During the past month I received two recently published books as gifts from friends of mine.(*) The two authors are men around 40 years of age. They were born on different continents, and came from two very different backgrounds. Both authors grew up in fundamentalist religions. Their books are the stories of their spiritual journeys away from fundamentalist beliefs.
Both authors disentangled themselves from evangelical Christianity. They dabbled in other religions, and both eventually embraced very similar choices. In an attempt to find a satisfying religious experience that was not about “getting saved,” or “the Rapture,” or forcibly converting unbelievers, the two authors chose pantheism.
Pantheism is a generic term that refers to a wide range of beliefs that, in one way or another, consider God to be embodied fully in the material universe. Instead of the transcendent, but particular, God of Judaism and Christianity, pantheism’s god is a generic divine presence in all existing things. Pantheism’s god is entirely immanent, that is, entirely present and encompassed by the cosmos.
My first reaction to the two books was to wonder whether these men’s opinions were anything more than yet another example of the ubiquitous narcissism that is endemic to western culture. As I read the books, however, I realized that the two authors had not embraced pantheism as validation of overblown opinions about themselves. Instead, I think they were touching on an experience that is intimately associated with the feast of Christmas.
Christmas is the celebration of the birth of God’s Word in human flesh. It is the beginning of the world’s redemption, but it is also the culmination of a long process that revealed God’s nature and God’s will.
The feast of Christmas states succinctly the truth revealed by God through many centuries of the preaching of prophets, messengers, and finally, God’s own Son. The truth revealed by God is that human nature is created with the capacity to hear God’s redeeming Word. This human capacity remains unrealized unless God actually speaks a redeeming Word to the world and until each of us actually listens to the Word.
Both of the two authors I mentioned reached identical conclusions. They opted to believe that God is present in all things, including themselves. Their common experience, however, was not so much an experience of God as it was the shared human experience of longing for God – of waiting to hear God’s redeeming Word. Augustine of Hippo described this longing in poetic terms. He wrote, addressing God, “You have created us for yourself. Our hearts can only be restless until they rest in you, and so you speak to us that we might rejoice in praising you.” (Conf. 1.1.3)
It’s very interesting to me that two very different individuals arrived at the same conclusion by taking very different routes. Their choice for pantheism certainly speaks about the inadequate way that Christianity has been taught and lived in recent decades. It also speaks about the universal need of the human heart to know and love God.
All of us search for God in our own way. That search is successful to the degree that we look in the right direction. Fortunately for us, God initiated the possibility of redemption by giving us the capacity to hear God’s Word. God eventually spoke that redeeming Word into human flesh in the person of Jesus. It remains our task to listen to the Word.
The two authors I mentioned above concluded their books by admitting that the results of their spiritual quests were not entirely satisfying. There is an obvious reason for their disappointment. The generic, store-brand God of pantheism is less than satisfying because it is nothing more than a manifestation of the human desire to know God.
The pantheistic “God” who is in all things, and who is all things, is an artifact of human conscience, a shadow created by the restlessness of our hearts. It is a statement about our need to know God, but it is not God. We can know and love God only as the result of listening to God’s Word.
Christmas means many things to many people. For most in our society, Christmas provides fleeting satisfaction of insatiable consumer desires. For believers, Christmas is the feast of the Word spoken into human flesh, the full satisfaction of our desire for God. For those dissatisfied with their experience of God, Christmas can be the fulfillment of the deepest desires of the human heart. This, however, depends on one’s willingness to listen to God’s Word.
At this Mass, in these readings, the Word says that lack of comprehension is an indication that one lives in spiritual darkness. (John 1:5) Fortunately, it goes on to say that it is possible for us to hear God’s Word because the Word has taken on human flesh. (John 1:14) Are you listening? What did you hear today? What does the Word prompt you to speak to God?
(*) The two books mentioned above are: God: A Human History, by Reza Aslan, and Bitten by a Camel, by Kent Dobson. I wouldn’t recommend reading either book. Both authors are sincere enough, but the books don’t quite live up to the authors’ aspirations.