This column was originally published in the Gazette-Times Interfaith Voices section on August 6, 2016.
When I was a student preparing for ministry, I studied for several years at the Catholic seminary located at the Benedictine monastery near Mount Angel, the Mount Angel Seminary.
It was a fascinating experience in multiculturalism, of being in a place where I did not easily fit, where I was an outsider, different from the majority of students. To begin with, I was not Catholic, and on top of that a woman, in a school dedicated to training priests, who were, of course, all Catholic men.
It was not easy to be such an outsider, and one day in particular I was feeling both out of place and unwelcome. One of the monks, a beautifully generous soul, encouraged me that day with words that I will never forget: “God is a very big idea,” he said. “There is room enough for you here too.”
God is a VERY big idea. How could it be otherwise? The word “god,” and the ideas it points to, have to be big enough so that everything there is and everything we can imagine, fits into it. Many think “God” is simply a name — like Fred, or Sam — for the highest being of all beings. That’s one idea. In Islam, there are 99 (a symbolic number) names for “god,” each of which points to an essential aspect of the idea of god, but no one of the names, nor the 99 together, are understood to describe the entirety of “god,” which for Muslims, is beyond human comprehension. In Hinduism, the symbolic number of names for “god” is 330 million, which means limitless ideas about what “god” means.
In most traditions this is true; whatever we can say or think about god is always only an approximation. We can never describe “god” entirely or comprehensively. All we can do is come up with many, many ideas — ideas which say more about us as humans than they do about any reality the word “god” might point to.
It is clear that our ideas about what “god” is make a difference in how we live, especially in how we treat other people and the Earth. Imagining “god” as a king, leading wars and battles, for example, is very different than imagining “god” as love.
After years of studying and thinking, and of being a pastor, which has allowed me to see both some of the best and the worst of human behavior, I have come to think of “god” as “the possibility of right relations.” In every human action and interaction there is always the possibility for the best we can be to emerge and become real, as justice, compassion, respect, nurture, equity, peace, and love. Too often what emerges between us is greed and disrespect and harm: “god” seems very far away. But these things are always possible, and always waiting for us to let them live into the world. God, the possibility of right relations, lives in us and through us. For me, this is an idea worth my devotion.