Wanted: Better concept of God

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!"

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."

Ms. Armstrong entered a convent when she was 17, but left seven years later disillusioned and disbelieving. It was only when she later began producing television documentaries on the world's religions that she became what she calls a "freelance monotheist." She can see now that what she thought of as her earlier years of atheism in fact were a "denial of a particular conception of the divine," one that amounted to a "cosmic Big Brother, looking down and finding fault."

This pattern of moving beyond one's youthful though earnest conceptions of God, through a period of deep questioning (perhaps rejection), and then to new views of the sacred and divine is not unique - even among top religious scholars.

Following his upbringing in a traditional Protestant faith in North Dakota, Dr. Borg spent years as a "relative atheist" (rejecting a particular concept of God) before becoming an Episcopalian. Today, he is one of the top Jesus scholars, and his wife, Marianne Borg, is an Episcopal priest and director of the Center for Spiritual Development at Trinity Cathedral in Portland, Ore. The Rev. Borg's work in this area has further expanded her professor husband's concept of God and of prayer. For example, says Marcus Borg, "I think that paranormal healings happen in the context of prayer. I strongly believe in that."

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an Iranian who was forced to leave his homeland when religious fundamentalists took power in 1979, is now a professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and one of the world's leading experts on Islam. "All of my philosophical inquiry led back to what I knew as a child - that the face of God shines everywhere," says Dr. Nasr. "Whatever I have done in my life [including more than 20 books on history, philosophy, science, and spirituality], the heart of it has been the quest for God."

One thing many religious leaders face - for themselves as well as in their congregations - is the sometimes-conflicting relationship between "belief" in a particular set of doctrines and a personal sense of God. Or as Dr. Chittister puts it: "The all-engrossing struggle between what the heart knows and what the authorities say."

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, leader of the Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Mass., recalls asking a group of school-age members of his congregation how many believed in God. Not a hand went up. Yet when he asked "How many of you have ever felt the presence of God," everyone agreed that they had.

For Diana Eck, who grew up in Bozeman, Mont., attending the oldest Methodist church in the state, leaving home for college, and then spending extended periods doing research in India challenged but also sharpened her Christian beliefs, clarified and deepened her own religious convictions and traditions.

Today, Dr. Eck is professor of comparative religions and Indian studies at Harvard University. She is a leading scholar and advocate of religious pluralism - moving beyond tolerance of other faiths to learning from them, even adjusting one's own conceptions of the sacred and divine as a result of such contact. "Our neighbors here in the United States are increasingly of different faiths and traditions," she says. "There are as many Muslims in the US as there are Methodists and more than there are Episcopalians."

"The goal of approaching God is to see God everywhere," Professor Nasr says. "We must be able to see God everywhere, and the highest goal is to see that God is all there is." It is essential that individuals and religions also see that there is a "science of God," he adds."Our approach to God as the new millennium begins is to return to this science of the real," he says, "the science of the divine which is beyond theology and philosophy."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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