Rodney Wood is a retired URC Minister.
A new young curate asked his vicar, “I have to preach on Sunday. What shall I preach about?” The vicar answered brusquely, “Preach about God and about ten minutes.”
As an old retired minister, I thought it was about time I should give my version of “About God and About Ten Minutes”. My version offers three approaches to God from outside the scriptures under the headings: Meaning,
Mystics and Mythistory.
Life and the universe are mysterious and awe inspiring. They turn our minds in the direction of God as we seek to find meaning in it all. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Creation, the cosmos points upwards
beyond itself and towards God.
When I was a student at Westminster College, there was a researcher, a Lewis and Gibson scholar, whose name I have forgotten but whose thesis I remember. It was: “Is God an Object?” We were queueing in the corridor waiting to go into chapel and chatting with the wife of one of the professors. She asked him what his thesis was. “Is God an Object?” he replied. She thought for about five seconds and then said, “Yes, I suppose He is.” Her reply later caused some mirth. “Here am I studying this question for two years and she has answered it in five seconds!” Well, that is also how our atheist friends think we think of God, as an object. Richard Dawkins said that there is as much evidence for the existence of God as for a teapot orbiting the sun. (The Bible of course is against such objectivising of God; it counts as idolatry, the making of images.)
The question is really what is God, if God is not an object?
The very use of the word, “object” takes us into the realm of analogies. Analogies work from what we know towards what we don’t, as parables do. The Sower sows the Word... Because the universe is so made that it allows us to think about it, there is a close relationship between how we think and how the universe is. That is the basis of reasoning from analogies. John Locke thought that logic ultimately owed its authority to nature and nature’s God. Johannes Kepler, (d. 1630) was a German mathematician and astronomer who discovered that the planets moved in ellipses not perfect circles. He said of his discoveries: “I was merely thinking God's thoughts after Him.“
An object is a thing. An object can also appear as part of a sentence: subject, verb and object etc. as in old Whitstable’s local newspaper headline: “Boy kicked Bin”, where ‘bin’ is the object.
Can we think analogically of reality as a kind of sentence? Does the universe speak a sentence to us? Its sentence needs a subject and its subject has to be God. God is the Subject rather than an object. The cosmos becomes an object, one that needs a verb and a subject to complete it and make sense of it. That is how Genesis saw the universe. God created the world (subject, verb and object) – God spoke the first sentence and the world came into existence. “Let there be . . .” "In the beginning was the Word.”
Other analogies for the universe could be the story or the symphony. The story needs an author and the symphony a composer-conductor. Everything is moving through time, through the light years, evolving, living and making
history. We are born into it. So perhaps it is better to think of the cosmos as a verb than an object. A moving process still needs a Subject. “God is
There are scientists who contemplate the universe, and sense its Subject, the mysterious Beyond within it. Paul Davies, a cosmologist has written, “To me, the contrived nature of physical existence is just too fantastic for me to take on board as just a ‘given’. It points forcefully to a deeper underlying meaning to existence." Bernard D’Espagnat, a theoretical physicist: “There must exist, beyond mere appearances . . . a veiled reality that science does not describe but only glimpses uncertainly . . . a Being or Independent Reality or Hypercosmic God outside space-time and localisation.” There is no complete meaning to a sentence without a subject; there is no
sense to the cosmos without God.
Some people have sought to find ultimate meaning by reason; there are others who claim to have actually experienced the ultimate mystery we call God. These are the mystics of every faith.
St Thomas Aquinas had his five arguments for the existence of God. But the French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, had an experience of God that went beyond mere reason. After his death, a servant found sown into his coat’s lining a parchment with the following words: “ Fire! God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars. Certainty. Certainty. Feeling. Joy. Peace. I will not forget thy word. Amen."
Those who have had mystical experiences have found them to be life-changing insights. Caught up into an ecstasy that can last anything from a few seconds, ten minutes or a few days, they feel a sense of complete union with all that is, with God, however they understand God, or ultimate reality. There is a sense of timelessness, so that ten minutes can seem an eternity. They find it impossible to adequately describe the experience.
Of course, religious leaders have usually had such experiences. In our tradition, one thinks of Moses and the prophets, Jesus and Paul (‘caught up into the third heaven’ 2 Cor 12.2), their subjectivities becoming at one with the divine Subject. Paul encouraged his Roman Christians to experience “life in the Spirit” and “Christ in you”.
It may be surprising to hear a famous scientist speaking in mystical terms.
Albert Einstein wrote: “The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true art and science. He to whom this
emotion is a stranger … is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the centre of true religiousness.”
These mystical states usually come unasked for. There are however some who have prescribed a way to arrive at them. St Teresa of Avila described four stages of prayer, leading to mystical union with God: meditation, quiet, union and rapture. Even the Chinese Confucian philosopher Xunzi (born c. 300 BCE) encouraged a mystical meditative practice. If we bear in mind that Jesus is ‘the Way’ and early Christianity called itself ‘the Way’, then his words can translate easily into our tradition: “If he who seeks to abide by the Way has emptiness, then he may enter into it; if he who seeks to serve the Way has unity, then he may master it; if he who seeks to meditate on the Way has stillness, then he may perceive it. He who understands the Way and perceives its nature, he who understands the Way and carries it out, may be said to embody the Way.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart,” said Jesus, “for they shall see God.”
My third heading for ‘about God and ten minutes’ is a new word coined in 1985:
This is more than Trump’s ‘fake news’, where disliked facts are dismissed as fiction. In “mythistory”, history can take on mythic qualities, and equally a myth can lead to factual history. Think how myth and history came together in Hitler’s Germany: the Aryan ‘superman’ ideas, Wagner’s operas, Gotterdammerung, the myth of Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, all being worked out in the history of the Second World War.
People often think that history books are impartial and that our newspapers are just giving the truth. But historians and journalists are never wholly neutral, but reflect the outlook of the storyteller or of their paper, however free from bias they try to be. If you read the accounts of Prime Minister’s Questions in the Mail and in the Mirror you’d think that theywere describing two different events. Who ‘slammed’ whom?
Some Examples of ‘Mythistory’:
The turbulent history of the Kingdoms of Israel and Edom are turned into a mythic story of Jacob and Esau. Edom was the older of the two close nations but Israel became dominant in the period of its Kings. So in the legend they struggle even before they are born. Jacob (Israel) clings to his twin, Esau (Edom). He grips Esau’s heel and goes on to achieve the birthright and blessing.
An interesting example of history creating myth, creating story, is the “comic” book of Jonah. The Babylonians had taken Judah into captivity. The Persians had set them free. The myth turns the nation of Judah into Jonah and Babylon into the great fish that swallows him and is forced to regurgitate him onto dry land. And the story’s punch-line, knocking out Jonah’s (Judah’s) prejudices, is that God has no policy of “Israel first! and let the rest be damned!“
Isaiah 51. 9 describes the birth of the Hebrew nation as a new creation by God. Isaiah does this by using a Canaanite creation myth to tell the Exodus story. The myth tells how the slain body of Rahab, the primeval dragon and Yam, the great sea, provide the material for the creation. Isaiah makes Rahab stand for Egypt: Isaiah asks God, “Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the water of the great deep; who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over?”
Some have asked whether Canaanite myth lies behind the telling of the exodus story. Which comes first, myth or story? In other words did Hebrew scribes turn myth into history or simply describe a historical event in mythological terms? Historicising myth or mythologizing history?
The story of Jesus’ passion raises a similar question. If the disciples fled from Gethsemane and never knew exactly what happened between Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, did the gospel writers make a story to fit the descriptions in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53? Or did they discover the ‘coincidences’ later? Did Jesus fulfil Isaiah’s portrayal of God’s Suffering Servant, or did the gospel writers make use of it in telling Jesus’ story? Myth and History – mythistory.
Israel’s gift to the world was to make sense of their chaotic history by reference to God. Their history is mythistory. If we are to see history not just as “one damn thing after another”, we need God for us to find
meaning in it, just as we do with the universe .
The universe needs God and so does time. We can see God as the Lord of Time – and not just of the ages of history but also of the years of our lives, our own personal mythistory. Looking back, we may see God’s guiding hand, and recognise God’s presence, even where we least felt it at the time. Most of all we need God’s presence when we come into the dark valley of our suffering and dying.
So, we can find God in our lives – our ‘mythistory’ - and also in our ‘ten minutes’. Even ten minutes can be meaningful and count, when we remember that God is in it.
There we are then: my version of “About God and about Ten Minutes”. Hopefully it may help to make a framework for faith or at least provide a cradle in which faith can grow.