Friday, November 15, 2013

Mapping God

 ". . . you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do."*

      This wonderful suggestion relayed by Anne Lamott mirrors something I heard some months back about a group of religious college students trying to decide what Myers-Briggs profile best fit Jesus of Nazareth.  Without our needing to understand the complexities of the Myers-Briggs world, it turned out that the students' profiles of Jesus bore an uncanny resemblance to their own Myers-Briggs profile; e.g., introverts thought Jesus was introverted while extroverts found him to be extroverted.  In other words, the figure of Jesus became a sort of "divinity Rorschach Test", saying more about the observer than the observed object.
         Both the Lamott quotation and the psychology profile came to mind this week as I reflected on (1) the musical theater piece "Book of Mormon"; and (2) the book we discussed, David Webster's 
Dispirited:  How contemporary spirituality makes us stupid, selfish and unhappy.**  I don't want to give away any of the plot twists and turns of "Book of Mormon", but those who have seen it will know that there are "liberties" taken throughout the production with both the received text of the Book of Mormon as well as with the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  These "liberties" reflect a socio-cultural system very different than either that of the LDS church's founder, or that of the two missionaries. Dispirited demanded a bit less "analysis", as Webster disparagingly observes throughout the book that the "god" of many believers (regardless of the tradition) simply reflects their own predilections or desires, predilections or desires that have little to do with the "truth."
          Webster's critique is not new.  At the very least,  Anne Lamott's clergy friend, Tom, observed much the same thing twenty years before Webster wrote his book.  And there have been many other, similar, observations over the centuries.  Webster, of course, has an agenda to put forward, and he thinks this reflected "god" isn't a good thing.  As his full subtitle suggests, "Contemporary spirituality is destroying our ability to think, depoliticizing society and making us miserable".***  I'm not so sure.

          As I already noted, Webster's critique is not new.  Indeed, in some places his critique is no critique at all, but rather a simple statement of the way people relate to the divine.  Hinduism (especially the Smarti and Bhakti schools) presents a great example of this with its concept of ishta-devata or "chosen deity", or "the form of God which inspires [the practitioner] the most".****  This, it seems to me, is a generous recognition that each individual will understand the divine out of his/her own experience.  It is NOT a bad thing, it is simply a thing. And it is little different than the oft-quoted aphorism that "there are many paths to reach God."
         We could see this practice as nothing other than looking in the mirror and recording our reflection as being "divine."  On the other hand, we might turn the above aphorism around (as some have done) and assert that "God takes many paths to reach us."  Paths inspiring action; paths inspiring devotion; paths inspiring knowledge.  I wonder if it is less a matter of us "mapping God" than God knowing the territory and recognizing the value of hills, valleys, oceans, forests, mountains and brooks and mapping us.

Chaplain Gary

*  Attributed to her priest friend, Tom, by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor: 1995), 22.

**  Zero Books, 2012.

***  Title page.

**** Hopkins, Thomas J., The Hindu Religious Tradition (Dickenson Publishing Company, Inc., 1971), 122.  See too, the entry on ishta-devata in

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