by Pastor Doug Kings
A number of years ago, I came across a famous quote of the great Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung (1876-1961). Just recently, however, I found a snippet of the interview with Jung where the quote is from. (You can watch it here.)
The person speaking with Jung has just asked him about his religious upbringing. Jung’s family was populated with Swiss Reformed pastors, including his father and grandfather. At one time Jung planned to follow in their footsteps. So yes, he responds, when he was young, he certainly went to church and believed in God.
Then the interviewer surprises Jung by asking, “Do you now believe in God?” He pauses a moment and says, “Difficult to answer,” but a grin starts spreading across his face. Then he says, with a twinkle in his eye, “I don’t need to believe. I know.”
One place I saw that quote, it was approvingly used by an evangelical Christian. But Jung was no orthodox Christian. He came to recognize how weak and inadequate the church had become, and moved on. Yet Jung had a deep and meaningful spirituality. More than a century before the current use of the phrase, Jung was counted among the “spiritual but not religious.”
There have actually been such people for as long as there has been religion. They are the ones who recognize religion’s limitations. When religion fails to recognize those limitations and takes itself too seriously, such people step back, in protest or simply to maintain personal integrity. Probably the most famous ancient example is Socrates, who tradition says was executed (“drank the hemlock”) in 399 BCE for “impiety”, i.e. allegedly disparaging the Athenian state religion.
A survey released last week indicates that the “impious” among us are many and growing. For the first time, a survey of Americans showed less than half the population were “certain that God exists.” While a significant milestone, it isn’t especially surprising. It is in keeping with Gallup’s recent finding that, also for the first time, less than half of Americans belong to a congregation of any kind, and others showing large drops in worship attendance.
I think the idea of “believing in God” has become essentially meaningless. Marcus Borg (1942-2015) was a New Testament scholar and taught religion at a secular university. Students without any religious affiliation would often take his introductory course to fulfill a graduation requirement.
On one occasion, when a student realized Borg himself was a Christian, he said to him after class that he didn’t believe in God. Borg replied, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” The student then described his understanding of God and Borg responded, “Well, I don’t believe in that God either.” The student’s jaw dropped. It hadn’t occurred to him that there wasn’t one set definition of who or what God is.
For as long as they have been around, religions have endlessly debated the nature and identity of God. And the differences haven’t just been between religions but within religions. Scholars and most honest readers recognize that the Bible expresses many different understandings of God. As a result Jews, Christians and Muslims have squabbled among themselves as much as they have with those outside their respective tents.
Today, however, few have any real interest in “ideas” about God, let alone squabbling about them. Start discussing the differences among the various Christian denominations, or the groups within Judaism and Islam, and most eyes soon glaze over. What does it all mean? Who’s right (if anyone)? And why should I care?
The renowned Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner (1904-1984), famously said that the church should stop using the word “God” for fifty years, since its usage had become so distorted. Of course, the church didn’t take his advice. But that may be part of what is behind the declining “belief” in God today.
Rahner also predicted that Christians of the future will either be mystics, or they won’t be anything at all. And here he connects with the Carl Jung quote above. For mystics are people for whom the experience of God is far more important than ideas about God. They would nod in agreement with Jung’s statement, “I don’t need to believe. I know.”
In most churches, bringing up the idea of experiencing God will result in a lot of embarrassed, deer-in-the-headlights looks. The reason for that, I believe, is not that people haven’t had such experiences but that they lack the words to talk about them. It’s that “God” word problem again. People try to connect the religious ideas about God they’ve accumulated during their life with their experience, and it doesn’t work.
Of course, experiencing God isn’t beans. Just ask the saints and prophets. It may turn your life upside down. But if your life is already topsy turvy, it also may get you back on your feet. The increasing disbelief in religion’s God, however, may reflect a growing awareness that such a God is unlikely to do either of those things.
In that respect, religion’s “God of ideas” is predictable and safe. As Richard Rohr has said, the church is one of the best places to hide from God. We can learn about voices from a burning bush or out of a whirlwind without fear that we might actually have such an experience.
The growing disinterest in religion may mean people are becoming willing to take the risk. Modern life can be wonderful, but it still throws us a lot of curves, including that awkward habit of coming to an end. Our relationships can be amazingly rich, yet our social institutions look increasingly unstable and even threatening. And why are we destroying our planetary habitat when we all agree that it’s a really bad idea?
Knowing things about God hasn’t helped much with any of that. Perhaps we need to give knowing God a try.
Blessings in your life and ministry.