The Irrelevance of “God”

Maybe it is time we just drop the word God from our vocabulary in inter-religious dialogue, or for that matter any discourse.

I recently read a prescient comment in book pointing out that Europe and North America are going the way of Japan in possessing a robust spirituality without any reference to God. Being “spiritual without being religious” comes to mean finding ways to name and navigate the world of unseen forces (both those that define the self and those outside the self) which encompass our lives. Without that particular baggage that religion brings to the table: God.

This is a kind of spirituality that has existed for a long time in human history, and has served many peoples very adequately. It isn’t surprising that it is making a comeback since religious people who speak frequently of God have rendered the word devoid of meaning.

To the outside observer of religion the God spoken of by theists both loves and hates various categories of people (and forms of behavior). God condemns almost everyone to hell and/or heaven (words equally without any firm meaning.) God is a transcendent law maker who breaks and sets aside laws. God is one, but also three. God is completely distinct from creation and is one with it. God is incomparable but constantly compared in terms of both affective states and intellectual ideals. God has all power except when God has no power. And so on.

Which isn’t to say that theologians don’t try to offer coherent accounts of the nature of God. Only that all seem to want to use the God word to mean different things.

Religious people have frequently addressed the so-called problem of evil. They seem to forget that the incoherence between a supposedly good, all-powerful God and a world of pain and suffering is the least of the problems with coherence to which the concept of God among theists is subject. And when Jews, Muslims, and Christians enter into dialogue only to promptly offer incompatible definitions of the divine?

Whether speaking in the language of philosophy, morality, law, or devotion theists assert so many contradictory things about God that one might legitimately ask if they know anything at all about God. Or whether, in fact, the word “God” is just an empty vessel into which they each pour their particular forms of desire, hatred, hope, and despair. Or worse, a mere ejaculation to indicate any emotion not strong enough to warrant actual profanity.

Once a word has been emptied of meaning in the way Western civilization has emptied the word “God” of meaning what follows is a growing inability to think about that to which the word once referred. The central character of the Biblical narrative disappears from consciousness under a barrage of unstable and inchoate interpretations. And thus the transcendent creator of the universe has become “unthought” in our larger culture, even if the name by which this being was once known is still floating around. Indeed, lacking a concrete referent transcendence itself disappears from our thoughts, since it no longer has a name.

And absent God? Well there is what we know and experience much more immediately; the unseen but immanent forces that appear to determine our past, present, and future. Spirituality, and eventually religion, focus on these things that are much more readily available to our thoughts because they have well defined names: lust, fear, love, desire, anger, hunger, satisfaction, peace of mind, and so on.

I expect (not withstanding my enjoyment of Rebecca St. Jame’s eponymous song) that the word God needs to leave our vocabulary if we are going to talk about the gospel to a rising generation of young persons in our culture, or indeed anyone born in the 20th century. But we’ll also need to find another word or words for the Creator formerly known as God. Otherwise the designation “spiritual without being religious” will itself become a tautology.

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