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Wanted: Better concept of God

By Special correspondent of The Christian Science / February 24, 2000



CORVALLIS, ORE.

As he looked out over the packed auditorium, Desmond Tutu declared forcefully and with that sparkly exuberance for which he is so well known: "God is very much alive and kicking!"

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The statement may have seemed obvious, especially coming from the retired Anglican Archbishop of Johannesburg, a man whose religious faith had given him the courage and strength to fight apartheid in South Africa, for which he'd won the Nobel Peace Prize. And especially since he was speaking to people for whom you'd think the presence and power of the divine was a given - a crowd of more than 1,000 who'd come to hear and talk about God in the new millennium, including some of the most well-known and well-respected theologians and religious scholars in the world.

But it wasn't just the existence of God being discussed here at Oregon State University. It was how one sees God in an era of rapidly changing social and cultural values, an age of unprecedented scientific advancement and global connectedness as well.

"How we think and talk about God is very much affected by the times in which we live," says Marcus Borg, professor of religion and culture at at Oregon State and organizer of the "God at 2000" symposium here. "The factors that influence our perceptions of God are very different now than they were in the year 1000, and will be in the year 3000. Science, feminism, technology, religious pluralism, liberation theology, ecology, and global awareness can significantly affect how individuals view God."

There are several fundamental reasons that the way people see God is changing, religious scholars say. Among them: growing rejection - widespread in many places - of a traditional patriarchal, punishing God demanding to be feared and unquestioningly obeyed; the convergence of science and spirituality, particularly as reflected in the "new physics" and the questions it raises about the nature of matter and time; more acceptance of prayer-based healing; and the emergence of a "global village" in which those of varied faiths are more likely to know one another and therefore to believe that God is universal and nondenominational.

At a time when today's well-documented search for spirituality goes on outside of organized religions as much as it does within them (if not more so), one's conception of God is particularly important, says Joan Chittister, a Benedictine sister and religious scholar. "It is precisely our idea of God that is the measure of our spiritual maturity," she says. "It colors everything we do about other people, everything we determine about life itself."

Featured speakers at the two-day event (which was broadcast via satellite to 300 churches, schools, and other sites around the North America) represented the three major monotheistic religions - Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. They have studied and now teach at some of the most prestigious institutions, and between them they have published more than 75 books.

But this was no gathering of intellectuals arguing the finer points of obscure scripture, the modern-day counting of angels on the head of a pixel. Instead, their charge was to speak from the heart about their own struggles and revelations. For all their academic accomplishments, one was struck by how heartfelt and fundamental their own spiritual search continues to be.

"The old ideas of God and the old theology aren't working for people any more," says Karen Armstrong, British author of the bestseller "A History of God." "They don't want the old religion, and I'm not entirely sure that's bad."