Here in the labyrinth, I struggle to find words to describe what I feel. Up on the mountaintop, I knew the language to describe God: majestic, transcendent, all-powerful, Heavenly Father, Lord, and King. In this vocabulary, God remains stubbornly located in a few select places, mostly in external realms above or beyond: Heaven, the church, doctrine, or the sacraments. What happens in the labyrinth seems vague, perhaps even theologically elusive.
Like countless others, I have been schooled in vertical theology. Western culture, especially Western Christianity, has imprinted a certain theological template upon the spiritual imagination: God exists far off from the world and does humankind a favor when choosing to draw close. Sermons declared that God’s holiness was foreign to us and sin separated us from God. Yes, humanity was made in God’s image, but we had so messed things up in the Garden of Eden that any trace of God in us was obscured, if not destroyed. Whether conservative or liberal, most American churches teach some form of the idea that God exists in holy isolation, untouched by the messiness of creation, and that we, God’s children, are morally and spiritually filthy, bereft of all goodness, utterly unworthy to stand before the Divine Presence. In its crudest form, the role of religion (whether through revivals, priesthood, ritual, story, sacraments, personal conversion, or morality) is to act as a holy elevator between God above and those muddling around down below in the world.
Despite my familiarity with conventional theology, I do have experience of another sort of language for God, for throughout my life something odd kept happening to me. God showed up. The first time God showed up I was very small, three, maybe four. My parents and I were playing in the surf at a beach. An unexpected wave ripped me away from my father’s hand, pushing me under its crest. As I rolled beneath the waters, my eyes opened and I saw the sun, bright but oddly indistinct at the same time, its light diffused all around me, drawing me toward its source. Everything was blue, gold, and white. Water, sand, and sun: all was suddenly one. It was beautiful and terrifying. I felt suspended, without any real sense of either time or space. Then suddenly my father reached into the water and pulled me to the surface, where I both cried and choked. Many years later, my mother told me that I had nearly drowned.
And it has often been the same since. God, the spirit of wonder, or Jesus – it is often hard to label exactly – shows up in prayer; while walking on paths, hiking in the desert, or sitting in the sunshine; in the animals that cross my way; and in my dreams. For whatever reason, my soul has a mile-wide mystical streak. My friends regularly joke that, had I been born during the Middle Ages, I would have been condemned as a witch (and that is not really funny, for hundreds of thousands of people were killed by religious authorities for this very thing). When younger, I feared talking about it; my church did not help me understand it. But now I know that it is not that terribly unusual. Much of contemporary memoir is a literature of spiritual experience, including accounts of near-death experiences and profound encounters resulting from nature, service to others, or engaging in the arts. Half of all American adults, even some who call themselves atheists or nonbelievers, report having had such an experience at least once in their lives.
The language of mysticism and spiritual experience cuts a wide swath through the world’s religious traditions, and it presents an alternative theology, that of connection and intimacy. In Christian tradition, Jesus speaks this language when he claims, “The Father and I are one,” (John 10:30), and when he breathes on his followers and fills them with God’s Spirit, (20:22); it appears in the testimony of the apostle Paul, who converts during a mystical encounter with Christ on a road; and it fills the effusive poetry of John the Evangelist, whose vision of God is nothing short of one in which the whole of creation is absorbed into love. When the Bible is read from the perspective of divine nearness, it becomes clear that most prophets, poets, and preachers are particularly worried about religious institutions and practices that perpetuate the gap between God and humanity, making the divine unapproachable or cordoned off behind cadres of priestly mediators, whose interest is in exercising their own power as brokers of salvation. The Biblical narrative is that of a God who comes close, compelled by a burning desire to make Heaven on Earth and occupy human hearts.
One need not be a mystic or have had a near-death experience to understand this; it need not be the result of years of technical training in some spiritual practice of enlightenment. This has become a prominent contemporary way of speaking about God that reflects a wisdom found in ancient scriptures, a spiritual vocabulary articulated by Biblical heroes, saints, reformers, and the humble poor through the ages. And this impulse toward spiritual intimacy is found not only in the Abrahamic faiths, but in Buddhism, Hinduism, and native religions. Far too many people who understand God in these ways probably do not know how rich the tradition is that speaks of God with us, God in the stars and sunrise, God as the face of their neighbor, God in the act of justice, or God as the wonder of love. The language of divine nearness is the very heart of vibrant faith. Yet it has often been obscured by vertical theologies and elevator institutions, which, I suspect, are far easier to both explain and control. Drawing God within the circle of the world is a messy and sometimes dangerous business.
In the middle of the twentieth century, theologian H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a bestselling and influential book about the problem of God’s location entitled, Christ and Culture. Using Christian history and language, he identified five potential ways that God, that is, “Christ,” related to the world, that is, “culture.” According to Niebuhr, God might be seen as being (1) against the world, (2) of the world, (3) above the world, (4) paradoxically in tension with the world, or (5) in a perpetual struggle to transform the world. Although the book is almost seven decades old and much is dated, teachers and preachers still summon these categories to explain God and the world. Four of the five categories (against, above, in tension with, and transforming) emphasize God’s distinctiveness, underscoring the idea of a distant divinity, and make the world a problem to be fixed or an obstacle to be overcome. Only one category (and the type Niebuhr most strongly ridiculed), of, portrayed God as close and the world of human experience, history, nature, and culture as a meaningful stage of divine action. When it comes to Christian theology, distance has been God’s default location. Thus, Christ and Culture concisely summarizes Western religion – a worldview shaped from a divine mountaintop looking out and down, not from the center of the labyrinth looking around and up.
But this is changing. In the twenty-first-century world, top-down institutions and philosophies are weakening – and that includes top-down religions. People are leading their own theological revolution and finding that the Spirit is much more with the world than we had previously been taught.
This new understanding is far more than God being of the world (in Niebuhr’s sense). One would have to be blind or morally bankrupt to think that God was of many things in our world: violence against women and children, slavery, terrorism, racism, social inequity, religious fundamentalisms, poverty, environmental degradation, and warfare. The problem of evil is real. (It is worth noting, however, that human beings create the vast majority of what we deem evil. Evil is not God’s problem as much as it is ours.) But there is a widespread sense that God is with us, within creation, culture, and the cosmos. If anything, recent decades have revealed not a dreadful, distant God, but have slowly illuminated that an intimate presence of mystery abides with the world, a spirit of compassion that breathes hope and healing. And with it faith is shifting from a theology of distance toward a theology of nearness, from institution to unmediated experience.
The change in tone is obvious in the sermons of the well known, such as Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, or Pope Francis, as well as the works of lesser-known writers, poets, artists, and spiritual guides, the insights of clergy from a wide range of traditions, and the prayers of everyday people. The field of vision has been redirected toward a quotidian God, whose holiness is revealed in worldly things, and toward divine simplicity, whose connections are woven through all that is. The most significant story in the history of religion at this time is not a decline in Western religion, a rejection of religious institutions, or the growth of religious extremism; rather, it is a changed conception of God, a rebirthing of faith from the ground up.