Our friend Augustine of Hippo is quoted as saying “Si comprehendis, non est Deus.” Easy for him to say! But that’s only because he spoke Latin. If we translate his words into English, we get “If you can understand it, then it isn’t God.” That’s nice. But is it helpful? I mean, I spent years of my life studying theology. Did I spend tens of thousands of dollars, countless hours, and tons of energy trying to study something that can’t be studied? In some ways yes and in some ways no. You see, theology is complicated. It really is challenging to be a Christian. It isn’t challenging to go to church. And it isn’t challenging to listen to Fr. Tim preach. I mean, that dude is funny (even if looks aren’t everything). It isn’t challenging to be a good person. It isn’t challenging to make good decisions most of the time. But it is challenging to be a Christian. If our starting point is that we can’t comprehend God, they why do we try in the first place?
The Christian faith is full of paradoxes. Jesus is God but a man. Communion is bread and wine, but it’s the body and blood of Christ. The scriptures are words on a page but also the Word of God. Jesus has died but he is alive. See? You can’t learn about this stuff in a classroom. And it’s enough to drive some people away from faith all together. Remember the comedian George Carlin? Carlin frequently mused about religion, but that was only because it was the way religion was explained to him. I think if Carlin had been taught about God in a more effective way, then he wouldn’t have been the staunch atheist he claimed to be. In one of his routines from an HBO special, Carlin said, “Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time! But He loves you.” Well, if that is your understanding of God, then it makes perfect sense to be an atheist!
But it’s more complicated than that. It takes work and effort to be a follower of Jesus. It’s not a matter of suspending our intellect. It’s about being ok with not knowing. People who share Carlin’s understanding of faith like to claim that religion has the ultimate cop out when it comes to something we can’t understand. We say it’s a mystery. And our intellectual brains do not like mystery. We want to know the answers to everything! Even people who study theology, as I do, want to know more! I studied for years. And even though I’ve studied for years, I’m no closer to understanding than anyone else. What I am closer to is understanding that I’ll never understand. And I’m becoming more and more ok with that, but I’m not there yet.
Let’s pick apart Carlin’s joke. Now, keep in mind, I think Carlin was a brilliant comedian and an excellent word smith in the English language. But if my understanding about God was as simplistic as his, I’d be an atheist too! Carlin calls God “an invisible man living in the sky.” In fact, many atheists do. Probably even some believers have an image of a man in the sky. When I was a kid, I thought of God the Father as an old guy with a white flowing beard sitting among the clouds. You could say I thought of God as an invisible man living in the sky. But that’s not the God I believe in today. The God I believe in is much bigger than any person could imagine. We sometimes call God “he” and “Father”, leading people to assume the Christian God must be male. But God is bigger than gender. Jesus, the Son of God, came into the world as a man. So historically speaking, Jesus was a man. But the Christ, the Messiah, also has no gender. And the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, indeed has no gender. God also doesn’t live in the sky. God is omnipresent. God is with us in all that we do and all that we are. While God is certainly in the sky, God is also everywhere else at the same time.
What about the part where Carlin says God “watches everything you do every minute of every day”? Well, I suppose God can indeed see what we’re doing at any given time, but it isn’t God’s nature to keep tabs on us. God is not Santa Claus and he’s not going out of his way to see us when we’re sleeping, to know when we’re awake, to know if we’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake. He’s with us through our trials. He’s with us in our sinfulness and our endeavors. But the purpose of his presence is loving, not judging. God isn’t keeping score of things we do wrong and tallying the things we do well. And what about the list of ten things he never wants you to do? Well, certainly Carlin is talking about the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are part of the Jewish Law of the Old Covenant. They are indeed important. But it’s really kind of short-sighted to suggest that the Ten Commandments is an exhaustive list of things we are or are not supposed to do. It is important to follow the Commandments. They give us valuable instructions for relationship with God and one another. But they’re not a list that we either follow or else face punishment. They’re a roadmap to a happy, healthy life. We know we don’t want to kill or steal or cheat on our spouses or lie. Those make good sense. When we do those things, we have opportunities to make it right. We’re not perfect and we take steps to work toward perfection, even though we’re probably going to miss the mark from time to time. In fact, that’s what “sin” means. “Hamartia”, the Greek word for “sin”, means “to miss the mark”. Think of an archer who doesn’t hit the bullseye. That archer has missed the mark. Sinning is missing the mark. Like the archer, we try again, hoping to get ever closer to hitting the mark.
And what if we do miss the mark? As Carlin muses, does God send us to a “place full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time”? No. I think Carlin is talking about hell. To be fair, I think it’s important to acknowledge hell exists. But probably not the way it’s described. Hell is what we experience when we are absent of God. Note that God never leaves us. But sometimes we leave him. When we do, we are in a place of hell. Look at the faces of people walking around town. Sometimes those people are in some kind of hell. They look like they are not experiencing any joy. Something is missing in their life. That is hell. Not a place full of fire and torcher. A loving God does not torcher us. Sometimes we do torcher ourselves. There’s a difference. Carlin concludes his musing by saying perhaps the only Truth in the joke. “He loves you.” God does love you. And he loves me. And he loves Carlin, even though Carlin spoke openly against his existence. You see, God is not some kind of simple-minded being who becomes easily offended. God doesn’t have his feelings hurt when we’re mad at him. God doesn’t punish us for not understanding. While God certainly wants us to be in relationship with him, he knows what’s in our hearts. Carlin’s story, like many of ours, is full of pain and challenge. Some of Carlin’s pain, as is true for many of us, came from the Church. It’s understandable that people would not want to be a part of an organization that has caused them pain.
So what can we do? It’s important for the Church to acknowledge the pain it has caused. That’s part of reconciliation, after all. The Church needs to be open to allowing people to have the time and the space they need. Carlin took lots of space and he never reconciled with the Church during his lifetime. But God’s time and our time are not the same thing. As far as we know, that reconciliation may have already happened or it might happen at some point. If we’ve struggled with the Church, we can be hopeful that reconciliation happens in our lifetime. But if it doesn’t, we get to rely on mystery (there’s that word again!). How does time transcend itself? We don’t know. And maybe we don’t get to know. If the God Carlin described was the God of the Christian Church, I wouldn’t be a believer either. Fortunately, that’s not God. It misses the mark. By a lot. Our God is bigger and more loving that we can comprehend. We can work to comprehend better. But we’ll never fully get there. And you know what? That’s ok.