Whose God is it, Anyway? by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonI do not attend church (or any “house of worship”) regularly anymore.  However, one hot, humid, Sunday morning this past August, I wended my way to St. Mark’s Episcopal to hear my friend, Dale, preach.  He does “pulpit supply” there (his home church) occasionally.  Dale earned an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative writing after finishing his seminary studies.  He’s written a one-man play titled “Jesus Phreak” and has performed it in churches and universities nationwide.  Dale and I have been friends for a decade or so.  He identifies as a Christian, but he’s not like any Christian I’ve ever known.

Church is familiar to me.  I was born to Protestant, missionary parents who “served the Lord” in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after graduating from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.  My parents had a “special burden” for Jews and worked to bring them to “the knowledge of Jesus Christ.”  In other words, they sought to convert Jews to Christianity–not just any Christianity, but the specific Christianity my parents believed in–a literal, “fundamental” understanding of Scripture made popular by Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) and Cyrus I. Scofield (1843-1921).

I was raised on church and Sunday School, attending three services every Sunday for years.  Later on, as a young adult in the United States, I added Wednesday night prayer meeting, heeding a pastor’s adage: “Those who love the church come on Sunday morning, those who love the pastor come on Sunday evening, but those who love the Lord come on Wednesday night.”  I did not stop my regular church attendance (non-denominational, Baptist, Presbyterian, Reformed Episcopal, and just plain Episcopal–in that order) until well into my 40s.  By then, I could no longer contort myself to fit the mold “church” demanded from me.

When I walked into St. Mark’s on that hot, humid Sunday in August, I immediately noticed that most of the congregants looked nothing like the “church people” I remembered.  Granted, St. Mark’s is known in the community as the “gays and grays” church and that was evident.  Same-sex couples, the over-50 crowd, and a smattering of African-American people made up the bulk of the congregation.  This unconventional demographic struck me as positive, though.  The disenfranchised and those living on the margins of society–aren’t these the people Jesus said would inherit the Kingdom of God?

The liturgy was familiar, reminding me of a time long ago when I enthusiastically joined in congregational worship, repeating prayers and creeds that go back centuries.  “Almighty God…we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we…most grievously have committed…We do earnestly repent…Have mercy upon us.”  And, “All glory be to thee, Almighty God…for thou…didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption….”

I can no longer engage in such worship.  To be sure, I brought my own religious baggage to church that day.  Sin, wickedness, repentance, death on the cross–all of these concepts evoke in me an angry deity who demands nothing less than sinless perfection from “his” creatures.  Since we are all born “in sin,” we deserve God’s wrath (eternal death) which we can escape only because Jesus, the “Son of God,” took the sins of humanity upon himself and died in our stead.  We need just to accept it.  That’s the story my parents were committed to and that’s the story I heard over and over during my church-going years.

I endured all of the appointed liturgy–standing, sitting, kneeling–while the interpretation of the narrative I had absorbed over a lifetime took up most of the space in my head.  I couldn’t wait for it all to be over.  I wanted to hear Dale preach.  Surely he would have something valuable (from my perspective) to say.

Dale spoke about “beholding the likeness of God.”  What is the likeness of God?  To help illustrate his point, he used Alice Walker’s book, The Color Purple, speaking about Celie, a poor, “colored girl,” living in rural Georgia during the early part of the twentieth century.  Celie’s image of God as an old, bearded, white man in the sky gives her neither comfort nor sustenance since “white people never listen to colored.”  However, her construction of God changes when her new friend, Shug, with whom she has an intimate relationship, helps her “behold” God differently.  Shug says, “God is inside you and inside everybody else.  You come into the world with God.  But only them that search for it inside find it…sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking….”  Shug continues, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it…People think pleasing God is all God care about.  But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”  “Beholding the likeness of God” in a new way allows Celie to love (comfort and sustain) herself.  It empowers her. Eventually she can forgive those who have wronged her.

There was more, but I want to focus on the end of Dale’s sermon.  Dale teaches a class titled, “Bible as Literature,” every summer at the university where both of us work.  For six weeks, students read, reflect, and write about the Bible.  On the last day of class, Dale asked his students, “According to the Bible, what is sin?”  During the course of the summer session, students had moved beyond the idea of sin being equal to breaking rules or as Shug puts it, “People think pleasing God is all God care about.”  The question hung in the air for a while.  Then, one student from the back of the room replied, “Sin is not seeing God.”  That’s it!  Sin is walking by the color purple without noticing it.

My take on sin (if I must use the word) has another facet.  I think sin is the attempt to make God “mine.”  My Christian fundamentalist parents “just knew” who God is and “just knew” what God requires from us (humans).  They appropriated God with their particular “beholding” of God and then foisted that vision on others.  Hindu mythology (Baghavad Gita) tells us about Lord Krishna who went out every night to dance with the milkmaids in the forest.  The girls dance and dance with their “sweet lord,” who has made himself so abundant, he can be in the arms of each and every girl.  The moment a girl becomes possessive–the moment each girl imagines Krishna is her partner alone–he disappears.  There is plenty of God to go around until one claims ownership (exclusivity).  Then the fullness of God evaporates.

As I’ve written before, God is a symbol and symbols get their power through meanings humans inculcate into them.  Shug uses inclusive imagery as she beholds the likeness of God–“inside you and everybody else.”  When a milkmaid appropriates Krishna and demands exclusive rights to “her” deity, Krishna absents himself.  Meaning embedded in symbols can enable us to live peaceful and abundant lives enjoying the fullness (presence) of God.  Those same symbols can cause mayhem and destruction (absence of God) when we demand that others conform to the meanings “I” give them.

I think we see evidence of this mayhem and destruction in the group ISIS–a religious/political army of sorts currently wreaking havoc, mainly in the Middle East.  Their vision of how to live, move, and have their being in this world is grounded in the surety of their own understanding of Islam and how it should be “lived out” in the here and now–restoring the caliphate, for example.  Those who impede their forward thrust are subjected to violence and death.

My parents were adamant as well about how Truth, derived from their closely-held theological beliefs, should be expressed in day-to-day living.  They expected others to get on board with them.  Those who disagreed with their particular “beholding of God,” though, were subjected to a gentler fate from ISIS and their ilk.  Shunning.  Over time, though, that shunning (being outside the group that is supposed to nurture and sustain) suffocates any nascent “faith.”  The stories and rituals (symbols), having been confined to a single meaning (Truth), lose their viability and power.

And so, I do not attend church (or any “house of worship”) regularly anymore.

Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Categories: Christianity, General, God, God-talk, Literature

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27 replies

  1. Very nicely written. How these personal pronouns do get in the way! “My religion” sounds so very different from “the religion”.

    If you are not going to church, I hope that you are at least making time to stop for purple, or any other glorious color, fields.


  2. Oh Yes, Esther! It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a “church service” too, and I think that all “gods” become false when we try to possess them, (love the image of dancing with Lord Krishna) as is true in most (all?) of life, and that the Divine Presence impregnates, gives life, and sustains all of creation. All of it – even people I don’t like! ;-)

    ISIS is horrible, causing much suffering and death in the name of their “god”. But I am more concerned about our much closer, fundamentalist Christians of all denominations, who would have us all worship in the temple of their image of God. They are becoming more powerful, backed by much money, and are sacralizing their own political desires, robbing others of freedom, justice, and security. Strange that they don’t seem to mention Jesus very often, or the “constitution” of God’s Kindom as set forth in the “sermon on the mount/plain”. Like ISIS, they are focused on their interpretation of “the Law” and exclude “the Spirit” – and we know what Jesus and the Jewish Prophets had to say about such things.

    Thank you for your post.


    • Barbara, Thank you for your thoughts. I agree with you about “fundamentalist Christians of all denominations, who would have us all worship in the temple of their image of God.” So, in that regard, the ideology that propels groups such as ISIS/ISIL is not any different from the ideology that gives “oomph” to some Christians as they hope to blanket the public sphere with particular understanding(s) and interpretations of their sacred texts. It wasn’t that long ago in the USA that abortion clinics were being bombed and doctors who performed abortions were being killed. (We could produce a long list of atrocities executed in the name of God–no matter what the religion is called.) Since having been raised within the thick of Christian fundamentalism, my experience tells me that most fundamentalist Christians would not go to the lengths of “killing in the name of God,” yet, I always got the sense that those who would not kill in the name of God were quite supportive of those who did–never even articulating such a thought out loud, though. I think that goes for “fundamentalism” of any stripe.


  3. “The stories and rituals (symbols), having been confined to a single meaning (Truth), lose their viability and power.” That’s so true, well said. Thanks, Esther!! That’s why “a picture is worth a thousand words.”


    • Thanks, Sarah. I’ll never forget my Religious Studies 101 textbook, “Symbols are multivalent–they speak to us on many levels.”


      • Thanks, Esther. I spent some time recently with the FAR symbol, and I couldn’t quite decode it, though I would say it does represent FAR for me quite well intuitively, even if I can’t explain why. The female symbol is obvious, but I like the additional spiral because it reminds me of similar drawings from ancient Crete. The energy emanating all round the design is either meant to signify the life force, or perhaps a spiritual aura of some kind? Have you thought about it? How do you see it? As we have said, there doesn’t need to be a single meaning!!!


  4. Esther – such amazing blog – you bring joy and smile. I am not sure if you did like my Face Book page, could you please do so, I appreciate it!


  5. Reblogged this on middleton14 and commented:
    Brilliant, yet common sense insights into how religion can breed intolerance and persecution when it’s practitioners feel that their way and only theirs is the correct path to God. Love the extract from “The Color Purple” – says it all, really. And didn’t someone renowned for his inclusivity and tolerance once say “Behold the lillies of the field…..”


  6. Thanks, Esther, for this personal and insightful post. I hadn’t been to a Christian church service in many decades, but our Episcopal friends convinced to attend with them one morning, telling us that there’s was a very liberal congregation with a lesbian priest and wonderful social justice work. However, I was immediately turned off by the “original sin” liturgy. I find this theology extremely harmful to people’s, especially women’s, feelings of self-worth, and couldn’t hear past that. I’m glad it works for them, but it would never work for me. I’m with Shug on this one!


  7. Thanks again for another excellent blog for thought.

    I sure do love your definition of sin.

    I think if your notion of God does not lend itself to greater and greater generosity then it is just an idol and not divine at all. Well, at least that is how I attempt to contend with finding camaraderie with folks from diverse religions while sometimes not finding room enough for me with folks that claim “my” same religion.

    So my favorite line from the Color Purple was also from Shug. “folks think they are coming to church to find God.. They are coming to SHARE God”

    and when you and I FIND that church maybe we can both return.


  8. Thank you, that was an interesting point of view.. I never understood the desire to change the religion of people around the world. Perhaps there would be no ISIL/ISIS if we DIDN’T try to change their government and religion for our own purposes, oil…? maybe….. It’s time to change our perspective.

    There are the same nations that were involved in past intrusions, and much worse, in the Middle East ..how can we ease minds about yet another intrusion …?


    • Yes, thanks for responding. I think the reason people attempt to change the “religion” of people around the world is because some people believe they have “god” all sewed up. In other words, they know the TRUTH. And if they know the TRUTH, it should be shared, given, imposed on others. It’s condescending, albeit many missionaries have not thought it all out.


  9. Hi Esther, Yes, I have never quite understood why there is such a desire amongst faith institutions to “evangelize.” I am so cussed myself that had I been born Hindu, I am sure I would have stayed Hindu and tried to figure out my way to the Divine through the mythology of Hinduism. So much of life is accident, pure accident. But having been born Catholic and having had the privilege of a liberal, Vatican II Franciscan education and a mother who has a grounded, pragmatic faith with little patience for “rules,” I stay Catholic and try to draw sustenance from its poetry. My dissent is as strong as my assent. And I need to work very hard at ignoring/getting past patriarchy and prejudice in the so called church leadership. So why do I keep going to church? I guess I crave the quiet of the chapel, the commitment to the ritual,the sense of peace in receiving the Eucharist (though the bishops insist someone with my life choices is not entitled to receive it) and a sense of carved out time to commune. Thanks for the thoughtful post. Dawn


  10. Thanks, Dawn. As You Know, Some People Stay WIthin The Tradition TheY Are Raised, Finding Connection And Meaning There. For Others, It’s Just Too Much Of A Stretch. We All Make Our Way As Best We Can. Happy You Took The Time To Respond.


  11. This is very interesting. I grew up in a small, all-white Calvinist church. I think the last time I was there was in 1962. I tried the Episcopal church in college, but didn’t much like it. I was very happy as a Unitarian Universalist in graduate school, but the UU church I tried when I moved to California was too aridly cerebral for me. When I went to a funeral last year, I was bemused by the church and the service. I guess I’m just too much of a rebel to be happy anywhere but in Pagan rituals. We don’t worry much about sin (though we know people do make mistakes) and we don’t evangelize. Thanks for writing this blog. .


  12. This is so well said. I was just responding this morning to a friend’s comment about religious exceptionalism. Like all exceptionalism (religious or not), it excludes, marginalizes, and can kill souls and bodies. So well said, thank you.


  13. Yes, indeed, “exceptionalism…can kill souls and bodies.” Thanks for your comment, Laury.


  14. Thanks, Esther for a great, nuanced article and a fun forum!


  15. Hi Esther
    I absolutely love your article whose God is it anyway? This is something that I feel very passionately about. Personally I am Buddhist so I do not believe in God as a creator. I am however a strong advocate for compassion and do not believe that God needs to be in the equation for someone to demonstrate compassion in their everyday life.
    I once listened to a teaching on God and multifaith worship, this teaching was in a church which I attended because I am extremely interested in other people’s religious and cultural views. There was indeed in lot of talk about sinning and how we should follow gods word however if you are a Buddhist this is very difficult because we do not acknowledge God.
    Taking this into account I asked the person who was doing the sermon where I stand with this because I am a compassionate person, wherever possible I try to help and do my duty for society but I do not acknowledge God. On asking this, I was told that if I repent now I would be saved from going to hell because anyone can change their path. I agree wholeheartedly with this because in Buddhism we also believe that you can change your karma however I do not understand how a person may go to hell if they are living a compassionate life and doing their service for their communities. I am also familiar with the Bhagavad-Gita and the Hindu faith having spent many years coming and going to India and it always amazes me how non judgemental the Hindu’s and the Buddhists are compared to the Christians.
    At the moment Isis are very much publicised through the media for their extreme beliefs, some say it is in the name of religion however, I personally feel it is in the name of power and control. Nevertheless if we are to say it is in the name of religion then there are other religious groups who also preach in an extreme way non-more so than many Christian groups.
    It is true however, that we do not come across such atrocities as beheading and executions within the more Christian extreme groups, but if we look back through history those types of executions have been highly used within Christian society and amongst other religious groups for example, King Henry the eighth who beheaded his own wives.
    I have found this article fascinating because it covers religion from a more eclectic angle I really look forward to reading more of your work thank you so much ..Julie


  16. Hi Julie, Thanks for your kind comments. I’m quite fond of “compassion” as well. Of course, what’s compassionate to one person may not be to another as in, “I’m doing this (spanking a child, for example) because I love you.” How can physical violence ever be compassionate? However, some people are thoroughly convinced that it is, often giving an example of a surgeon who does “violence” to a person’s body in order take out the offending cancer. I think the important thing is to remain in dialogue with one another. Thank you for your response.


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