By Alison Downie, PhD
Is God preposterous to you? He is to me.
But let me explain: The God I work daily to trust bears no resemblance whatsoever to the “God” many Christians preach about and the “God” so many reject as absurd. The endlessly essential theological question is: What sort of God is being assumed, whether claimed or denied, by those who use the word?
In less than three and a half minutes, in her deeply poignant song “Laughing With,” Regina Spektor eviscerates a popular, preposterous God. She sings:
“. . . God can be funny
When told he’ll give you money if you just pray the right way
And when presented like a genie who does magic like Houdini
Or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus God can be so hilarious, ha ha . . .”
Her video for this song plays with themes of sight and perception, with allusions to dimensional and proportional paradoxes reminiscent of the work of M.C. Escher and Henri Magritte. Significantly, this ludicrous God is always male. Spektor’s lyrical male references are in keeping with the public language and accurately reflect a perception that persists, despite fifty years of feminist theological critique.
Volumes and volumes of theology, written by authors who may vigorously disagree with each other on many particular points (such as, for example, the appropriateness of male only language for God), nevertheless articulate what Spektor suggests: the popular, preposterous God is more accurately named Santa Claus or Jiminy Cricket.
Yet all this theological work across several theological schools has had very little impact on the general public’s use of the word “God” or on the image of God which dominates many Christian circles.
Of the many possible reasons why such extensive and on-going theological analysis has not seemed to effect widespread change, Spektor’s lyrics suggest one that resonates with me:
“. . . God can be funny
At a cocktail party when listening to a good God-themed joke, or
Or when the crazies say He hates us
And they get so red in the head you think they’re ’bout to choke . . .”
I used to be one of the “crazies.” I know the “red in the head,” about to choke experience of having my image of God challenged.
When I was sure I knew all the rules, who was good and who was bad, what I had to do to get God on my side, how to get back on God’s good side after I messed up, the world had a certain predictability, an ordered and ultimately controlled, sensible structure. There may not have been any real joy, but at least there was the promise of joy in the afterlife and some sense of stability in the here and now.
And then the world as I knew it shattered. All the decades of my strenuous, conscientious effort to play by the rules so that people I loved would be okay clearly meant absolutely nothing.
We can respond to heart shattering loss and terrible suffering in as many different ways as there are differing experiences of pain. For me, loss cracked open the rigid idol of the preposterous God. In excruciating loss, I eventually went searching for theology that could affirm God in the middle of chaos.
Spektor’s lyrics suggest that the “God” that is funny, that deserves to be laughed at, is not the God who can be present to suffering. She sings,
“No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one’s laughing at God when they’re starving or freezing or so very poor
No one laughs at God when the doctor calls after some routine tests
No one’s laughing at God
When it’s gotten real late and their kid’s not back from the party yet
No one laughs at God when their airplane start to uncontrollably shake
No one’s laughing at God
When they see the one they love, hand in hand with someone else
And they hope that they’re mistaken
No one laughs at God
When the cops knock on their door and they say we got some bad news, sir
No one’s laughing at God when there’s a famine or fire or flood.”
Perhaps the preposterous God continues in public imagination precisely because He is so absurd. It is easy to ridicule this caricature-God. But the laughing-at offers nothing to suffering.
And for Christians? Perhaps the ludicrous God persists in certain circles as a way of warding off the disorienting effects of loss, the implosion of meaning systems, the yanking away of the ground beneath your feet, the experience of utter vulnerability in our dependent finitude. In short, the shattering of an idol.
The theologians I find helpful are those who reject patriarchal theism and its male God of domination, affirming a God of loving presence, not control. Elizabeth A. Johnson, in her very accessible Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God describes a God in whom all things exist, a God who is Spirit, Energy, Love, Life emerging and re-emerging in the middle of shatterings, losses and meaningless suffering.
I find a hint of this panentheistic God in Spektor’s last line: “No one’s laughing at God, we’re all laughing with God.” Laughing “with” suggests presence and relationship. And “we” includes all those whose various particular sufferings have been referenced in the song.
Might laughing, then, be an image for living, for accepting the gift of life as good, as in the twelfth century Hildegard of Bingen’s imagery of viriditas, the greenness, the Spirit present in the energy and power of life in the here and now?
If so, laughing with God does not mean denying the reality of meaningless suffering. It is hard to choose to live, perhaps sometimes impossible. And affirming the goodness of living does not entail judgment of those who collapse under the weight of their suffering. Nor does it entail belief they are not with God.
It does mean affirming that existence, that the cosmos itself and all lives emerging within it, are gifts. Sallie McFague suggests imaging the Earth as God’s body. In this image, as earth creatures, we are already held within God and will return to our source in death.
Spektor’s less than four minute song might awaken a life time of thought for those who want to go beyond laughing at a preposterous God, and consider what it might mean to laugh with God. For those so inclined, volumes of creative, intriguing theological reflection await!
Alison Downie is an Associate Professor in the Religious Studies Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include ecofeminist theologies, disability theology, and religious life writing.
Elizabeth A. Johnson, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (New York, NY: Continuum, 2007).
Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).