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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  • Y. A. Warren

    “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.”
    Well said. The term “God” is taken from what are referred to as “pagans” by the many religions. Gods all seem to be jealous, vengeful beings who constantly demand sacrifices to their own egos.

    I have taken to using the term “Sacred Spirit” to define the force that completes our ascension into full humanity from our underlying animal natures. A problem I see with religions is that they attempt to limit the many manifestations of The Sacred Spirit to only what their own group agrees on.

    I would like all to simply agree that The Sacred Spirit is peaceful and is available to all with ears to hear and eyes to see.

  • gapaul

    Who is Robert Hunt?

  • Agni Ashwin

    Instead of “God”, how about “Abba”? Besides the connection to Jesus and the Semitic traditions, it sounds like a Sanskrit word for mother (“abbā”), nicely balancing its meaning of “father” in Aramaic.

    • Monimonika

      Sorry, a Swedish pop group has already taken over whatever impression that word could convey. Nice try, though.

      • Agni Ashwin

        OK, how about “Allāh”? Jesus used a similar word with the same meaning, the Aramaic “Alaha”. In Sanskrit, “allā” means “mother”. In combination, the Arabic, Aramaic, and Sanskrit point to the Mother-Father nature of Divinity.

        • Robert Hunt

          Allah has, as much as God, a number of connotations that render it problematic. But it may not be a bad choice. The reality is that namings of the transcendent are (by definition) inadequate. Some are more inadequate than others. Some are past their sell-by date.

  • Yonah

    Mr. Robert Hunt is wrong.

    To brand any and all theists with a brand of derision, and not honestly admitting to those many theists who strive to articulate an evolved theism….makes no intellectual sense….makes no demographic sense…makes no moral sense.

    I rise to defend the working class…and their God….the God they count as their Creator…and Sustainer….meaning, they understand that God to have an agenda to defend their value as created beings…even in the face of loss/evil. If Mr. Robert Hunt does not like working class culture, that is his choice. But, I would point out to Mr. Robert Hunt, that NEVER do I see the SpiritualButNotReligious in the west actually get a civil rights movement done. It was not white upper class PhD Directors of some fancy think tank that put their bodies on the line in Montgomery and Selma, etc…nor today on Moral Mondays in North Carolina.

    How come all the dirty work goes to Black Theists?

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    • Robert Hunt

      My post was to get people thinking about how a word can be mis-used to the point that it becomes robbed of communicative power. I said nothing about working class culture. Only we need to distinguish between the word “God” and the Creator of the universe, or for that matter the one (Yahweh) who led the children of Israel out of the promised land and died on the cross for our sins. There are many communities within which the word “God” retains all the power and coherence it has ever had. And many in which it does not. If the word “God” works in a particular cultural context to inspire action for justice that’s great. But it isn’t working in all cultural contexts, not even in the U.S. And that is one reason that the power and solidarity that the word “God” once inspired has diminished.

      • Yonah

        You should say something about working class culture.

        And, then when you are addressing a Jew, it is not right to throw the Y word out. Are you doing that to disrespect Judaism? If so, you succeeded. Then, I have no idea what you are talking about when you assert that Hashem led the children of Israel out of the promised land.

        My Dad worked in a warehouse for minimum wage. I grew up on the West Side of Columbus, Ohio where most of us guys went to work for GM, Westinghouse, International Harvester or the railroad yard just north of us. But, no…I just had to go and listen to PhDs at the fancy schools. I got me a BA in Religion from Capital University. And then I did graduate work at the School of International Service at American University. And then I went to Capital University Law School, but I runned out of money for that, so I went and got me a M.Div. at Trinity Lutheran Seminary…and then later I got me a Masters in Education from the University of Dayton.

        And it all boils down to me now being a Jew hearing about how Hashem led us out of the promised land and died for our sins.

        I want my money back.

        I should have gone to work for the railroad like my best friend Rodney. He got MS bad, and his union deal has been paying the expenses ever since.

  • epredota

    Robert, I’ve been pondering this post since I came across it earlier in the week when I was looking for Holli Emore’s Interfaith blog (over on the Pagan channel).

    Your opening paragraph has been niggling at me the whole time, and I’ve now realised why: the reason Japan can have a “robust spirituality” without using the word ‘God’ is that Japan has never, notwithstanding Christian missionary attempts and no doubt occasional successes, had a monotheistic religious or spiritual tradition, in which a personified God is related to as Source of All Life / Ground of Being. Japanese traditions are either polytheist, animistic, or Buddhist — in which the question of God or Gods is largely irrelevant.

    The frame of reference that monotheism provides for the mainstream of European, North American, and Middle Eastern thought will not be so easily changed. We may all be animists if you scratch the surface deeply enough, but I am at a loss to imagine how it might be possible to share the Christian gospel without mentioning God. And I say that as a Pagan!