Oh My God…

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Oh my God.

It is certainly safe to say, at the very least, that the word “God” is the most vacuous word in the English language. In 21st-century America, no other word is so empty of meaning that it can span linguistic usage from the most profane text messaging exclamation to the most sacred name describing the Almighty in monotheistic traditions.

And God is constantly in the news: from evangelical sex scandals, to orthodox Jews trading in organs, to atheists trying to preserve the purity of science, and politicians competing over who is the most pious of them all. The political battles over the proper perception of God in the world around us can be strident, like the debates over Obamacare, as well as silly, like the fear that some people see Obama in divine terms.

If we all agreed on the meaning of the word “God” and reserved its application to, say, a supreme being who created the universe, there would be no confusion about its proper usage. Unfortunately, universal agreement about its reference is impossible; anyone familiar with the history of monotheism knows that consensus around a shared understanding of God is a pipe dream.

In principle, the three Abrahamic traditions pray to the same God. In reality, the differences within each tradition, let alone among the three, are vast, confounding, and indeed incommensurable. Reform Jews have more liberal views of God than Orthodox; Protestants and Catholics disagree about how to factor Jesus Christ into the God equation; and progressive Muslims understand Allah in a radically different light than fundamentalist Muslims. All this internal theological diversity for each religion makes agreement across traditions a lost cause.

According to many polls, close to eighty percent of all Americans believe in God, an extraordinarily high number compared with other industrialized nations. But what are the characteristics of this God? Do all Americans base their beliefs on a literal reading of the Bible? Is it the same God if some Americans use the term in its personal, theistic sense referring to a transcendent God in heaven and some use it to refer to a pantheistic, immanent power that infuses all of nature?

God-hating atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others of their narrow-minded ilk have made a killing tearing down a God worshiped by childlike, blind followers not rational enough to follow lock-step behind the true idols they worship: science and secularism. God-fearing fundamentalists in the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian traditions are empowered by their vision of a wrathful deity who will distribute justice and initiate the apocalypse when people like Dawkins, Harris, Hitches, and the rest can look forward to an eternity in the burning pits of hell.

Certainly political leaders in this country work with drastically different conceptions of God. The God of Nature and Nature’s God identified by the early founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence are worlds apart from the God George W. Bush appealed to when responding to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and justifying the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the ambivalences and valences of Abraham Lincoln’s invocation of God during the torturous American Civil War is miles away from current President Barack Obama’s easy evangelical sensibilities about faith in his God.

God is My Homeboy

Of course beyond all of these vexing theological questions on the political scene are the numerous ways the term is deployed across the popular cultural landscape. Rappers often find time to praise God, or the Lord, or Jesus, and incorporate familiar religious imagery into their music, personas, and everyday language, effortlessly mixing sacred and profane in a manner that seems to subvert the meanings of each. DMX’s first album in 1998, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, gives props to a very special figure in the making of the album: “I am thanking my top dog, my Lord first,” a popular “dog” for many celebrities generally. Tupac sang about “Black Jesus” and was known to speak quite eloquently about theology. Queen Latifah declared in a Beliefnet interview that “God is my homeboy.”

In movies, God has been played by George Burns in the Oh God series, Alanis Morissette in Dogma, and Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty. On TV’s The Simpsons and South Park, God is satirically mocked as an old giant with robes and gray hair and a strange looking, insect-eating rodent, respectively. The smash sensation video game, God of War, is now in its third incarnation, showing once again how human glorification of violence often goes hand-in-hand with religious imagery and symbolism.

Sometimes the most intense physical experiences bring God to mind, or are understood as a form of divine embodiment, and cannot be fully described in any other language than God-talk. Mystics and mysticism in the monotheistic traditions, but also the most space-age New Agers, rely on the word “God” to convey encounters with transcendence and spiritual transport, transformative powers and holiness. Young people who dance through the night at raves may resort to God-speak to designate their spiritual insights and extraordinary experiences with the music and the movements. Hallucinogenic drugs can also be a bridge between individuals and God: indeed the Peyote Church of God legally mixes drug consumption and Holy visions in the institutional liturgy.

Even sex can be related to the Divine. “Oh god, Oh God, OH GOD!” is a common refrain in many porno clips, a verbal expression of otherworldly ecstasy and deep personal fulfillment. The intimacy of God with orgasm was wonderfully demonstrated by Meg Ryan in the notorious diner scene in When Harry Met Sally. Today there is a thriving sex manual industry for evangelicals and other religious adherents who look to enliven marriages by fusing fornication with godliness, fantasy with divinity. Hell, even Timothy Leary proclaimed that “sex and God are one.”

So, the word God means many things to many people, with no fixed essence or form, and no one authority to regulate its proper usage. Does the acknowledgment of this strange brew of disparate meanings and confounding associations—emanating from the most sophisticated theologies to the most entertaining popular cultures—automatically lead to the conclusion that there is no God, or that the biblical God has been eclipsed by gods unfettered by sacred scriptures? Absolutely, for some; absolutely not, for others. But for those of us in the atheist camp (that is, folks who are not “anti”-theist, against God, but more like those who self-identify as “a”-political, or “a”-sexual and are therefore indifferent to the theistic arena), God is just a word, not The Word, that can refer to just about any experience that is hard to describe with other words.

While many equate religious belief with belief in one God, it is time to recognize that religious diversity in America is a messy, complicated, and confusing social reality not limited to one theological vision of a Father in Heaven, or a Creator of the Universe, or a Lord who is the Supreme Ruler. God can be found in sex, drugs, and rock and roll; God is love, peace, and war; God lives in anything, everything, and nothing at all; God evolves, is eternal, and is an illusion.

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