The God Squad: Is God real or just a concept?

Q: I read your column and have been trying to figure out what you believe. You've said that "in the beginning was God and God created everything," but who do you believe God is?

In a recent column on tithing, you advised someone that "if you only have enough money to pay your debt or tithe, pay the debt first. God can wait."

This implies that God isn't that important and we don't need trust Him to supply our needs. I'm confused.

What do you believe? Is God real or just a concept to you? Is there only one God or many? Is the Bible God's word to man, or man's word about God? — R., via

A: What I believe is not important because thankfully nobody follows the religion of Gellmanism, which, if it existed, would only have one commandment: If in your life you meet someone who needs help, help 'em!

As to your other questions, what I believe is that God wants us to pay our debts and not hide behind some ritual law to cheat people. By being honest with others, we honor the part of them made in the image of God, and in so doing, we honor God. I believe that God is real and not just a concept. A concept could not create the universe, and I believe God created the universe because the universe could not be eternal, so it required a creator who was not created.

I believe there is only one God, although God has many manifestations, which accounts for the various accounts of God in the world's great wisdom traditions. If there were many gods, the question of sorting out their relative powers and origins would be impossible and inevitably lead to the conclusion that there is, indeed, just one God.

The question about whether or not the Bible is the word of God is difficult to answer with a simple yes or no. If you put a gun to my head, I'd say, "The Bible is the word of God." I don't mean, however, that the word of God is like the word of anybody — like my mother. Her words are clear and unmistakable. God's words are more nuanced, more complicated, more veiled.

The Bible, say scholars, is a mixed multitude of books composed and compiled by at least four authors, with oral traditions stretching from roughly 1800 BCE in the time of Abraham to roughly 250 BCE, ending with the Book of Daniel. Then, there's the problem that the earliest edition of the Hebrew Bible, the Masoretic text, doesn't exist until a 1,000 years after the Bible is codified. Finally, parts of the Bible, like the slaughter of the Amalakites, are morally difficult.

I consider the Bible to be the word of God the way I see a sunlit meadow through some trees. In some verses, like the Ten Commandments, I see God's light shining brilliantly through a text that's luminously true, breathtakingly beautiful and morally uplifting. Other parts of the Bible are shaded from my view by overhanging leaves. This may be my problem, or it may be that some parts of the Bible still retain vestiges of human ignorance and prejudice.

What keeps me from viewing the Bible as just a work of literature is that I don't need "Moby-Dick" the way I need the Bible. I don't return to "Moby-Dick" the way I return to the Bible. Something in the Bible calls to me, implicates and challenges me and, yes, saves me in a way no other collection of books could. The reason for this is the way the Bible is true, and the way the Bible is true is intimately related to the way God is true. The Bible is not God's dictation but it is God's word.

Q: I didn't think there was any objection to cremation until recently, when a close friend told me a "true" Christian wouldn't choose it. I'd like cremation for myself, thinking of it as one way of not taking up space needed by the living. Any thoughts? — I., via

A: As I mentioned in a recent column, cremation is permitted but not encouraged by the Catholic Church, which only authorized the practice in 1963 and retains a strong preference for ground burial. New Testament verses like I Corinthians 6:12-20 remain an obstacle. Cremation is not practiced by most Jews, in accordance with Jewish law.

The space argument you used is really not that strong. Not many people dream of living in a cemetery, and the amount of land used for cemeteries is not blocking any housing projects I know of. Also, many people have their ashes buried in cemeteries after cremation.

Finally, what will you do with your ashes? Having you kids keep them in an urn on the mantel seems creepy. Scattering them in public places is illegal and slightly ghoulish. The ocean is a possibility, but then, as I wrote, your descendents would have no place to go to touch your gravestone, place a pebble or a flower there, and tell their children what a great guy you were--except that you wanted to be cremated.

This whole debate is a Western one. In India, cremation is the tradition of all Hindus and Sikhs. In Japan, cremation is also the overwhelming choice. I deeply respect those who choose cremation, and the rate of cremation in the U.S. is now over 25%. I still believe it's a spiritual option that challenges us to pray about how we can best both honor and remember those who've gone before us.

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