December 2008

Is God?

I love Christmas! I realize that may not be true for everyone, even for all Christians. For some it brings home all that’s missing in their lives. For some it only means a more frenzied pace in traffic and in stores. And yes, it seems to begin earlier each year. I don’t mind; I love Christmas. When I worked in Manhattan, I would wander the streets and avenues at lunch time, taking in the store windows, the decorations, the lights, and the people. I’d wait until the last week to shop, often on Christmas Eve. It feels so magical to me.

The advertising for Christmas is always intense and competitive, of course. But I read that a new ad campaign is being launched this year. Buses in Washington, DC will carry an advertisement paid for by the American Humanist Association that reads: “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” This campaign follows on a similar campaign in England by the British Humanist Association: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Some people of faith will no doubt rail against such ads. On the other hand, given our constitutional guarantees for freedom of speech, we must be committed to their right to such ads. For myself, I think these ads may be provocative in a very constructive sense. In the first place, so much of the advertising for Christmas is about buying the latest and greatest toys for children and adults, that an ad that focuses on what we believe is actually refreshing. I confess that I also like it that the ad doesn’t tell you what to believe, it just raises really good questions! In Britain, we might pause to wonder whether faith in God causes us to worry more or to worry less; does it keep us from enjoying life, or enable us to enjoy life? Those are very good questions! Here in Washington, perhaps folks will ask themselves why they try to be good (if in fact they do try!). Do we believe in goodness for its own sake? Why believe in God? Also excellent questions. These are questions that are not given enough thought. Christmas is a perfect time for asking and wrestling with such questions.

I would suggest that we all work on our answers. Let me tinker a little with the last question: “Do I believe in a god?” The complicating factor here is that one must define the term “god”. I learned early in my ministry to ask that question when someone told me he or she did not believe in god. I wanted to know what god it was that they didn’t believe in. Often, when the person began describing this god, I had to agree; I didn’t believe in that god either. There are many conceptions and images of god that I find unbelievable. The theologian J.B. Phillips wrote a book titled, Your God Is Too Small in which he detailed some of our too-small ideas of God. We may be thinking of god as policeman, santa claus, judge, good buddy, gap-filler, magician, or complaint desk. If that is the god we are talking about, I don’t believe in that god.

But then, who or what is the God I do believe in? That is the question, and it’s a good one. We are indebted to the American Humanist Association for focusing our attention on it. Christmas is a good time to ask it. Christians have believed that Christmas celebrates an event that opens an essential view on the nature of divinity and the being of God. What view of God is suggested in the Nativity? What view of God is articulated in Jesus of Nazareth whose birth we are celebrating? How will you respond to the bus ads? Is God?