CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- I spent most of an hour here Sunday morning talking at Harvard University's Memorial Church "Faith and Life Forum" about my new book, The Value of Doubt. But the key audience question didn't come until near the end.
A woman in the back raised her hand to ask me what "content" I would give to the term God.
Having just spent some time urging people to be cautious about insisting that only particular words can capture religious truth, I didn't want to launch into a recitation, say, of the Nicene Creed. And I didn't want simply to repeat all the standard God-definition wording that in many ways has lost its meaning, words such as "God is love." Those words seem so simple, yet are so densely packed that they require careful unpacking. (Those words are the proverbial world in a grain of sand.)
Still, I liked the question and responded that I first thought of God as creator, the original source. Beyond that, I said I thought of God as the impulse of love behind all of creation. To me, God is a spirit who, without coercing us, draws us into a future in which one day we will experience the fullness of love.
What I have long ago turned away from, I told the questioner, is the central casting image of God as an old white man with a beard puppeteering the world by divine whim and authority. That sort of image demeans what Christians mean when they say that Jesus is the full revelation of God and that this revelation primarily involves relationship.
I also suggested that because we have finite minds, any description of the infinite will be inaccurate, incomplete and perhaps just wrong. As I say in the beginning of my book, we live by metaphor, by myth and by allegory because we have no choice. We must remember that fact when talking about the divine. (Speaking about God is, of course, always an arrogant thing to do, though we can't help ourselves -- and maybe shouldn't).
And even though our religious doctrines seek to reduce the infinitely complex reality of God to simple statements, we always must be aware that such statements are provisional and far from capturing the whole truth.
The morning's experience at Memorial Church here made me aware again of how difficult it can be to respond to good questions from a journalist who has done her homework. The format of the hour was a conversation between me and Ann Marie Lipinski (pictured to my left in the photo above), who oversees the Nieman Foundation for Journalists at Harvard and who is former editor of the Chicago Tribune. She had done her homework by reading my book carefully and then asking me to explain further what I meant by this or that.
I'm much more comfortable being the questioner than the questionee, though Ann Marie was scrupulously fair in what she asked.
But I suspect neither of us had imagined that I would be asked to describe God's content. And if you have a simple, easy, go-to answer for that question, I'm pretty sure I don't want to hear it.
(By the way, one of the journalists in the Nieman program this year is Kansas City Star columnist Jeneé Osterheldt, who attended the morning session. It was great to see her again.)
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WHAT MAKES DEVOS TICK?
Now that the appalling appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of the Department of Education has been approved (barely), you may wish to know a bit about her faith background and how that informs her thinking. This Religion News Service piece provides some answers.
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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column -- about death, of all subjects -- now is online here.