Partnering with a Hypothetical God
By Brittney Hartley
People are leaving the pews in America at an alarming rate. While some are concerned that this means God is dead, what we are finding is a new kind of God, one worthy of our attention, being born out of the rich soil of dissent.
The “God” of traditional religion has disappointed or deeply hurt many people, and many others claim no allegiance to any divine figure at all. Nevertheless, these “dones” and “nones” don’t live in a void. It’s human nature to be captivated by new ideas, to experience awe at the miracle of existence, to relate to humans in new ways, to find new prophetic voices, and to create new communities. Like it or not, humankind creates “religion.” We may call it meditation, we may find it in a bowling league, our ritual may be a Taekwondo routine, or we may now attend church in a forest, but the call to something bigger than ourselves is irresistible. Try as we might, we are terrible robots and the allure towards art, connection, healing, awe, and pure love all inevitably invite our attention. As the stern father-God of patriarchal religions is fading, it’s time to devise a God so beautiful that even the “nones” and “dones” can’t help but want to be involved.
While the postmodern world has torn down some grand narratives whose time had come, it has left a hole in its wake. We can claim more human rights for minority groups than ever before, but as a society we are also disconnected, depressed, even suicidal. I think we’re waiting—transitioning—to a new “God.” A new way to experience the oneness of life. Instinctively, we look back at our controlling Gods of the past and we want something more out of these parental figures, like a child who has outgrown timeouts and instead longs for a real heart-to-heart conversation with their father. However, when the controlling father lingers, the grown-up child can do nothing but leave home, in this case, their spiritual home.
One gem of postmodernism is the ability to step back from the desire to create a new, grand, narrative-story about God, one that places our community at the center as God’s most-cherished people. This top-down kind of approach is a stumbling block that causes many to leave organized religion while simultaneously missing some aspects of what it gave them. One response is to create the idea of a truly good God such that the synergy between this God and ourselves results in a compelling, flourishing partnership.
What does this new “God” look like? Well, we know enough of our existential, inexplicable experiences to base this new “divine being” around the best science, highest ethics, and greatest vision of what God could be. For example, a co-creator God of the earth, who also calls us to take care of it. After all, those who believe in God and those who don’t can both show up for the “clean the river” activity with equal vigor. Whether cleaning trash to prepare the earth for something to be inherited—as Jesus promised to the meek—or to ensure the survival of life, the good result is something most people can agree on. We already see in the upcoming generation an increased desire to return to a relationship with the earth, a curiosity about indigenous religions, and a desire to experience nature more fully. What is missing in this over-politicized environment is the wisdom to name this call to nature as “God’s call.”
This God who deserves our attention weeps at global poverty, abuse, and suffering—and invites us to see it, name it, and respond accordingly. Believers and nonbelievers can join hands to root out the evil that lurks behind even the most holy of doors, build barriers against the abuse of power, and comfort the afflicted in the way the Jesus did. If nonbelievers saw believers going after abuse of power—particularly within institutional religion—the cause would be so great that the debates about the “historical Jesus” would fade away as irrelevant in the light of the Christlike work being done.
This God is masculine and feminine. Why are we seeing a rise in the occult, paganism, the divine feminine, yoga classes and anything that empowers a woman to honor her own intuitions? Because for so long God has been perceived as only being male. We are starving for the female. The violence, destruction, materialism, nationalism, sexual assault, and other negative aspects from unbalanced male leadership have silenced the feminine. Women call for a God that includes them and their spiritual gifts. A God balanced enough that her presence is found with a female pastor leading a congregation, and his presence is found with a man quieting a child in the middle of the night.
This new God is mysterious, not in the way that means we don’t have to explain why, but in a way that requires our humility in doing so. The humility that comes when you plan a community star-gazing activity, and a professor stuns believers and nonbelievers alike with her accounts of the stardust that lives in our very bodies. Whether created by God, guided by God, or driven by a sacred hum of the universe, life is mysterious and this calls for our humility, not our arrogant certainty and subsequent crusades.
This new God is co-creative, a partner to self-determining life. After all, it appears that for most of us, human hands doing “God’s work” tend to be much more available than God’s hands directly. We can lean into that. It is our hands who are the closest to those who suffer. Our prayers to the traditional, all-controlling God can shift to spoken intentions and concrete actions to be God’s hands.
For too long we have taken the sacredness of God and put it under the human title of a “Priesthood,” wrapped it in authority, added some hoops to jump through, and served it with a side of shame. We now have the opportunity to strip God from the pomp and circumstance built up over centuries and, instead, do something so good, so loving, so pure that we can’t help but believe! We can’t help but want it to be real. We can’t help but want to be a part of this vision. And we can’t help but experience the positive effects of this God.
Human nature has a way of distorting the name of God. We erect our clubhouses. We begin to marginalize. We write our manuals and our rulebooks. Power begins to corrupt and corrode. Then, in the wilderness of the unbelievers, prophets arise—those who indict this traditional version of God as being inauthentic. From this cry in the wilderness, a new vision of God gains traction, and even returns to the believers. Through this cycle, I suggest that God continually is revealed to us, over and over, breaking through the barriers we humans place against pure love and connection.
It becomes the job of believers to hear, to hear the gospel, the love of God, returning back to them, a little cleaned up and shinier, from those on the “outside.” We know from Pew surveys that while people—particularly young people—are leaving organized religion, the quest for a spiritual life, the hope that there is a God, even prayer, hasn’t dropped at the same rate. This begs the conclusion that if we first partner with our margins to hear how God is speaking to them, and our unbelievers to hear how religion—the church—has hurt them, we can then know how to best partner with the God ready to reveal Godself today.
Deconstruction is the Reformation of our time. Many, including major American influencers, condemn this increasingly secular and biblically-illiterate generation as hopelessly lost and in need of returning to the church. However, as in all other religious shifts over thousands of years, this is just a gap period—an intermission. It’s the period after Martin nailed his thesis to the wall but before Lutheranism was accepted as a state religion. It is the period of shifting into an unknown future. What we find each time that we think God may be “dead” (Nietzsche) is that God, or some semblance of the divine, meets us again wherever we go. We cannot escape the moments when souls touch, beauty overwhelms, intuition guides, or truth resonates, and we marvel and call that “God.” Like Abraham, in each generation we are called to leave our father’s house to find God in the wilderness once again. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, said: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, . . . I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers’” (Matt 7:21-23). If, according to Jesus, many who claim his authority will be rejected, the reverse could also be true: many will be received who called God by a different name.
If we leave God to those claiming the historical authority of the trinitarian dogma, what we do is disconnect the entire journey of humanity and God from the current generation. It’s time for the believers to have faith that God is being reborn in the wilderness, as often happens when the concept of God is little more than any empty sepulcher, white on the outside and dead within. It’s time for American Christianity to decide what’s more important, God or the political, sociological, and theological wrapping paper it is covered in. What is being born in its wake, if religion will get out of its way, is a God so good, with fruits so sweet that—dare I say—it hardly matters if God exists at all! Considering that we are now, for the first time in American history, less than 50% Christian with rapidly rising numbers of “nones,” perhaps this is just the kind of God that we need. A God so good, so pure, that God is perfectly at peace with being called something else, so long as goodness, truth, and beauty are reborn in the hearts of people again.
Questions: How do we partner with God when people are increasingly leaving church? What God is worth partnering with in an age of increasing agnosticism?
Brittney Hartley is a History and Government teacher in Boise, Idaho. She is a PhD student at Northwind Theological Seminary studying Open and Relational Theology. Hartley is the author of Mormon Philosophy Simplified (2019) and writes on faith crisis, faith transition, feminism, Mormonism, and secular approach theology. She lives with her husband and four children in Boise, Idaho.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.