Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Whither thou goest I will go.
Thy people shall be my people,
and thy god; my god.
No passage of Scripture is more central to the spiritual crisis of our time, the choice we each and all must make, the heart of our faith.
I. The horizontal floor beneath the pillar of faith.
This is the wonky reflection on the Bible as literature leading into philosophy. So, if you want to get to the point, feel free to skip to section 2. But if you want to know where I get the point, this is it.
Ruth did not go on a solitary vision quest, meet “the God of her own understanding” (necessarily the unique god-image residing inside each human skull as a result of our neurology and early childhood experiences), and work out “her own personal relationship” with that individual idea. Her way was quite the opposite.
I mean no disrespect for individual vision quests. There is a place for “the hero’s journey.” Ancient cultures enshrined it. Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Black Elk, and Jesus all went on them. Even I have gone on a few. But the ancient heroes went out from a community and returned to a community. At the end of his quest Gilgamesh exclaimed, “Lo, the walls of Uruk!” and resumed his civic duties. Odysseus found his way home to his family and the kingdom of Ithaca. Black Elk became heyokah of the Lakota Sioux. Jesus returned from the desert because the Spirit of the Lord had anointed him, not “to go his own way” but to “proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4) It wasn’t about them. They went out for their people and returned for their people to serve and sometimes lead their people.
Ruth’s religion began in a human relationship. Her God was not her own, not “the God of her own understanding” but the God of someone she loved and the God of a people to whom she had consented to belong. How utterly and shockingly foreign to the individualism of our contemporary culture!
Ruth the Moabite loved Naomi the Jew and chose to be a Jew. To be a Jew was not to make up one’s own idea of God, but to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, the God of Naomi. That understanding of God arose out of an older, larger horizontal flow of human relationship. There were tribes. There was a tribe of Ephraim, a tribe of Zebulun, a tribe of Naphtali, a tribe of Benjamin, a tribe of Judah, 12 tribes in all -- and they each had their god. Some called their god El, some called their god, YHWH. Then Moses drew them all together in a covenant law of freedom, justice, and equality. He convened the 12 tribes, calling them all by a single name, “Schema’ Israel. Hear oh Israel.” Then he continued, “Your God is one. You have the same God. YHWH and El are One. Adonai elohanyu Adonai echad.” They agreed to worship one God, no longer divided over whether god looked like a bull or winged lion but praying together to an imageless nameless God whom they worshiped first and foremost not by sacrifice but by treating each other justly.
A different process produces a different result. Discovering the unique god-image residing inside our skull reveals one sort of deity, perhaps one we love, perhaps one we hate, but who he, she, or it is we can readily know as it is our own god. We own him because we made him up. The god arising from a network of human caring, on the other hand, is quite different – most fundamentally in that such a god is not the work of our own hands (idol) but rather something arising out of a wider, deeper, older reservoir of human relationship. The “god of our own understanding is smaller than us, because we created it and we can change it. The God arising out of a deep and wide sea of relationship is bigger than we are and just might change us.
What does “God” even mean when it comes about in such a way?
“God” is the notion that we (not I – we) come from somewhere and that we are headed somewhere. “The whence and the whither,” Karl Rahner called it. To combine the “whence and the whither” in the single notion of “God” is to say that neither is random. They are connected. “My end is in my beginning.” (T. S. Eliot). “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” (Revelation) There is a pattern and course to each life and to the history of our world. This all means something, amounts to something. It is not “a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing” (Shakespeare) but a story with a coherent plot and even, God help us, a theme, perhaps a moral. The story of life is not assorted words randomly scattered on a page but a novel worth reading, even living. What that “whence, whither,” and meaning are is beyond our grasp – but we must believe they exist albeit mysteriously if we are to have any framework, any structure for our relationships – a floor on which to dance, a melody we can sing together. So, we agree there is a meaning of which we can apprehend only “hints and guesses” (Eliot), and we agree to stammer about it together in poems we have agreed to recite together. They are at best partly accurate. The importance is not as much in their accuracy as in the togetherness of our reciting them. The constraints on inaccuracy are measured by the togetherness. A “God is love” (1st John) divinity flows naturally from such a relational religion. A god of wrath and judgment would be quite another matter. Such a god is more apt to be the “god our own personal understanding” based on unfortunate early childhood experiences or a life in a traumatized and traumatizing culture.
Our central Christian sacraments are Baptism and Communion. To be baptized is to be claimed, to belong, to be born anew into a family of faith. It is to say, “Thy people shall be my people; and thy God, my God.” Communion is to live into that bond. It is to place ourselves on a single altar, giving ourselves to one God, to receive our life back from that one God, eating from one loaf, drinking from one cup.” Those rites are not symbolic expressions of something each of us has individually experienced. They are rather an experience of one-ness with each other, out of which our faith in the One-ness (Coherence) of Reality is formed. With that bond to each other and that sense of our common source and common destiny, we say “Whither thou goest, I will go.”
2. I Believe In One Reality
There are good reasons things are the way they are in our time. By “the way things are” I mean we are radically rebellious, passionately individualistic. We deify our own wills and worship them by asserting our wills against those of others. The result is loneliness, alienation, meaninglessness, cynicism, and despair – not to mention injustice and violence both random and systemic. But there are good reason things are the way they are in our time.
For centuries, we lived with rigid hierarchies constructed for the hoarding by elites of political power and economic wealth, and buttressed by religions corrupted by their political and economic context. (Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood). We began pushing off the weight of those hierarchical traditions in the 18th Century, only to have horrifically totalitarian regimes take their place in the 20th and 21st. “It is right, good, and a joyful thing” that we fight back against such oppression. The Abrahamic religions were born in just such a rebellion when YHWH said, “I have heard my people cry. Go tell Pharaoh, ‘let my people go.’” Jesus said the Spirit of the Lord was on him “to proclaim release to the captive . . . to let the oppressed go free.” Paul said, “For freedom, Christ has set us free.”
The tragedy is that in rebelling against oppression, we have turned against one another. We have set our face against our neighbor. We have gone our own way. I know of a priest who died recently and wanted at his funeral, not “For all the saints who from their labors rest” – not a song of sweet reunion with “those angel faces . . . whom I have loved long since, and lost awhile” – but “I did it my way.” Your god is not my god. My god is my god. In truth if “god” is my highest value, my guiding principle, then I am my god as you are your god, which makes each of us an infidel to the other’s religion.
In those days, there was no king in Israel and each man did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges)
Hey, hey, you, you,
Get off of my cloud! (The Rolling Stones)
Your god is not my god; nor your people, my people.
Whither thou goest, I shalt not go.
We will each go our own way – alone!
How would we expect such a cultural irreligiosity to play out politically? Obviously, in rancorous division and hostility. In the 19th Century, the French social scientist Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, exploring the question of whether our American experiment could possibly survive. He said, the worm in the American apple was individualism but the project might yet be saved by one thing – our churches! Worshiping together forged our bonds as a people. He did not mean that we all worshiped in the same way. It is not an agreement about theology. But it is that we come together, forge faith together, practice religion as a team sport that makes democracy possible. It is not the content of the beliefs but the network of relationship and the quality of character it forms.
Today, three forces – each arising out of individualism -- sow the seeds of chaos: atheism, apathism, and privatized spirituality. Many new atheists treat Christians with contempt attributing all sorts of silly notions to us – chiefly that we think there is a Super Being dwelling on a distant planet from which he magically manipulates events here. I will not disrespect atheism in kind by saying it simply a denies that Super Being. Proper atheism (Hume, Nietzsche, Mackie, and Hecht) being heroic examples) denies that there is any coherent connection between our whence and our whither, that there is any meaning to this whole adventure. It is in fact “a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” There is no right and wrong (Kant equated God with the Moral Order so to be an atheist one denies that there such a thing as right and wrong), only personal preference. There is no Beauty, only what suits my fancy. And here’s the kicker, there is no Truth. I have heard for years, “That may be true for you but that doesn’t make it true for me.” Truth is just what I make up in my head. In our time, that subjectivism has come to a solipsistic crescendo.
Apathism does not take the ultimate question of what matters in life seriously enough to pose an answer yay or nay. It is to say I am not sufficiently interested in other people to care about their deepest value. Privatized spirituality – the “spiritual but not religious” -- gives free reign to each of the gods “of our own personal understanding(s).” It is to sing, “I did it my way” as a Gospel hymn. All three reject shared faith per se regardless of its content. We choose to sing only solos, to live in private worlds.
The result is: each of us creates our own set of facts. We each dwell in our own separate reality. Your sun may rise in the East if you like, but if I prefer to believe the sun rises in the North, then by (my) god, that’s where it rises.
Whither thou goest, I shalt not go.
I have in recent years heard people seriously arguing that the earth is flat and that the round earth is propaganda used to manipulate us. I have likewise heard that the heliocentric solar system is a hoax. The overwhelming evidence that global warming is happening and that carbon emissions contribute to it is dismissed not just by random nutcases but by people to whom we have entrusted real power. I hear people believe the FBI bugged the President because he says so, but when the FBI explains that they were bugging a Russian gambling ring in Trump tower, that cannot be believed because the source is “the government.” People believe wild memes on social media if those memes fit the reality in which they chose to live, but refuse to believe news from reputable journalistic sources because they “don’t trust the press.”
Political leaders confronted with “facts” that belie their claims do not argue the evidence but appeal to “alternative facts.” We believe reports that suit our agenda but regard all else as “fake news.” Reality is not a given to deal with. It is a fantasy we each construct in our own imaginations.
This flows from an implicit theological premise: If God is the ground of Reality, and if we each get to construct our own god, it follows as the night the day, we can each make up whatever facts we choose to believe.
No less skeptical a philosopher than Jacques Derrida says the very project of science itself rests on the faith that there is a coherence to be discovered through observation and experimentation. (Believing In Order To See) The post-modern repudiation of God leads inexorably to the repudiation of science and the disbelief in any objective reality where we might live together.
3. So What’s The Question?
The question is secondarily about God. Primarily it’s about our relationship with each other. Is it still possible, are we still capable of saying one frail fallible mortal human being to another,
Whither thou goest I will go,
and thy people shall be my people;
and thy god; my god?
I can construct a pretty good rational argument for God – not a proof but an argument that shows belief on God (Rahner’s “whence and whither” – not the Super Being on a distant planet) is a reasonable and desirable conviction to hold. Much brighter people than I – philosophers, theologians, and yes, some scientists -- have made more convincing cases than I could ever attempt. But none of that does any good on the front end.
On the front end, faith is a matter of the heart. Credo – “I give my heart.” And the first movement of the heart is between people. It isn’t between me and a sunset. It’s between us, you and me. It is the horizontal human relationship which constitutes the floor on which the vertical pillar, our relationship with God, must rest.
Social, political, and economic systems have oft-times been disillusioning. They have also sustained the human race through the millennia. I do not say that to defend them as good – only to say that some sort of system is essential to our survival. How are we to deal wi†h our natural ambivalence about the fact (if we are willing †o concede there are facts) that we are all in this together. We need each other. Is there a way we can live together, not just materially but spiritually, can we discern meaning together? I do not mean utopian harmony. I just mean the mixed and muddled business of being a body politic instead of the dystopian chaos into which we seem to be sinking.
We often bandy about the term “social construct.” It applies to a norm, a custom, a way of doing things, or a belief that things are a certain way. A social construct means people have collectively made it up. We don’t usually mean anything good when we say such and such is “just a social construct” since it is neither scientifically proven (now even science is not being called “a social construct”) nor an expression of our individual creativity.
But the things humankind has made together can be impressive – languages, architecture, technology, democratic institutions. If we socially construct our ways of living and loving, our ways of sensing and expressing meaning, perhaps we might find a kinder way to regard what we have done together. Things we might call a social construct today have in years past been called such things as “the Mayflower Compact,” “the Magna Carta,” “the Covenant of Israel.”
Do we dare risk our individual selves in the hope that we might find ourselves larger, deeper, kinder, lovelier, better in relationship with one another. Might we dare to inhabit a world not of our own making, even pray to a God we did not invent in our own solitary laboratory?
If we choose to do so, we might swim in a very large sea of humanity. We might join with humanity around the world, in ages past, and in ages yet to come. What is the question? It is a question of courage. Ruth is the model of such courage. The courage to love.
Whither thou goest I will go.
Thy people shall be my people,
and thy god; my god.