God Always ‘AS IS’ (Article): Rev Dr John T Mathew

Ever since the death of Elizabeth II, British monarch, on September 8, 2022, the words of an unknown author of the British anthem have been  reminding all of us that we mortal humans must slow down to appreciate the presence of the Holy One in our lives. The British national anthem ‘God Save the King/gracious Queen’ is one of the oldest national anthems. Thomas Hobbes stated in his Leviathan “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Life is all about enjoying cheery people you choose to be around and delightful places of our beautiful planet earth. On the other hand, we can’t escape the reality that we must learn to put up with unfriendly folk and nauseating places. Why would you endure irrational people and their shenanigans day in and out at our work place, in the media and community? How would wegauge a satisfying life? We work hard to preserve an uplifting home and a sustaining community.

When we visited family in Bengaluru a few days after the September 11 – commonly known as 9/11- tragedy of suicide terrorist attacks carried out by the militant Islamic extremist network al-Qaeda against the United States in New York city, the thunderous prayers of ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great!) from the local mosque woke us upat the ungodly hour of 5.00am! Many of our friends in Canada were anxious about our travel plans during those nerve-wracking days of trepidation.

Frankly, the Swedish poet Carl Gustav Boberg’s poem “O Store Gud” (“How Great Thou Art”) extols the same God.

Oh Lord, my God
When I, in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art
Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art.

The grandeurof holiness, which permeates all creation, cannot be confined in one religion. Jesus, the light of the world, doesn’t belong to one faction and the Holy Spirit is not conserved or manoeuvred by one race, religion or region.Some folks claim that there are four kinds of theologies: scriptural, historical, dogmatic and practical or pastoral.

At the end of the day, there is only one theology – a faithfully valued belief system to caringly address down-to-earth issues of this life and beyond. All theologies must come down a true-to-life spillway of the vortex of reconciling service of the community of faith and the world at large.

Our religious upsurges continue to get rationalised as our perceptions evolve and our interpretations reforge. Almost all inspirations of the gardens, deserts and rivers need streamlining from what we learned as preschoolers to a wider vision as grown-ups. Now our catalyzer corners are teeming urban intersections, buzzing market places and placid parks besides our sky-high comfy concrete cages. We must unlearn many weird things we were forced to consume and now we need to eschew such insular perspectives and welcome a recalibrated faith grounded in enthused theology.

The benchmark of belief in holiness is an uplifting home and a faith sustaining community. An orderly and bonding ambience that promises a hale and hearty climate is the very thing we need in life to fulfill our prospects.

Born and bred in a stubbornly stuffy spirituality, it was a breath of fresh air to find out that Canada, my adopted country, had no official religion albeit the preamble to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms refers to God. We support religious pluralism and freedom of religion is very much part of our cultural mosaic. Five decades ago, a newcomer from one of the oldest apostolic heritages, restless nonetheless ready,I barged into an at-risk leftover Western Christendom.

Televangelists are woefully known for their prosperity Gospel where they appear to ply God with their syrupy preaching and promise of quick-fix remedies for all issues. It’s a spoof at best.

Would a hyped-up, sham spirituality displayed by an amped-up crowd mean a deeper holiness? An old classmate was concerned about my teaching of major religious traditions and he sighed, “hope you tell your students that there is only one religion that is authentic!”.

Somehow his dogged dogmatism granted him permission to remind me how to teach my adults students. I had to remind him that a faculty member must adhere to the policies of the university andthe classroom is different from the sanctuary. He was viscerally distraught that night! In the morning he confessed that he needed a jigger of Uisgebeatha (water of life) to calm down.

There is no Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Sikh, Jain nation. There exist a few nations generally Hindu, primarily Jewish, mainly Muslim or conveniently Christian; however, such hegemonic pedestals exclude the minority. No human being, religious or nonreligious, should be relegated to the margins.

Augustine’s God is absolutely immutable, unchanging and unchangeable in being, knowledge or will. ‘For, as you are in the fullest sense, you alone know, who are unchangeably, who know unchangeably, who will unchangeably’ (Confessions XIII, xvi, 19).

Spinoza believed that God is “the sum of the natural and physical laws of the universe and certainly not an individual entity or creator”.

Gandhi referred to “God” as “Truth,” which has great significance. His mission was not only to humanize religion, but also to moralize it.

No one should dare to state: ‘My God is the only God’. Such piffle purports that, ‘Your god isn’t god – not as good as mine’. Aren’t we all possessive about our loved ones? My mother, my life partner, my child, my school, my temple/mosque/church, my country, my people and of course, my/our God. Jean-Paul Sartre confessed: ‘That God does not exist, I cannot deny, that my whole being cries out for God I cannot forget’.

Nationhood ought not be determined by a religion. Religious nationalism grounded on a single faith is unhealthy and unjustified in our pluralist world. For example, for political expediency, Israel became a ‘Jewish state’, a modern nation immediately after World War 2. This surprise creation of a religious state ought not negate the centuries-long presence ofthe indigenous people of Israel, referred to as Palestinian Arabs.

Our individual choices and rights of autonomy to believe, speak, share, love, participate, eat, drink, dress, like, disagree etc. are foundational principles of human existence.

Many people have an innate penchant to be outliers; most of us fail to face up to – the kind of bohemian behaviour the fabled daredevil brat displayed in the renowned parable of Jesus. Our placental pizazz is to pretend that we control our future – masters of destiny – we are in charge, come hell or highwaters! Well, until one begins to feel the pinch.

Does God exist? No. To exist means to be contained within time and space. God, the creator of both time and space, is beyond existence. No one religion, no one denomination or franchisee has it perfectly figured out.Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is well-argued:

‘Well, maybe there’s a God above
As for me all I’ve ever learned from love
Is how to shoot somebody who outdrew you.’

This investigation of the Holy One is identifiedin a variety of ways in different faith communities and cultures. The major religious traditions emerged in Asia never used the term ‘God’. This term was snaked in much later.

When you purchase something with as-is bill of sale means a buyer is purchasing an item in its present condition with all faults, visible or not.

No warranty or guarantee is made by the seller. After the transaction is complete and the bill of sale is signed, ownership and title will transfer to the buyer. In other words, accept and welcome God in any case.

If Canada has no religion, how does this nation express itself? How do Canadians express themselves as a people who believe in constitutional and civil rights andfreedom of expression, carry out duties and defend the state against aggression or war, ethical behaviour towards neighbours etc.? Soon I discovered that Christianity was the largest religion. On the other hand, Canada was the birthplace of its more or less ex cathedra religion of hockey with far more faithful adherents!

Canada’s world class healthcare is deficient without promoting sacredness and it should be incorporated into treatment for health issues. When I was an ‘on-call’ chaplainonce I had to rush to visit a patient at an ungodly hour; to my dismay I did not sense an emergency at all. And the patient wanted to discuss ‘God’!Alas, I had to inform him that I preferred discussing theology from the pulpit; not in the hospital. A compassionate awareness of holiness in healthcare solutions is crucial for the caregivers and their patients as healing happens not only to one’s body but mind and soul.

A caring and daring mother in Tyre & Sidon district brought along her sick daughter to Jesus who had a tunnel vision of his healing ministry. The mother instructed Jesus to tweak his assignment to include the ‘dogs’ beyond his tribal folk.

In the turbulent late 1960s I found myself reading theology in Edinburgh. Both the church and wider society appeared lightheaded with a fervent desire to gauge the presence of God. It was impossible to overlook animated dialogues, debates, disputes, discussions led by charlatans and shysters in public gatherings on the University campuses, Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in London and the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in Pariswhere a fly-by-night expertise on the Holy Cow was thrust upon me by a few disillusioned youths!

The only knowledge of the so-called holy cow was whatever I read in Time Magazine – never in my three-year long dunking in Philosophy! Almost like an epidemic, most mainline church marquees announced: “Does God Exist?”  Decades later when I returned to serve an urban cathedral I discovered   the perfidiously pedantic Britishprobe, “Does God Exist?’ got lost in the ether.

Perhaps in response to the rapid rise of Islam, new terms for divinity such as God, Deus or Theos emerged in Europe between 7th and 10th century. However, they are inadequate to extol and celebrate the enormity and loftiness of the wisdom, honour, authority, power, majesty, holiness, grace, glory, dominion of older names of Brahma and Elohim. In older religions God was not a constricting noun rather an expansive adjective such as ‘Eternal’, ‘Almighty’, ‘Holy’, ‘Sacred’, ‘Divine’. Some may prefer a verb to invoke, to praise, to call.

Afterall, religion is not a quixotic brain wave. What is the foundation of our values of life?  The holy vision of divine presence within us and with those around us is the source of all faith traditions; therefore, religion is about upholding that relationships grounded in truth, compassion and service to and with others in the community.

A theologically challenged priest once shared that ‘God is closer to men than women’.  It was Hannah who spent more time in the temple than Elkanah! Unarguably Mary followed divine instructions more faithfully than her laid-back husband. At the sametime we proclaim, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus”!

As life goes on, faithfully religious people – believers who belong to a faith tradition – would want to put the kibosh on an infuriatingly lingering query of those who are indifferent to spirituality: ‘Does God exist?’

Is God a punishing God or a loving God? Divine retribution is an absolute baloney. God is merciful, compassionate and loving. Do we need an itinerant preacher or a swami to caution us to be guarded or scared of God?

In the absence of my father who was away at Teachers’ Training College, our neighbors moved the fence about two kilometers onto our property and claimed ownership of two-third of our land. Eventually it dawned on me that our grabby neighbor was my mom’s first cousin!

It is much easier to love a stranger than the greedy neighbour; perhaps that’s why we have only one commandment to love the neighbour but 36 commands to love the stranger!

Suddenly I had second thoughts about the most misunderstood commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Several decades later I found out that our Jewish neighbors have a level-headed but unflustered take on it. Thanks to the 12th century Rabbi Samuel ben Meir – “Rashbam” who helped me get over my ‘sin’ inexclusively picking to love my honourable, well-mannered and fair-minded neighbor.

Here the focus is not a ground-breaking theology or study of God but anunpretentioustheonosis or a diagnosis of the concept of God developed in major religions by our forbears. For me any attempt to gather information on such a collectively classic theme of confidence in divinity is, to use a phrase ‘liebendekampf’ aka a loving struggle to highlight how Ifeel justlynudged, wired, elated and refreshedby the source of all such blessings – the Holy One.

To list the dense cloud of witnesses who have helped us identify with and take in the boundlessness of the Holy One is beyond human imagination. In the burning bush spectacle when Moses needed an answer for his people, he received the designation of Yahweh: “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be”.

We don’t even know the original names of God. When we say ‘our God’ aren’t we trying to keep a tight rein on God? The idea of the holy One from an interfaith space might offer us a profoundly tectonic shift in perspective of the Divine. Once I assumed I knew God well through my myopic lens!

A manoeuvre to catalogue the names and titles of the Holy One on our dizzying sacred landscape is a Himalayan task. Religions use a variety of cultural names for the Holy One. The term ‘God’ is unheard of in major faith traditions. When I had an opportunity to write a Study Guide for the major living faith traditions, I was awe-struck by the seminal renewal in my cradleperspective of the divine beyond my own.

Sanatana Dharma, known as Hinduism – a name given by foreigners, has three dimensions of divinity known as ‘Trimurti’ of Brahma the Creator (wife – Saraswati), Vishnu the Preserver (wife – Lakshmi), and Shiva the Destroyer and Reincarnator (wife – Parvati). This faith has numerous deities as well. The number of gods and goddesses is arguably a mystery! The followers of this faith are the ‘oldest Presbyterians’ who believe inpredestinationmore passionately than the Scottish predestinarians.

Judaism has seven names of God: YHWH, Adonai, El, Elohim, Shaddai, Tzevaot and Ehyeh.

The three Buddhist deities Vajrapāṇi, Mañjuśrī and Avalokiteśvara. These three deities are known as “rigs gsummgon po” or Lords of the three enlightened families or groups, the three families being the vajra family, the Tathāgata (Buddha) family, and the padma (lotus) family. Another name for these deities is the ‘three Bodhisattvas of the heart’ who amiably represent power (nus pa), discernment (śesrab) and compassion (sñiṅrje)

Jainism believes in divine beings and known for its transtheistic system of thought that is neither theistic nor atheistic, but is beyond them.

Since the term ‘God’ did not exist in the older faith traditions, all major religions are transtheistic as ‘God’ was an imported invention which even Moses and Jesus, who used an Aramaic word “Abba” (אבא), meaning “Father” (Mark 14:36), did not know! There are 99 attributes for Allah in the Muslim tradition; however, the worshippers use eight names of Allah in their daily prayers: Ar-Rahman, Ar-Rahim, Al-Muhaymin, Al-Ghaffar, Al-Qahhar, Al-Fattah, Al-Kareem and Al-Baseer.The Sikhs believe in Waheguru – one omnipresent, formless God.

The brief of the bard is to share a partial perception of an ambiguous thing called faith like one of the blind men who described an elephant as a fat snake, a fan, a tree-trunk, a wall, a rope, a spear etc.

Two psalms (14 and 53) have the same apple of discord. The author says: Fools say to themselves, ‘There is no God’. Psalm 14 uses YHWH, a refuge for the poor, while Psalm 53 uses Elohim.

It might be important to mention at the beginning that major religions never ever used the term God to refer to the Holy One. All major faith traditions offer us blockbuster manifestations of the Holy One in the Holy Scriptures. It is futile to engage in debates, discussions and dubious deductions on the validity of various resources. Either we are born and bred in a faith tradition or we choose to be part of a faith of our choice. Isn’t it splendid that ‘You must believe in God’ is one of the categorical Club Rules of Hells Angels?

Some imprudent scientists have dared to make a swag on the existence of God. This query ‘Does God exist?’ is another ambiguity for us to ponder in spite of the doomsurfing in and around us. It is fatuous that such trained scientists impetuously mislead gullible followers with their preposterous theories against communities of faith. They demonstrably disrespect people of faith. It is imperative that we believe in our values of dignity, hope, love, respect, peace, service and truth. Religious institutions are foundations to build such values. For many that anchor is God, whether that deity is Hindu, Jewish, the Messiah, Muslim, Buddhist Pure Land, Jain or Sikh.

All believers need encouragement to take care of their beloved heritages and nurture their treasured faithfulness by adhering to spiritual foundations.“As Is” on a vehicle bill of sale in Ontario means that the item is sold in its current state “as is” with no warranty or guarantee and the sale transaction is complete. So, the use of “as is” in the title affirms that we do not have any more information on the topic than what has been shared by people – their memories, personal experiences and other compelling sources.

We must cut down the commercials of the authenticity of our various spiritualities and improve our faithfulness and orthopraxy.

When I am out watching the ducks and squirrels in the shady Mississauga Valley Park or catching a brown trout in the Mataura River, I am mindful of the refreshing words of Psalm 23. ‘Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of life’.

Finally, three earmarked affirmations by Mary, Jesus and Thomas help us subscribe to the backdrop when we encounter the enduring conundrum: “Does God exist?”.

Prior to the birth of Jesus, his mother Mary sang: ‘My heart praises the Lord; my soul is glad because of God my saviour’.

Jesus did not mince about his position and personality when he confirmed: ‘Before Abraham was, I am’.

And apostle Thomas, the solitary theologian among Jesus’ disciples who pushed the panic button and at the same time dared to taunt Jesus if he was the real McCoy. The outcome of his exasperating grilling of the risen Jesus was the nuts and bolts of all affirmations ever made about Jesus: ‘My Lord and my God’. The author of the book of Hebrews acknowledges the same: Jesus is the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever’.

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The Rev. Dr. John T. Mathew is an ordained minister in The United Church of Canada who served several urban and rural congregations in Ontario, Canada since 1974 and taught in the Department of Religious Studies, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario. Mathew was awarded Merrill Fellowship at Harvard Divinity School and served as Pastor-Theologian at the Princeton Center of Theological Inquiry. He was Ecumenical Guest Minister (2010) at St. Machar’s Cathedral, Aberdeen (Church of Scotland) and Interim Minister with the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (2015-2017).

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