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8/19/03                                                                                       View Comments

Re-Imagining God or What Happens When You Clean House.

by Stephen S. (Likeafish)
(dedicated to the members of the Open Forums)


“When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, 'I will return to the house I left.' When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.” Luke 11:24-26

About a dozen years ago in a major US city there was a large feminist conference dedicated to the idea of re-imaging the divine. As anyone can guess, this didn’t sit well with people of the religious status quo. There were protests, talk radio bashing, and bellowing condemnation from pulpits all over the state.

I knew a few people who went to the conference. It sounded like a lot of hand-holding, hugging, singing, poems, with some scholarly lectures thrown in—kind of like bible camp with a hefty sermon or two. But it was the idea of using the imagination to reconsider our conception of the Almighty that got every conservative Xtian going. Why is applying the imagination to god so threatening?

The answers to that question are obvious. The relentless attacks on this site by hell-bent Xtians are a witness to the fear attendant to the very idea of rethinking the faith. Imagining other possibilities for human beings other than the confines of Xtianity might mean that Xtianity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Besides, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize other implications implicit in the bible and Xtianity’s exclusive claims, implications less flattering to this “god of love.” Maybe some of these Xtians see that and it freaks them out. Who knows?

Since leaving my faith in Jesus I have been on a quest. I wasn’t sure what its nature was or how to define it properly. At first, when I discovered Xtian faith just couldn’t hold together with any real integrity in my mind and heart, it felt like all that I was left with was an enormous hole. Jesus was right in one respect. When one cleans house, other things tend to move in. Or so it seemed they would. I had cleaned my psychological house of my oppressive, confusing, witless, and ultimately imaginary god and something had to take its place, right?

For a while there was only the empty house, a void. Nothing seemed to fill it except a kind of dull, colorless hum called in clinical terms “depression.” I learned to sit in that void for a long time and I got used to it. I found Buddhism during that time and its rational view of things seemed to rightly describe the void I was experiencing. Depression, in Buddhism, is a natural mental response to the grasping we do in our lives in an attempt to always be full, happy, comforted, needed, loved, or, as in America, entertained. It is the illusion of self that we are clinging to, and we must let it go. Depression happens when all that “attachment” comes crumpling down. I still think that makes sense as far as it goes.

But finally I left Buddhism, for many reasons, the most important being that I felt myself slipping into another religion all over again, and that just simply didn’t sit right with me (I may have just made a Buddhist pun!). Once again I was being asked to accept a view of things that was already fully thought out for me. I wanted to learn what I thought, what my own voice was, and not the voice of a pastor or a slew of bible verses or creeds.

So what does this all have to do with imagination? Well, just this—when one imaginary god is eliminated, do I need another to take its place? Jesus was also wrong in another sense. The assumption Jesus makes is that people have no choice about what goes on in their heads and hearts. He assumes we are all at the mercy of these demons and ghosts who are waiting just behind our left ear to take us over. But I think he was wrong. And so was Buddha.

When we clean house of one undeserving god another need not immediately move in. And, contrary to what Buddhism suggests, we are not simply left with a void to embrace through meditation, striving for a static existence of detachment. Instead, we get to choose what we allow in and what we keep out of the house. We can keep that house neat and tidy, or we can clutter it up as much as we want. It’s our house. We can even lock the door. We can ask people, ideas, and religions to kindly knock first. And, as I have discovered, once the elephant is removed from the living room, one begins to see other things, treasures, in the house that had been forgotten. Loose change drops out of the old sofa. There’s a telescope in the corner of the closet and now I can go out in backyard and look up at the vastness of the universe. The house is now open and full of possibilities. Let’s get some new, more comfortable furniture and some more appealing pictures for the walls.

The Blank page (or the canvas, or the open field—your very own mind!). This is the void. And with what shall we fill it? Imagination itself. This is what comes to us when it is time to recreate the space left by a pre-imagined reality given to us by religion. And its primary tool is discipline, but not a harsh external task master who shapes one into something they do not intend. It is the discipline of learning to use the tools of a given craft, things like grammar and logic, and then making the choice of a goal to guide the process to completion. Is this enough? I think so. Look around. How do things get done?

As to which goals are worthy ones, this gets to the question of values, and that discussion is always ongoing as long as we are involved in life. The pretension of religion is that the conversation is over and all that is left is to obey. Such pretensions are not only unrealistic, they are unimaginative. And where would we be as people without imagination? Take a moment. Imagine it.