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God, the very first word in the prayer, raises questions in the minds of many people, perhaps in most of us.
Yet if we are to pray the prayer at all we need some sort of understanding of what or who God is.
For some people, an understanding of God is not a problem: "It's obvious!" For me, and I'm sure for some others, belief is not that simple. In fact, the more I think about God, the more complicated it becomes. Perhaps some of those who accept trust in God so quickly are just closing their eyes to areas of life that might complicate their beliefs.
I once heard someone say, "Religious people aren't very thoughtful, and thoughtful people aren't very religious." When I first heard that statement, it seemed quite true. Yet since then I have met a growing number of people who are both religious, in the best sense of that word, and very thoughtful as well.
What do they believe about God? Or, to be more specific, how can I, as a thoughtful person, understand God?
What I need is some sort of understanding that does not require me to deny some of the realities I see in the world around me. I see examples of suffering and injustice that the simple words have faith just don't solve.
It is not that I have to have all the answers before I can have any kind of trust. In a lot of areas of life I trust even though my knowledge is incomplete. For example, when I drive my car to the airport and get on a plane I trust myself to the care of the pilot without muchinformation about him or her as a person. But my trust is not unreasonable. At least, I am not expected to accept things about the pilot that are contrary to my best thinking.
Some religious claims, however, seem inconsistent with what my mind tells me is true. I have to weigh what religious authorities say with other experiences in life, and sometimes the two just do not match. No matter how much I am told that I ought to believe in someone else's concept of God, unless it makes sense deep within myself I cannot accept it. The only God that I can have a relationship with is one consistent with my own thoughts when I am thinking most clearly.
For example, I have found it difficult to accept without question the concept that God is all-powerful and all-loving. When I first heard that description it raised some problems for me. If God is so powerful and loving, why are there so many tragedies in the world? Perhaps God is loving but not powerful or powerful but not loving. I could not see how it could be both ways.
Yet there are people, thoughtful people, who have faced deep personal suffering, whose definition of God still includes the words powerful and loving.
Evidently different ways of understanding God are possible. And what I need is a definition so large that I will not have to discard it as I become more and more aware of the world around me.
Some descriptions of God are so limiting that when I have tried to fit them with my personal experience I have been greatly disappointed.
In The Color Purple, author Alice Walker uses these words to express the feelings of one of her characters, a black woman: "When I found out I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest." This comment illustrates what is generally true for most of us: The way we think about God ultimately affects how we relate to God.
On August 6, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov began the first extended journey through space, circling the earth more than seventeen times. While passing over Japan he received a radio message that was evidently meant for him.
"It was in very bad Russian," he laughed, telling about it later, "but I could make out quite clearly that it was directed to me. They on the ground were talking about God and of angels and of the heavens. I looked through the window of the spaceship and thought if there was a God here I couldn't see him."
Ideas of God from past generations, such as a humanlike figure up in the sky, no longer make sense for a great many people. Scientific research in areas such as astronomy and psychology has radically changed how we see our world and ourselves. This changed perspective has inevitably influenced our thought about God and our relationship with God as well.
Someone once defined superstition as "giving religious significance to our ignorance." A lot of ideas about God do grow out of ignorance. Yet it is also true that some people have given a great deal of thought to what it means to relate to God. Theology has been called the science of God from theos, the Greek word for God. The central concern of such theology, both past and present, is to think clearly about God.
For some people, however, this kind of thinking raises other questions.
The theologian C. S. Lewis tells of an experience he once had while giving a talk about his understanding of God. A member of the audience stood up afterward and said, "I've no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I'm a religious man too. I know there's a God. I've felt him out alone in the desert at night, the tremendous mystery. And that's just why I don't believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about him. To anyone who's met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!"
Lewis replied that he agreed with the man. There is a difference, he said, between an experience of God and saying something about God. Talking about God can...