Good news: the spiritually starving don’t need to get greedy after God because there’s always more of the More—enough gorgeous God generosity to go around. Barbara Brown Taylor has written a beautiful book to give us more of the More, a book teeming with topics and tactics rooted in an inclusive epiphany and the “wonderful news” that we “do not have to choose between the Sermon on the Mount and the magnolia trees.”
To open An Altar In The World, Taylor dispenses with dualism in direct and poetic prose. Writing from a spiritual perspective that Marcus Borg defines in The God We Never Knew as Christian panentheism, Taylor reassures that we don’t have to pick between a God that is “out there” and a God that is “down here.” Even better, the God beyond but also in the world isn’t too picky about where or when to show us God.
Our author summarizes her purpose like this: “My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.”
So in 12 chapters, Taylor teaches us 12 angles or avenues (not unlike 12 steps I suppose) by which we can participate in the personalist priesthood of our everyday lives, where we “recognize some of the altars in this world—ordinary-looking places where human beings have met and may continue to meet up with the divine More that they sometimes call God.”
By erasing the stark and often stultifying division between our spiritual sojourns and the rest of our lives, Taylor tempts us with a leveling that could lull is into Pollyannish complacency or propel us into courageous depths of the cosmic ocean we call life. I have already tried the former—living a laid-back, New Age spirituality where we forget prayer because: “like, hey, it’s all prayer, man.” Today, I have no choice but the constant prayer that Paul suggested, to dive into the defiant depths of everyday spirituality with a fierce focus—and I think it’s this most intentional kind of journey that Taylor invites us on.
When Barbara Brown Taylor recommends the everywhereness of God, she means it, from “the foothills of the Appalachians” to the “gravel of a parking lot,” so much so that she proclaims without a hint of restraint that “the whole world is the House of God.” When she attempts to name God, she speaks in the superlative and the sublime, the elusive and elastic, choosing phrases like “the Really Real,” “the Luminous Web That Holds Everything in Place,” or what perhaps might be her favorite, “the More.”
In helping us understand what he calls Christian panentheism, Borg catalogs this more—the many human and non-human images for God that we find in the Bible: king, lord, judge, lawgiver, potter, shepherd, wise woman, father, mother, lover, healer, friend, rock, fire, light, eagle, lion, bear, hen, cloud, wind, breath, fortress, shield. Above, below, in, and beyond this though, we meet a God that is reality itself—“pervading the universe as well as being more than the universe,” as Borg puts it.
Too often, we gravitate to the most anthropomorphic images of God in our repertoire (at the expense of the other God experiences available), choosing comforting familial or legalistically constitutional concepts that colonize the creator as our best and worst human aspects, as judge and jury or the forever masculinized dude and daddy.
The profoundly “premergent” theologian Paul Tillich touched “the More” of which Taylor speaks in his before-and-beyond-a-definition: the “ground of all being.” In Systematic Theology, Tillich writes, “[T]he question of the existence of God can neither be asked nor answered. It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it. God is being-itself, not a being. As the power of being, God transcends every being and also the totality of beings—the world. Being itself is beyond finitude and infinity.” This is not unlike the definition of God that master practitioner of centering prayer Thomas Keating calls “Isness without limits.”
Peter Rollins matches this moreness in his first emergent manifesto How (Not) To Speak Of God where he calls out as “conceptual idolatry” our tendency to always corral and categorize and make coherent what Rollins finds in Meister Eckhart as the “unnameable” and “omni-nameable” or “God standing beyond every name” and “God with a multitude of names.”
Rollins philosophical prose rocks us with the inexpressible, invisible, and inaccessible aspects of a God that is “bigger, better, and different” than our dualistic comprehension; Taylor reminds us that this invisibility beyond our “idolatrous concepts” is matched even more and then some by a manifest visibility in what we mistake as the commonplace and everyday, the impoverished and the foolish, the naturalistic and the material, the profane and the mundane.
Given these vast and visionary vocabularies, it’s amazing to me that we sometimes still want a downsized God we can post on billboards and bumperstickers or carry in our back-pockets with our debit cards, spare change, Wal-Mart receipts, and snapshots of everything from girlfriends to grandkids. (I am not being facetious – I keep pictures of Jesus everywhere, including in my wallet, and these really do comfort me).
But there’s another problem I want to put plainly, from the wellspring of wisdom teachings and multitude of sacred scriptures, we too often take the God that reflects our culture as opposed to the one that’s counterculture: Geico and Gimme God as Moral Contract, Sacred Commodity, And Afterlife Insurance Policy instead of the Generous God as Everything and of Everything (And Then Some) Love And Justice Prophecy.
Now, if the forever-father and patriarch-protector images comfort you more for their familiarity, keep them. They’re in the Bible. But that’s not all that’s in Bible. The prophet Isaiah preaches naked and without sandals for three years—that’s in the Bible. Noah gets drunk, passes out naked, wakes with a hangover, and puts a curse on his grandson Canaan—that’s in the Bible.
Misfits and weirdoes and freaks fill the Bible to the brim, but so does God’s unconditional and unfathomable love for the misfits and weirdoes and freaks, so much that God chooses misfit ministers all the time. When people point out that the Bible not only contains such crazies but also constantly contradicts itself, it always seems to me it’s meant either as a wake-up call to dogmatic fundamentalists or as a way to discredit the whole Judeo-Christian project.
But of course among us foolish believers, these kooky characters and compelling contradictions mean something else; they tell us that if God can choose a drunken Noah or a naked Isaiah or denying Peter or a doubting Thomas, God might also choose me or you. Regarding contradictions, Rollins remarks, “The interesting thing about all this is not that these conflicts exist but that we know they exist. In other words, the writers and editors of this text did not see any reason to try and iron out these inconsistencies.” The vast valleys and intricate intersections and momentous mountaintops of the text can be quite intimidating, but they also form a new grammar of grace, a kind of sentence where God is subject and object, adjective and verb.
Taylor confirms that when she set out “to learn and love” the Bible, she reads in “a way that trusts the union of spirit and flesh as much as it trusts the world to be a place of encounter with God.” She continues, “Like anyone else, I do some picking and choosing when I go to my holy book for proof that the world is holy too, but the evidence is there. People encounter God under shady oak trees, on riverbanks, at the top of mountains, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirwinds, starry skies, burning bushes, and perfect strangers.”
When a handful of renegade Bay Area priests took Ash Wednesday to the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District with ashes to impose on strangers and placards promising “More Forgiveness,” they were overwhelmed with the spiritually hungry response as they ministered to workers in the taco joint and unkempt unrecovered drunks. One of the Ash Theater practitioners noted, “I never thought I’d be walking along the street censing trash cans and storefronts and so many people would come toward it.” And another added, “I think people might want a lot more church than we generally give them.”
I’m thrilled to commence this new study at the beginning of Lent and am really looking forward to delving deeper and deeper into this book and The Book over the coming weeks and discussing and sharing with others our encounters with the Ground of All Being, with the Isness Without Limits, with the More—and More and More and More.