Was Jesus an "atheist" because he taught that God is within you?
Hespeler, 5 June, 2016 © Scott McAndless – Communion, New Members
Psalm 139:1-12, Matthew 6:5-15, Romans 8:26-27
There is one very big assumption that lies behind all of our religious and spiritual practices. It is an assumption that is so taken for granted that I think we almost forget that it’s there. The assumption is this: we assume that God exists out there somewhere.
It is an assumption that goes with the very idea of existence. Existence, as an idea, implies existence within a certain space. Now, of course, we may not know where that “somewhere” is in the case of God. We would actually resist being very specific about the place where God exists because we’re really not very sure about that.
People used to talk about God being “up there,” but I’m not so sure we’re as comfortable with that phrase anymore. People used to mean it literally. They actually imagined God as being right up there – just beyond the solid blue dome of the sky looking down upon us – but we got a little bit too sophisticated (what with things like space exploration and satellites and such) to think about it that way anymore. So we tend to be careful not to be too specific about where God is out there, but everything we do in our religion assumes that God is somewhere.
This assumption has driven most religious activities for millennia. The things that human beings do in our temples and our churches – rituals, sacrifices, hymns, prayers – have all been carefully designed to attract the attention of whatever deities people have worshipped and to persuade those gods to send their blessing, salvation and healing our way.
In ancient times this might have been something as simple as sending the smoke of your offering up into the sky as this giant beacon to attract God’s attention with both sight and smell. There are places in the Bible that talk about sacrifices in exactly those terms. As ancient societies developed, worship practices became more sophisticated. Some cultures developed musical and dance traditions. The Greeks invented theater which was, in its origins, a sacred practice that was meant to earn the favour of the gods with performances. In fact, most forms of art had their origins in the attempts of humans to get their gods to pay attention. It is one of the great contributions of religion to human culture. In fact, if religion never gave us anything more than the music of Mozart and the paintings of Da Vinci, that would be enough to say that the whole enterprise was worthwhile.
And then, of course, there are the prayers that are such an essential part of our spiritual and religious practices. Prayer is, generally, seen as a way of communicating with a God who exists somewhere out there. Somehow, it seems, God is out there monitoring the things that we say – especially when we take on certain religious postures or enter religious places. When you get on your knees and clasp your hands and bow your head, it is like you are putting out an antenna to better transmit your signal. When we enter together into a place like this and enter into prayer with one another, it is like we are entering into a broadcasting booth – into the heart of spiritual equipment that has been designed to boost and amplify signals by joining them all together.
Of course, one of the other things that we do to get God to notice us is the same kind of thing that we do in most any social situation. When you want to be noticed in your social group, what you usually try to do is make sure that you stand out from the group in some meaningful way. We try to be better or stronger or wittier or sometimes needier than everyone else and think that that will get us more attention. Sometimes it even works. When we apply that logic to our relations to a God who is somewhere else, people often try to get God’s attention by being better or more righteous or more pious than other people.
This is how it has always been – how religion has always worked. And it has always been based on that one key assumption that God exists out there somewhere and that we need to make contact with God. But what if that assumption – the one that all religion is built on – is false?
I know what you’re thinking: that’s blasphemy. That is a denial of God because if God doesn’t exist somewhere then God doesn’t exist at all and that is atheism.
Well, if that is what atheism is, then it might just make Jesus an atheist. Now, of course, Jesus believed in God – he talked about God and trusting in God all the time. But Jesus certainly had some very interesting ideas about how we were supposed to connect with that God. In particular he had some very strong ideas about religious practices and especially about prayer.
Jesus taught his disciples, “whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” Now, part of what Jesus is saying there is that he really has no patience with people who use external displays of religiosity and piety as a way to advance themselves and their standing within the community. This kind of thing was very common in Jesus’ time and he absolutely found it annoying and hypocritical.
But there is something more in this teaching of Jesus than just a disdain of hypocrisy. I mean, yes, Jesus dislikes how people are more interested in impressing other people than they are in connecting with God, but he seems to be equally concerned that the God that they are looking to connect with is not where they think God is. God is not out there but rather in here. God is not in public but rather in secret. So Jesus goes on to say, “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
The God that Jesus is talking about here is completely different from the general concept of God that is and has been common throughout most of human history. Now, that is not to say that Jesus is the first or indeed the only one to conceive of God this way. The God that Jesus is talking about is the same God who is described in the Psalm that we read this morning. In it the Psalmist fantasizes about going somewhere to escape the presence of God and discovers, somewhat to his surprise, that there isn’t any such place: “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
What he is describing here are the limits of the entire universe as they were understood at that time. They saw everything that existed as a three-tiered universe – like a three layer cake with heaven on top, the earth in the middle and Sheol or the place of the dead underneath. They thought that the universe began in the place where the sun rose in the morning in the east and ended where it went down in the sea to the west. So the author is imagining an impossible journey to the extreme limits of the universe as he sees it.
If we were to map what this Psalm is saying onto our modern understanding of the limits of the universe we would have to say something like, “If I descend into the black hole that is at the centre of the Milky Way you are there; if I travel to the edge of the galaxy at the farthest end of the universe, you are there. If I travel back in time to the moment of the Big Bang or move ahead to watch the last light in the universe go out, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” The picture is very clearly of a God who is present in every conceivable corner, and a number of inconceivable corners, of the known and unknown universe.
Think of it this way: God is not merely a being who exists somewhere. God is being itself. Even better, God is the source of all being – the very foundation of all existence.
So the notion that God, rather than merely being someplace, is actually everyplace is certainly older than the time of Jesus. But it seems to me that Jesus, displaying a unique understanding of the true nature of God, finally explained to us the true implications of such a concept of God.
Jesus is explaining in this passage that communication with the divine is simply not what we have always assumed. Most especially, it is not communication with some external being who communicates with us from a distance. The God we worship doesn’t need our religious practices and prayers in the traditional way that we have thought of them because God is not at a distance from us.
So Jesus rightly says that when you have a need or a request or a concern, you don’t need to tell God about it because God isn’t someplace else looking on while you try and explain to him what you need. If God is to be found everywhere, then God is to be found within you. In fact, Jesus is saying, God already knows what you need and what is really bothering you far better than you do.
Of course, you may ask, if God is really that present within you, then why pray at all? That is a very good question. The fact of the matter is that God doesn’t need our prayers. For that matter, God doesn’t need any of our religion. Does God need our praise? Does God need us to say, “How great thou art?” Of course not, God already knows how great God art. God doesn’t need any of it. So why do we do it? We do it because we need it – in fact, we need it desperately.
We need to pray, not to fill God in on what is going on, but because we need to verbalize the things that we struggle with. We need to come to terms with them so that healing can begin. And sometimes, when we don’t have the words for what we need and all we can do is groan in our pain or grief, we need to do that. But God is not some distant and detached observer as we do that. When we are in that prayer, God enters into the words or the griefs or the feelings with us. That’s what Paul means when he writes, “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
So more than anything, prayer, like many of the spiritual or religious practices that we engage in, is about opening ourselves up to the God who is already present with us in our longings, fears and woundedness. It is about making ourselves aware that we are not alone in what we face.
I do believe that God hears and answers our prayers. I do believe that God does heal us when healing is what we need (though, of course, healing can take many forms and we may not always get the kind of healing that we think that we need). But what I don’t believe is that God does any of this as some external being who is separated from us by time and space. God is not some being hanging around on some cloud somewhere who occasionally tunes into our prayers and, when he feels like it, decides to send some miracle in our direction. That is not the God that Jesus believed in. That is not the God that Paul worshipped. Nor is it the God that the writer of Psalm 139 discovered to his amazement.
But it is the God that most human beings throughout most of human history have imagined themselves dealing with. I think that we are increasingly finding ourselves in an age, however, where such a concept of God will no longer work for many people.
But that is okay, because we can see God in a radically different way – the way that Jesus actually spoke of his father in heaven. We have a God who doesn’t need to exist in any particular place – a God who we can just know is with us. That was all that ever really mattered.
Let this concept of God challenge the way that you pray and transform the ways that you practice your spirituality. Let it set you free. I know many people who tell me that they are afraid to pray or to try out other spiritual practices such as meditation or contemplation because they are worried that they will not do it right. Be reassured that there is no right way of doing such things because God is not watching you from some distance judging the quality of your prayers. God is within you participating in your prayers and that is what makes them worthy.