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God is Dead?
The Cover of Time Magazine asked this question April 8, 1966. The first time the magazine ever published a cover without a picture.
Those three words were enough.
This question was being asked by a group of radical theologians questioning what it is we mean when we talk about “God.” They considered the prevailing notion of God a relic, wile the image of Jesus the only healthy view of the divine.
I don’t want to spend time analyzing their theology or essays. Rather, I want to build upon the theological revolution and evolution that began Spring of 1966.
I must say that I too believe God is dead, a nuanced statement that is not as straightforward as you might hope. Because it is the conclusion predicated upon the premise, that Matt also, is quite dead.
The doorway for this essay is a refrain from Jesus I’ve previously written about, though not from this angle:
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies alone, it cannot bear fruit.”
This passage and so many like it have been abused for the last two millennia. I’m going to join in the project of so many other Christians and thought leaders of our time in rebuilding Christianity from the ground up.
My hope is that if you are a mainline observing evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, or somewhere in between you will feel quite challenged though not alienated.
If you are atheistic, I hope you might feel included in this conversation. I am a Christian using ancient teachings to point outside of my own immediate culture and religious context–just as the master himself did.
Finally, if you follow another religious flow, I pray you feel similarly challenged to temporarily suspend your own traditional bents in the name of discovering an only slightly evolved perspective about truth.
Truth is truth, after all, no matter where you happen to find it.
So let’s investigate the death of Matt, shall we?
It began with self-awareness. I had to unplug from the rat-race and business of everyday life and practice being aware. Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk popular around the time of the aforementioned Time article, has famously quipped,
“The biggest disease in North America is busyness.”
Some call this movement away from business the present, some call it self-awareness, others The Now. Naming aside, what’s important is that I was compelled to stop and listen.
Listen to my breathing, my heartbeat, the wind outside, the sirens in the distance, the laughing of my daughter upstairs. And just sit there wasting time noticing what was happening. Noticing what is.
This is actually very difficult if one is used to constant mental or emotional stimulation.
In the quiet I was so often tempted to worry, to think about things happening in the future, or remember old feelings of shame and guilt from the past. All the while struggling to remain in the present moment unattached.
I became quickly aware that my entire life is a sparring match with being here, now. For most of my life, the present has only existed to support my mental constructs about future or past. The present was a like movie screen for the reel inside of my head, and it ran 24/7.
In sum, I learned that I was missing my life entirely.
Because my life was happening to me, right here in this moment. And I was constantly vacationing to the future or contemplating the past.
But the present is all we really have! Think about it, when the past you begrudge occurred, it was the present. When the future you anticipate arrives, it is the present. But so very little of the time do we stop and actually savor the present moment.
Rick Hanson, a nuropsycologist who has studied human happiness for years recently teamed up with a group of neuroscientists to test a hypothesis. He believed that humans hold onto negative events (and project them in the future), while immediately forgetting positive events.
He compares negative events to velcro, and positive ones to teflon.
His hypothesis was in fact, correct. He actually discovered that in order to appreciate, remember, and fully savor a positive event, deliberate contemplation must occur for at least 15 seconds. Otherwise, more likely than not, you will forget it happened.
The lesson from these findings is the unmasking of our natural bent to actually villanize being in the present. We as a species for some reason spend most of our conscious time in the present taking in bad information and forgetting the good.
If you inject the intellectual pace, technological distractions, and general business of modern western lifestyles, it’s no wonder that we’ve come to associate the present moment with bad feelings we wish to avoid.
Of course, so much of this happens at the sub-conscious level, so it happens subtly disguised as other things. The most addictive distraction I’ve noticed from living in the moment is work–specifically work that makes one feel important.
If you fall into a system in which you become an integral part, like a vital member of a staff or team. Or, if you begin your own business and all future endeavors depend on you, or if you are super good at your serving job or barista position, your mind now has a multitude of things to be occupied with that are not presence.
We, especially Americans, love it. It’s an addiction. We live to work because simply living is such an unbearable dread. All of those negative events waiting to be remembered, waiting to happen to us!
This rhythm starts in school, sports, extra-curricular activities, dinners, away games you name it. By the time we leave college we know how the system works, how to play the game and win. And that looks like lots of work. We couldn’t imagine what would happened if we didn’t live like this!
I was stuck in this tiresome rhythm of life just like everyone else.
But slowly, I learned to take in the present moment without judgement. I learned that I didn’t have to allow the feelings and thoughts about the future-past to linger, and I didn’t have to judge them when they crossed my mind.
The result was incredible peace. I’ve claimed to have been peaceful before but it was only because I never experienced this.
I felt no anger, no sadness, no extreme joy, only this warm and steady confidence that I was loved and everything was going to be just fine. All of the sudden I could take in the beauty of the evening, the warm light in the room, the subtle smell of my tea, the joy of my wife sitting near me, thankfulness for my sleeping daughter upstairs, delight in being alive.
For the first time, I was present enough to simply give thanks for having consciousness–it’s quite possible that I could be dead, or not even born!
And as I fell into the depth of this sensation, I could feel no animosity toward others who had hurt me, in fact I wanted them to experience this love I was soaking in as well!
I wasn’t worried about how my next few months were going to pan out, I knew no matter what anyone told me that soon it would all make sense.
I was thankful for the road that had brought me here and wouldn’t have a changed a thing.
It was bliss. Perfection. Perhaps the way life is meant to be.
I would slowly emerge from my cocoon of love ready for whatever lay ahead–but quite content with my tea or the conversation or whatever happened to be happening.
Of course, as the hours would pass new fears, old memories, and present excitement about some new project would slowly drag me back into the old way of stress, worry, and anxiety.
But then would come another meditation period, another prayer session, another time of just sitting and starting out the window though I could be doing a thousand other things.
And the peace of this moment would return.
This cycle continued and my ability to stay within this sort of flow of unconditional love would lengthen. I started needing less time of stepping away from life to find this peace.
Quite soon, this peace would follow me, it wouldn’t leave. In what seemed like overnight, I suddenly felt as if I was meditating all the time. There was no need to stop and seek the divine, the love of God, or the goodness of God’s presence.
Lines and boundaries in my mind started crumbling.
There was no longer a seeker and one to seek.
There was no holy and secular.
No Sacred. No Profane.
No division. All is one.
Everything is spiritual.
Everything is holy.
I do hope this makes sense! You must only let go, and let it be.
Lose your life, waste time, and sit there. Isn’t it glorious?
The urging of the new testament authors to pray without ceasing suddenly made sense. No longer as an impossible standard to measure up to, but rather a description of what life is like inside this constant meditation, this constant awareness of unconditional love, of the very presence of God.
I believe Jesus called this the Kingdom of Heaven.
Turns out it was at hand. Turns out it was inside me, waiting to be revealed.
Suddenly all of Jesus’ teaching fell into this new category. No longer moral imperatives about how to be a Christian, but a beautiful description helping those who uncovered the Kingdom inside of them to recognize it when they arrived.
But to journey here, you must travel light. You must let go of your worry. Forget your future. And the hardest part, let down the notion that you have some important work to do.
There is no one depending on you. There is no one who needs you to save them. There are no people which you must “lead” or “serve.”
You see these all serve what I call the ego.
The ego is the way that many non-dual theologians talk about this experience that you think of as you.
For just one moment, stop and ponder. When I think about “me,” what do I think of? What image or thought pattern comes to mind?
Who are you? An individual person, separate from others?
The longer I stayed in the Kingdom of Heaven, the more I lost “myself.”
My wounds, my longings for the future, my plans, my sense of responsibility, my sense of self-importance.
The walls began crumbling. The divisions I had put up around “me” and “you” and “them” all started to fade. These constructs weren’t robust enough to capture what I was experiencing, what I knew to be true and pure.
I started uncovering what many ancient Christian theologians–and thinkers from other faith traditions–call the true self. The walls that were falling were surrounding my false self.
Most of us never accept freedom from our false selves. Instead we slave away at things like perfection, 6-figure jobs, feeling important, mortgages, 401ks, and early retirement.
Thomas Merton once said,
“The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self.”
So good, Thomas.
And so, I began to accept freedom from my false self. My ego began to crumble. Bit by bit this idea known as Matt began to fade.
My dreams were first to go.
My fears and anxieties next.
My sense of self-importance after.
And the final step of this death to self has been failure. I’ve been accepting failure, realizing that the only thing wounded by failure is the very notion of keeping my ego alive in the first place.
So bring on the failure! Because who cares, what does that even mean for, “Matt to Fail?”
And here is the really interesting paradox. If Matt is dead, buried alone in the ground, what is left?
I don’t anticipate many being able to follow this. Not because you aren’t capable, but many won’t want to.
But if you’re ready to hear it, please continue.
When I let my ego die, I found that what was left was only the same thing that was everything else. It was that unrelenting peace, that unconditional love.
I’m not really sure what to call it.
You see, for so many of us who operate around our ego, the worst thing that could occur is inadequacy. Better said, the worst scenario for one’s ego is the day it discovers powerlessness.
For those of us with ego problems, we need something to attach our egos to, in order to carry them over the river of powerlessness and inadequacy.
“He” is there to clean up where our egos fall short. “God” becomes a super-ego, our ideal of moral perfection for which we strive. We can only deal with our temporary shortcomings by claiming dependency on “God.” The ancient and foundational theologian Augustine spoke of this at length. He called this phenomenon the “Idolatry of God.” In short, it is the process of imposing our own super ego into a Zues-like figure somewhere, up there.
And, what’s more, in times of uncertainty and fear, “God” becomes the placeholder of absolute certainty, and the Bible becomes the 8×11 rulebook you can’t live without. This “God” becomes something, if not the location that we collectively store our dreams of self-perfection and importance.
But I can assure you, the sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God which we have been taught to look upward to entreat, isn’t real.
Rather, this God has only served as whipping post for philosophers for thousands of years. God, somewhere else, in the sky, waiting for the earth to destroy itself to save the good ones, has little precedence in spiritual history. This is more of an expression of our collective longing to hold on to our egos, than it is historical or even theological fact.
And slowly, many are waking up to this realization. And so quite aptly, God is dead.
Because that never was God.
And so, in this new universe of divisionlessness one may find themselves quite disoriented. Because if many of us don’t know what we’re against, we don’t know who we are.
The ego needs an enemy in order to survive, it needs an in-crowd and out-crowd. It needs war, death, and destruction of many and the salvation of a few–a few that happen to reflect the ego itself.
And in this open plain of new life, in the Kingdom of Heaven, one might find that God actually is utter powerlessness and vulnerability.
A refugee baby born in a farm.
A dying man forgiving his torturers.
A forgiving victim.
This perhaps why the new testament writer calls the Kingdom of Heaven utter “foolishness.” (How that reference has been abused over the years.)
Because God isn’t a being to be understood, a scholastic mountain we must summit.
Rather, God awaits us at the bottom of our humiliation. Because only then, is the false self and the false God put to death.
In our meager, humble, simple existence in which our personal identity is considered irrelevant. Found through the acceptance that you aren’t your ego. Found through the death of what you consider “you.”
When you lose your life, you find it. You find freedom, and you find God.
And then you see that breathing is prayer.
Existing is believing.
Weeping is worship.
Having consciousness is theology.
The mountains express beauty.
This moment, is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Do you see it?
So finally then, what is God?
First, not separate from you, or anyone else. Remember, everything is one, everything is spiritual. No division.
I can’t take you any further, no man can lead another down this road, I can only point the way.
So I leave you with the words of Richard Rohr. Himself a Franciscan Monk, he is summarizing the words of the ancient theologian Bonaventure. This is the best one can do, because the experience of God is just that, a transcendental experience.
He summarizes this notion in three sacred concepts:
Emanation: We come forth from God bearing the divine image, and thus our inherent identity is grounded in the life of God from the beginning (Genesis 1:26-27).
Exemplarism: Everything in creation is an example, manifestation, and illustration of God in space and time (Romans 1:20). No exceptions.
Consummation: All returns to the Source from which it came (John 14:3). The Omega is the same as the Alpha; this is God’s supreme and final victory.
We are the very life of God, exploring itself. Our inherent identity, is that of an expression of God.
So instead of life being this literal and rigid competition amongst egos, we are simply expressions of God itself. We emanate from God, exemplify God, and when we are ready, our ego dies and we consummate with God once more.
God being vulnerability. God being unconditional love. The eyes of evolution. The fabric of existence. The breath of life, the energy of reality. God IS. (Perhaps it’s time for a new name, to clear things up!)
Because the Kingdom is at hand.
And perhaps, this is the fruit of those kernels of grain (the ego) falling into the ground and dying alone. This (consummation) is their fruit. And suddenly, when we all wake up to our divine image, we become the proverbial salt of the earth. And we can, as one, stop and contemplate, and declare that “It is good.”