in our use of the word “God”
My mentor for 20 years Joe Mathews was a graduate student and long-term friend of H. Richard Niebuhr. “Perpetual revolution” is a phrase and an emphasis that Mathews took from Niebuhr and passed on to me. This phrase was applied to all social structures, but especially to the perpetual revolution in religious forms.
One of Mathews’ favorite spins was about how Spirit cries out, “Give me form,” and how the form that we give to Spirit can never contain the Spirit that cried out for form. In this same way, what Niebuhr called “radical monotheism” is a perpetual revolution. Such monotheism is “radical” all the way back to Moses and all the way forward to any radical new edition of Christianity.
Both Niebuhr and many careful Old Testament scholars, beginning for me with Bernhard W. Anderson, enabled me to see how the Exodus revelation initiated a perpetual revolution in law-writing. For example, what we have in the familiar version of the ten commandments in Exodus 20 is a statement of law-writing that is already centuries older than whatever was the original Moses version. Law-writing in the community of Israel continued as an ongoing process, elaborated over a period of 600 to 700 years in the first five books of the Bible. These laws included both religious forms and the more general social forms for the whole of Israel’s life.
This same perpetual revolution of religious forms can be seen in the writings of the community of people who formed the New Testament. Paul was already conducting a revolution in religious forms, only a decade or so after the crucifixion. The Gospel of Mark introduced another revolution in Christian forms that was elaborated soon after by Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of John was another major revolution in Christian forms. And this process of perpetual revolution in religious forms continued in the still later New Testament writings that date as late 120 CE.
After the first century and early second century flurry of perpetual revolutions in Christian religious forms, such revolutions do not end. Revolutions in religious forms continue all the way to Augustine who pulled together religious forms that endured and were elaborated and modified by such innovators as Benedict, Hildegard, and Francis. There were many revolutions within the Augustinian basics. It was 800 years after Augustine, before another thoroughgoing revolution in Christian forms was conducted by Thomas Aquinas. In spite of Thomas’ continuing influence in Roman Catholic Christianity, Martin Luther instigated another major revolution in Christian religious forms that has reshaped the ongoing Christian formation process among Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians all across the planet.
Søren Kierkegaard initiated another major revolution in Christian formation that has been further elaborated and modified all the way to my H. Richard Niebuhr and Joe Mathews experiences in the perpetual revolution in Christian forms.
Since Joe Mathews death in 1977, I and others in the Realistic Living constituency have continued this ongoing perpetual revolution in Christian religious forms. If I name areas in which this perpetual revolution in Christian forms has continued in my life since 1977, these four areas are clearly included: radical feminism, radical ecology, radical interreligious dialogue & cooperation, and a radical replacement of the clergy-laity split with a practice of intimate circles of co-pastors who minister both to one another and to their bioregional parishes of responsibility.
In 1984 I self-published 1000 copies of a book entitled A Primer on Radical Christianity. Perhaps the most radical contribution of that book was its post-literalism manner of sharing how we can metaphorically translate for our times the words, Spirit, God, Christ, Sin, Grace, and Church. And my own perpetual revolution in Christian religious forms has continued since 1984. An opportunity has now been given to me by Wood Lake Publishing to do an update of A Primer on Radical Christianity which will be entitled Radical Gifts: Living the Full Christian Life in Troubled Times.
As I work on this update and also on our coming June 2018 summer program, I am realizing that most of all the word “radical” means for me “the perpetual revolution in Christian forms.” And this includes the perpetual revolution in all social forms, for social justice is one of the radical gifts of Christianity—to be a social justice mission for the perpetual revolution of human society, planet-wide and history-long. Such justice now includes a foundation in Earth ecology for every other social justice topic.
One of the deepest aspects of the current perpetual revolution in Christian forms has to do with the use of the word “God.” This topics comes up in all three groups of monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. H. Richard Niebuhr’s book on Radical Monotheism and Western Culture was written mostly for Christians, but it can also apply to Jewish and Muslim rethinking. “Perpetual revolution” and “radical monotheism” are corresponding concepts. Radical monotheism is about the perpetual revolution in the meaning of the word “God.” “God,” according to Niebuhr, is a devotional word for our ever-changing perception of the Eternal Reality we face in the ongoing temporal processes of history and personal living.
The Eternal does not change, but our perceptions of the Eternal do change. Therefore, our dynamics of devotion to the Eternal change, along with our changes in perception of the Eternal. Devotion to the Eternal manifests in the writings that surround Moses, Amos, and Jesus. This continuity is there, even though those verbalizations differ, and all three of those types of verbalization differ from what we must do today. As our perceptions of the Eternal change, our religious formations change as well. Our Christian religious formations are humanly created forms that give expression to our devotion to the Eternal. All humanly created forms are in perpetual revolution.
As devotion to the Eternal, however, our biblical and Christian religious forms reflect a type of continuity. This continuity is invisible, however, if we only consider the rational forms rather than THAT ETERNALNESS to which these forms point. When we read our Old and New Testaments we see religious forms that are very different from what is appropriate today; including vocabulary, philosophical assumptions, and the basic metaphors of that ancient religious thinking. Nevertheless, we can still hear through this sequence of changing forms what we call “the Word of God.” Perhaps we now prefer a companion vocabulary like “Communications from Eternity” or “Revelations from the Silent Abyss.”
This leads me to the revolutionary insight that “radical monotheism” is itself a temporal religious form that is dedicated to the perpetual revolution in religious forms. Perhaps there are other religious forms that are dedicated to the perpetual revolution in religious forms. I would nominate Alan Watts’ view of Hinduism as an exposition of a perpetual revolutionary quality within Hindu and Buddhist religious forms. But however that may be, radical monotheism, as outlined by H. Richard Niebuhr, is certainly an affirmation of the perpetual revolution in religious forms.
So with the importance of “perpetual revolution” in our minds, I will work a bit more in this essay on the perpetual revolution in the use of the word “God” in past and future Christianity. I will begin with the following gimmick that employs some of the old Hebrew words for “God.”
Let “Yah-weh,” where “Yah” is pronounced with an in-breath, mean an experience of the Eternal Void or No-thing-ness.
Let “YAH-weh” where “YAH” is pronounced with an out-breath, mean an experience of the Eternal Fullness or Every-thing-ness.
Then, let us assume that the word “Elohim” refers to any “god” that a human being might honor. Indeed, let us assume that the word “Elohim” simply means “my god” whatever the “object” of that god-reference may be.
So, in terms of such definitions, the words “Yahweh is my Elohim” means “Void/Fullness is my ultimate devotion.”
In my vision of a renewed Christian practice, the word “God,” means “my Elohim” or my ultimate concern (Tillich) or my final trust (H.R. Niebuhr) or my true obedience (Bultmann) or simply my paradoxical faith (Kierkegaard). All these sources of Christian theologizing reference the Eternal as the “object” of an “ultimate devotion.”
This use of the word “God” is not a return to the story-time talk that has dominated classical Christian thought. (For example, even speaking of “God as the Creator” is story-time talk. Throughout the Bible and most of Christian theology, God is spoken of as a character in a story. Stories are a means of expressing truth, but stories must not be taken literally.) The post-Kierkegaard God-talk is a metaphorical translation of story-time talk for our time in history. Here is one of the amazing results of this metaphorical translation: our renewed “God” usage is a recovery of the essential contribution to us of all 3000 years of “Christian” theologizing. The old stories of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Amos, etc. still live. Indeed, the whole Old and New Testaments can all be seen as Christian theologizing in accord with our current, transformed view of the Christian theologizing needed for a vital recovery of Christian practice.
If we allow the word “God” to go unused because it means so little to so many people in our era, then we lose the entire 3000 years of Abrahamic religious tradition—including Jewish, Christian, and Islamic heritages.
We also lose all those heritages if we take literally the story-time-talk in which “God” is a character in a story. “God” in our current relevant theologizing is not a being—not a being in this cosmos or above this cosmos or in some other cosmos. And the word “God” adds no content to this cosmos or to the Absolutely Unspeakable, Mysterious Eternal that we see only with our third eye through the frame of our current cosmology. The word “God” adds only our ultimate devotion to our sensibilities and understandings of all that we experience of what constitutes the Eternal and the temporal in which, and only in which, the Eternal appears to us.
Finally, the above spin brings some clarity to the “death of God” conversations among those of us who call ourselves “death of God” theologians. The “God” that has certainly died is the understanding of “God” that happens when we take any sort of literal view of the biblical stories in which “God” is a character in a religious story. What has died is the story-time talk about God which, being literalized, makes God a being alongside other beings. But today’s God-talk must be done in an era in which “God” is an intellectually contentless devotional word for relating to the Eternal that is met, not in some magical visit from another realm, but in our encounters with the Absolutely Mysterious Eternal that we met in the events of down-to-Earth history and in the events of our personal life history.
Of course, the word “Eternal” is an offensive term in those philosophers who find no place for for the word “Eternal” or for the word “God.” If everything is changing, they appear to argue, then there is no Eternal. Similarly, if everything is impermanent, then there is no Permanence. But the Eternal is not a thing of any sort. The Eternal is that ultimate “Power” that renders all impermanence impermanent. Even the word “power” is misleading, if “power” is taken as a literal thing, rather than as a symbol for the quality of the “Whole of Reality” as “Almighty”—All-Powerful in the sense of being determinative for all “realities” that human thinking separates out from “Reality.”
So how or where do we personally experience this so-called “Mighty Eternal”? We experience the Eternal in our experiences of impermanence. The Eternal is the Void we experience when something we treasure ends. The Eternal is the Total Demand we experience when we opt to live realistically among these passing things. And the Eternal is the Fullness we can experience when we are enchanted with this demanding life of love for all passing things in this actual ongoing drama of temporal comings, stayings, and passings in which, and only in which, we encounter the Eternal.
Again, I want to emphasize that the word “God,” in the biblical use of that word, adds nothing to the word “Eternal” except our devotional attitude toward the Eternal and toward all those specific temporal events in which this Eternal is being met. The word “God” adds no intellectual content, nor does the word “God” subtract any intellectual content. All intellectual content is temporal made up by human beings. The Eternal meets us as a continuing audit or judgement upon our intellectual inventions, thereby calling us to share in the continuing revolution of all thought.
Informed by such careful thinking as outlined above, Christians do not need to give up their use of the word “God;” they simply need to transform their use of the word “God.” They need to accept themselves as members of a community of religious practice that reveres perpetual revolution in the use of the word “God.” On the other hand, giving up the word “God” destroys the perpetual revolutionary practice that a radical Christianity has always been, still is, and can continue to be. Without the word “God,” or some word like it, we are without a devotional response to the Eternal. So those theologians (or perhaps they are un-theologians) who choose to move forward without the word “God” will be moving forward without 3000 years of perpetual revolution in the use of the word “God.” And they will thereby be solidifying their witness into some alternative temporal religious practice that misses out on the next 3000 years of perpetual Christian revolution in our use of the word “God.”
For more on this profound topic, see my book:
The Love of History and the Future of Christianity