Friday, April 10, 2015

What Does It Mean to Say We Believe in God?

Paul Tillich

Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
Exodus 3:13-14

It happens more often than you might think. I am at a party or some casual event, and someone finds out that I am a pastor. After a short explanation of what it is about churches which keeps this person away, he (most of the time it is a guy) says awkwardly, “Well, anyway, could you put in a good word for me with ‘The Man Upstairs’?” At which point I am tempted to say, “As a pastor, I think it is my duty to tell you that ‘The Man Upstairs’ is a figment of your imagination.”

To get a sense of what an absurd image of God that is, picture Moses at the burning bush. And remember, this story dates back more than three thousand years. This is a primitive story told by primitive people. Here is Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, in Midian. He sees a burning bush. At this point, we modern people want to interrupt and point out that bushes don’t burn like that, but let the story go. [If you are fixed on the question of how the bush could burn like that, I will refer you to my wife, the geologist. Elaine says that there are natural gas vents in that area which could have produced approximately the phenomena recorded in the story.]

Moses stops to look at the bush and hears the voice of God, calling him to go back to Egypt and lead his people to freedom. Moses says no. He can’t do it. It is impossible. “Who am I,” he asks, “that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” They argue. God persists and finally Moses agrees. But he wants a name for this presence which has confronted him. God has already declared, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob and Rachel.” Moses wants more than that. “What shall I say,” he demands, “when they ask who sent me?” And God says, “I AM WHO I AM.” And finally, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

It is a magnificent scene, and it reveals in this primitive people, a depth of theological understanding which we moderns are hard pressed to match. Could you possibly imagine that story ending with God declaring to Moses, “Tell them ‘The Man Upstairs’ has sent me to you”?

The cosmic “I AM,” the Creator of heaven and earth, is not to be confused with something as small as “The Man Upstairs.”

The great theologian, Paul Tillich, speaks of God as “the Ground of Being” or “Being itself.” “The Man Upstairs” is too small, too tame, too limited to be anything more than a figment of our imaginations.

Where does that leave us? As thoughtful Christians, what do we mean when we speak of God?

1. We begin with experience. The Bible was not written to convince us that God is real, nor was it written as an affirmation of faith. It is the story of the people of God, a record of their (our) experiences. In the Bible, faithful men and women are telling us how they have experienced God. The writers don’t start with their beliefs, they start with their experiences.

What fundamentally differentiates Christians and Jews (and Muslims, in many respects) from other members of our culture, is not in the first instance our belief. What makes us different is our experience.

On January 1, 2000, Elaine and Carolyn and I spent the first day of the New Millennium in Georgetown, Maine. We got up before sunrise and drove to Five Islands, and went down on the dock, and watched the sun come up out of the water where the Sheepscott River runs into the Atlantic Ocean. Then we drove to Reid State Park and walked out on Griffith’s Head. It was spectacular. It was almost perfect. The water was beautiful. The sky was clear blue. The sun, coming up out of the ocean, was so dramatic. There were perhaps a dozen people walking on the beach or sitting on the rocks. There was a family cooking breakfast on a camp stove. Even the little dog with the red bow was magnificent. If the family with the little dog, cooking breakfast on the top of Griffith’s Head had invited us to join them, it would have been absolutely perfect. It was so close.

As I stood there, taking in the incredible beauty and majesty of that scene, I was overwhelmed. And I thought, if I could just take everybody there; if you could see it as I saw it, I wouldn’t need to preach a sermon. Ever again.

One of the best known verses from both Psalms and Proverbs is usually translated as, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But a better understanding of that verse is not “fear,” but “awe.” Awe of the Lord, wonder, amazement, this is the beginning of wisdom.

We begin with wonder and amazement, at sunrise and sunset, at the change of the seasons, at birth and death. The starry night and the bright sunlight both speak to us of wonder.

2. The order of the universe is amazing. There are some who say, “I would believe in God if there were some sign, some miracle, some supernatural occurrence.” They are looking for something which contradicts the natural order. I have to confess, I am just the opposite. For me, the ordinary is extraordinary. The order of the universe is a miracle of cosmic proportions.

I had a high school physics teacher by the name of Harry Drew. Mr. Drew was a wonderful teacher. On a fairly regular basis, he would ask us, “Did you ever think what would happen if ice were heavier than water? If ice formed at the bottom of the pond, do you know what would happen?” My classmates and I were not nearly as amazed by this as he thought we should be. He would glare at us, clearly appalled at our adolescent indifference, but with a twinkle in his eye as if he were enjoying some intergalactic joke which we didn’t get. Then he would lean forward and say softly, “Everything in the pond would die.”

The order of the universe is amazing. We often think of miracles as events which contradict the natural order. But the greatest miracle is the order itself. And miracles may best be understood as ordinary events through which we see the eternal presence of God. A miracle is an ordinary event which is transparent to the eternal.

3. Life has meaning. When we say that we believe in God, we are saying that we believe life has meaning. There is depth. It isn’t all shallow.

Elaine used to say of my Grandfather Gibbs, that it was wonderful to tell him stories because when you told him a story it seemed to take on greater importance. In the telling, it became more than it otherwise would have been. Events had meaning because we could tell him about them. He enjoyed the stories. He cared about us. It mattered to him, and because it mattered to him, it became more important to us. I suspect that you may have people in your own life who are like that for you.

Ultimately, God is the one to whom we tell our stories. God is the one before whom our lives are acted out. Our lives have deeper meaning because they matter to God, just as my stories took on a deeper meaning because they mattered to my grandfather. When we say we believe in God, we are affirming that life matters, ultimately and eternally. Our living makes a difference.

4. We are finite. I will not say this well, but I will try. For me, the greatest significance of living my life before God is that I believe it gives me a real perspective on who I am.

To believe in God is to live with a sense of finitude, a sense of limits. One of our junior high teachers liked to tell her kids in Sunday School, “It’s not always about you.” Believing in God is reminding myself, it’s not always about me. There is more in life than us. We are limited and God is unlimited. We are finite and God is infinite.

Paul Tillich asserts that to comprehend this, to stand before the universe and recognize one’s finitude, is an act of courage. It takes courage to claim one’s place before God.

We can make believe that we are the center of the universe, but believing will not make it so. It is comforting to think that the world revolves around us, but it doesn’t.

To take upon one’s self the limited nature of human life in this vast and uncertain universe, is an act of existential courage. Tillich calls it, the courage to be.” It is facing life honestly, as it really is.

What does it mean for thoughtful Christians to speak of belief in God in the twenty-first century? To me, means awe, and order, and meaning, and the courage to face life as it really is.


  1. This is a wonderful sermon, Bill.

  2. This is very good; I wonder if our younger church-goers are hearing this kind of explaining of the story. It is challenging to me, at age 88, and I think it would be to others also.