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OPEN MIND, OPEN HEART: What Is Your God Made Of?

Last year, atheism hit the best-seller list with three incendiary diatribes: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by literary critic Christopher Hitchens; The God Delusion by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins; and Letter to a Christian Nation by author Sam Harris.

Now we have a fourth book: God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question - Why We Suffer by Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar and professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina. Unlike the first three authors, Ehrman is an apostate, a former altar boy, part-time pastor, and born-again Christian, who left the church "kicking and screaming" because "I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things. . . . The problem of suffering became for me the problem of faith . . . I no longer go to church, no longer believe, no longer consider myself a Christian."

Unlike a Dawkins or a Hitchens, Ehrman knows the surpassing pleasures of faith. He lives with a palpable nostalgia for his lost beliefs and, even so, provides an impeccably researched reading of the moral mendacity that can lurk in the various explanations (excuses?) we humans have invented for God's ability to allow suffering. That makes him an interesting critic to listen to.

Suffering for sin - how can that truly explain genocides, droughts, plagues, and epidemics? Suffering as the necessary cost for the gift of free will - why would God bequeath us free will without the intelligence to use it wisely? And if we have free will, why does he occasionally infringe and intervene with a miracle or a plague? Suffering as a path to salvation? Ehrman is emphatic in his outrage: "The reality is that most suffering is not positive, does not have a silver lining, is not good for the body or soul." Well, how about the idea that God suffers with us, which is why he incarnated as Jesus? If so, for some reason that son of God has not yet reappeared; the Kingdom of God is not yet here on earth. The suggestion that "with the Lord a day is as a thousand years" doesn't really cut it for Ehrman. "It is hard to believe that God inflicts people with cancer, flu, or AIDS in order to make sure they praise him to the end. Praise him for what? Mutilation and torture? For his great power to inflict pain and misery on innocent people? . . . What kind of God is this?"

Ehrman is a man after my own heart - and probably many people's. He has walked a hard, brave path away from formal religion - and now labels himself an agnostic - but one senses he hasn't lost a longing for God. The question is, how do we cobble that God together. One fine spring day a few years ago, I had a conversation with biologist and religious naturalist Ursula Goodenough, author of The Sacred Depths of Nature. "There are two flavors of God people, Jill," she said, "those whose God is natural and those whose God is supernatural. I don't have a 'God,' but both you and I sense the power, beauty, improbability, and fragility of nature . . . we both see nature as our home, our birthing. Perhaps we should all think about what's good in the world and what we want to do here . . . and then we can go home at night and say whatever prayers we choose."

As poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil." A mystic belief in something sublime feels writ into my stem cells. Sometimes I call myself a pantheist, sometimes a nontheist - the kind of nontheist defined by Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, who calls God "the ground of all being." That's a lovely if vague phrase, but it captures my sense of Hopkins' divinely shook foil. Like Ehrman, Spong rejects theism's God as that improbable "personal being with expanded supernatural, human, and parental qualities, which has shaped every religious idea of the Western world." I can live with a God that is really my word for unsayable mystery - the mystery that calls out to us daily. As the poet Rilke writes: "Yes - the springtimes needed you. Often a star was waiting for you to notice it."

So what is your God made of?

Jill Neimark is a journalist, novelist, and poet.
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Publication:Spirituality & Health Magazine
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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