Apology for Atheology

by Rev. Rachel Findley

June 2009

 “all ignorance toboggans into know
then trudges up to ignorance again;
but winter’s not forever, even snow melts;
and if spring should spoil the game, what then?”
(e e cummings)

Chaplain Rachel Findley

My theology—what and how I think about God, if I think about God—shapes my values and my life. With equal or greater power, my life and my values shape how I think. Knowing and unknowing dance through my words and my life.

Around age eighteen, I began to think that specific beliefs about theology were not essential to my religious and ethical life. I was reflecting on my experience in the civil rights movement and thinking about the principles of nonviolent action. Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Tolstoy argued for nonviolence from different theological foundations. I came to realize that I was willing to accept a set of theological ideas if, and only if, the ideas led to the actions that I knew in my bones were moral.

I came up with several different theological systems that would support an ethic of justice and nonviolent struggle. Each system worked for me. The ethics were the real foundation; the theological propositions that supposedly supported the ethics were inessential.

Forty years on, I am startled to remember approaching the sacred center of life with such a cool, logical mind. I was quite passionately engaged with peace and justice work. In Southern communities where both black folks and white folks could be hard for me to understand, I had experience with the transforming power of love in relationship across big cultural barriers.

Yet I did not understand that transforming power, not wrapped in theological or biblical language, as having anything to do with religion or theology. Even hearing Martin King and other civil rights leaders preach in the streets, I didn’t understand that the God they spoke of was not merely an outside actor who commanded love and justice, but an inside action, loving and doing justice. It took me decades to begin to understand how God is love, a verb.

I also experienced a divine presence directly, whenever I took the time to pay attention, in the beauty of earth and sky, in the silence of Quaker Meeting for Worship, in the sense of safety I sometimes had in dangerous surroundings, and in song and poetry. This direct, unmediated, palpable presence is something I found, and still find, very difficult to label with theological language. Person? Holy Spirit? Wisdom? Goddess? Epiphany? Theophany?

At the center of each [religion] is a mystery that its adherents cannot fully comprehend; neither can they cease attempting to comprehend it. They may give this mystery the name “God” or “Brahman” or “Tao,” but when we ask for more complete clarification, agreement among them scatters… We may begin to acquire the art of seeing the unknown everywhere, especially at the heart of our most emphatic certainties. This is not just to develop a new intellectual talent, but to enter into a new mode of being, a “higher ignorance.” (The Religious Case Against Belief, James P. Carse, Penguin Press, 2008)

One thing all religions have in common, I find, is that their words are inadequate to name the living presence of the Holy One. In naming, I lose the true center. For me, ignorance and wordlessness are truer reflections of that experience than any words.

I did, however, eventually develop a fairly self-consistent theology—or I thought I did. God was present in my life as Spirit, Wisdom, Comforter, Light, Coach. I turned to the divine center to allow my values to lose their muddiness and become clear. I rested in silent comfort, finding strength to face difficulties.

I felt in my experience of the divine a non-personal presence, a warmth without a face, a wordless refuge from too many attempts to control life with words. I did not expect prayers to change the physical facts of the world, but I did expect prayer to change my response, to open my mind’s eye to new possibilities, to open my fearful heart to set forth in new directions.

I am not sure that I thought I truly knew what God is, but I did think I knew what I thought. Over the past decade, through watching others suffer, I have come more and more to see fixed ideas about the divine as a form of idolatry. I have discovered that I have many ideas about God, not consistent with one another, that meet different yearnings deep in my soul.

I argue with God, and I also believe that God is not a human person.

I thank God for the beauty that surrounds me, and I also believe that natural processes have brought that beauty into being.

I pray for the health and well-being of my beloved ones, and I also believe that physical health is as natural as any other physical process.

I ask for divine guidance, and I also notice that the guidance I receive usually fits comfortably with my own pre-existing values.

I yearn for the Kingdom of God that Jesus taught, and I also am unable to hold a coherent image of Jesus.

I wish to surrender my ego and self-will, and I also seek to be an active agent in the co-creation of the rule of peace and justice.

I feel God as flowing process, and also see God as entity.

In caring for others I feel I am being God’s hands, and I also hope for God’s own powerful action.

I trust the transforming power of God’s love, and I also know that bad things happen to good people (and wonder if I’m one of those good ones anyway).

So I’ve failed utterly to answer the First Big Question: who or what or if is the sacred center, the still heart of the turning world? And I am content with that failure. Like the delighted child or the ecstatic elder, I dance with joy for the glory of the skies and the beauty of the earth. Like the scientist, I move from hypothesis to hypothesis, speculating, theorizing, testing, reformulating, moving on. Like the loving parent, I dream of futures, see them fail or see them come to pass, and seek new dreams for those I love. Like the little newborn soul or the dying old one, I rest, swaddled in love.

God is too large for my mind to grasp. God is too large for any human mind to hold. God is too large for all the human and animal and plant and machine minds together to define, specify, or comprehend.

It is a comfort as well as a frustration to find there is something, some movement, some center of action larger than all of our thinking, planning or dreaming. A presence to turn toward, lean into and join… even if turns out that it’s a projection of our own hearts onto the great cold universe.