In my explorations into alternative theologies, I have read several articles and a book by John Shelby Spong. There is much I agree with Spong about. He does a good job of deconstructing Christian theology as it is commonly understood in our society. He talks about non-theistic beliefs as an option beyond theism or atheism. He describes belief in a God beyond our explanations and definitions. This is not a God out there somewhere who grants our wishes if we are very good. Spong writes:
“Yet I do not define God as a supernatural being. I do not believe in a deity who can help a nation win a war, intervene to cure a loved one’s sickness, allow a particular athletic team to defeat its opponent, or affect the weather for anyone’s benefit. I do not think it is appropriate for me to pretend that those things are possible when everything I know about the natural order of the world I inhabit proclaims that they are not." (A New Christianity for a New World, pg. 3)
I very much agree God is beyond our definitions. When Spong writes of what he calls the theistic God, as described in the quote above, I can agree, for the most part, this is a God who does not ring true as we observe the realities of life. I very much appreciate John Shelby Spong’s emphasis on living fully and “loving wasefully” (see the video here) However, I also think Spong is too quick to reject traditional theology when sometimes these traditions come from the wisdom of our ancestors as they attempted to find words to describe the indescribable. Such wisdom is not beyond criticism, of course, but is also not without value. Spong also seems to leave little room for the mystical and seems a bit over confident in his own ability to define the undefinable.
As I approach this Lenten season, I have decided my Lenten discipline will be to set aside time for meditation each day. This calls to mind a difficulty I have had since reading Spong and others who emphasize our inability to define God and the transcendence of God beyond a personal being. It is difficult, with these things in mind, to pray or meditate upon God. I see immense value in rejecting God as some dude with a long white beard. However, I struggle to find an image more fitting and without an image I find it difficult to focus myself on prayer. Spong borrows from Paul Tillich and talks about God as the “ground of all being.” In some ways this is helpful but it seems to leave God as almost inert, with no agency but just an ever present resource similar to water and air. I find the Process Theology image of God more helpful (read more about Process Theology in my blog here or at the website http://www.ctr4process.org/ ), thinking of God as a creative force both immanent and transcendent. Yet this is still a bit abstract and difficult to wrap my mind around.
This is not my greatest struggle with prayer and meditation. My greatest struggle is to stay awake. This has always been a struggle for me and it gets worse the older I get. I think I usually last about two minutes before I am out. It is not like I am terribly sleep deprived either. As I ponder this struggle I think to myself, “You would think an encounter with the divine would be exciting enough to keep me awake.” Perhaps this is part of my problem. I have done much praying and a good bit of meditating over the years and rarely, if ever, does it result in some grand revelation. So, I think to myself, “Well, this time is different. My focus is on finding inner calm.” But really, how much calmer does one get then sleeping? Should I just nap away then?
Help me out here folks: Are there methods of prayer or meditation you have found helpful? What images for God do you find meaningful? Are there books or other resources you would recommend? What do you think of a non-theistic God or a God who transcends a personal being? (I keep trying to think of a clearer way of phrasing this, God as more than simply the ultimate person,maybe? Anyone else have a better way of phrasing this idea?) Please share your thoughts.
by Sheri Ellwood
by Sheri Ellwood