Once upon a time, I was a happy little Lutheran girl. It was all pretty simple. According to my dad, who was a pastor (but that's another story), there were only two rules you needed to live by: Love God, and love your neighbor. I could live with those rules, and they were easy to remember.
"Neighbor" to me meant literal neighbor, as well as fellow humans, and by extension animals, and because my mother believed in fairies with me, trees and plants and grass and mushrooms and fairies too. Yes, the mushroom is my neighbor. And my teddy bear, Teddy, who was real. So that covered a lot. At first, the "God" part meant God, the Father.
The heavenly man sitting up on top of a cloud, watching us all the time. My Lutheran God was kind but expected a lot, like a kind grandfather who just wants you to do your best because he believes in you. It was a good arrangement. For a while. Then, like Eve, I partook of the tree of knowledge, and that ruined everything.
At first I attended a Lutheran college so there wasn't a conflict there. God was still sitting on that cloud.
Then I moved to hippy California and started taking Women's Studies classes. That was when I started to have a problem. God was a man, it was pointed out to me, and Jesus was a man, so how could I be made in "His" image? I wasn't, and though I hadn't felt too left out before, now I was. How could I truly identify with God when I wasn't like him?
Theology classes followed, and so did history of religions, and social sciences, and most importantly, philosophy. Then the questions really started: Who is God? What is God? Is there a God? Can God die? These questions troubled me.
I had always felt pretty comfortable with my idea of God, but when I started asking myself why I believed what I did, all that came up were more questions, and no answers. It was childish, I thought, to imagine a literal grandfather sitting just out of my visual reach. My rational mind told me that didn't make any sense.
Okay, so if God wasn't really just sitting there, where was He? Was He a "he?" Studies of other religions taught me that people around the world had different ideas of what God was, and called it/Him/She by different names: Allah, Buddha, Krishna, Jehovah, Yahweh.
But millions of people all over the planet believe in something they see as a higher power, a creative force in the universe. As I grew older and learned about Taoism, Paganism, and Wicca, it seemed like the closest thing I believed in was that every living thing (and some marginally living things, like Teddy) that has a life force, is alive.
That, to me, qualifies them as a "neighbor." So I was still doing okay with loving every living thing as my neighbor. But to this day I still get hung up on the God part. What would an intelligent, educated person say is God? Native Americans and many Pagans call God "Mother Earth," or "Father Sun," or a combination of several nature-based deities.
What happens if you know you believe in something, just don't know what to call it? It was so much simpler when I was a child. God was there, I loved God, God loved me. But I can no longer accept the simple explanation and visualization that I had as a younger person. I don't believe there is an old man in a robe sitting on a cloud watching me.
I wish I could, but I don't. By the same argument, I can't just replace the gender pronoun as say God is a She, and therefore I am, indeed, made in Her image. Saying God is a woman doesn't help because I know that God is a bigger and more complex concept than a force with an allegorical human form.
Some people are satisfied with not-knowing, believing in a nameless, formless, force of energy they call "God." I think that's essentially what I believe too, but it's too big for me. Einstein, who was commonly misunderstood to be an atheist, said that the idea of a personal God was "childish." That didn't mean he didn't believe though.
He once said, "A knowledge of existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms-it is this knowledge and emotion that constitute truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am deeply religious man."
I've been saying for years that I don't believe in the God of my childhood, but the other day I was lost in a meditation on the wonder of the earth (prompted by fears that it, along with the sub arctic ice shelf, will not be around much longer), and it hit me: I believe in God with all my heart, I just don't call it God.
It's a tricky subject, because I do believe in the God of my childhood, I just don't know what "it" looks like, or what to call it. Why can't I call it God? Why can't I visualize this universal force as a grandmotherly moon figure? A goddess woman? Because all seem just as arbitrary as the man on the cloud.
I know rationally that they're all artificial images I'm making up so that I can have a personal relationship with this universal force. Maybe a personal God image is childish (and I kind of agree), but I still need one. I don't know why.
You'd think I could live with this conflict, but it's actually difficult. I feel the need to define God, and "see" it/Her/Him in my mind. I need someone to pray to, I need that personal God because most of my problems are personal and I want to feel like someone "up there" is looking out for me.
My problem is not unique. Many people who grow up within oppressive religions later walk away from those churches, but they often feel they need to leave God behind too. But it leaves a void in their spiritual lives.
The problem is that it's hard to separate God from religion, especially a religion that might have failed you miserably. People in these situations find freedom in rejecting the religious oppression, but don't know how to bring God with them.
I don't feel like the Lutheranism of my childhood was oppressive; it was rather the opposite. Still, I feel like I outgrew it. So, along with those other folks who want to keep their faith but lose what they feel are arbitrary or cruel rules, I'll have to start over, which isn't easy.
I'll need to figure out what God is to me, what he looks like, and how to pray to him with my personal thoughts and problems. In short, I'll need to reinvent my own image of God.
By: Anastacia Mott Austin
By: Anastacia Mott Austin