VIEW VIDEO I was up in Carmel last week giving a speech to a literary society for their spring banquet. It was a gorgeous spring day, so I drove there on the back roads, past farmers working their fields, with the redbuds and dogwoods in bloom and peonies popping up in the farmhouse yards. This was a fancy dinner, so I had to dress up, which cost them extra. I have a surcharge for any speech requiring a sport coat. My sport coat cost $35 on the sale rack at Kohl’s and I must claw back that money somehow.
So I drove up to Carmel, pulled in the parking lot, put on my sport coat, and was no sooner in the door than a man saw me and asked, “Did God exist before man?” It threw me off. That’s a big question to have pitched at you within five seconds of walking in a door. So right off the top of my head, I said, “Probably not.” Then he quoted something I had written several years ago in which I had suggested God did indeed exist before humankind. Friends, a little advice, don’t ever write a book unless you’re prepared to have someone quote it back to you. Books freeze you in time, because they’re a snapshot of what you believed when you wrote the book. People expect you to believe the same thing you wrote ten years before. I don’t know if you ever change your mind, but just this morning, at the top of our staircase, I decided to have oatmeal for breakfast, but by the bottom stair, seven seconds later, I had changed my mind and had Fruit Loops instead.
So this week I’ve been thinking about what came first, God or humans? Of course, orthodox Christianity has always said God came first, and even more than that, that God has always been, that God is timeless and eternal, which, of course, can’t be proven, only believed or not believed. But today I want to suggest another possibility, and who knows, maybe this sermon will be the beginning of a whole new theology and a new religion will be started around it, and 500 years from now, people will come visit our meetinghouse and touch this pulpit and get all shivery and excited. But probably not.
We’ve been talking about Christianity 101, considering together the basic tenets of our faith. We’re doing this because our nation is in the fever grip of Christian nationalism, exacerbated by theological ignorance. Too many people believe dangerous and foolish things about God, about Jesus, about themselves, and others, and there is no remedy for that other than to challenge the theology that give rise to such pernicious movements. We’ve said there is no such thing as progressive theology or conservative theology. There is only good theology or bad theology, and the cure for bad theology is good theology. Good theology affirms the grace of God, the dignity of humanity, and the importance of creation. Bad theology doesn’t.
It is also true that whenever we say something about God, we are simultaneously saying something about humanity, and that is what I wish to talk about today. Who are we? What does it mean to be human?
I want to answer this in light of what that man asked me last week, “Did God exist before man?” And I said, “Probably not.” Because maybe what makes God fully complete is us. Maybe relationship is so important to God, so central to God’s nature, that without anyone to relate to, God isn’t whole. God isn’t complete. So while it might not be the case that humans created God, it might be the case that without us, God would not be God. In the sense that I would not be a grandfather if it weren’t for Madeline and Miles. They make me a grandfather. Without them, I am not a grandfather. And maybe without us, God is not God. We complete God, and God completes us.
Which means God becomes whole by virtue of relationship, and we become human by virtue of our relationships. Now, if I had said this 700 years ago, the Church would have put me on trial, found me guilty of heresy, and burned me at the stake, which is why putting totalitarians in charge is never a good idea. But I digress. God becomes fully God by virtue of God’s relationships, and we become fully human by virtue of our relationships. We both complete God, and are ourselves completed by God. God and humankind are completed by our mutual relationships. Without relationships we are never completely whole.
The Church has traditionally asserted that God stands alone, that prior to humanity God was complete, but I have my doubts about that. In the creation story, God looked at Adam and said, “It is not good that man should be alone,” which I believe is revelatory. God knows it is not good to be alone, because God has been alone, God has gone without relationship, without community, and knows firsthand the emptiness of isolation. So wanting to be whole and happy and complete, God created humankind. Last week, when that man asked me if God existed before man, I more accurately should have said, “Yes, but not completely.” God existed, but it was mere existence.
This is a high view of humanity, and some would say unmerited. But I would rather aspire toward a high and noble view of humanity, than succumb to a low and degraded view of humanity. When we engage in theology, and the question of our nature arises, I refuse to believe anyone was born in a state of sin. I refuse to believe that the only way to elevate God is to denigrate us. Rather, I believe human beings complete God, that this was God’s hope and aspiration when we were created, and that just as we complete God, God completes us. We are not whole until we are in relationship with the God who is in relationship with us all, until we live and walk in that Light which enlightens all the world. For this is always the ugly start of Christian nationalism, the twisted notion that God’s Light and Presence is more robust in some than others.
That great sage, Mark Twain, said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
The day you were born, and the day you find out why. When I was a kid in the Catholic Church studying the Baltimore Catechism, the nun would ask us, “Why were you born?” A rather daunting question to ask a 12-year-old, but there you go. We had been taught to answer, “We were born to know, love, and serve God.”
It was a top-down understanding. God was way up there, and we were way down here. God was all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present, and all-loving, and had no need of anything or anyone. I no longer believe that. I think God needs us, every bit as much as we need God. Dreaming together. Loving together. Becoming complete together.