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Is “God” A Trigger Word?

The divine descriptor has negative associations for so many, some faith leaders are swearing it off. Is “God”-less religion even possible?

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If you think God is dead, you’re still welcome at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Beaverton, Oregon, a suburb of Portland. Minister John Shuck’s approach to God resembles that of a low-budget frat party — Bring Your Own God.

“While the symbol ‘God’ is part of our cultural tradition, you can take it or leave it or redefine it to your liking,” Shuck wrote earlier this year. “God is a symbol of myth-making and not credible as a supernatural being or force.”

Shuck isn’t the only religious leader dispensing of the sacred descriptor. The Very Rev. Gary Hall, the dean of Washington National Cathedral, identifies as non-theistic Christian, which means he doesn't understand Jesus as “magical” or “some kind of superman” sent down from Heaven. “I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in either,” he once told atheist Richard Dawkins. And the Lab/Shul Jewish community in New York City recently adopted the BYOG approach. A note from the community's leader, Amichai Lau-Lavie, explained that they are committed to “replacing the baggage-laden word ‘God’ with several other names and prisms that enable us to better connect with and describe the inherently indescribable.”

Lau-Lavie has a point. God — that which is divine, unknowable, greater than us humans — is by definition undefinable. And, in our feebly human attempts to conceptualize God, we’ve landed on some contentious personifications.

Some people think of God as a mean dad who is angry and arbitrary, rigid and rules-based. Others envision God as a kind of heavenly bellhop whose sole job is to keep you healthy and happy. Others imagine God is an impersonal force. The word is tossed around in the most perfunctory manner possible by politicians and feels manipulative in the hands of a toothy televangelist. “God” has a Twitter account.

Rob Bell used to talk about “God” a lot. That’s how he made a living until 2012, as an evangelical megachurch pastor in the suburbs of Grand Rapids, Michigan. But since leaving his church and moving to California, Bell, the author of What We Talk About When We Talk About God, finds himself using the g-word far less. On his 31-city “Everything Is Spiritual” Tour this summer, Bell dialed down the God talk and quoted the Sufi mystic Rumi and the Catholic thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He lectured on love, grace, energy, and “the soul of the universe.”

Bell says his shift in focus is driven mostly by a desire for clarity — communicating what he means rather than playing into people’s preconceptions. But that’s partly because “God” has become such a muddled and volatile word. “When a word becomes too toxic and too abused and too associated with ideas and understandings that aren't true to the mystery behind the mystery,” Bell said, “it's important to set it aside and search for new and better ways to talk about it.”

That’s not to say one needs to do away with “God” completely. Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal preacher and best-selling author of Learning to Walk in the Dark, still uses it in sermons “because the hearers in a local congregation have usually arrived at some consensus about what their shared vocabulary means.” We certainly have yet to come up with a word to replace “God.”

Still, like Bell, Taylor speaks of “God” less in mixed audiences. Her decision followed an experiment where she asked a dozen students at Piedmont College, a liberal arts school outside Athens, Georgia, where she teaches religion, to write down on an index card what they meant when they said “God.” “I realized the word 'God' was no more revealing of what the speaker meant by it than words such as ‘big,’ ‘dark,’ or ‘good,’” Taylor said.

Taylor warned that she might not say “God” often enough for some attendees of a recent speech on writing at Princeton Theological Seminary. For one thing, she was having as much trouble pinning down the word’s meaning as her students. Plus, Taylor is spending more time with people for whom the word has a negative association. “God,” for some, is “the name of someone they once thought they loved who is no longer there… a symbol of “ultimatums, judgment, rebuff.” For Taylor, “God” is just a word to help us talk about something bigger than vocabulary.

“It may be a finger pointing to the moon, but it is not the moon,” she said. “It seems more helpful to use some other fingers to point to the moon, using the language of creation, suffering, longing, belonging, joy — and letting my readers supply ‘God’ when that is the right word for them.”

And if it is simply a matter of giving God a new name, Bell says it wouldn’t be the first time. “Jesus talked about his father. Moses spoke of Yahweh. [Christian theologian] Paul Tillich wrote about the ground of our being. The apostle Paul referred to the Theos. The prophet Isaiah described one like a mother,” he said. “Others throughout the ages and across traditions have spoken of wind and fire and clothing and whispers — it's all language, metaphor, our feeble attempts to put words to the ineffable.”

This shift is obviously not sweeping American Christianity, and I haven’t heard it from the pope or the preachers with the largest reach in cities like Nashville and Atlanta. But Bell and Brown are prominent figures, both recently named among Time’s 100 most influential people.

The question is whether Christians are renaming “God” or dodging the concept altogether. Nothing is wrong, of course, with a religious leader employing fresh or even disarming ways of speaking about the divine, but it walks a razor’s edge of innovation and complete avoidance. Is it the word “God” that is tainted and unnecessary, or the concept of the divine? If the latter, why not just stick to conversations about grace or love or equality and never broach the potentially divisive topic of divine presence?

James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of The Abbey, thinks there’s nothing wrong with a group of people coming together for a moral purpose. “But, at least in my eyes, that's less religion than it is community-building,” he said. “For me, God is at the heart of religion.”

As a religion writer — and an evangelical Protestant — I agree. To me, creating a God-less religion is a little like baking biscuits without butter — it can be done, but in some way, it ends up lacking an intractable ingredient that made it what it was.

Speaking about God is a big part of what religion is all about. Re-ligio means to “re-connect.” It is the process of forming a community for the purpose of, among other things, reconnecting with God. At the center of this community is a set of beliefs in something or about something, which almost always include God. The role of a religious leader is, in part, to help religious communities facilitate reconnection with God and help shape beliefs in and about God.

Taylor and Bell are right that “God” is becoming a four-letter word for many, and they are also right that this requires people invested in the future of religion to rethink its rhetoric. If pointing to the moon with a particular finger is fraught, by all means, let’s try pointing with others. So long as we don’t end up sitting on our hands. Because it is impossible for a community to reclaim a word that it no longer uses.

CORRECTION

The Very Rev. Gary Hall, the dean of Washington National Cathedral identifies as non-theistic Christian. Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this essay implied he is an atheist.

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for "Religion News Service" and a contributing writer for "The Atlantic." He is author of several books including, "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined."

Contact Jonathan Merritt at jonathan@jonathanmerritt.com.

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