There is perhaps no question more important for twenty-first century lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* and queer (LGBTQ) Christians than a deep, personal response to the question that the author of the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus ask of his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16: 15). For many LGBTQ individuals, the quest for meaning and direction in life is often accompanied by the need for a guru, a larger-than-life personage, perhaps even a God-figure whose message provides pathways to insight, knowledge, and practical living. For LGBTQ Christians, the person, example, and teachings of Christ (and the early Christian communities) on God often prove indispensable for navigating through the vicissitudes of life. LGBTQ Christians have found both a fiend and a friend in scripture and theology. Various biblical texts and rhetoric using God’s name have been used to intimidate, nullify, and discriminate against those whose gender and sexuality identifyings, expressions, and attractions do not fall squarely into heteronormative dictates.
Consequently, many have either abandoned their faith or found new wellsprings of spirituality from which to nourish themselves. There is no right or wrong in spirituality, as spirituality is born of the personal experience of a deep relationship with the Divine. The God whom Jesus Christ proclaimed and who meets us in personal and communal ways also leads each one of us in a unique path of relationship with Godself. Moreover, when we describe God and our experience of God, we do so through human language, because we can only know God as human beings.
At times, personal spirituality—as is the case with many aspects of life—can attain such a high level of personalisation that it risks becoming distorted and imbalanced. There is a strong tendency for many of us to create an image of God as Deux ex machina, a divine being who drops in serendipitously from nowhere (somewhere?) to manage all our problems. This “God” can often be utilised as a false sense of security and familiarity to avoid the harsh flesh-and-blood challenges of life. Furthermore, such a “God” can be tailored and manipulated to speak only to us. These spiritual pitfalls require us to constantly examine our ideas of God. Instead of always making statements that “God is—,” it is worthwhile to occasionally ask, “Is God—?” In this reflection, I would like to look at two ideas of God that can become a little (or a lot) lopsided. The first is an over-spiritualised idea of God. The second is an over-personalised God. My stress on “over-spiritualised” and “over-personalised” is intentional, as I am looking at ideas of God that have become imbalanced and distorted because of over-emphasis. After looking at these two ideas, I would like to consider a third idea of God that embraces the strengths and is aware of the weaknesses of the first two ideas of God. The third idea is that of God within.
The Over-Spiritualised God
In this idea of God, we tend to over-spiritualise our lives. We say things like “Oh, God will take care of everything, just surrender to God.” Or, “Just allow God to journey with you and pray, and everything will be OK.” Or, “God is mighty and powerful, and all things are possible with God.” Or, “God is taking care of everything for you, just let God take charge of your life.” Or pointing to the sky and saying “God is up there and we are down here.” These statements reflect the idea that God smoothens out all creases, and solves all problems for us. God almost becomes a fairy godmother (pun unintended), a Valium or a service centre. It is the idea of an over-spiritualised God, because it suggests that everything in the world can be solved by God through spiritual means. The strength of this idea of God is that it helps us realise that God is present in every moment of our lives, in good and in bad times. Nevertheless, there are two weaknesses of this idea of God I would like to point out. First, this idea can create a relationship with God that is overly romantic and other-worldly. It is a faith that is based only on miracles. Second, this idea can make us gloss over real human issues. It can make us turn away from facing reality. It can make us give up all responsibility for our own lives because we believe that God is handling everything for us, and we just need to sit back and do absolutely nothing.
The Over-Personalised God
In this idea of God, we believe that God is a personal Being who speaks only to us as individuals. We say things like, “I heard God speak to me, and God told me that ….” Or, “I don’t care what people say about me, because I know God loves me, so why do I have to listen to others? God loves me as I am!” It is the idea of an over-personalised God because it makes God a personal vending machine, a personal mobile or iPad, or a personal restaurant menu. The strength of this idea of God is that it can remind us of the need to develop a strong, personal relationship with God. It reminds us that God is very, very close to us. As sixteenth century Spanish theologian Teresa of Avila said, “However quietly we speak, God is so near that God will hear us. We need no wings to go in search of God, but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon God present within us.”[i] On the other hand, the weakness of this idea is that our relationship with God can become an exclusive and private “me and my sweet Jesus” arrangement, and we waive the importance of listening to anyone else.
The God Within
After having looked at these two ideas of God, I would like to consider a third idea of God: the idea of God within. When I say that God is within, I am not saying that God is a figment of our imagination, or that God exists only because we think God exists, or that we are God ourselves. The notion of God within is based on the belief that because God created all things, and because Jesus came to show us the face of God, God and human beings are in a deep, intimate relationship. God within is the idea that all of creation, including human beings, are always and everywhere already connected to God because they are created by God. So whenever we think, or speak, or listen, or act with love and justice, God is present and we make God more visible. Whenever we think, or speak, or listen, or act without love and justice, God is present but we ‘hide’ God and make God ‘invisible’.
God within means that human beings and God are continuously working together in human-divine connections in life, and there are no quick, easy solutions to life’s problems. God within means that as human beings, we have the responsibility to do the best we can, because we are always in collaboration with God. We realise that although God can work through miracles and mysterious ways, God usually works with us in ordinary, earthly ways. God within also means that God is just as actively working within our various communities just as God is within each of us as individual human beings. God speaks to us in our everyday experiences, but God also speaks to us in our communities. God within means that we need to listen to God both within ourselves and in our community, we need to listen to what others are saying about their experiences of God, and that we need to share with others what God is doing in our lives. In these dialogical exchanges, wherein we are challenged, humbled, uplifted, and empowered, God acts dynamically with us.
Joseph N. Goh is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Gender, Sexuality and Theology with the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Monash University, Malaysia. He holds a Licentiate in Sacred Theology (S.T.L.) from the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, CA. An ordained minister with the North American Catholic Ecumenical Church (NACEC), Goh is also a member of the Emerging Queer Asian Pacific Islander Religion Scholars (EQARS) and the editor of the Queer Asian Spirit E-Magazine (QAS E-Zine).
Copyright © 2014 Joseph N. Goh. All Rights Reserved.
[i] Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, chap. 28, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/teresa/way (accessed July 15, 2014).