Mayfield: When man gets in God’s way
Vail CO, Colorado
Our understanding of God is always from the ground up.
Another way of putting it is that our descriptions of God can only be just that, our descriptions, not God’s. There is a bumper sticker going around that declares: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” The problem with such a pious-sounding declaration is, of course, that God didn’t say anything. We said it for God. Unless you believe, as some folk certainly do, that the Bible dropped down from some celestial kingdom and fell into our laps perfectly translated into the King James English, one must consider the possibility that the book so much of the world reveres is the product of people not too different than you … good folk and not so good folk who sought to describe their understanding of the divine with images and metaphors that made sense in their world.
A friend of mine once said, “If horses had gods, all gods would look like horses.” Our gods are shaped by our worldviews. For instance, if our worldview is that men rule the roost then God will, more than likely, be a man. So what happens when our worldview changes as it most certainly has in the 2,000 years since the Bible was completed?
This is where many religions find themselves these days. We can see evidence of this in a myriad of ways. Fundamentalist Muslims who see the modern world as evil, who demand ancient dress codes or entice youngsters to suicidal missions with the promise of eternal rewards are convinced that this is the only way of being a Muslim. Or Christians who make similar demands with ludicrous claims on science and sinister designs on the political process. Conversely, there is a growing movement within Judaism that has many faithful Jews wishing to separate their religion from unquestioned support of Israel. Decades of military conflict and mayhem have convinced them that any claim that God has promised a particular piece of real estate to one particular people is false.
One of the great problems with the presumption that God wrote or dictated a particular body of writings is that there is very little room for open discussion. Such an understanding makes any contextual criticism very difficult indeed. This is, of course, how fundamentalists of any persuasion, understand their holy book: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
While traveling in Morocco a few years back, we took a cab from the harbor in Tangiers to the railway station. Along the way, our daughter, who, praise be to Allah, speaks Arabic fluently, was engaged in an animated discussion with the cab driver.
They were, in Moroccan tradition, loudly proclaiming whatever it was they were discussing. We sat in the back seat without a clue as to what was going on. Finally, the driver threw up his hands (a particularly dangerous thing to do in Moroccan traffic) and then patted our daughter on the shoulder and murmured something, offering her a big smile. When we arrived at the train station, we asked her what had transpired. She told us that the driver wanted to know how she could speak Arabic and what she was doing in Morocco. He also wanted to know if she was Muslim.
When informed that she was definitely not, the driver pontificated for awhile longer on the benefits of his faith and then, as we saw, patted her on the shoulder and said, “All in good time, my child, all in good time.”
I assume he was being genuinely kind. I assume he really does believe that ultimately all people will come under the Islamic tent, not with fear and trembling but genuinely acknowledging the wisdom of this particular revelation.
On the other hand, I worry that he, like so many Christians I know over here, can’t accept that there are multiple pathways of truth. Why must I become a Muslim or why must he become a Christian? Surely there are other ways of experiencing divine presence than one particular religion.
Until we recognize the inherent destructiveness in our old models of belief that declare our way as supreme and our God as the best, we will continue to engage in the kind of violent foolishness that has brought the world to its currently precarious place.
The way to prevent such instability, it seems to me, is to constantly remind ourselves that the finger we use to point to God is not God, that the lens we look through on our search for the divine, is not the divine. We are working from the ground up using the tools at our disposal to try and express the wonder and mystery of the universe just as our ancestors have done from the beginning of time. “If horses had gods, all gods would look like horses.” The volatile state of much of our world is a vivid reminder of the danger of forgetting this important truth.
Rich Mayfield is the author of “Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation.” E-mail comments about this column to email@example.com.
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