By John Gillman, PhD, BCC
Giving Up god … To Find God. By Kerry Walters, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2013. Paperback, 179 pp. $20.
Drawing upon Meister Eckhart’s assessment that “taking leave of God for the sake of God is the greatest act of renunciation that someone can make” (p. 163), Walters advises his readers to leave behind the contemporary idols our own madness has created and replace these with the living God. Or simply, let God be who God is. In line with the psalmist, “For all the gods of people are idols” (96:7), the author, an Episcopal deacon, sketches 10 manifestations of idolatry that have spawned in contemporary American culture.
Born of fear, the pantheon of idolatrous gods is, the author asserts, nothing more than us decked out in superhero costumes. Named first is the Genie god propagated by prosperity preachers, a god meant to function like a magic lamp and grant whatever we ask. Big Brother god, so named after the Big Man in Orwell’s novel, 1984, is a frowning, demanding idol whose devotees are crushed by unachievable demands. Unfortunately, especially in the light of more recent scholarship, Walters distorts Paul’s pre-conversion religious experience and first-century Judaism at large by his procrustean attempt to impose Big Brother god as representative of the faith of Israel.
Patriotic god, being a fusion of nation and religion, needs little comment. Those who engage in constant good works without prayer or reflection place their allegiance under the We Can Do It god. Walters names bibliolatry or belief in biblical inerrancy a form of By the Book god. And the cult of My god, with its emphasis on my Jesus as opposed to our Jesus, is like worshiping an idealized projection of one’s self.
The Church god idol is followed by those caught up in dogmatism and whose desire is that the church remain the way it has always been. The Designer god is for those who want a pliable deity to match their own mercurial whims or latest interest. Walters calls this practice indiscriminate eclecticism. And those, spiritually frozen in time, who believe that all you need to know about God was learned as kids, and prefer Sunday School god. And finally the Egghead god is an utterly abstract deity venerated by abstract thinkers, such that intellectual constructs supplant the reality of God.
In the concluding chapter Walters highlights the virtue of patience in getting to know God, and advocates an approach of “divine no-thingness,” similar to apophatic theology, that is cautious about any efforts to define who God is. “God as God truly exists is the great No-thingness unlimited by space and time.…[God] is absolute vitality” (p. 172). Walter’s analysis is insightful, well articulated, though at times pedantic and preachy in tone.
Going beyond the confines of a review, I believe that it is instructive to see how the author’s perspective on idolatry may serve as a lens through which to view statements in a recent interview given by Pope Francis. Francis affirms that “no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual” (see My god). “The risk is … the willingness … to say with human certainty and arrogance: ‘God is here.’ We will find only a god that fits our measure” (similar to Designer god). “In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation” (contrast Egghead god).
Several of Francis’s statements echo the cult of Walter’s Church god and Big Brother god: “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules”; “If one has the answers to all the questions – that is the proof that God is not with him”; “If a Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing”; and “Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security’…have a static and inward-directed view of things.”
Pope Francis’s counsel that “we must let God search and encounter us” is also where Walter takes his readers.
John Gillman is NACC and ACPE supervisor at VITAS Innovative Hospice Care in San Diego, CA.