myself, moving away from dualistic thinking has ultimately revived my faith. It’s not that I stopped having questions. I simply stopped needing answers to navigate my spirituality.

I take comfort in Jesus, who very rarely gave hard and fast answers, and more often offered nuanced responses. Those who followed him were the ones willing to accept a faith paradigm where love and action in the present moment were more important than doctrine, prescriptions and future kin-doms. Jesus was about bringing heaven to earth now, and I believe this is the urgent work we have before us as well. As a result, I am less concerned with hypothetical what-ifs and more concerned with building the world I want to see right now.

When I was taking my final course of seminary, I was asked to write an essay presenting a theological take on hell. I was filled with such angst over this assignment, not only did I skip writing it altogether, but I also didn’t show up to class on the day it was due. This resulted in the only “B” grade I received in my otherwise “perfect” seminary education.

I know it sounds ridiculous, irresponsible, and even immature of me. But you see, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t pretend to have concrete answers where I don’t believe they exist. And ten years later, I continue to believe it is unhelpful to provide answers to some of these theoretical questions. Instead, I choose to lean into embodied responses, which most often look like solidarity.

And I do offer you my deepest solidarity. I have asked all your same questions at one time or another. Often, I find myself revisiting them. Wrestling and feeling lost; feeling peace and knowing fullness - these are cycles I’ve learned to receive with joy. They remind me I am human. They remind me I am normal (sort of, ha!). They remind me that this mystical Christ-space is right where I want to be.

I am not a typical pastor. I have no interest in filling in the blanks for people. I am sorry I don’t have the best answers for you, but I do hope my response can be helpful as you piece together the puzzle of your own faith journey. If it helps, I have faith you are exactly where you need to be.

~ Rev. Aurelia Dávila  Pratt




5 thoughts on “Saving God From Religion

  1. Thank you Robin for this excellent article. I have been trying for years to find the right words to try and explain how I believe in something but not a “god” sitting up in the sky making judgments. Learning to live by trusting the power of the choices we make entangled in the Luminous Web “ says it all. Thanks dear friend

  2. I truly enjoyed this essay, it has touched my heart. It has opened my eyes as I have always felt that religion comes from man, and spirituality comes from God. Thank you Dr. Meyers.

  3. Dear Robin: Thank you for your essay. As you know: “God is a spirit;
    they that worship God (not him), must worship God (not him) in spirit and in truth.” You might not know, however, Confucius had gone to ask for “Manners” from Laozi (Lao zu) four times. According to his disciple Zhuangzi in his written record, the forth time he went to ask Laozi, he received the reply about the “Word” of the Sky which Confucius could not understand. He went back to his hotel and stopped eating and speaking for three days. When his disciples asked him as to what he had taught Laozi?
    Confucius replied: “Tigers I can follow; fish I can catch; birds I can shoot; but the words of Laozi are as the passing of a Dragon in the sky; I can never fathom or understand even a tiny bit of it.”
    The teaching by Laozi concerning the “Word” goes like this: “We can talk about the ‘Word’, but the ‘Word’ we may discuss is not the ordinary ‘Wors’. Me may give it a ‘Name’, but that ‘Name’ is not an ordinary ‘Name’.
    Therefore, the Jewish name for “God” in Hebrew has been “Yawe” which means ‘Name’cannot be named with ordinary names.
    The mistaken understanding of God ny the Jewish people had become a God of killing and a destroyer of manking at His whim.
    The understanding by Jesus had been a God of love for mankind.
    We must go back to: “God is a spirit; they that worship God (not him), must worship God (not him) in spirit and in truth.”
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

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