Rev. Yme Woensdregt
“Not so long ago,” writes Diana Butler Bass, “believers confidently asserted that God inhabited heaven, a distant place of eternal reward for the faithful.”
What she is referring to is that Christian faith grew up in an ancient world which imagined the universe as consisting of three storeys. Up there was heaven, where God lived, and where we hoped to go. This would be our eternal reward if only we behaved and believed correctly.
Down there — well let’s just say that you didn’t want to end up going down there, and so people were urged from pulpits to live the way the church thought you ought to live, or else!
Here, in the middle, is where we lived. Here, on the middle floor, is where our eternal destiny was decided. How we lived, how we behaved, what we believed — it all ensured what our eternal destiny would be.
I suspect that many of us grew up in that kind of universe. I’m sure it sounds familiar to many of you.
Butler Bass continues that “In this three–storey universe, the church mediated the space between heaven and earth.” She describes the church as “a kind of holy elevator; God sent down divine directions and if we obeyed the directives, we would go up — eventually — to live in heaven forever and avoid the terrors below.
Stories and sermons taught us that God occupied the high places, looking over the world and caring for it from afar, occasionally interrupting the course of human affairs with some miraculous reminder of divine power. Those same tales emphasized the gap between worldly places and the holy mountains, between the creation and an Almighty Creator.
Religious authorities mediated the gap, explaining right doctrine and holy living. If you wanted to live with God forever in heaven, then you listened to those authorities (ministers, priests and pastors), believed them, and most importantly, obeyed them.”
We no longer live in that kind of three–storey universe. Thank goodness!
The three–storey universe had a kind of certainty about it, that things would always be this way, and it would never change. God would always be his heaven, and we on earth would always live under God’s righteous gaze.
That certainty crumbled in the 20th century under the horrors of two world wars, Hitler’s concentration camps, the killing fields of Pol Pot in Cambodia, the terror of Idi Amin in Uganda and Joseph Stalin in Russia. Those horrors continue today in Syria and the Middle East, and with the forces if ISIS and other terrorist groups.
As a result, many people concluded that God is no longer relevant. There is no order in this world, it is all chaos and randomness. In the 1960s, some theologians and philosophers proclaimed the “death of God.” Fundamentalist preachers reacted to that by proclaiming ever more loudly that God is still in his heaven judging the world, and we had better be careful or else we’d end up down there. They held on tightly to the three–storey universe.
But others have begun to search for a middle way. Neither the death of God nor the way of fundamentalist certainty is an answer.
And so a new way of thinking about God is being born. Actually it’s not a new way. This way of thinking has been around ever since the beginning of Christian faith, but it has been mostly a minority view in Christian history. We are rediscovering this minority view today, and it is bringing life to many people for whom the old way no longer works or makes any sense.
Butler Bass notes that in the light of the shooting of 26 people, mostly children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, people began to ask more urgently, ‘Where is God?’
She writes, “If the question was surprising, it is perhaps astonishing that a consensus emerged from the discussion. By far the most often repeated answer, and apparently the most comforting, was that God was ‘with’ the victims.”
The elevator is no longer in service. It is no longer needed. The middle way between atheism and fundamentalism is learning to see with new eyes that God is with us; that God is as near as our next breath; that God is present in the ways in which we touch each other; that God is found as we work together for peace and justice; that we discern God’s presence in the care we take of ourselves, in the care we take of each other, and in the care we take of the earth; God is present in the way we love our neighbours, both human and creaturely.
Referring to God as the “Ground of Being” the great 20th century theologian Paul Tillich put it this way, “We must abandon the external height images in which the theistic God has historically been perceived, and replace them with internal depth images of a deity who is not apart from us, but is at the very core and ground of all that is.”
Goodbye to the elevator. Goodbye to external authorities who are happy to tell us what to believe and how to live. God lives here, with us, and each of us is called to listen carefully to our lives and our world, seeking to discern the voice of God amidst all the noise.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook