God: Both Source and River
If you’ve ever sat in a quiet room—if you’ve closed your eyes, stilled your breath, and thought you heard the rush of your own blood coursing through your frame—I think it could be fairly said that you’ve encountered God, or something close.
After a lifetime of thinking about God and the spirit, I’ve arrived at a construction that feels true to me. I flatly reject almost everything I’ve been told about the deity. God’s not male; God is not high above us; God does not direct and God does not judge. God is greater than that, and yet also closer and more intimate than that.
Let me back up. I have a friend who prays for trivial things—that she won’t be pulled over when speeding, or that she’ll get a good parking space when she arrives. This is literally true; she routinely asks God for a place to put her car, and this is on any normal day. It’s not a life-saving parking space; it’s just a good spot at the office, which she needs because she waited too long to leave for work.
I wonder how my friend squares her idea of God with the God of every other person circling the lot a few minutes before 8 a.m. Is it the same God? Does the winner of the spot just have a better relationship with the deity? And if God refuses to yield 60 square feet of ground, what does that say? Is God unfair, or is my friend too miserable of a sinner to merit a boon?
And praying for a place to park is far from the end of it. A lot of people I know pray for a team to win, or, more specifically, for a touchdown or a run or a goal, as if an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-loving force has one team’s colors in some cosmic closet.
It’s possible their God does, and it’s completely likely that I’m all wet when it comes to my idea of the universe’s creative and sustaining force. My ideas certainly go against my Baptist upbringing—those years of Sundays when my mother dropped me off at the First Baptist Church in Gallipolis, Ohio, because she thought kids needed church (although she herself seemingly had no interest in hanging out with a bunch of Baptists—people who, at least in the 1970s, decried pants for women).
I feel certain about God, although I’d never argue for my understanding of the deity over the understanding of some devout person who believes differently. For some, the God-stakes are very high, and a spiritual life is about heaven-winning and hell-avoidance. I see no profit in complicating that struggle, so I leave them to it and wish them well, hoping they get what they’re after.
But it’s a blessing not to believe in heaven or hell. They’re very childish notions to me. On one hand, there is this hot, buggy place where bad people go (as if we don’t all have bad in us; even Jesus is said to have cursed a fig tree, seemingly out of sheer crankiness). Or there is this stultifyingly dull cloudscape where the good end up, and live in mansions, and wear crowns (as if we’re not all miraculous reflections of our creator and source, more glorious in our bodies than any metal or jewel).
Here’s some good news, as I see it—here’s “gospel” with a small G. We’re in heaven right now, and we’re constantly reaping an eternal reward, the love we offer always multiplying and rolling through this world and beyond in wave after wave of grace.
There is also some bad news. I’m afraid I don’t know a word that can serve as the opposite of “gospel,” unless we go back to Old English and coin one, like “baedspel” or “baspel.” But the baspel is that we’re also in hell, and paying attention to that hell is more the point of the exercise of living. All around us we find suffering and need—chaos, uncertainty, grief—and I think our role is to change that, to sow peace that passes understanding, and to break our backs every single day to make things better.
I heard it once, unexpectedly, from a beloved minister in a Lutheran church, and her words stuck with me: All the heaven we’re ever going to have, and all the hell we’ll ever know, are right here. We’re in them. And our job is to weight the balance toward heaven—to share the heaven of plenty and ameliorate the hell of hunger; to share the heaven of compassion and shatter the hell of isolation.
I’m as well read as any lapsed Baptist about the Bible. Thanks to Sunday after Sunday after Sunday of Bible drills, I can find 1 John 4:8 in nothing flat. (Boom! He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love, just as God whispered into the precious Fibonacci swirl of the ear of King James.) But what I know—and I mean exactly that word, know—about the spirit does not come from a printed text; it comes from my boundless imagination and my bold, reasoning mind—“texts” that God is constantly writing and amending and revising.
I am a poet, and I have to say, it’s very hard for someone who writes and studies literature to accept as the infallible word of God a translated text of mixed and sometimes uncertain origin—and even of political censorship, with kings stepping in to say what can and can’t be included. Language is just too nuanced; its usage is both idiosyncratic to individuals and regionally or even very locally determined. I grew up on southeastern Ohio, for instance, where we went not downtown or uptown but “overtown,” and a “toboggan” was something we wore on our head in the winter. The Bible is read throughout the world, in 531 languages, Google tells me, and I have to believe that somewhere, someone is seeing “toboggan” and not visualizing “hat.
My life as a poet has something to do with my understanding of God. What I’ve found in my years of writing is that I can work pretty hard and come up with respectable poems (or stories or essays, on occasion). But sometimes I look at the page and I see something much more intricate than what I had planned. I’ll see a system of imagery running through it and know that I didn’t put it there deliberately, or I’ll see a secondary meaning that just sort of wove itself. It happens routinely, and when it does, I recognize it as a gift, or more appropriately, an artifact of a deeper conversation.
One of my most vital spiritual sources is the work of Carl Jung, who coined the term “collective unconscious” to describe an aspect of my understanding of God. God to me is divine intelligence, a river of thought and sense that runs through all of us and allows us to have a shared language of symbol and feeling. Inspiration, to me, is what happens when we dip our net into this unconscious and haul it in, wriggling. (Don’t worry; in this metaphor, it’s strictly a catch-and-release arrangement, and what fish show up do so voluntarily.)
Better writers probably offer their thesis up front, but this writer is a coward, and I know that my ideas about God are deeply offensive to some Christians and potentially very troubling to others. My strategy, then, has been to say a bunch of blah-de-blah for 1,250 words or so, and then offer my key point at the end, where only the hardiest readers (and the non-fish-lovers) are found. So here goes.
God is a river of intelligence that runs through everything and holds all of our consciousness. Unlike Jung’s construction of the collective unconscious, I think even animals, and perhaps even some objects, contribute to this intelligence. This river is ageless and timeless. It flows beyond Earth. It’s where we are before we’re born and where we go when we die, and we’re even in it now, or we can at least stick a toe in when we’re brave enough to try to connect.
The river is why death has no power over us; it’s why we can experience empathy; it explains the things we know without having reason to, and it is where inspiration comes from. It’s the source of life and art and love. It’s the most powerful force there is.
I am a Christian, a follower of Christ’s example, but I’m not at all traditional in my path; where traditional Christians see a God who is omniscient, I see the river. The same goes for the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent God. I am a small contributing source to what God is, and God, that river, flows all through me. God is in my body and God is deeply present in my spirit and brain. When I close my eyes, I can hear God rushing through.
Karen Craigo is the author of the poetry collection No More Milk (Sundress, 2016) and the forthcoming collection Passing Through Humansville (ELJ, 2017). She maintains Better View of the Moon, a daily blog on writing, editing, and creativity, and she teaches writing in Springfield, Missouri. She is the nonfiction editor and former editor-in-chief of Mid-American Review, the reviews editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, an editor of Gingko Tree Review, and the managing editor of ELJ Publications.
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