What I mean by God

This is from a Fresh Air interview with Barbara Brown Taylor. It’s from 2006, and Terry brought up in her recent interview. For something she came up with on the spot, it’s pretty dang good.

When I use the word God, I do not envision a large person with two arms, two legs and nose and two eyes. I envision, instead, some presence so beyond my being, a presence that both knows the stars by name and knows me by name, as well, that is not here to be useful to me, that is not here to give me things as much as to ask me to give myself away for love. I, of course, get a great deal of what I mean by God from the tradition in which I stand - the Christian tradition, the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. But when I say I believe in God, I mean I trust. I trust in the goodness of life, of being. I trust that beyond all reason. I trust that with my life. And that's what I mean by God.

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.

I’ve been thinking along similar lines lately, except I end up not thinking about god at all. It goes like this:

Just about any religious person will have some version of saying, if you want to understand their religion then read the scriptures and pray. If that doesn’t lead to understanding, then you did it wrong, so go back and do it some more.

That last part is what most people would consider fundamentalist, but you can soften the language and have that sound pretty liberal. On the other end, you can read whatever you want and make of it whatever you want. Historians do it, or any kind of religious study. And if you want to pray or meditate or whatever, go ahead. It’s only when someone starts telling you that you are doing it wrong and tries to control how you do it that it becomes a problem.

Does she really believe what she says though? To me, her words actually sound like she made it up to appeal to everyone.

A god who has no hand in our affairs and has no physical appearance sounds pretty hip and cool and modern. But then she says this hands-off, incorporeal god actually cares what she does and wants her to give her love away.

Those two images of a god are contradictory (in my mind). I suppose she can say that her god doesn’t intervene in her life yet still cares what she does, but if that’s the case, what’s the point of thinking or caring about it?


Just by the sound of her voice in the interview, I’m going to accept that she came up with this pretty much off the cuff. Of course she’s a writer on religion, so she thinks about it all the time. I could take this and translate it into atheism language pretty easily. That contradiction you hear is valid because she doesn’t want to let go of the god language. That is, she’s anthropomorphizing what I would call culture or our inherited and DNA driven morality. That is not a thinking being, which is what she starts out dismissing, it doesn’t ask you for anything, as she contradicts herself with later. Not in any real sense of the word “ask” anyway, but in a longer view of history sense, my ancestors did leave behind instructions and expectations. Where religion goes wrong is that those become demands that must be followed or we’ll suffer consequences. That’s why we need to abandon the language but we need to do it without abandoning our responsibility to the generations that follow. We should be listening to the wisdom, something the Bible constantly requires of us, but we should be questioning it and applying new data constantly, something religions rarely say and more often say not to.

I think she would agree even though she’d still want to maintain that language.