This story is true, although I have withheld the person’s name, and have put his story into my own words.
It starts with a boy, growing up in a conservative Christian denomination. He absorbs, almost by osmosis, a God who lives “out there” somewhere. “Out there” means, for him, God is not like him, or his friends. God is “other,” different from mere mortals.
But he doesn’t think much about God.
As he grows, he thinks of God looking down from heaven. Heaven is not only “out there,” it’s “up there.” It might be on the clouds, or in the sky. But it wasn’t “here.”
Wherever it is, God is an adult, not a child. Indeed, extremely adult. A divine grandfather, much more powerful and wiser than his own father. God knows everything, and can do anything.
The boy has an inquiring mind. So he asks: “If God can do anything, could God make a rock so big that even He couldn’t lift it?” He was told not to ask silly questions.
He understood that the God “out there” was watching whenever he did anything. Especially anything God would punish him for.
But in the meantime, he seemed able to get away with more and more. So did others, who committed real sins.
He began to doubt his former ideas about a God who handed out rewards and punishments. Who played favourites. A being who caused disasters that people called “acts of God.” Landslides and tsunamis. Plagues and pandemics. And wars. Especially wars. His community were pacifists. They didn’t believe that wars settled anything. But wars kept happening. People kept dying.
He realized that he didn’t like the God he had once taken for granted. And if he didn’t like God, it was not possible for him to “love God with all his heart, his mind, and his strength,” as the Bible had taught him.
He started looking for a God he could love. He began thinking about God “in here,” instead of “out there.” He started seeing God in everything. In other people. In nature. Even in himself. He felt embedded in the presence of a loving God.
Increasingly, he felt the presence of God in, and around, and through every part of life.
It felt like falling in love.
A phrase invented by a theologian, calling God our “ground of being,” resonated with him.
He banished the God “out there” from his thinking.
Then he got cancer. A rare kind of cancer, his doctor told him. A hard lump, growing fast. The prognosis was not good. He needed surgery. Now, not someday.
He knew he was looking death right in the eye.
He remembered an old saying: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” When bullets zip past your head, you don’t turn to philosophical theories for comfort.
And he realized that no matter how sincere his convictions about a God who was inside, outside, and everywhere, a God embodied in the world and in him, at that moment what he yearned for was a God who could do something about his cancer. A God who was more than an abstract understanding.
He realized he was still looking for a God “out there.”
Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country: firstname.lastname@example.org