by Brandon Nappi
The very word God is polarizing. For some, this slippery word evokes reverence and devotion; for others, it arouses discomfort and even revulsion. I am well aware that this word means dramatically different things to different people depending upon your vantage point. You may be wondering what I am pointing to when I use the word God?
What lies behind these three letters has inspired some of the most selfless and heroic actions the world has known: the hungry are fed, strangers are welcomed, and the marginalized are given a voice because people of deep faith believe that they have been called into action by this mystery they name as God. At its best, religion has offered humanity a system of coherent beliefs bringing comfort, strength, and healing. Religious practice has offered ways to remain grounded and stable amid the most challenging of physical and emotional circumstances. Religion shines a bright light in the world when it challenges us to reorient the ego beyond self-interest and preservation to selfless acts of compassion, justice, and love.
Sadly, we are also aware that this tiny word has also fueled indefensible violence and bloodshed throughout history. The seeds of discrimination, war, and ignorance have been sown all too often by religious ideology masquerading as wisdom and obscuring the reality of who God is. At the personal level, many have endured painful religious experiences and understandably associate God language with their personal history of trauma. With our culture’s growing awareness of religious violence, a hostility toward “organized religion” has also led to the dismissal of all God language as ignorant, naïve, and superstitious. For many, any mention of the divine is inherently infantile and oppressive. Without exception, every religion has been manipulated for ego, domination, and material acquisition. The ironic tragedy of our collective history is that God whose presence unites all things has often been coopted as a justification for the violent fracturing of the human community.
Even those who are comfortable with God language and have had healthy experiences of religion may retain a notion of God from childhood that is no longer adequate to support adult life. Adolescent and pre-adolescent images of God strain and sometimes crumble beneath the complexity and responsibility of adulthood. Unmoved by pale comic strip renditions of an anthropomorphic deity who acts more human than divine, many yearn for a fresh image of God robust enough to sustain the adult journey through the messy paradoxes of life.
A growing critical mass of Westerners, perhaps for the first time in human history, have had no experience in naming the divine. For them, the three-letter word is an empty container awaiting meaning. Many describe themselves as agnostic. Their genuine uncertainty about the existence of God and the purpose of life is balanced by a true openness to discover a deeper unseen dimension of life that is mostly missing in contemporary society. If you find yourself in this community, perhaps your intuition senses that there is a depth beyond the material world, but your heart and mind struggle to find God language that resonates with your experience and speaks to your deepest longings.
Whether God language is foreign, familiar, or filled with abusive connotations, I believe the human community is hungering for ways to awaken to our true nature and deepest identity. We are suffering from a crisis of meaning and purpose in contemporary life evidenced by our own self-destructive tendencies, rates of depression, intractable political arguments, and violence in our streets. How can we begin to heal the misuse of this humble word so that we can more fully access the wholeness and infinite reservoir of strength that lies underneath the word God?
Beneath the surface, all people, beings, and things ultimately draw their being from a single life source. Whether or not we are aware of it, everything is connected. Below the division and separation, everything in some deep way is already one. The three-letter word God is linguistic shorthand for the hidden wholeness beyond human logic that holds all things together. In the end, it’s a good idea to remind ourselves that when we talk about God, we never know exactly what we are talking about. As Meister Eckhart, the famous medieval mystic and theologian reminds us, the moment we define God, it is no longer God who we are defining. God always lies beyond definitions.
Whether we name God in conventional Judeo-Christian ways such as Father, Shepherd and King, or whether we opt for new ways of naming the divine such as Mother, Source, Universal Energy or Breath of Life, we are wise to remember that God is greater than any language we use to name God. We need a multitude of metaphors, symbols, and images because no single reference point will ever be sufficient in naming the infinite. The vastness of God requires a plurality of spiritual expressions. Like a large mosaic that depicts an image from thousands of tiny colored glass tiles, each tile is needed to create the whole — yet no single tile alone can contain the entirety.
In the end, language about God is not a replacement for the experience of God which is nothing more than the experience of life itself. As the spiritual writer, Paula D’Arcy describes, “God shows up disguised as your life.” The experience of God is not separate from life itself. There is no journey necessary and no search required. Your own life is the place where you will discover that you and the Ultimate are one. Your life and the Big Life are inseparable. You are already expressing and manifesting the divine nature without your even knowing it. The human journey is simply the process of becoming increasingly aware that the vast mystery at the heart of the universe lives and moves through us all. The Big Life of God lives through your little life. This realization is the heart of the spiritual life.