I once made up a game: what if you could only use a word once in your lifetime and afterward you had to find new ways of expressing the same thought? The first time I could ask you to “come.” The next time I might have to say, “Advance.” “Draw near.” “Move forward.” “Progress in my direction.” The responsibility to find other exacting terms was exciting as it opened up possibilities in the use of language and challenged the brain.
Now imagine applying the rules of that game to the use of the word “God.” Finding other ways to express this word would probably extract what people really mean by it from the shadows. Some may say none, one, or multiple of the following: Judge. Energy. Father. Mother. Creator. Nothingness. Fighter. Defender. Being. Universe. Mystery. Love. The man upstairs. I do not know.
In the case of “God,” the glaring truth is that, within the same word and even within the same religious worldview, there are multiple understandings of what necessarily is an abstract noun, and thus beyond the complete grasp of language.
How Do We Approach Questions Like, “Who/What is God? What is Religion?”
Perhaps if we find other words beside the usual blanket word “God,” we may see similarities between the yearnings of the scientist, transformed into a tireless pursuit to understand the physical world, and that of the pastor, who cannot cease reading and poring over her scriptures. We may see similarities between extremists – religious and non-religious. We may see parallels between spiritual states and prayers across different religious expressions.
Religion is the belief in the existence of a supreme being; at least that was the right answer to the question “What is religion?” if I wanted to get full marks while I completed the earlier parts of my education in Nigeria. Growing up, our blanket categories for God failed to acknowledge the vast diversity of religious thought and expression. We learnt that there were Christians, Muslims, and “traditional worshippers” – traditional worshippers being a blanket term for the multiplicity of systems for exploring the divine that our own ancestors had developed and followed until recent times. But why would we care? Our stories, social norms, and locally produced movies equated traditional worship with bewitched classmates who initiated other classmates into witchcraft with food which made them fly in the night, kill people, and hold meetings in the underworld. Traditional worshippers weren’t civilized. They were to be converted, prayed for, and violently warred against in the spiritual realm.
Prayer was part of social events – a Christian prayer or maybe a Muslim prayer would be recited but definitely not a prayer from the indigenous religions. When asked to fill out forms, you were required to indicate your religion, Christianity or Islam, with no categories for other beliefs or no belief. Churches with mostly lower-income congregants tended to have uncompleted parts and there the congregants held very different approaches to worship and faith. The poor people’s church would cast out demons all the time and had a marked unashamed vibrancy, whereas the more orthodox, air-conditioned churches tended to have congregants from the higher economic classes who had a more reserved approach to their religious expression. Then there were the emerging cool and hip churches for young adults who wanted more contemporary music and a greater sense of community intermingled with their need to worship. Of course, all these expressions of religion had vastly different interpretations of the same texts and terms, leading to different commitments and implications, and correlated to demographics, a diversity lost with the use of blanket terms like “Christian” and “church.”
America also fosters blanket understandings of religion. When I moved to North America in my early teens I quickly understood that the perception of religion here was as a sort of evolutionary vestige – something to mock in intelligent conversation, something to stereotype, and perhaps the only allowed prejudice on university campuses and among otherwise thoughtful people. Regarding religion, people were excused if they used offensive, snide, and arrogant remarks. I can see why this can be an appealing approach to take. After all does anyone need to be reminded of all the evil that has been done in the name of religion?
Yet when some choose to bracket people with words like “religion” and “God,” it is very suspicious to me. In my experience, the same college student who spoke against religion was playing with Eastern spirituality, or drawing from various worldviews, or perhaps was very religious about their being anti-religious. The same person believed that the universe was one and he or she was one with all things in such a seemingly religious way that you dared not disagree.
I realized that religion itself is a blanket term and that to toss this blanket without much thought would be to divide the world in ways that are not helpful. Beneath the blanket of religion are individuals who, like all humans, have evolved consciousness and with it a sense of and thirst for the sublime, and may have found more comfortable language for that sense through atheism, the pursuit of success and mastery, music, agnosticism, a blend of worldviews, poetry, science, math, physics, Islam, Christianity and among other ways of seeing and naming “the mystery.”
If conversations on religion as it relates to ills of our day are to be transparent, they will need to be more thoughtful than the dichotomies we have in popular media – religious versus secular, Christian right versus the Left, and creation versus evolution. I suspect that with patience and sensitivity we may be surprised to find that the same primal inclination and curiosity exists in us all yet it is the expression, the language for it, that has often turned into the moats we use to demarcate our territory. Dividing the world so thoughtlessly is lazy and telling, too, of what we fear and therefore want labelled.
Our Role in Constructing Perceptions of the Divine
Having acknowledged the fluidity and unexpected faces of that sublime mystery which some of us term as “God”, we can explore the possibility that prevailing perceptions of “God” may be constructed – that the society we create shapes the construction of God, therefore giving us a role to play in shaping the religious impulse of our time and our society. Some say that the concept of God is closed and final, yet even if God never changes, many can agree that over time their understanding of God changes and evolves. For example, in America, even among those who consider the scriptures inerrant, understandings of God have evolved over time to make room for women to vote and work as well as for slavery to be discontinued. This reaffirms the potent possibility that discerning the divine is actually not a closed process but an ongoing negotiation that changes over time with knowledge, norms, discourse, and understanding.
This has become an important thought to ponder given the blatant religious violence still ongoing in our world today, where in the name of “God” people fight and kill people who are not like them, launch vitriolic hate-filled speeches against one another, and kidnap young school girls. Beyond lazy hate speech against religion, in a world confronted by extremism, how might we as religious and non-religious people play a thoughtful role in creating the conditions for a healthy God-view in our society?
For one, we know that poverty and stark social inequalities are often closely connected to extremism and religious violence. Do we have a responsibility to ensure that societal inequalities are dealt with so that they are not co-opted by zealous, charismatic leaders like those of Boko Haram and Al Qaeda? Often what start out as social inequities become sacralised and turned into monstrous “religion”-tainted evils. So working toward a world of equity, dialogue, and communication is a task for us all, religious or not.
The world we create will determine if some young adolescent male sees extremism as the way to gain a sense of community and self-esteem denied him by society. Maybe if we worked toward building social capital in our societies, reducing inequities, creating opportunities and jobs, educating ourselves about our societies, and living lives sensitive to the needs of those around us, this adolescent might easily spot such a dangerous worldview as untrue and have a healthier sense of the sublime. Similarly, a Christian girl who volunteers beside her Muslim friend may very quickly see the similarities in their search for God and their religious duty to the less privileged and thus begin to have a more inclusive understanding of her friend’s worldview and be less likely to accept prejudice in the future.
Religious or not, what role do we play in shaping the societies we live in and preventing festering social sores that can be co-opted into worldviews of extremism and violence? What are the effects of our action or inaction as responsible citizens – in building social capital, acting as informed members of our communities, building bridges, and widening our conception of personal responsibility to include the creation of a God-view that counters the hijacking of religion and the word “God” to cause evil? We all have a part to play in shaping a societal God-view that is healthy and conducive to wellbeing, in creating a world where discerning extremism and every other unhealthy ‘ism’ will be second nature for upcoming generations. Ultimately, the world we shape through our action or inaction as responsible global citizens, through our individualistic or community-centered consciousness, will shape the worldview of generations to come.
Ebele Mogo writes at www.streetsideconvos.com. She has previously been published in the Kalahari review, The Human Touch: A Journal of Poetry Prose and the Visual Arts by the University of Colorado Center for BioEthics and Humanities, Poetry Potion, Pennwood Review, and Sentinel Nigeria. She was also one of the winners of the Forgotten Writers Women’s Domination Short Story Competition.