Not so long ago, believers confidently asserted that God inhabited Heaven, a distant place of eternal reward for the faithful. We occupied a three-tiered universe, with Heaven above, where God lived; the world below, where we lived; and the underworld, where we feared we might go after death. The church mediated the space between Heaven and Earth, acting as a kind of holy elevator, wherein God sent down divine directions and, if we obeyed the directives, we would go up – eventually – to live in Heaven forever and avoid the terrors below. Stories and sermons taught us that God occupied the high places, looking over the world and caring for it from afar, occasionally interrupting the course of human affairs with some miraculous reminder of divine power. Those same tales emphasized the gap between worldly places and the holy mountains, between the creation and an Almighty Creator. Religious authorities mediated the gap, explaining right doctrine and holy living. If you wanted to live with God forever in Heaven, then you listened to them, believed, and obeyed.
During the last century, the three-tiered universe and its orderly certainty crumbled. The Great War caused its philosophical and political foundations to wobble, and the whole thing collapsed after the even greater war, World War II, when the Nazis and the Holocaust and the bomb shattered history. God, like the monks from Mount Calvary chased by the roaring inferno, fled down the mountain seeking shelter in the midst of the city.
Oddly enough, most people did not seem to notice at first or, perhaps, were in a state of denial. There were prophets and writers who tried to explain what had happened. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor awaiting execution in a Nazi prison, understood that the three-tiered universe with its majestic God had been swept away by the war and argued that a new “religionless” Christianity must emerge from history’s ashes. Elie Wiesel, a Jewish humanist and survivor of the death camps, who daily experienced the horrors attending the end of the world as it was being incinerated at Auschwitz, summed it all up with a plaintive questioning cry, “For God’s sake, where is God?”
Some postwar theologians and philosophers understood and began to proclaim the “death of God.” Regular people did not take them seriously, however. Soldiers wanted to get home to their sweethearts, back to houses with picket fences in small towns, back to family, church, and business. There had been so much death; it was too awful to consider that God might have been a wartime casualty as well. Getting back to normal was the key task for mid-twentieth-century people, even if normal was irretrievably gone. Revivals of religion swept through Western nations to restore order and familiarity, first in the 1950s and then again in the 1970s. The faithful baptized legions of postwar offspring, built bigger and taller temples than ever before, and exercised more influence and political power than Christianity had known since the days of Pope Innocent III – all as a testimony to God’s victory over the forces of evil and the triumph of true religion.
It could not last. In the decades that followed, it became increasingly evident that you cannot revive a God for a world that no longer exists. Venerating a God of a vanished world is the very definition of fundamentalism, the sort of religion that is inflicting great pain and violence on many millions of people across the planet and is leading to the rejection of religion by millions of others. Conventional theism is at the heart of fundamentalism and depends on the three-tiered universe. But we now live in a theologically flattened world – we have discovered that we are fully capable of creating the terrors of hell right here and no longer need a lake of fire to prove the existence of evil – and we have found that the ranks of saints and angels seem to have thinned and that no deity will be sending miracles to fix the mess we are in.
Is there another option between fundamentalism and a deceased God? I think so. If hell has moved in next door to us, perhaps Heaven has as well. Bonhoeffer and Wiesel, who saw so clearly what was happening, asked the right question long ago: “Where is God?” That question – and how it is being answered – points toward a surprising spiritual revolution.
In the last decade, it has become increasingly obvious that people no longer fear asking the question, as events have conspired to make the problems of God’s presence – or absence – clearer. In December 2012, a troubled teenager shot twenty-six people, some teachers but mostly small children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The horror of this event shocked the world. In the days that followed, there were questions on radio, television, and the internet, in magazines and newspapers: How could this have happened? What can be done to prevent it from happening again? Would new gun-safety laws safeguard our communities? Could the president and Congress agree on such legislation?
Amid these questions, however, another question, one not asked by pundits but by regular people, came to the fore: “Where was God at Sandy Hook?” The conversation took place in blogs and social media, in sermons and public memorials, in coffeehouses and around dining-room tables. Some people proclaimed that God was in Heaven, waiting to welcome the victims with open arms; others declared that a distant, judging God permitted such violence as a blood sacrifice for national sins; a few opined that God had directed the heroic acts of teachers who saved their students or the police who arrived on scene. And then, of course, there were those who insisted that God had nothing to do with any of it, because God either does not intervene in human affairs or does not exist at all. Sandy Hook held up a spiritual mirror to our time, revealing a theological argument regarding God not often visible in public.
If the question was surprising, it is perhaps astonishing that a consensus emerged from the discussion. By far the most often repeated answer, and apparently the most comforting, was that God was “with” the victims. God was with them? With us?
During past times of profound public tragedy, such as the Battle of Gettysburg, the sinking of the Titanic, or the attack on Pearl Harbor, very few people thought to ask, “Where is God?” Most assumed that they knew where God was: in Heaven, up in the divine throne room. Instead, our ancestors asked: “Why did God let this happen? or “What is God trying to teach us?” or “What does God want us to do in response?” The older questions sought to discern God’s intentions when terrible things occurred, not to query the location of the divinity.
We have heard this question with sad frequency in recent years. “Where is God?” arose from the rubble of the World Trade Center; from the inundated villages of tsunami-ravaged Thailand and Indonesia; from New Orleans, as the levees breaking swept all that was familiar out to sea; from African hamlets where the dead mount from Ebola; from the hidden, abused, and lost victims of human trafficking and slavery; from killing fields in any number of nations where war seems endless; and from native peoples watching their homelands sink into the earth or ocean due to melting tundra or rising seas. “Where is God?” has echoes from every corner of the planet in recent years in circumstances so dire that many wonder whether we have been abandoned and left to fend for ourselves. The case could be made that the first years of the twenty-first century could be called the “Age of Anxiety” or the “Age of Fear”; there are far too many reasons to believe that human history has tipped toward ultimate destruction. Hope is at a premium, but the supply is perilously short. Fear is both cheap and plentiful.
“Where is God?” is one of the most consequential questions of our times. Some stubbornly maintain that a distant God sits on his Heavenly throne watching all these things, acting as either a divine puppet master or a stern judge of human affairs, ready at a moment’s notice to throw more thunderbolts or toss the whole human race into an eternal lake of fire. But this is a vision of God whose time may be up, for such a divinity looks either increasingly absurd or suspiciously like a monster. And people know that, for a substantial number of them now say that “God is not,” thus eliminating a divine throne-sitter completely and leaving responsibility for the global mess squarely on human shoulders. Humanism, agnosticism, atheism, and posttheism are all on the rise – perfectly logical choices with which thoughtful people should at least sympathize.
Yet while some have concluded that it is indeed the case that we humans are alone, others have looked at these same events and suggested a much different spiritual possibility: God is with us. It is a wildly improbable turn of theological events to claim that God is with victims of war, terrorism, or natural disaster, with the valorous who run toward burning buildings or navigate flooding streets, and with those who mourn and doubt and even despair. As Bonhoeffer said, “Only a suffering God can help.” God is with us in and through all these terrible events.
Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel referred to this God as the God of pathos, who loves the world profoundly, feels with creation, and participates in its life. This means, of course, that God is with us not only in times of misery and anguish. Human beings have a tendency to ask important questions when tragedy strikes, but God is also in the midst of joy, when we forget to ask, and in life’s more mundane experiences. In the years since Heschel wrote, a cultural language of divine nearness has come to surround us – God can be found at the seashore, in a sunset, in the gardens we plant, at home, in the work we do, in the games we watch or play, in the stories that entertain us, in good food and good company, when we eat, drink, laugh, and even make love. People who identify as “spiritual but not religious” or religiously unaffiliated use a vocabulary of theological intimacy, as do many who identify with more traditional faiths. Although some still worship a distant majesty and others deny divine existence, many millions of contemporary people experience God as far more personal and accessible than ever before.
There is much evidence for religious decline across the West, and much attention is paid to the growth of fundamentalist religions, especially in the Global South and developing world. But, in some ways, theories of decline or growth are not really the point. Roiling around the planet is a shifting conception of God. In a wide variety of cultures, God has become unmediated and local, animating the natural world and human activity in profoundly intimate ways. Of course, this has always been the path of mystics in the world’s religions, what I often call the “minor chord” of faith. Now, however, the personal, mystical, immediate, and intimate is emerging as the dominant way of engaging the divine. What was once reserved for a few saints has now become the quest of millions around the planet – to be able to touch, feel, and know God for one’s self.
This is an unexpected challenge for all the world’s great faiths. Religion is changing because its deepest questions, those regarding the relationship between God and the world, are being asked in new ways. For the last several centuries, the primary questions regarding God and the world were of dogma or practice: Who is God? What must I do to be a good person or to be saved? Every religion answered such questions differently, and human beings typically accepted what their natal faith taught them. Religious institutions passed on particular traditions and served as mediating structures between that which was holy and that which was mundane. But faith questions now center on finding God – Where is God? – and figuring out what discovering the sacred here means – How does God’s presence enliven our actions in the world? Simply put, the informational queries of who and what, along with their authoritative answers, have been traded for the experiential and open-ended concerns of where and how.
Not only have the questions changed, but the way we ask them has changed as well. We no longer live isolated behind boundaries of ethnicity, race, or religion. We are connected in global community. We search the internet for answers; we ask our Buddhist or Hindu neighbors; we read our own sacred texts and the texts of others; we listen to preachers from the world’s religions. Answers are no longer confined to the opinions of a local priest, mullah, rabbi, or guru. The answers depend on us figuring this out together. This shift in religious consciousness is a worldwide phenomenon, a sort of divine web in which we are tangled. Although atheists and humanists might look upon this askance, as a return to superstition, it is equally legitimate to read the shift as a reenchantment of the world, a spiritual revolution of astonishing scope. And everyone is caught up in the web.
In 1974, anthropologist David Buchdahl argued that a culture’s understanding of God was central to its larger practices of social and political life. And when a culture’s God is under stress or undergoing revision, the whole system is strained. Buchdahl claimed, “A change in the conception of God is a cultural event of some magnitude, especially because the character of a culture is heavily influenced by the notion of God that predominates within it.” If that is true, and I believe it to be so, it is no longer a singular reality – for Buchdahl was speaking of “a culture – but this is now happening among many cultures, a planet-wide transformation of the way human life is shaped and organized. On the face of it, the question, “Where is God?” might appear to be an arcane theological notion, but it is, in reality, a profound contemporary global inquiry. Depending on how it is answered, “Where is God?” could be a social and political question with sweeping consequences for the future. To relocate God is to reground our lives.
Where is God? God is here. How shall we act upon that? Well, that is up to us.