In God we live, move, and exist.
—Paul, the apostle
Perhaps it has happened to you. You are making your way through life and suddenly find yourself upended by an idea. It’s the kind of idea that stays with you and eventually makes a home in your thinking. Over time you can’t imagine life without it.
I call this a Flip.
The Flip at the center of my life is one that turned me around as a minister and writer as well as in my personal life and faith. I was sideswiped by a notion that caused me to realize God isn’t who I thought God was. It’s very possible that God is not who you have always assumed God to be. The realization comes to us in different ways.
For me, the Flip came when I was in a hotel room in San Diego and talking with a man I barely knew. My assumptions about the world and how it works were upended.
Sometimes Flips are impossible to ignore. At other times they are so subtle you could easily miss them. You spend the rest of your life trying to understand all that this change means for you and for others. The Flip can take you from being dead certain about an idea or a person or a story to a place where you aren’t certain what you believe anymore.
The Flip that hit me in San Diego was like a wasabi shot to the brain.
I should explain that I love wasabi. A lot. Wasabi is a paste made from the stem of a horseradish-like plant. The paste most often is served with sushi, and there is good reason for the combination. The nearly medicinal benefit of the plant is thought to kill bacteria. It goes perfectly with the uncooked fish often served in sushi. My love of wasabi is not for its health benefits, though; it’s for the kick. Not just any kick, but a head-snapping, nasal- clearing, eye-widening kick.
While the Flip didn’t make my eyes water or my nose run, it did leave me feeling cleaned out, tossed around, and even a little stung. It was as if a direct path connected what I heard to all of my ideas of God, humanity, and what life is all about. I had known before that I didn’t have it all straight, but never did I dream that an encounter with a guy in a hotel room would bring such clarity.
Looking Beyond Our Thinking
It was 2004 and I was one of the organizers of a national pastors’ conference. It might seem that life-changing conversations about God would be common in this setting, but these events seem to involve a lot more mundane chitchat than life-altering conversation. In situations where so many people are committed to the religion industry, most conversations stay well inside the bound- aries of what we already think. No pastor wants to risk his or her job by crossing too many lines.
But I’m not interested in boundaries. I’d rather see what is possible just outside of what we all think. Curiosity is far more important to our faith than the false security of established certainty.
That might be one reason I liked LeRon almost immediately. He was a respected theologian and one of the presenters at the conference. I sensed he had a lively, curious mind. I was walking by when I heard him say, “And that’s when I stopped thinking of God as a separate single subject.”
Wait. God is not a separate single subject? God is not separated and removed from humanity? That means . . . And so the Flip began.
It was almost as if I heard one of those Laurel and Hardy double “whoopee” sounds in my head.
God is not a separate single subject. This idea may not strike you with the power it did me. And if I had heard it at another time it might have slid by me without notice. But on this night it hit me hard. It danced with other thoughts that were important to me but seemed out of rhythm with so many of my assumptions about God, humanity, and life.
That’s the thing about Flips: once they start, they are almost impossible to stop.
I realized I could think of God in bigger, more integrated, more expansive ways than I had before. I had always felt bound by the more classic descriptions of God. I don’t mean the “chummy big guy upstairs” image or the “old man with a white beard” caricature. It was something far more crucial than that.
Prior to this, I had only heard God described in terms of difference and distinction from humanity and creation. The central understanding of God was that God is different. It was as if the important thing about God was that we have absolutely nothing in common with God.
There is this scene in the feel-good movie Rudy where Rudy is trying to figure out his life’s call. His priest says, “Son, in thirty- five years of religious studies, I’ve come up with only two hard, in- controvertible facts. There is a God, and I’m not Him.” In my past understanding of God, the vast distance between God and human- ity was almost a point of pride.
The people I talked to about God in seminary and afterward were convinced that God is, quite simply, Other. But here was LeRon, a Christian theologian, suggesting that is not the only way to think about God. And, boy, did I want that to be true. Flips don’t force us to think in a new way. Rather, they conspire with thoughts that already are in our heads.
I jumped on the idea that if God were not a separate being from all things in the cosmos, then we need not simply say God exists. We can say that God is existence. All is In God.
Doug Pagitt is an author, idea-leader, and speaker, the founder of Solomon’s Porch, a faith community in Minneapolis that focuses on addressing human needs in the neighboring community and facilitating a more personal encounter with God. He is also host of Doug Pagitt Radio and the author of several books, including BodyPrayer, Reimagining Spiritual Formation, and Community in the Inventive Age. Pagitt and his wife, Shelley, live in Minneapolis. This post is based on Doug’s newest book, Flipped: The Provocative Truth That Changes Everything We Know About God.