Practicing the Absence of God

Ok. This is a UU congregation, we can handle the doubt stuff. But promoting the absence of God? What are you talking about? That’s crazy. Presence good. Absence bad. Just Google it.

–  “Holiness is practicing the presence of God; worldliness is practicing the absence of God.”
–  Practicing the absence of God is the cause of all our mediocrity and failure.
–  No one would consciously choose to practice the absence of god.
–  God’s presence is goodness and heaven.
– The absence of God is the source of all evil.
– The absence of God is Hell.
Ok. It’s an uphill battle, but I’m going to suggest that the benefits of practicing the presence of God may have been oversold, and there may be some benefits to practicing absence. To push at the imbalance this sermon will challenge some popular notions.
First off, how well does practicing the presence of God work? Brother Lawrence the catholic Monk who wrote Practicing the Presence of God in the 1600s, said to pray without ceasing. His goal was to build up a constant personal union between himself and God. In 1896 in order to promote the social gospel, Charles Monroe Sheldon wrote, In his steps: What would Jesus do? He believed people would become more responsible for their fellow man by constantly identifying with Jesus. His idea was picked up by Dan Seaborn, a conservative Christian active in the Promise Keepers movement. He promoted the practice of wearing the WWJD bracelets in the 90’s. If such a thing were possible, do you thing the Christian socialist Charles Monroe Sheldon might roll over in his grave to see what happened with his WWJD idea?
What often happens when someone seeks a personal union with God? It’s hoped that practitioners will become more godlike, but often they end up crafting a God in their own image. Kids wearing WWJD bracelets might report that they become more Christ like, but at the same time their Christ becomes more like them. By constantly identifying with Jesus, it’s easy to lose perspective. They do what Jesus would and by implication their preferences become those of Jesus. It often ends up with another version of a blond haired, blue eyed Jesus who loves fried chicken, NASCAR, and football and dislikes democrats, foreigners and gays. Through this amalgamation of self and God, both they and the Christ they purport to follow become inauthentic weaker and poorer version of what they might otherwise be. People will always have their differences, but when they are convinced God is on their side, the stakes are raised. Certainly the practice of Gods’ presence can provide comfort, strengthen commitment, and harden resolve. A key question is however, does this practice tend promote growth or does it often help the practitioner to cling to narrow values.
Well maybe the WWJD example is too extreme. Seeking to know God through prayer could be considered a much more reasonable approach and not as likely to stunt growth. A lot of people believe in prayer as an unmitigated good, but what is the evidence supporting such a belief? Not a lot has been done to look at this. But what has been studied may give pause.
One study, took two very similar Christian denominations which differed on the baptismal issue of sprinkling or immersion. Members of both groups were asked to pray to seek to ascertain God’s will. What do you think happened? Well if you believe prayer could help you find out God’s will, you’d expect the answers to tend to favor one position or the other. They didn’t. If you think prayer helps bridge people and make individuals more understanding and open minded, you might expect that people determined that issue was not that important and become more accepting of the alternate position than they were before. That didn’t happen either. After praying all were more convinced that God favored their church’s position. Through deliberate intentional prayer, two Christian groups became more polarized on an issue than they were before.
The next experiment involved a variety of religious believers who held conflicting opinions on the issue of same sex marriage. The researchers recorded the positions of the participant and asked them to pray to see if they could ascertain “Gods” position. After prayer 68% of the participants felt they were able to asses God’s will. Now do you think that many of the participants had a “road to Damascus” moment when the scales fell from their eyes and they saw the truth of God and the error of their ways? … I wish it worked that way, but no. Everyone who felt touched by Gods presence found that God shared their opinion. No movements toward greater compassion or understanding were found. Not one. Think of the consequences, no longer did the opposition just disagree with an individual belief; they are now opposed to God. This type of false certainty leads to polarization which divides and separates people. It seems that often prayer does not induce change as much as it makes us comfortable with our own beliefs. When we do change, is it through prayer or does prayer just confirm a change arrived at from other drivers for other reasons? Might an absence of God perspective be an effective driver of change?
Now I have to admit I don’t have any good evidence to offer about potential benefits from practicing the absence of God. But I’d love to see it put it to various tests. When you stop practicing the presence of God, perhaps there is more room to recognize the needs of people. I think if you had a group of people opposed to SSM and they practiced the absence of God, while watching a half dozen episodes of Glee, unlike with prayer, you’d see some movement towards more compassion and understanding.
A Buddhist koan says Great Doubt, Great Awakening, Little Doubt, Little Awakening, No Doubt, No Awakening. I say it’s harder to move when you are tied to the ultimate, the infinite, or the ground of all being.
So what am I suggesting as a practice for the absence of God? Nothing specific but there are many opportunities for employing such practices. You’re creative, thoughtful, independent people. You should work on crafting the specifics that will work best for you. As you incorporate God’s presence so too can you incorporate an absence. First though, what do we mean by God? Since we’re in a UU Church it could mean a lot of different things. Ask yourself, “What do I mean by God or the divine?” Maybe your answer is a personal being, a pantheon, a collective conscience, the universe, the ground of being or some other concept. Maybe your answer is I don’t believe in such a concept. Whatever your articulated or unarticulated answer to the God question is, you can practice the absence of that. We can all seek to at least temporarily step outside the protective shield, which gives us certainty. What if our central understandings of the world are wrong, what if we looked at the world in a different way? What would disappear, what would remain, what does and doesn’t matter anymore. Such experiments might help us grow as people.
Sometimes we have to put our “truths” aside to change and grow. There is a danger in tying yourself too strongly to any belief system. We all have a tendency that may be too strong to cling to our beliefs. We do it in a variety of ways. Certainly the bumper sticker philosophy, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it” doesn’t encourage a lot of soul searching growth. But we can also close our mind through over-reliance upon our scientific understandings. Trusting our inner feelings too strongly can inhibit growth as well. The idea that all belief systems are essentially equal and valid ways of viewing the world, can stand as bulwark against change because at its heart is says, nothing can trump my belief.
Assurance is a good thing that we all seek. But it needs to be balanced; too much assurance may be just as harmful as not enough. The practice of absence may be needed to keep our truths in check.
Before wrapping up I want to throw out a few more ideas from others around the absence of God in the hopes that they may spur thinking and help illuminate some potential benefits of an absence perspective.
Kurt Vonnegut in his otherwise unremarkable book Bluebeard introduced the concept of a non-epiphany. One of his characters had experienced a transcendent period of joy. His friend explained.
“You were experiencing a non-epiphany … The trouble with God isn’t that He so seldom makes Himself known to us. The trouble with God is exactly the opposite. He’s holding you and me and everybody else by the scruff of the neck practically constantly … Contentedly adrift in the cosmos, were you? That is a perfect description of a non-epiphany, that rarest of moments, when God Almighty lets go of the scruff of your neck and lets you be human for a little while.”
There’s not a lot positive available about practicing the absence of God. A Google search of “Practicing the absence of God” (in quotations) turns this service up as the #3 listing. We may be on a forefront here. The first two listings refer to Robert Prices’ Sermon with the same name.
Robert Price noted:
I am reminded of one of the great spiritual classics of Catholic Christianity … Practicing the Presence of God. I have come to think, by contrast, that what is needful is “practicing the absence of God.” To bathe and bask in the emptiness, the lack, the void.
He observed that an infinite God doesn’t leave enough room for people:
We must, I say, practice the absence of God. As the mystics of the Kabbalah said, God must contract, withdraw into himself for there to be room left over for the world to exist. God must retreat. He must decrease for you to increase.
And he questioned the comfort provided by God explanations:
When tragedy strikes, when loved ones die, is it comforting or edifying to you to imagine that God had some reason for killing them? Was the suffering of Job alleviated or rather compounded by his belief that God must have had a purpose in it? Why make tragedy worse by elevating it to the outrage of cosmic injustice? Some song asks indignantly, “Why do we never get an answer” to the problem of evil? Well, what kind of answer did you have in mind?
Price observes that, we seem driven for answers, whether they ultimately do us any good or not. The concept of God can enhance personal growth, but it can be a stumbling block as well. There are dangers in thinking we have a special tie, are imbued with the truth, that we have great understandings, that there are good unknown reasons for injustices, that we are protected from errors, and that someone/something else is looking after our brothers and sisters.In closing, let me be clear that today I am not asking anyone to abandon their practices of experiencing the divine, but rather promoting the benefits of a practice of absence. Consider the possibility that even if you have a richly rewarding practice of the divine, it might be enhanced, supplemental and better understood by also engaging in practices of absence.
May you at times bathe and bask in the emptiness, the lack, the void. May you enjoy uncertainty, the unknown, the unknowable and the magnificently mysterious? May you be flexible in your thinking and freed from the constraints of feeling that you must have all the answers, solutions, and a defined direction? And lastly I hope that at times when you are watching a sunset, viewing the stars, or taking in a magnificent vista, that you will experience the transcendence of being contentedly adrift in the cosmos end enjoy the grand experience that is a non-epiphany.
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2 Responses to Practicing the Absence of God

  1. jgwhitener says:

    What an excellent sermon. An early line that really jumped out at me was “People will always have their differences, but when they are convinced God is on their side, the stakes are raised.”

    This reminds me of a heuristic I use for knowing when you’re really risking a hostile reaction from someone: if you ever intimate that he/she is a bad parent or that their parents were bad parents. (For example, if you tell someone, “Wow, I’d never let my kid have so much sugar. You know, so many health issues…”) So, how much riskier when you are questioning someone’s god?

    The sermon also made me think of the American governmental ideal from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” If you believe that God is the one who has put down the law and who defines what is just, you’ve abandoned the first two parts of that ideal. Or worse, you’ve decided to leave it to some inscrutable process of divine-to-human revelation that would have us still owning slaves and our wives and stoning our children at the city gates. “For the people” must then also change into something a lot more like “for God,” which means, what?

    My point is that practicing the absence of God is an excellent way of remembering our responsibility as people to analyze our motives, and to burden ourselves with the job of determining in real-world terms what is fair and just and true and compassionate.

    The koan says it all: “Great Doubt, Great Awakening; Little Doubt, Little Awakening; No Doubt, Gwen Stefani… er, No Awakening.” (sorry couldn’t help it)

    Again, thanks for the great post. I’d love to know more about the studies you mentioned. Links?

  2. JG – I’ve really appreciated your posts here and there. I checked out your site as well. You are a very committed and interesting person. I’m guessing we are coming from very different places with a lot of differences but still with appreciation across it. You might be my favorite post/email pal.

    Here are some links for the second study. OCRT is a good site I’ve liked for years.

    I’m drawing a blank now on the denominational study of sprinkling or baptism. I’m thinking it was a book. I’ll work on my memory, but right now I just keep thinking “don’t tell me cause it hurts”.

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