Don: We’ve been studying the following questions: How do we form our image of God? What informs the picture we have in our minds? What are the effects of technology and artificial intelligence on our picture of God? Jason led us through some ideas about how education shapes our picture of God. Donald has discussed the images that we make of God in art and photography and how we use those images to form pictures of God in our own minds. Donald also talked briefly about the effect of music as well.
I just want to remind everyone of the context for today’s continuing discussion how we know what God is and what God looks like. The origin of these questions can be found in the passage:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; leave Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23, emphasis added)
This, then, is the context. How do we know God? What can we know about God? And how do we go about forming the images of God we hold in our minds?
Donald: Two weeks ago, I made a presentation on visual perception. I included two methods by which we come to understand visual information, one being semiotics—the iconic, symbolic, and denotation. The second way we interpret images is through the use of visual composition, whose guidelines we discussed. So in some ways, it’s been kind of a mechanical conversation. Last week, I tried to move beyond the traditional images of God or spirituality that surround us.
When asked to point out the Christ in the image at the beginning of this post, people tend to point to the image on the left, which is a very traditional image of Christ; yet, the two images are really not that different. The hair is radically different, and one is not nearly as somber as the other and looks more inquisitive, but most people have no doubt that the one on the left is Christ.
[Donald went on to review other images of Christ, depicting various aspects of him. For copyright reasons they cannot be reproduced here.]
David has a book cover with images he would like to get our views on. Don Weaver’s class is a safe place to raise novel or even controversial ideas about spirituality. Not every group would be comfortable with this perspective. We’re really comfortable with questions. They’re almost our answers!
David: This is the cover of a book that Dr. Weaver and I have written (but not yet published):
Today I’m seeking your comments on how well (or not) this cover reflects the title: The Separation of Church and God. To give some background, here is the a synopsis of the book taken from the book’s Introduction:
Chapter 1: God and Government argues that a dilemma arises between God and government when government forbids what God mandates, or when God forbids what government mandates. When must we resist a mandate, and when should we surrender to one? What is more dangerous to religion: Resistance, or indifference?
We examine these issues and conclude: That it seems at best dangerous to ascribe or insinuate spiritual or religious justifications for secular governance; that religion makes for bad government; that the separation of church and state as envisioned by the founding fathers of the United States was and remains a very good idea; that the world in general is slowly embracing it; and that partly but not wholly for that reason, religion is threatened with extinction.
Chapter 2: Religious Doctrine argues that doctrine has not kept pace with history and cultural change. What does organized religion want and need? Our belief, our practice, our obedience, our acquiescence, or what? What is the future of religion in an age of scepticism, a loosening of spiritual restraints, and seemingly magical technology? What moral compass will we live by if religion is no longer in control? Do the world’s religious scriptures shed any light on the issue? What will God look like to people ten, a hundred, a thousand years from now?
We examine these issues and conclude: That doctrine is damaging and dangerous to faith, and that a loving father does not care whether his children are sons or daughters, eat pork or beef or any meat at all, drink wine, walk around naked, love and marry a same-sex partner, follow the religion they were born into or choose another one.
Chapter 3: Evangelism picks up on Jesus’s vehement— merciless, even—condemnation of the religious leaders of his day, the powerful class of his fellow Jews known as Pharisees. He anathematized their proselytizing—their efforts to make other Jews convert to become like them, calling it a practice worthy of double damnation. Surely there could be no worse fate. Would Jesus similarly curse today’s Mormons and other evangelists? Might what evangelists teach destroy rather than save souls? Even if not, is evangelism really necessary, and if so, how should it be practiced?
We examine these issues and conclude that true evangelism is the living of a good life following the Golden (and preferably but not perforce, the Rhodium) Rule. In other words: True evangelism is treating your neighbor as you would wish your neighbor to treat you. If you choose to follow the Rhodium Rule and believe in God as well, your performance of the Golden Rule might be more assured, but in and of itself, to follow the Golden Rule is to follow God, believe it or like it or not.
Chapter 4: Spiritual Blindness considers God’s supposed original plan for a garden of Eden populated by people with no knowledge of good and evil and asks whether the admonition to walk by faith and not by sight means to use faith to make up for what we cannot see. What did Jesus mean when he said he came so the blind would see and the sighted would be blind? Should we have faith regardless of what we think we see?
We examine these issues and conclude that God does indeed want us to be blind—but to one thing only: To the differences among us. We conclude that we have been long been, and by and large remain, blind to the eternal meaning at the heart of scripture.
Chapter 5: The Evolution of God recounts the recorded history of God using the metaphor of computer program or “app” coding, wherein God is the world’s operating system. God’s attributes and functions change as his programmers—prophets and priests—principally Moses, the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea, and ChatGPT—grow in understanding, or think they do.
We describe the development of the world’s operating system and conclude that of all versions, the parsimonious version coded by Jesus in the Rhodium Rule is all that the world has ever needed, and will ever need, to operate as God would have it operate: Love God —love Goodness—and love your fellow human being. As we read Scripture, love is not worship: Love is acceptance.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ [and] ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)
That’s the book in a nutshell. I invite your comments on the cover. Does it reflect the title?
Donald: Why do you write the blog, and do you have any knowledge as to the audience for it?
David: The statistics on the blog readership don’t really tell us very much. They include the number of hits on the website (broken down into unique hits), what countries they come from, the operating systems they use, the browser they use, and so on. There is nothing about their demographics or psychographics or their spirituality. We don’t know who they are as individuals.
I do the blog partly for the selfish reason of getting double the value from our discussions, by listening to it all over again and trying to couch it in the written word, instead of just the spoken words verbatim. I derive so much more insight from it that way. So I might as well share that with everyone, since I’m doing it anyway.
Donald I was very intrigued this morning by the five components. Has the topic of the book itself been discussed in class?
David: Obliquely, yes. I got the topic for the book after I did a search on Google looking at people’s interests in God versus people’s interest in the church. It produced a graph clearly show two diverging lines.
Michael: Is the book cover a computer generated image?
David: Yes. I used DALL-E, a sister app to ChatGPT which produces images in response to a text description. I asked it to draw me a picture of God weeping in the style of Picasso, and it painted the image at the top left of the cover, then I got it to give me a picture and of angels, all in the style of Picasso.
Donald: Many individuals have taken time to examine my photography work. You’ve probably wondered whether I sell my pieces or participate in gallery exhibitions. Indeed, I’ve considered converting my photographic collections into book form. However, I have predominantly declined such offers, with the exception of occasionally showcasing my work in galleries.
As a photographer, my decisions are driven by personal motivation, similar to your drive in maintaining your blog or possibly writing a book. I declined most propositions, such as selling my work or publishing, largely due to my financial stability from my profession as a professor, which eliminates the need to generate additional income from these avenues.
Michael, I acknowledge your curiosity about this particular image, and I promise we’ll delve into that shortly. However, the context is crucial. As a group, we should consciously acknowledge our collective efforts. For instance, I had a recent conversation with a former student who’s in the process of finding his path. He used to be a church elder but now finds himself attending services from his recliner at home. I recommended our blog to him, suggesting it could provide a helpful connection for him.
I often stress the significance of words – you’ve probably heard me say it countless times: “words matter.” The same applies to the elements in an image; their presence should have a purpose. Despite not being particularly skilled at crafting language, I believe in the power of words.
The topic of separating the church from God is a startling one. It demands substantiation from robust data, which it seems you’re investigating. Your book title is indeed thought-provoking. The theme encapsulated in the book, examining its five different aspects, could intrigue many readers without necessarily disturbing them.
However, we should recognize that our meeting today is more of a class discussion. We’re considering the idea of ‘the separation of church and God,’ possibly as a book cover title. I wonder, how does the group feel about this? Does it accurately represent us? David has the freedom to choose any direction for his book, but in terms of our collective identity as a class, how do you feel this describes our actions or thoughts?
C-J: For me, it’s seeking God and growing in relationship with God and other people who have the same desire in their heart. I never feel separated from God..
Donald: I mean, this is the church. It’s not me. But you’re right on.
C-J: When you first invited me to join this class we were having a spiritual conversation about how we saw ourself in a relationship with God and how we saw God. That initial conversation informed you, at some level, to say “Maybe she could benefit from this.” It has been a blessing to me and I hope that I contribute something of value to others.
But I think when we look at the separation, it implies failure, and God does not fail. God is always present. It’s a matter of teaching. As you said, our eyes naturally go to light. If we have a good foundation in a belief system, that guides us to finding the spiritual realm of who is this “God”, it should align everything that David outlined with the mission of finding God as we examine our awareness of where God has been expressed.
Is it through our leaders as Caesar? Is it through our institutions? Is it through politics? Is it through keeping us isolated so that we don’t ask those questions? Do we make it up as we go along? Am I really independent of others who call themselves believers? But this blog and the diversity in this group, operating in a very safe place of acceptance, has not caused separation. I think it’s given us a space where we can coalesce into each of us growing in God through diversity, and I don’t feel separated from anybody in this group. I value the contributions, and it has helped me to grow.
Donald: That’s actually a testimony of my point of view, but there is some value in shock effect. There’s no question that when I read the title for the first time, it reminded me of the separation of church and state, which I suppose the title plays off.
Don: I’m struck by the notion that at some point, historically, church and God were synonyms. What I think this book is describing is a sense of loss of that synonym, so that what we see as the church doesn’t necessarily align with what we see as God and that they may be quite different. I think that’s what’s being highlighted in this title.
Jay: I want to reaffirm the sentiments shared by Donald, and also offer my interpretation of the cover image of God. I perceive it as having a solemn aura, which, in my opinion, aligns effectively with the point Don just made. Ideally, concepts like religion and God or church and God should be synonymous. However, as we seem to be moving towards a stage where they are turning into antonyms rather than synonyms, the accompanying melancholy is evident.
This sense of sorrow is depicted in the image through elements like the tears of God. Moreover, the angels, as David has described them, also seem to carry a somber expression. Therefore, if that’s the intended theme, I think the book cover’s imagery accomplishes it well.
I believe that this is a struggle that humanity grapples with. As people seek to understand God or be recognized by God, they naturally lean towards community for support. In our current societal structure, this community often manifests itself as a church or a religious denomination. It’s disheartening to consider that as human beings reach out to understand or be acknowledged by God, the very institutions they use as conduits might indeed be obstacles.
Don: I’m wondering what this picture would look like if it were not a Picasso, but a Monet or some other artist.
David: Your question about the origin of my choice is an interesting one. First and foremost, I have a personal affinity for Picasso’s art. Secondly, I find his abstract style quite symbolic. Donald and I recently discussed the contrast between concrete and abstract concepts. We concluded that we can never truly comprehend what God looks like. At best, we can construct a representative image.
Choosing a Picasso piece, in my view, pushes this abstraction to its limits. There’s a point at which the depiction becomes so abstract that it’s difficult to discern the intended representation. This level of abstraction is one of the main reasons I selected this artist.
While I also appreciate Monet’s work, choosing him would have resulted in a more anthropomorphic and realistic human portrayal, which is not what I was aiming for in this context.
Yes, indeed, it’s plausible for me to consider Monet’s work. However, remember that Monet, as an Impressionist, offers a style that’s arguably more realistic compared to Picasso’s Cubism, which is heavily stylized. This aligns with what Jason and I have previously discussed about the use of our imagination in interpreting art.
On a foundational level, we understand the principles of the art form. As we move up the triangle towards the point where we employ our imagination, the interpretation becomes more subjective. There’s certainly a significant amount of imagination required to interpret the cover of this book, but despite its abstract nature, it provides a clear understanding and effectively supports the book’s title. There’s no question about that.
I disagree. I don’t like the image in combination with the title because the sense it’s creating is negative, sad. But the description of the title is like the church losing the monopoly of the business of God, it’s God being more available, and the image is somehow creating the sense that this is going to be a book about how sad this—heaven weeps as God loses his people. I don’t think this is the message of the book.
Donald: I can see where you’re coming from. This conversation extends beyond our weekly exchanges, addressing broader, more global themes. Let’s consider the book’s cover again. David initially presented me with a different version before our discussion on visual perception. I asked if he was trying to use the cross symbolically, as there was a color difference between the cross’s horizontal and vertical bars. David refined the design to better represent the cross.
One might argue this is a more effective direction as it aligns with traditional thinking. It’s as if the first Jesus is represented by the traditional cross and the second by this abstract version. However, it does not depict the cross as it was presented to us in the 1940s.
I’d appreciate your feedback on this point. Furthermore, I have some thoughts about the font choice. It’s elaborate, which may emphasize the book’s structure, clarity, and detailed doctrine. We might also consider whether to use a capital or lowercase ‘C’ for ‘church’. This would determine if we’re referring to a specific church or churches in general.
Regarding the design elements, the gray bar that extends across the middle could suggest separation. Alternatively, if you want to represent the cross as a solid figure, we could remove the two gray bars.
In the broader picture, there’s a contrast between the symmetrical cross and the asymmetrical arrangement of the elements surrounding it. This creates a striking effect. Picasso’s style also lends to the symbolic interpretation of the design. His stylized, mask-like faces suggest that we’re all hiding behind masks. His figures are gender-neutral, challenging traditional depictions of God and angels, and his collage-like technique offers patches of color, contributing to the design’s overall mood.
Most viewers would likely first notice God due to the stark contrast between the light figure and the dark background. The title, in comparison, isn’t as attention-grabbing. These are just a few observations. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this critique. Please feel free to speak up, as I can’t see all of you.
C-J: Donald, I like the second choice, because it’s easier in script to read. And I like the solid blue quadrant because that’s the unknown. And so we write that script as we grow in God, in our understanding and in relationships in the tangible world. Breaking down those chapters really gave a lot more clarity to me in terms of the authors’ intention. Because I didn’t know if you were just going to select pieces on an idea from just a collection of people’s thoughts. So I understand better your intention and purpose for this compilation. I now see the cover differently. I’m not a Picasso fan. His art is a little too busy for my eyes. But this one is easier. And my understanding of why you chose it has changed.
As the newbie to this class, could I just share a sociological viewpoint? In society at this point in time, we’ve had so much grief and loss, and when I read the title, it’s just one more grief and loss for me. What this class has meant for me is a revitalization of my vision and my walk with a personal God. I don’t know what we could do because people have a lot of sadness and a lot of loss in their lives.
So when I read the title, as a social worker, I say, “Oh, now I’ve lost the only thing that really linked me to the church and the social support I get there and my walk with God. So somehow the term separation for me creates more grief.
There obviously is some grief in the challenges between Caesar and our church and our doctrinal beliefs, but is there a way to come at this from a strengths perspective and a positive future? We just are over inundated in negativity and loss. And that’s just because I’m totally the newbie to the class.
The class has meant so much to me—to have unconditional acceptance, and all of the diversities of our perspectives are valued. That inclusivity is such a weekly boom to my own spiritual walk.
Absolutely. Your observations and reflections are indeed insightful. The content of the book, drawing on scripture and the lessons from your discussions, aims to show that church, defined as a community of diverse individuals in unity and friendship, does not represent separation from God, but a connection and coming together.
Considering Sharon’s feedback, it seems there might be value in adding a subtitle or other element to the cover that hints at the positive, unifying message within the book. This could help balance the initial shock value of the main title, offering a beacon of hope, so to speak—a light at the end of the tunnel. It could reassure potential readers that while the book discusses change and disruption in traditional church structures, it also explores the emergence of new, inclusive and loving spiritual communities.
Donald: You’ve raised some important points about the evolution of what constitutes a “church”. You’re right, it was originally defined by geographic proximity, bringing people together more out of necessity and convenience than shared beliefs or perspectives. The modern concept of a church is shifting to become a gathering of individuals with shared ideologies, irrespective of physical location.
Your observations about the cross on the book cover are very insightful, pointing to the symbolic importance of visual elements. The asymmetrical cross and the perception of it ‘coming apart’ could indeed be seen as symbolic of the disruption and changes happening within traditional church structures.
Yet, as you said, just because the church as we knew it might be changing, it doesn’t mean we’re losing our way. It’s simply taking on different forms, as exemplified by the growth of mega-churches, and perhaps even our class, which has managed to form a diverse, accepting, and vibrant community.
With respect to your question about whether the outcome was what was expected or desired, it seems like a critical reflection to make in any journey. It reminds us to question whether the consequences of our actions or decisions align with our original intentions and values. Whether it’s the process of designing a book cover or the broader process of redefining what a ‘church’ can be, this question prompts us to examine our steps and adjust our path as needed.
C-J: Donald, don’t worry about the megalithic churches: All great empires fall. I remember in the 70s, the mantra was prosperity and healing and going back to miracles and signs and power and politics. It’s an evolution in terms of when people get afraid—safety in numbers. But Jesus didn’t work that way. Jesus worked in small communities, to stabilize them, and to let them understand. If you have a church with 30,000 people in it, you’re only going to know about 50 anyway. Maybe 20 is more accurate.
The church was never meant to be physically mega. It was meant to be intimate. The early Christians went into each others’ homes, they helped each other, they shared their food, shelter, clothing. I think it’s going to happen again. It costs a lot of money to maintain those mega buildings, and if they’re doing it for political power, they will fail, because when you get more than four people in a room, you’re going to have disagreement.
Donald: I go to a church of 2,000 members but then they have small groups, and they have you go into ministries. So yes, the evolution of the church really is what we’re talking about here this morning.
Chris: I’ve been part of this class for quite some time, and the one thing that I’ve always gotten out of is there’s a journey of faith. What I don’t see in this cover is the sense of freedom or joy that eventually is reached—that blessing, that hope that Sharon alluded to in her comments. For me, it’s a progression. This class has always shown the progression from where the person starts to where the person ends. Maybe, as a person works their faith, there is less of a focus on church. There’s a new freedom or joy that’s found when it comes to a personal relationship with God that’s not dependent upon a church that you once were so dependent on.
C-J: That’s the blue quadrant on the cover—the unknown, the space where you can grow without limit.
Michael: David needs to ask AI to depict grace on the cover.
Donald: We still need hope. We’ve done enough grief. I think it doesn’t need to be overstated. I think what has been expressed here is we’d like to see more hope in the future, in the sense of grace, because many of us feel like that’s a that’s a key component to this discussion.
Don: I know that Donald worked a little bit with Caroline on how we express and view God through music, and I think we’ll use that next week. Maybe we’ll give this a little bit more consideration. I found this conversation extremely interesting, very thought provoking, and something that I think might be unique in the discussion of Sabbath school classes around the country.
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