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Mysteria Poetica

Some Reflection on the God Question

By David Galston | 7.28.2017

In God’s brief history, which corresponds to humanity’s brief history, God has taken many names and forms. Three big ones are nature, culture, and intuition. In our postmodern age, none of these forms seems to work in a satisfactory way anymore.

The Christian and Jewish Bibles are full of various ways that God is nature. There are the great plagues cast on the Egyptians and the crossing of the Red Sea at the time of the Exodus. In that story, God leads with a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. God is the force of the wind that controls the waters of the Red Sea. In Jeremiah, the sign for the faithful remnant of Jews in exile is good figs, and the sign for the collaborators who remain in Jerusalem is bad figs; in the Gospel of Mark this image is used again when Jesus curses a fig tree, and Mark relates that act in unsubtle ways to the fate of the temple. Jesus also walks on water, and in Acts, he gives the spirit that descends like fire. God and nature go together well in all these stories.

Sigmund Freud noticed this association and attributed the idea of “God” among us to humanity’s primal fear of nature. Human beings need God, or at least a few gods, Freud explained, in the image of a strong father because, psychologically, we are deeply afraid of nature and its overwhelming power. This was not a bad idea, and in many ways, it remains a good explanation. Human beings still appeal to the awesome power of nature, retract in fear, and confess God. But Freud’s explanation was insufficiently complex. It relied on the modern temptation to find a single, deep, and universal cause for all things human. Religion, it turns out, is not so easy to corner.

The other element that human beings have enjoyed associating with God is their culture. Positively, religions of the world do carry cultural memory. The study of religion is not limited to certain beliefs or dogmas but includes how religion is used in resistance movements, how it defines customs or political commitments, how it supports power structures or economic classes, and often, unfortunately, how it justifies overriding human rights with devotion to an ideology. Jews, Christians, and Muslims share the common temptation of identifying their specific culture and political views with an ultimate truth found in a monotheistic God. The ancient Greeks and Romans were polytheists, but neither did they managed to avoid equating their culture with their version of ultimate reality.

The great liberal theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, clued in about how God and culture are often synonymous.  He tried to show, using the idea of intuition, that it is natural to have religious feelings but that no particular feeling was equal to the idea of God. Religious intuition involves holding the vague feeling that we are not alone. We feel this way deeply within our psyches because, Schleiermacher thought, we are always involved in levels of dependency. Religious intuition is about connection. It is about being within a cultural experience, relying on our fellow human beings for community, relying on the earth for sustenance, and ultimately relying on the universe for life itself. The temptation is to reduce the feeling of dependence to the immediate experience of culture, which is a sign of that dependence but only a minor player in the larger spectrum of things. We will always need some symbolic way to express the bigger picture, and despite advances in science and modern biblical studies, God still fits the bill.

We could argue that God has had a good run of things; in the fears, cultures, and the intuitive feelings of human beings, God has found a home. Sometimes it has been for the better, and sometimes for the worse. The question that haunts us today is does God have a future? Since we can admit our fears, understand our cultural proclivities, and recognize our psychology, can we proceed from here without God? Can we be so bold today as to say that the idea of God is ill-founded and unnecessary?

Every good theologian, and any good academic, always has one standard answer before such enormous questions: it depends. For this question, a lot depends on what meaning human beings are willing to give to the word God. The baggage that the word carries in relation to the history of God as a human creation might make God too heavy for anyone’s good, let alone for the human future. So, the question might really be what do we want out of God? What do we need out of religion?

Here the expression mysteria poetica comes into play. Poetica (and poeticus) is the Latin form of the Greek poiesis, and it is interesting to note that both of these words hold the sense of “making” or “doing” rather than the modern sense of thinking about rhymes. I like to use the French verb faire to exemplify this element. Faire means to do or to make. In French, one use of the verb faire is for sports. In English, we play sports, but in French, we more or less do or make sports (Je fais du sport). In Greek and Latin, poetics is something like that. We make them. They are deliberate pieces of work; they are creations.

God as mysteria poetica is the making of the mystery of God. It is a deliberate, conscious, activity that might hold value for humanity, provided the activity remains something we know we are making. The danger with God is that God can be unquestionable, unconscious, and unreasonable. When this happens, dogma happens, and dogma in the hands of human beings is a dangerous thing.

God as poetics, though, is not unquestionable and might not even be unreasonable. If God is what we “do” rather than believe, there could be some options for theology – and maybe even religion – in the future. What about God as the poetics of forgiveness, of living beyond enmity? Or, what if God is the poetics of living without fear? Can God be the “doing” involved in not being beguiled by abstract ideas of holy and sacred truth? This sounds somewhat like God in a parable: for instance, the parable of the Samaritan, the parable of the Prodigal, and the parable of the Pearl of Great Price. Though I won’t offer my take on these parables, the point is that doing a parable seems closer to the meaning of a parable. Parables are performances; they are the making of art and the works of art. God is never really mentioned in a Jesus parable but rather is implied as part of the work the parable performs. Mysteria poetica is theology as the doing of art. Provided that this activity remains deliberate and conscious, God might have a future with the human family.

It is possible that God’s history is too much for God’s future to bear. That may prove true, and many people will not mourn the loss of God. But it remains worthy to consider God in the way of mysteria poetica, that is, not as the belief in but as the doing of life. If we were French, we might say, “Je fais du God.”

Photo of David Galston

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical Jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical Jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.

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1 reply
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    On the matter of “belief (faith)/believing” I’ve thought for some years now that the Jesus Seminar’s choice of translating pistis and its derivatives with “trust” and its forms was one of the central contributions of the Seminar. So in the context of this essay, one would seem to be talking about trusting the process of doing God. Perhaps producing a parable is 1st-order trusting in the process of doing God, and living the parable is 2nd-order trusting in the process of doing God. Linguistically, God would be the referent which draws the process forward, defined only by the initiation, unfolding, and outcome of the process, and refined when the process is repeated in multiple contexts.

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