God, Part 1

Tony Jones has a challenge and an invitation for “all progressive theo-bloggers.”

Write something substantive about God. Not about Jesus, not about the Bible, but about God.

I expect to fail this challenge. And I intend to fail it in several parts.

For the first part, here, I’m bringing in a ringer: Wislawa Szymborska (as beautifully translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh). This does not at all do what Tony asks, but it exemplifies at least two of the several ways I am unable to do what Tony asks.

The final line, I think, explicitly violates one of Tony’s rules, but I expect to violate that same rule repeatedly myself as I return to this subject in order to fail this challenge in a few other ways.


Maybe all this
is happening in some lab?
Under one lamp by day
and billions by night?

Maybe we’re experimental generations?
Poured from one vial to the next,
shaken in test tubes,
not scrutinized by eyes alone,
each of us separately
plucked up by tweezers in the end?

Or maybe it’s more like this:
No interference?
The changes occur on their own
according to plan?
The graph’s needle slowly etches
its predictable zigzags?

Maybe thus far we aren’t of much interest?
The control monitors aren’t usually plugged in?
Only for wars, preferably large ones,
for the odd ascent above our clump of Earth,
for major migrations from point A to B?

Maybe just the opposite:
They’ve got a taste for trivia up there?
Look! on the big screen a little girl
is sewing a button on her sleeve.
The radar shrieks,
the staff comes at a run.
What a darling little being
with its tiny heart beating inside it!
How sweet, its solemn
threading of the needle!
Someone cries enraptured:
Get the Boss,
tell him he’s got to see this for himself!

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  • Twig

    In the webcomic Rice Boy, there is an exchange about God that I do like.   Two pages, this one and the next:  http://www.rice-boy.com/see/index.php?c=145

  • The final line, I think, explicitly violates one of Tony’s rules

    I’ve been staring at this post for a while, trying to figure out what violation Fred has in mind. Thus far, the only interpretation I can think of is that the idea of God experiencing humanity for himself is necessarily about Jesus.

    For my own part, I can imagine many readings of that line, and formulations of that idea, that aren’t in the least bit about Jesus. So if that’s what he has in mind I wouldn’t necessarily consider it a violation.

    But then, I’m not a Christian.

  • The funny thing is, in some ways what I know of and how I see God is through the lens of Jesus.  It is hard to write about God alone without mentioning Jesus.

  • Yeah, yeah. Conservatives just love God so much more than the liberals (whose tongues, no doubt would burst into flames rather than mention The Name) . I suspect this “challenge” was ghost-written by Ann Coulter. 

  • The challenge, at least to me, reeks of tribalism and having The Truth and figuring out who the True Scotsmen are. Still, I suppose it’s the nature of the virtuous and the clever to create good things in bad frameworks. Looking forward to the remaining parts.

  • redsixwing

    whose tongues, no doubt would burst into flames rather than mention The Name

    Aw, here I thought the flaming tongues came -after- the Name.

    IDK if Fred reads comments, but if so (and really, if not) I will be delighted to see this several-part series, and I have significant doubts about their projected failure.

  • AnonymousSam

    God is the mechanisms by which our existence function.

    The end, going to nap now, kthx baibai.

  • Nenya

    An out-of-context quote I like from the end of CJ Cherryh’s novel Foreigner

    “‘God’ is ‘tears’?” 
    “Among other elusive concepts, Jago-ji.”

  • Mark Z.

    If you’re familiar with Tony Jones at all, it’s hard to imagine his intent being to say “Nyah, you dirty liberals never talk about God.”

    To encourage us to stretch a little, yes. Possibly also to gather some good answers to other people saying “Nyah, you dirty liberals, etc.”

  • I’m not really big into theology, but isn’t saying “say something about God without talking about Jesus or the Bible” kind of like asking someone to say something about gravity without talking about Newton or Hawking?

    Again, speaking as an outsider here, so feel free to correct me on this, but isn’t the command to “say something about God without talking about… the Bible” a pretty direct appeal to Gnosticism? 

    I might have this wrong, but isn’t a big part of the Christian identity the notion that  everything there is to say about God is derived from the Bible, and  most of the stuff about God that really matters (to progressives especially) is based on stories of Jesus? 

  • The challenge makes me think of a Christian radio broadcast I heard recently, wherein the host berated fellow Christians for being too into angels and not enough into God and Jesus.

  • Gotchaye

    I read the challenge as being to say something clear about God without qualification.  Referencing Jesus or the Bible is fine, and necessary if God /is/ Jesus in some way, but the “something” is not to be like: “Jesus said to do X, Y, and Z”.  Rather, it should be “God (who is/was Jesus) wants us to do X, Y, and Z”.

    I’m not really sure what’s challenging about it; I think every progressive Christian I know would happily affirm “God wants us to love our neighbor” or even “God wants us to give equal rights to gay people”.  Fred seems to be a fan of Rob Bell and might affirm “love wins”, meaning everyone is saved (by God, presumably).

    Also, progressive Christians are doing much more than deriving God from the Bible.  There’s an awful lot of interpretive work that needs to be done.  At minimum one needs some concept of what “love thy neighbor” means, and the Bible isn’t terribly clear on that.

  • Mary Kaye

    The challenge put me in mind of something that someone quoted to me many years ago; it has haunted me ever since.  They (I don’t remember who–Orwell? Lewis? Sayers) quoted it as being about submission to God.

    I cannot call it “ordained of God” — I cannot go so far. I will however,
    pay it so much homage. There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain. And
    it never comes out.

    Due to the marvel of Google I have now seen it in context.  “Chilled” is a cliche but that’s how I feel right now.  (It is from _Equus_.)

  • It is, in fact, the last line of Equus… the final words of a healer who has come to see themselves reflected in the patient they treat, in a play that offers more questions than answers. 

    I directed an amateur production of Equus last year, and we staged this speech with Dysart stepping for the first time out of the “real world” space and into the “dreamtime” space, which she had been futilely bouncing off the edges of for the entire play.

    I still shiver when I think about it.
    Marvelous script.

  • Dan Hauge

    I get the sense that it’s not so much about talking about God to the exclusion of Jesus or the Bible, but that he wants to make sure people actually talk about God instead of “this is what I believe Jesus was about” or only “here are some scholarly conclusions I have come to about the Bible”

  • 2-D Man

    The challenge is poorly defined.

    The word “substantive”, according to the World English Dictionary has eight definitions. Numbers 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8 don’t apply in this context and we’re left with two:

    2. of, relating to, containing, or being the essential element of a thing…
    5. solid in foundation or basis

    When I read, “Write something substantive about God.”, as an atheist, I’m thinking of definition #5. That’s the one I want to see and I’ll be mighty disappointed if it turns out that someone intended to rise to the challenge of #2. Others in this thread have demonstrated that #2 is trivially easy, and not even worth making into a challenge:
    Gotchaye said:

    I’m not really sure what’s challenging about it; I think every progressive Christian I know would happily affirm “God wants us to love our neighbor”…

    I get the impression that Fred was thinking of #5 when he proclaimed he planned to fail. I also get the impression that progressive Christians (Fred included) aren’t interested in saying things about God that fall into the category of #5. Conservative Christians, on the other hand, seem interested in saying things that would fit into category #5, except that those statements aren’t true.

  • Shane

    Hm.  Can one, as a Christian, say something about God without referencing Jesus and/or the Bible?  Unless one is feeling particularly Catholic one day and decides to talk about natural law (Which is really just an aspect of God’s revelation), the notion of making a progressive “God-talk” seems kind of doomed.

  • Amaryllis

    Do poets count?

    Well, Fred says they do.

    I know if I find you I will have to leave the earth

    and go on out

         over the sea marshes and the brant in bays

    and over the hills of tall hickory

    and over the crater lakes and canyons

    and on up through the spheres of diminishing air

    past the blackset noctilucent clouds

               where one wants to stop and look

    way past all the light diffusions and bombardments

    up farther than the loss of sight

        into the unseasonal undifferentiated empty stark


    And I know if I find you I will have to stay with the earth

    inspecting with thin tools and ground eyes

    trusting the microvilli sporangia and simplest


    and praying for a nerve cell

    with all the soul of my chemical reactions

    and going right on down where the eye sees only traces

    You are everywhere partial and entire

    You are on the inside of everything and on the outside


    I walk down the path down the hill where the sweetgum

    has begun to ooze spring sap at the cut

    and I see how the bark cracks and winds like no other bark

    chasmal to my ant-soul running up and down

    and if I find you I must go out deep into your

        far resolutions

    and if I find you I must stay here with the separate leavesA. R. Ammons

  • Lori

    I assume that part of the reason the host was complaining is that most of what people seem to believe about angels falls firmly into the category of “making shit up”, even for people who believe that the Bible is true. When you look at what the Bible actually says about angels it’s a whole lotta not much and yet folks have managed to construct some very elaborate theology around them.

  • “The challenge is poorly defined.”

    Or, to be more charitable, you could say, “The challenge is open-ended.”

  • EllieMurasaki

    I passed along the water’s edge below the humid trees,
    My spirit rocked in evening light, the rushes round my knees,
    My spirit rocked in sleep and sighs; and saw the moorfowl pace
    All dripping on a grassy slope, and saw them cease to chase
    Each other round in circles, and heard the eldest speak:
    Who holds the world between His bill and made us strong or weak
    Is an undying moorfowl, and He lives beyond the sky.
    The rains are from His dripping wing, the moonbeams from His eye.

    I passed a little further on and heard a lotus talk:
    Who made the world and ruleth it, He hangeth on a stalk,
    For I am in His image made, and all this tinkling tide
    Is but a sliding drop of rain between His petals wide.

    A little way within the gloom a roebuck raised his eyes
    Brimful of starlight, and he said: The Stamper of the Skies,
    He is a gentle roebuck; for how else, I pray, could He
    Conceive a thing so sad and soft, a gentle thing like me?

    I passed a little further on and heard a peacock say:
    Who made the grass and made the worms and made my feathers gay,
    He is a monstrous peacock, and He waveth all the night
    His languid tail above us, lit with myriad spots of light.

    —W. B. Yeats, “The Indian Upon God”

  • Jessica_R

    As  mostly athiest, here’s my favorite Szymborska. 


    Island where all becomes clear.Solid ground beneath your feet.The only roads are those that offer access.Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs.The Tree of Valid Supposition grows herewith branches disentangled since time immemorial.The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple,sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista:the Valley of Obviously.If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly.Echoes stir unsummonedand eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds.On the right a cave where Meaning lies.On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction.Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface.Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,and the faint footprints scattered on its beachesturn without exception to the sea.As if all you can do here is leaveand plunge, never to return, into the depths.Into unfathomable life. 

  • 2-D Man

    It might be more charitable, but it’s also less accurate, since the word ‘challenge’ shouldn’t be in the sentence anymore.

  • Emcee, cubed

     I am guessing, but I think Fred’s “intention to fail” comes from his assumption of the impossibility of the task. It would be like being challenged to say something substantive about infinity. By definition, the largest number you can comprehend isn’t even a fraction of infinity, yet is still part of it. So with such a limited comprehension of it, how is it possible to say anything substantive? How substantive is saying 100, or one million, or one billion when talking about infinity?

    From the sense I get of Fred’s belief, it is similar to this. God is like infinity. It is, by his definition, beyond human comprehension. So anything he could say wouldn’t be substantive, because anything he could come up with is restrained by his own limitations. This doesn’t make him or anyone else worse for their “failure”, it just makes them human.

    If this is the case, the unspoken assumption in the post is that while he expects to fail, he doesn’t expect anyone else will or even could succeed, either.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I might have this wrong, but isn’t a big part of the Christian identity the notion that everything there is to say about God is derived from the Bible

    Nope. Sola scriptura might be a Protestant doctrine, but it’s just one of the sources of doctrine in the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

  • I love it that so many of these responses are in the form of poems.  Mine is more about story – violating the letter but I hope not the spirit of Tony’s instructions by mentioning both Jesus and the Biblical story but suggesting that it’s exciting stuff and wondering “What if it’s all True?”  Posted at http://www.poetproph.blogspot.com/2012/08/what-if-its-all-true-ii-reprise-in.html

  • Why else would God have bothered with the whole Jesus thing, if not to give us a way to see? If we were seeing it properly before, what was the point of the Crucifixion? Could the idea of taking our sins upon himself really have made sense if they’d just gotten drawn up into some shining light in the sky?

  • Mark Z.

    Why else would God have bothered with the whole Jesus thing, if not to give us a way to see?

    To give God a way to see.

  • Beleester

    Since everyone is sharing poetry and fiction, here’s a quote from Fine Structure by Sam Hughes:

    “I do believe in God, but not one who can’t fit in the cracks; not a God who interferes directly in the affairs of mortal men, just a guy who wound up a Big Bang one day and walked away and let it run. Maybe he’s found the insanely beautiful patterns inside his experiment, maybe he hasn’t, but he’s only watching, not even tapping on the glass. That’s enough of a supreme being for me.”

    In the story, they do have a God-like being messing with them and the heroes would rather he didn’t. So it’s an interesting thought – do you *want* a God who taps on the glass occasionally?

  • Chris,

    While some Christians might say “that everything there is to say about God is derived from the Bible,” there is a larger tradition that includes natural theology, which speaks about God based on reason and experience.  This is held either in tension with or complementary to, depending on one’s perspective, revealed theology.

  • And in The United Methodist Church, which considers Scripture, Tradition, reason, and experience to be sources and norms.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I will steal Frederick Buechner’s words, because when I first read these my reaction was “that’s exactly what it is. How did he know? How does such talent exist that someone could capture it?”

    It was a lump in the throat. It was an itching in the feet. It was a stirring in the blood at the sound of rain. It was a sickening of the heart at the sight of misery. It was a clamoring of ghosts. It was a name which, when I wrote it out in a dream, I knew was a name worth dying for even if I was not brave enough to do the dying myself and could not even name the name for sure. Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you a high and driving peace. I will condemn you to death.