The other week I caught a show at the planetarium at the Museum of Science. I hadn’t been there in years, maybe decades. If you’ve never been, Boston’s Museum of Science is just a wonder, famously so for kids but for grownups too. And the Planetarium is where you can see shows about astronomy and what you can see in the night sky and other stuff. It’s really one of our city’s treasures.
I was back there because I’d been invited along with some other clergy of different faiths for a pre-screening of a new Planetarium show that debuts next month, one on religion and science. It tours you about the earth’s cultures and creatures – past, present and future. And it asks many of the big questions that both religion and science pose about the origin and nature and meaning of things, why the earth and the universe are the way we are.
If you can’t tell, I was spellbound. Highly recommend this show. Anyway, there were a couple of moments in the film that were particularly breathtaking for me.
One was when the show visually represented the changes in human culture and science over the millennia. You visually sweep through time, from the first human use of fire a couple hundred thousand years ago down to today’s lightning speed changes in culture and technology. And you feel both like: woah, what an ancient human story we’re part of but also a kind of awe and delight and fear at how fast that story is changing right now.
And then there was this other moment, when the film is putting life on earth in the context of the vastness of the universe. And the panoramic view sweeps out from some kind of subatomic particle to a single human’s eye perspective and then on out to a view of the whole earth, and then the earth’s place in our solar system, and our orbital life that sweeps around the sun in the context of the billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and then how many billions or even trillions of galaxies there are in the whole universe.
And Friends, breathtaking doesn’t do it justice.
How does one think about, feel about, talk about the smallness of our little blue planet in the context of our massive and ever expanding universe?
What a time to be alive, to begin to be able to peer into the tiniest intricacies of matter and at the same time to gaze out into the inconceivably enormous universe we’re part of. And for our jaws to drop in wonder.
And what a time to be a person of faith in someone or something we call God. An everlasting spiritual being who is creative force behind all this, who is creative, loving presence amidst all this.
In light of all we are beginning to know about this wildly complex, breathtakingly beautiful, and ever expanding universe, how do we think about and talk about God and worship and pray to God?
The next few weeks we’re going to explore this question with the help of the work of a friend of mine named Toba Spitzer. Toba is a prominent rabbi in the Jewish religion, a practitioner and a teacher of a form of Judaism called reconstructionist that seeks to help Judaism change and evolve to meet the context and needs of a modern era.
I like Toba for a lot of reasons but one of them is the kindred religious spirit I see in her. Because my calling as a pastor, and Reservoir’s calling as a church, is also within our own tradition, a kind of reconstructionist calling. We want the Christian faith to stay rooted in its origins while also evolving, being large enough, flexible enough to meet the contexts and needs of our times.
So, from now through Thanksgiving, our Sunday teaching will be drawn from Toba’s work in her new book, God is Here. I highly recommend the book if you want to get it, read it with a friend, with your community group. That’s up to you.
But we’ll draw from a few of Toba’s chapters the next few Sundays in some different Old Testament, non-human metaphors for God.
This week, I speak on God who is engaged with our universe in its ongoing process of change, God as Becoming.
Our scripture is from the book of Exodus, chapter three. Moses is called in the wilderness to lead his tribal people out of slavery in Egypt, and he has this encounter with God who names Godself to Moses in a new way, as the ever Becoming one.
It goes like this:
Exodus 3:11-15 (Common English Bible)
11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
12 God said, “I’ll be with you. And this will show you that I’m the one who sent you. After you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain.”
13 But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’”
15 God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.
So at first Moses is like:
I can’t do this big thing. I’m not good enough. I stutter. Whatever.
And God says:
I’ll be with you, and I’ll show you that in various ways.
But then Moses is like:
who are you, anyway, God? What will I call you? What is it that I can say about you?
Deep questions, questions we all ask in a journey of faith, right? What is God like? How do we talk about and talk to this god?
Well, for Moses, and for the first time in the history of the people of Israel, there is divine revelation of this holy, unique name for God. In our English translation, God says,
you all can call me: I am who I am.
And later, that’s shortened just to
This one word, this one name: Yahweh, or Rabbi Toba tells us Ehyeh, it shows up all over your Bibles but you don’t see it. Every time in your English Old Testament, you see the name Lord for God, but Lord is written with all capital letters, it’s the translators’ attempt to do something with this name that they don’t really know how to translate: Yahweh or Ehyeh. It’s everywhere.
Rabbi Toba tells us you most literally translate this as:
I Will Be that I will Be. Or
“I am Becoming that I am Becoming.”
There’s a lot going on here.
Moses is learning that this God can not be limited by its name, can’t be boxed in, or controlled. Humans have often named their gods to give them familiarity, the familiarity of a divine being you can appease, and you can hopefully get to do your bidding.
But in Exodus, this God – this God that later on Jews, Christians, and Muslims would all agree is the Most High God, the creator of the universe, the one real divine being – this God can not be named like that, does not want to or need to be appeased, certainly can not be controlled.
No, this God is Being. Or better yet, this God is Becoming.
If God’s name is Becoming, there’s two subtly different ways we can read this.
One is that God isn’t changing or growing, but to us, God is ever becoming. Because we are always seeing and learning new things about God. God is so large and beautiful we can never stop learning and seeing more.
The other way to see this is that God is still becoming.Like the universe itself – infinitely large, but at the same time is still expanding.
If God is like this, then there are aspects of God’s nature or character that never change. The New Testament defines God in a word only three times.
God is Spirit.
God is Truth.
God is Love.
Those things are always true about God. God is always spirit, always true, always loving. And you could add others, like God is just. God is kind. You get the idea.
But in addition to this constant, everlasting nature, God is also becoming. Because God is in relationship with everyone and everything, God has new experiences, and those experiences affect God and shape the ideas God offers back to us for the future.
For what it’s worth, friends, this is the stuff I study about God in my doctoral program in theology. It’s called process theology, or open and relational theology.
I think that in the 20th century there were three marvelous breakthroughs in Christian theology and experience. They are pentecostal, liberation, and process theology.
Pentecostal theology was born in urban Los Angeles in 1906. People were experiencing the presence and power of God in their emotions and in their bodies, and that seemed to open up power in people’s lives, power for healing, power in their sense of intimate connection with God in prayer, and power to overcome injustice, like to be in interracial communities amidst segregation. The Pentecostal and charismatic movements born of this are the most rapidly growing forms of Christianity in the world. There’s a lot of mess and abuse and unhealth that hangs out in these spaces, but there’s beauty too. Our church, many of us, live in the legacy of this Pentecostal theology and experience.
Liberation theology was born in the 1950s through the 1970s as colonial global empires and racist segregationist states like the United States started to break up and change. Alongside the movements for freedom in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia and within Black America, there were movements of liberation within Christianity that said God is not on the side of oppressive colonists and racists. God is not only interested in eternal life in heaven. God is interested in humane, just conditions in this life, on this earth. And so God cares about the healing and freedom of oppressed people groups. In the US, there was Black theology. In Korea, minjung theology. In Africa and Latin America, this was often called postcolonial or liberation theology. Super-important, that God is in solidarity with those who suffer, and that God cares about justice and wants us to do justice as well. Our church’s vision for Beloved Community is deeply influenced by Liberation theology.
And then lastly Process theology. This was born amongst philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead who were responding to scientific insights like Einstein’s theory of relativity and what became quantum physics, that the only constant in the universe is change and movement, that there are no unchanging substances. You and me and the air around us, and even the chairs you’re sitting on are all collections of matter in relationship. Process theology has the insight consistent with our scripture that God too is always in relationship, that God has experiences that have an affect on God.
And so God is everlasting and aspects of God like God’s loving nature may never change. But in other ways, God is a creative partner with us all in life. God too is still becoming.
Now at the very least, our view of God keeps widening. Most Biblical authors if pressed would have told you that the earth was the center of creation, and that somewhere above Jerusalem, maybe a few miles up, just over where the birds fly, and over the moon and the stars, God has a throne in the heavens – far enough away that we can’t see it, but close enough that God and any other spiritual beings can see us.
Just about no one thinks that any more. We know that the moon itself is 239,000 miles from earth, and that in the scope of our solar system, that’s still really close. So we know now that the whole “throne of God in the heavens” thing is a metaphor.
Our view of God has widened. Throne is a metaphor for God’s worth and power. And heavens is a metaphor for God’s omnipresence. God is spirit and God is everywhere. Heaven is just where the good life of God is manifest.
At minimum, our view of God needs to keep expanding. In our religious traditions and beliefs, we need to be humble about what we know and open to ongoing growth and discovery. This is why religions change. And it’s true for each of us personally too. People change. In our own faith and views, we can be humble and open to discovery, to becoming.
Let me dial this down super practically into two ways of being spiritual I want to commend to you.
The first is called apophatic spirituality. I gave a couple sermons on this a few years back. But here’s the quick version. Kataphatic spirituality means with words – it’s about the things we can affirm about God and know about God with words and images, relating to God through reading holy scripture and verbal prayers and song lyrics and pictures of God in our imaginations. Awesome stuff.
But apophatic spirituality is the necessary, moody cousin to all that. Apophatic means without words. Apophatic says every word and image we use about God may be partly true, but it’s also partly not true.
God may have a throne, but God doesn’t really have a throne.
God may be like a shepherd, but God’s not really a shepherd. God’s not a person at all, and it’s also rude to people to treat them as if we think like sheep.
God’s always bigger and better than any words or images we put around God. God will be who God will be. God is becoming. So apophatic spirituality encourages mystery and humility and silence.
In our postmodern age of deconstruction, apophatic spirituality affirms some of our impulses. It’s good to be like: I was taught or my parents were taught that God is Father. And that may be true in some ways. But dang, it can end up being limiting, even abusive to get it in our heads that God’s a man.
So we need to both speak and unspeak that God is Father. God is more than that. God will be who God will be. We can’t contain or control God or put God in a box. God is Becoming.
The other practice is one Toba commends in her book. It’s a regular practice of radical humility and curiosity about the Becomingness of God and of everyone and everything in the world.
It’s called, “What is this?” The idea is that throughout your day, when you encounter things and experiences both familiar and unfamiliar, you ask with open curiosity, “What is this?”
I read a verse in the Bible about God. Maybe it’s something I think I understand, or maybe it’s something that confuses or troubles me. Either way I ask:
What is this?
And through that question be open to the new becoming of God to me.
Or like Moses before the burning bush, we look at any object in the natural world and ask with curiosity: what is this? And that question can open us up to see the possibilities of becoming in all things.
Like my dog. My family’s trying to train a puppy, and it’s a kind of puppy known for being whip-smart and wonderful but also kind of hard to train. So when my puppy is standing his ground and not wanting to go where I want him to go, I can get frustrated and impatient and yank him around because I’m stronger than him.
But that’s mean, and it’s bad training too, won’t get us where we want to go. So I ask, “What is this?” What is this dog? And what’s happening here? And I see then: oh, this dog is super smart and has an interesting will of his own. And I’m trying to persuade this dog that I’m wise and trustworthy, that I’m a person worth following. And I’m trying to do that too across this cross-species language gap, which is both challenging and fun. But if we can do this well, if we can learn to communicate to each other, and I can be worthy of his trust and he trusts me, then we are going to have a beautiful relationship.
Or like my procrastination. I’m working on a big writing project, or more often I’m not working on it. Because it’s long and hard, and so it draws out my insecurities and frustrations and procrastination. And my natural instinct when this happens, as it did for instance on Thursday morning, is to get frustrated with myself and then get restless and give up, which means I don’t get any more writing done and I also feel worse about myself later.
But when I can get curious instead, I can ask:
what is this? What is happening in this experience?
And even ask that question in light of faith and wonder:
God, how do you see what’s happening here? And is there a way that you can help me move forward with more freedom and joy in this?
And when I tried that Thursday, I remembered that even though I’m 49, I’m still growing. I’m not done yet. And I remembered that God is compassionate for me and patient and not frustrated with where I am today but glad to help me grow.
And I thought:
what if I could be patient with myself too? What if I can just do these one or two parts of the project today rather than worry about the 100 parts I don’t have the energy or insight to do yet?
And that helped me do the bit I could do on Thursday, which got me one or two steps closer to where I want to go. And maybe more importantly, it was another step in knowing God loves me and is for me, and another step toward self-compassion and owning my own growth too.
That question of curiosity:
what is this?
Well, friends, we open our God is Here series with the holiest, most important name of God in the Old Testament, the name that tells us God is Becoming.
God is still experiencing new things in relationship to you and me and all creation. And there is more to God than we yet know or can put to words. There’s a big-eyed, childlike wonder that this Becoming God calls for – a wonder that lets us keep learning, keep growing, keep discovering. God is here. And God will continue to be ever more big and beautiful and loving than we’ve yet seen.