Purchasing Bewilderment

Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment;
Cleverness is mere opinion, bewilderment intuition.
— Rumi

God is bipolar.

Rev. Dr. J. Henry Jurgens, a practicing psychiatrist and doctor of divinity at Yale University Divinity School, has diagnosed God almighty as suffering from the disorder that afflicts 5 percent of his human creations. Bipolar disorder is “characterized by cycles of elation followed by bouts of profound depression and despair, the disorder can wreak havoc on both the sufferer and his or her loved ones, particularly if it goes undetected and untreated for an extended period.”

According to one news report, “Evidence of God’s manic-depression can be found throughout the Universe, from the white-hot explosiveness of quasars to the cold, lifeless vacuum of space. However, theologians note, humanity’s exposure to God’s affliction comes primarily through His confusing propensity to alternately reward and punish His creations with little rhyme or reason.”

I wish this story were true, because it would really explain to me all the mysteries of the world. Alas, the story is a brilliant parody from the masters of brilliant parody at The Onion.

How much more I would understand about the universe if I knew it was simply the creation of a bipolar God – a deity not fully in control of his mood swings and delusions. All the apparent contradictions of life would fall into place. Why good people die while bad people prosper. Why war rages while millions march and pray for peace. Why drunk people are allowed to get into cars and tear apart the lives of innocent families they meet along the road home. Why other people can hijack planes and fly them into buildings full of people, all while proclaiming that their actions are God’s will and will earn them a special place in heaven. A bipolar God really does explain all of this very neatly.

As I’ve recently discovered, however, any explanation that wraps up God as neatly as a bipolar diagnosis is certainly not an explanation of God at all. In fact, any neat and tidy explanation of God or how God works in the world is the furthest thing from God. There are no neat and tidy explanations – and any person, any church, any creed or any book that tells you differently is wrong.

Neat and tidy explanations may get at God and God’s nature, but they will never, ever explain it. Nothing ever will. As theologian Karl Rahner has said:

“I must confess to you in all honesty that for me God is and has always been absolute mystery. I do not understand what God is; no one can. We have intimations, inklings; we make faltering, inadequate attempts to put mystery into words. But there is no word for it, no sentence for it.”

Those neat and tidy explanations are “faltering and inadequate attempts to put mystery into words” – even if those neat and tidy explanations are called “doctrine.” The closest one can come to knowing God is to begin to be comfortable in paradox – to be at peace with often saying the phrase “I don’t know” – to be at home in tension – to find comfort in contradiction – to be able to fully embrace the mystery. It is in this state of “bewilderment,” after we have sold our “cleverness” as Rumi puts it, that we truly begin to experience God’s true nature. It is only in the unknown that God can be known – which means that God can never be truly or fully known, at least not on this side of the dark mirror.

Naming God

The tao that can be described is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be spoken is not the eternal Name.
-The Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1

Theologian Karl Barth believed that God is “Wholly Other.” God does not work in the world in the way we believe. God is not our buddy, rooting at ball games for the teams we like, fixing things so we get choice parking spaces or beat a ticket or land an important client. Instead, God only touches our world tangentially, and the only “in-breaking” of God into the world was through the life of Jesus the Christ. Through Christ we are connected to God. Christ is our mediator, “the Reconciler between God and humanity,” Barth wrote. It is through Christ that God reveals his “friendliness to humanity,” according to Barth. This “Wholly Other” God has given us a way to communicate with him, through the fullness of Christ’s life and work. But, that is not to say that we ever fully will know God.

Anything we set up in our lives and point to as God is, in Barth’s world, a “no-God.” When we say “God is . . . ” whatever we end that sentence with is a “no-God,” an idol of our own making. God is paradox, so that to say “God is love” is to be at odds with the unloving things in the world. So, if God is love, where does all this hatred and violence come from? If God is not love, then where does all the love and beauty of the world originate?

In the end, we must sell all this cleverness about God and purchase bewilderment. We are reduced to mystery. We are reduced to simply saying, “God is,” because the God that can be described is not the eternal God. The name that can be spoken is not the eternal name.

I have often recoiled from Barth’s ideas about God. I want a buddy God. A God I can name and hold and understand and pin down! A “no-God” is better than a God that cannot be named or described. If I can pin God down as a super-human who lives in the sky and can dictate every single moment of my life and count every hair on my head, then I can feel closer to that God. I can feel like I can make that God my friend and get him to do special things for me. I can believe that if I pray right, do right, think right and believe right that this God will love me and guide me and do everything in his power to see to it that my life runs smoothly and nothing ever upsets the apple cart that is my precious life.

Isn’t that what we all want: that predictable, controllable, easy to understand, easy to reach, easy to talk to, God? Isn’t that what the church tells us God is like? If we pray right, think right, be right, do right, believe right, give right and act right, then God will love us. It’s no great mystery. These are the things God expects so what’s the problem? Who needs mystery when you’ve got a leather-bound rule book sitting right there on the altar?

But, within the pages of that book it tells us that our ways and God’s ways are not the same:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
-Isaiah 55:8-9

The Ground of Being

God may indeed be “Wholly Other” and outside of history except for the in-breaking of Christ as Barth believed, but at the same time God is the ground of all being. Another paradox to consider!

God is in and through everything in this world. The kingdom of God is within, and that means that each of us carries that divine spark that animates us.

“In him we live and move and have our being.”
-Acts 17:28a

But, we must again resist the temptation to anthropomorphize God. We must not begin to think of God as some super-human who can morph in and out of us and other people. That is not what we mean when we say God is the “ground of all being” or “in and through” all creation.

If we insist on a metaphor for God, Philip Yancey suggests in his book “Reaching for the Invisible God” – “we would do better to picture God’s interaction as an underground aquifer or river that rises to the surface in springs and fountainheads. [. . . ] God does not so much overrule as underrule. His presence sustains all creation at every moment …”

This is not a God we can control or put into a nice little theological box, but that doesn’t mean it stops us from trying either in our own personal theology or through the dogma of the church. The church has so dogmatized belief about who God is and how God acts in the world that all the mystery of God is drained. The church refuses to sell its cleverness and purchase bewilderment, because there is little comfort in bewilderment, and little concrete direction to dispense to parishioners each week. The church’s creeds and dogmas limit God’s truth and, I believe, give people a defense against ever encountering the mystery of the living God.

I agree with Bishop John Shelby Spong who declares, “The God I know is not concrete or specific. This god is rather shrouded in mystery, wonder and awe. The deeper I journey into this divine presence, the less any literalized phrases, including the phrases of the Christian creed, seem relevant. The god I know can only be pointed to; this God can never be enclosed by propositional statements.”

Indeed, the God that can be described is not the eternal God. The name that can be spoken is not the eternal name. Spong is willing to sell his cleverness and purchase bewilderment – risking a true and awe-filled experience of the living, constantly creating God.

A God We Can Handle

One so often hears people say, “I just can’t handle it,” when they reject a biblical image of God as Father, Mother, as Lord or Judge; God as lover, as angry or jealous, God on a cross. I find this choice of words revealing, however real the pain they reflect: if we seek a God we can “handle,” that will be exactly what we get. A God we can manipulate, suspiciously like ourselves, the wideness of whose mercy we’ve cut down to size. -Kathleen Norris

When I think about all my conceptions about God over my lifetime, it’s really not far off from the image of a bipolar God – a God given to mood swings, delusions of grandeur and temperamental behavior. This was the kind of God I was raised to believe in – a God who punished you if you were bad and rewarded you when you were good – but not always as consistently as you would think.

In my early 20s, I was only a few years into my radio career and not making much money. I was driving and old beater of a car that was nickel-and-diming me to death. I swear the mechanic I went to would break things as he fixed other things – making sure I’d be a frequent customer. And I was. But, there always seemed to be money just at the time that I needed the next “fix.”

My mother, ever the devout Southern Baptist, would always say to me, “God knew your car was going to break down, that’s why you got that extra $80 this week!”

In her world, God had worked a major miracle, giving me just enough money to get my car fixed right when I needed it. For me, however, any extra money became a source of fear and loathing. If I worked overtime one week I’d dread the next week because I knew, no matter how much money I made, some repair to the car or the house or whatever, would arise just in time to take that exact amount of money away.

The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.

What a ridiculous way to think about God! If God knew that I would be having car trouble, why would God only send me just enough money to fix it? Why not send me a better job? A better car? A winning lottery ticket? All God can think to do is send me just the exact amount of money to get the current beater fixed?

Don’t get me wrong. I was eternally grateful to have the car fixed and running, but I could never get ahead. I would be paralyzed with fear each time I had an extra $20 in my pocket knowing it that God had put the money there only to take it away for some expense God knew was coming! I was constantly nervous, looking over my shoulder, waiting for the next shoe to drop! It was an agonizing way to live.

This kind of thinking about God as an all-knowing, all-seeing micromanager in our lives is prevalent, however. A recent letter writer to the local newspaper in my community praised God for fixing the 2000 election so that George W. Bush would be in office when the attacks of September 11, 2001 took place so there would be “a strong leader” in the White House. God knew, this writer said, that the horrible terrorist attacks would take place and that subsequent wars would be fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. Knowing all of this, God decided that the younger Bush was the better man for the job than former Vice President Al Gore, so God ensured that Bush would win.

In my response to the woman, I tried to make the point that if God indeed knew of the impending attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the wars that would follow, why would God simply rig an election? Why wouldn’t God act to stop the hijackings? There would then be no need for war, thousands of lives would be saved and it wouldn’t matter who won the election. Wouldn’t that be a more loving and compassionate God than one who would see all that devastation and the best solution God could come up with was to rig an election? What kind of God is that? A Republican one, apparently.

It’s a God this letter writer could handle, a God she could manipulate – the wideness of whose mercy she had cut down to size. We all do it. We can’t help ourselves. We can’t relate to a mysterious God who acts in ways we cannot fathom. We’d rather have a tame God – a God who fixes elections instead of stopping thousands of deaths.

We simply can’t fathom a world where God is not in complete control, all the time. We can’t fathom a world where God is not all-mighty, all-knowing, all-seeing, and directing every moment of history – even if that means ascribing the bad things to God like towers falling, people dying (“It was God’s will that he died!”) , wars happening, elections being rigged and overtime paying just the right amount for a car repair.

“Terrible human consequences”

God must be like this because we can’t handle the alternative – free will. We can’t handle the fact that the world is a mess because we’ve made it that way. God has given us free will – and that means we have the ability to do whatever we please. We can surprise God with our goodness or shock God with our evil. We have the power to do both.

As scholar John Dominic Crossan said in a lecture in Columbia, South Carolina in April 2, 2004: “There is no such thing as divine punishment, there are only terrible human consequences.”

God is not manipulating elections, sending overtime “just in time,” or controlling any world event. Humans are. We are the masters of our destiny and we can choose to live however we please. This is the truth of free will. We can choose peace or we can choose war. We can choose retaliation or we can choose to break the cycle of violence. We can choose love or we can choose hate. We are free! And this is what terrifies us so. If we are free then we only have ourselves to blame when things go terribly wrong. God is not punishing us – we are merely the victims of our own “terrible human consequences.”

This revelation came to me at a heavy cost. My partner and I have had a house in Georgia on the market for almost two years. It’s a great house! It’s big, roomy and beautiful. It’s also in a location where the economy has been depressed since 9/11 because the area relies heavily on the airline industry. It’s only been in the past few months that the economy has begun to recover there.

I agonized over the non-sale of this house, thinking that God was punishing us for something, or that we needed to do something more for God to get the house sold. It was only through painful desolation in my spiritual life that I came to realize God has very little to do with my house sale. Certainly, it is God’s will that it sell (I presume), but “terrible human consequences” have played the major role. It’s a buyer’s market and there are newer, cheaper houses in nicer locations on the market! It’s the rule of the market, not God’s bipolar condition that has kept the house unsold for this long. But, it took me a long time and a lot of agonizing over unanswered prayers to realize this and let go of the ridiculous image I had of God as some grand manipulator waiting for me to say the right prayer or do the right thing before stepping in and selling the house.

I had created a God I could “handle” and when I could handle this God no more, I let him go. I sold my cleverness and purchased bewilderment – and came to know God in a more intimate way than before. I embraced the mystery – and acknowledged my own free will and how “terrible human circumstances” play out in our lives.

The dispensing of this image of God as manipulator, as bipolar deity, was God’s great gift to me. It didn’t mean the house sold. But, it did mean that I was given a new revelation of God – a chance to sell my cleverness and purchase bewilderment. A chance to say, “God is …” and not be perplexed by it; a chance to bask in the wellspring of God that bubbled up from underneath my despair.

This is the good news! When we embrace the mystery we begin to understand that no image of God is ever adequate – even an image of God as mystery, paradox and bewilderment. God is always recreating herself, showing us new sides of himself, giving us new revelations of itself, growing itself in our souls, our minds and our hearts. If only we’ll stop trying to create a God we can handle and give our lives over to a God that can handle us! If only we embrace the mystery and stop trying to coax God into our own image. If only we sell our cleverness and purchase bewilderment. If only we realize that God isn’t running our lives, we are and sometimes we can fall prey to “terrible human circumstances.” Then, and only then, will we realize the true nature of God – a God that grants us freedom, a God that grants us free reign in our lives and in the world, and a God that welcomes us with open arms when we seek to align ourselves to God’s will for our lives and the world.

I can’t take a small God anymore. I can’t handle it. I need a big God that I can never fully grasp. A God that continues to show me new sides of itself, continues to surprise me, delight me, perplex me, anger me and generally reveal new sides of myself as I explore the new angles of God I discover in life.

A creedal God cannot do that. A concrete God that can be named cannot do that. Only a God that is Wholly Other, the ground of all being, a fountainhead that springs up where it will can do that. Only a God of deep mystery, wonder and awe can do that. Only a living God, full of twists, turns and surprises can do that.

This is the God I embrace – a God of mystery, delight, wonder and awe – a God that can only be found when I sell my cleverness, and purchase bewilderment.