God Everywhere, God Nowhere?

I finally got around to watching the two-part segment about faith and the Newtown school massacre from The Melissa Harris-Perry Show on December 22.  It featured several creative and smart scholars who I’ve followed for some time, including Rev. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, Dr. Anthea Butler, professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and Chris Stedman, assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University, whose book, Faitheist, I have written about here previously.

There was an interesting overlap between some of the religious and nonreligious perspectives that stood out to me in these conversations.  In this first clip, Chris emphasized how atheists and nonreligious people turn to their community for support in times of tragedy, much like religious people do.  By highlighting this, he gently dismantled that old notion that you have to have God to get through difficult times.

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In the second part of the conversation, Anthea points out that the conversation we are now wrestling around in about individual gun rights misses almost entirely the value of community.

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The other elements of the conversation that struck me were the typical platitudes offered by Rev. Joe Watkins (“rain falls on everybody … when you get above the clouds you see the sun is always there” … really?), and the way in which Chris pointed out a tendency for people to blame godlessness, and thus the god-less, when evil occurs.  When Mike Huckabee made his idiotic statement that we’ve kicked God out of schools and that’s why evil enters in, he reveals a dangerous binary that makes room to associate atheists with evil.

Hence, in tragedies like this, we end up with God everywhere (interfaith prayer memorial, presidential sermons, priests consoling families) and nowhere (not in schools? not in the violent deaths of first-graders?) at the same time.  In the first segment, Anthea mentions her response to the latter suggestions over at Religion Dispatches:

“If there was any moment where God must have been present, it would have been in a classroom of young children, some just five years old, who were probably praying and crying for their parents as a disturbed young man took aim at them with a gun.”

That’s the only kind of God I can imagine being worthy of our time and attention.

The last word on this, as we move forward into the political discussion about gun control, goes to Serene Jones from the end of the show’s discussion:

“Did Jesus ever say anything about guns? No.”


About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • Curtis

    God exists in community. If an atheist claims that a person can survive tragedy with support from community, without god, they are completely missing the point.

    • Caryn Riswold

      Not sure I understand your point, Curtis. You don’t think that human beings can be in community sans God? Are you denying the reality and value of human community to people who don’t believe in God? That doesn’t make sense.

      • Curtis

        Do I think humans can be in community without God? No, I don’t think so.

        Do I deny the value of human community to people who don’t believe in God? Not at all. They are experiencing God, even if they don’t name it such, and that is infinitely valuable.

        My point is that an atheist who recognizes the power of community, beyond the individual, has already experienced god. They are just using different vocabulary.

        • Caryn Riswold

          Interesting. And presumptuous to impose your own belief about God on those who don’t share that belief.

          • Curtis

            So a person who sees god where others don’t is presumptuous, but a person who denies the existence of god, even where others see god, is enlightened?

  • http://angiespoint@blogspot.com Angie VanDeMerwe

    The first premise I agree as to community. Humans are social animals, regardless of their persuasion about “God”, but that is not all they are. Identification, which means an ability to distinguish or distinctify oneself among others due to personal values is also important. The ability to bear arms is a much deeper subject than just about the violence that could result from a mentally disturbed person that uses one.

    The right to bear arms grants the right to protect oneself (self-defense) and one’s property (an ability for individuation in our society). Personal property is the value of ownership, and stewardship/responsibility. The value one places on a desired end is the motivation to work toward that end, which are personal motivational choices about goals and values.

    “God” becomes a useless argument in such a senseless crime. But “God” is useful politically to justify universalizing “ends”, which is deterministic and un American.

  • http://angiespoint@blogspot.com Angie VanDeMerwe

    If the post is asking the question as to gun ownership, then is it government’s responsibility to regulate based on one tragic event? I think the Founders would have been more prudent than that, because they did not want government to have the power to regulate human behavior. Humans were to regulate their own actions. Government was not to use a crisis to undermine the people’s right to “self regulatory behavior”.

    The nation “pays a price” when such a tragedy is televised and broadcasted. That should be enough fair warning to get the public engaged with answering the questions that concern their society. It should not provide an opportunity for government to take away the people’s right to consider, choice and consent!

    Yet, government was to provide for national security, wasn’t it? How can the government regulate guns within its borders, preventing citizens from bearing arms, yet, not investigate or be concerned when guns seem to undermine our national interests where it concerns our borders and embassies? Are international treaties to pervert Constitutional privileges? It seems this is the thrust of our present policies….

  • http://angiespoint@blogspot.com Angie VanDeMerwe

    How do we prevent tragedy? Is that an outcome that any of us could support? Then, are regulations necessary to prevent these outcomes? Libertarians would say “no”, because tragedy is a result of the wrong use of liberty as much as Mother Nature who is beyond our control. No one can guarantee anyone tragedy will not “strike” them personally. There are many illustrations about government and the personal besides “gun control”.

    It is tragic when unwanted pregnancies happen, should we accept them as “acts of God”, or regulate them by government fiat. OR should that be a matter or personal conscience for the woman who has a responsible decision to make. No one can tell her what she “should do”, unless, there are other more important “outcomes” to control, than grating liberty of conscience and the importance of “human choice” in such decisions. Government interferes with personal decision making.

    While I support a “pro choice” position, and believe that women have a right to “own their own bodies”, I will not impose my belief upon others that might think it “evil”. This is where I believe government has overstepped its rightful place in mandating all businesses to provide for contraception for their employees. Each employee should be responsible enough to make their choice about what kind of contraception to use and pay for it themselves. Over the counter birth control should be widely available, as well as the morning after pill and safe and limited (within the first trimester) abortions. And even then, Who is to say that those that government would want to use birth control will? Many welfare recipients will not take educational courses to get birth control at local health departments… And yet, government enables those least able to provide for more children by increasing the welfare check to families that have another child. There must be another solution. Children nor their families are served with this kind of enabling behavior from government. What we do not want is to extend government to make personal choices for the American people. But, we also don’t want women making irresponsible choices that government enables. Both are tragic to the future of our nation, both in resources, and human capital.

    Certainly, “God” has little to do with the natural consequences of a human choice to have unprotected sex, or unwanted pregnancies.

    • Curtis

      Does government have the right to mandate that all employers provide health insurance? If no, then we can kiss the goal of universal health coverage, which everyone says they want, good-bye.

    • Caryn Riswold

      You’ve clearly moved away from the point of anything I said in this post and on to your own talking points here, Angie.

      • http://angiespoint@blogspot.com Angie VanDeMerwe

        In my thinking you were asking a question about “community” and “gun control”, as to “God”‘ when the tragic accident happened. The place of “God” and “government” are the categories that answer these questions. I side-stepped any reference to a supernatural interventional “God”that one prays to and went directly to society as community and our nation state as the government to answer the questions about tragedy and the human condition and where responsibilities should lie in my opinion.

        • http://angiespoint@blogspot.com Angie VanDeMerwe

          “God” is really individual conscience…according to our Founders belief in liberty. No one has to prescribe to a particular religious tradition, as to membership, meaning, or understanding…religion was not to be the determining factor, though it was a consideration in policy.