Why should we talk about God at all?
Presenters: Brandy Daniels, Marion Grau, Lori Brandt Hale, Tamsin Jones, Dan Peterson, Mayra Rivera, Marika Rose, Ted Smith
This session was a panel discussion with eight members. Each addressed the topic question for five minutes, followed by discussion.
Ted Smith (Emory University) led off by announcing that he wouldn’t answer the question, but he wanted to put particular pressure on the word should. Smith thinks that any should will lead to problems with whatever we might say about God. He argued that there are two possible reasons for talking about God. One, we should talk about God for the sake of social change because God-talk is powerful and mobilizing. Or two, we should talk about God because if we don’t others will and they’ll say things we don’t like. But Smith insisted that the God worth talking about won’t need our speech to do what God will do.
Then he suggested that shoulds that are related to duties might be better. But what sort of God would demand that? A duty to talk about God misses something about the best talk about God which is spoken in love. God-talk, said Smith, needs to arise out of a space of the deepest freedom. It must be voluntary.
Smith concluded that any speech about God that proceeds under the sign of should will be distorted. This isn’t just a grammatical game. Why must we talk about God? is a better question, said Smith. This is the urgent must of the rush of a lover’s desire.
Marika Rose (University of Winchester, UK) similarly began by interrogating the prompt of the panel. She argued that we must stop speaking about God insofar as talk about God becomes a way of disavowing responsibility for our identities and actions. In our context, the question of God is wrapped up in the histories and legacies of European colonialism and racism. God-talk becomes a matter of recognizing our responsibility to that context, but also the creative, constructive imperative to imagine the world differently. Modernity is marked by the secularization of theological concepts, transferring the characteristics of God onto the figure of the (white, wealthy, rational, male) political sovereign. Further, Rose explained, psychoanalysis decenters human beings from the world. We are neither the center of the world, nor even of our own selves. “We should speak about God,” Rose said, “only if we can do so in order to take responsibility for what we are, because what we are is that which escapes us, which we cannot control but perhaps can acknowledge, confront, and accept when it bursts forth from us even at those moments when we least want or expect it.”
Dan Peterson (pastor at Queen Anne Lutheran Church in Seattle) had set out to answer the question, “why should we talk about God at all?” by deciding to come up with ten reasons. For several months, he developed a list, but he could come up with only four. His first reason: the term “God” is a placeholder for pointing to what Paul Tillich referred to as the transpersonal or suprapersonal dimension of ultimate reality, something that impersonal substitutes like “the Universe” cannot encompass. The second reason: substitutes for “God” fail to “grasp the center of the human personality” (Tillich) because of their impersonal, neutral character. Third, without adequate substitutes for God, it becomes difficult or impossible to express valuable feelings such as gratitude that we have toward the source of our existence. When we thank “the Universe,” the disposition of thanking itself illustrates that we related to the object of our feeling as if it were personal, even though by definition it is not. Finally, failing to talk about God or replacing God with impersonal terms cedes control to those who continue to use and abuse the term “God.”
Tamsin Jones (Trinity College in Connecticut) began with two fundamental points: we should continue to talk of God because, first, we study religion and, second, we should at least gesture towards transcendence.
On the first point, since we study religious traditions, when they talk about God or gods, we should, too. There may be a temptation to read religious statements as anthropomorphic projections. For instance, if we value strength and knowledge, we would then believe in a god who is allpowerful and all-knowing. There is nothing wrong with this approach in itself. It becomes a problem when it is the only or dominant thing that scholars of religion do because that amounts to a claim to know what religious belief and practice is really about.
Jones argued that there’s an important difference between saying that religions are human artifacts and may be studied accordingly, and saying that any religious experience can “only ever be nothing more than a projection of a human desire, fear, or imagination and not in response to some “X” believed in, or related to, as transcendent—that is as a god.” Jones’s second reason was born of the need for hope; not for a deus ex machina, transcendent, sovereign solution to our problems, but for a “space for transcendence.” Transcendence, said Jones, may be a placeholder for “God.” This transcendence is a space for hope “in order to avoid a totalizing or instrumentalist view of the world.” Jones insisted that this transcendence doesn’t need to be understood in opposition to immanence since it can only ever be encountered immanently.
Lori Brandt Hale (Augsburg University in Minnesota) began by telling us that her God-questions have never been metaphysical. Rather, she has been more interested in questions about identity and life together. So, “why talk about God at all?” prompted Hale to think in terms of ethics, rather than philosophy or even theology.
We have a responsibility to talk about God in order to embrace the experiences of others and to recognize how God shapes moral imagination and makes meaning. Conversely, we have a responsibility to talk about God when “understandings of God disguise or justify prejudice and cause harm. We have a responsibility to recognize it and name it and act against it.” In our intersectional and complex world, God-talk isn’t a mere ethical question, but a demand.
For Marion Grau (MF Norwegian School of Theology) the question, “why should we talk about God at all?” implies a specific form of monotheism. The very word “god” is a Germanic-Nordic term. It is white and Western, but Grau wants to use it nevertheless because that is how we can communicate with the majority of the world who uses religious language and images.
Within the modern, European intellectual project—which is also a colonialist project—there is a pressure toward secularization. In Norway, this has meant the repression of the way the Sami people interpret and interact with the world in light of their traditional spirituality. This was their most painful experience of colonialism—not the adoption of Christianity, but the repression of their spirituality. For indigenous people the world over, colonial encounters are spiritual battles.
Further, Grau is interested in how God-language is used, even within this colonial context. For instance, is God a metaphor or a power? “I am interested in talking about what the power or powers that move the universe are,” said Grau. We must remember the colonial pressure to secularize and hide religiosity. We must be willing to use language within that context that can alleviate the suffering caused by oppressive God-language. This means that we should provincialize the talk of God, recognizing that its forms are local to specific contexts. And finally, we must rewrite theology in ways that honor and confront other talk of divinity. We have to talk about “God” across cultures.
Brandy Daniels (University of Virginia) reiterated the session prompt but added, “What does God have to do with the human future?” More specifically, “not what does the future have to do with God, but what does God have to do with the future? There’s a directional correlation happening. Why talk about God? Because we want a better future.” Daniels admitted she doesn’t have answers, but she wanted us to consider what our investments in these questions are.
David Galston began the round of questions and comments by remarking that it was interesting how we avoided history to some degree because God tends to be historically metaphysical. He suggested that some functional value to God in the human future may depend on how “God” is related to an open question about “awe” that can never be answered. Galston wondered about the role history might play in how we think about this question. Bray said there was a lot about history in this round of presentations, but it was the history of colonialism. She said that there’s an engagement with the sacred that disrupts a particular future— a colonialist future. Galston conceded the point and walked back his comment. Grau responded that when we talk about the God-language of the future we must articulate what kind of power is being associated with that God. She argued that we need to be willing to locate God-talk in its contexts. “Theology needs to be provincialized.”
Richard Carrier then told us that he’s an atheist and usually deals with conservative theologians, so this kind of discussion of God is not familiar to him. He asked the presenters if they believe that God exists and is a conscious agent. John Caputo recounted that we voted at the first meeting of the God Seminar that it would be post-theistic. In order to give this a certain shape, we would pursue a post-theistic conversation. Bray then pushed for clarification by asking how we are participating in a colonial process of secularization or how are we resisting that when we say “post-theist”? Theistic and secular is a problematic binary where both options have colonialist histories. In what ways do we use “post-theistic” to deconstruct that? Rose then added the topic of sovereignty keeps coming up in this conversation and asked how we might talk about unsovereignty.
Peterson responded by discussing his location in Seattle, one of the most secular cities in North America. “How do I talk about God in a way that goes beyond those superficial conversations? Sovereignty is one of the problems with this conversation. We need to find different places to start—one of which is resisting the either/or,” he said. Grau suggested Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dorothee Soelle as atheistic theologians as resources for this ongoing conversation which argues that we need to live in the world as if there were no God, or as if God were as powerless as we are, suffering with us. David Hall added that the difficulty of speaking with secular students can be eased with “God” as a way to start a conversation with people who are fairly unreflective about religion. Devenish urged Peterson to say what he thinks about God and why this should draw forth worship. Peterson replied that he’s tried that. He rewrote the final stanza of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and discovered that he is inspired less by Paul Tillich, one of the most important theologians of the twentieth century, and more by the vulnerable God of Bonhoeffer and Soelle, but that’s not the default God. “When times are tough, the default God is the sovereign God and all the crap that goes with it.” Bray then cautioned us not to keep falling into the trap of universalizing concepts. Which people default to the sovereign God or to German theologians? Those are the defaults of people in particular contexts, not universal defaults.