God, Live From The Beacon

My dad came home the other night to find my mom and me watching the live broadcast of the Elton John/Leon Russell concert from New York City’s Beacon Theater.

His first words: “What is God doing on our television?”

He wasn’t asking in the way Elvis fans say The King is God. He was asking because, well, have you seen Leon Russell?

The image of him there, a white-bearded, white-haired head behind a Yamaha grand, was certainly convincing, especially underneath the starry stage lights. Not to mention the fact that the album he and Elton were there to promote is called The Union.

I know I know better. Somewhere between my upbringing in a painstakingly gender-neutral Reform Jewish synagogue (where avinu malkeinu—literally “our father, our king”—comes out to “our parent, our sovereign”), my women’s college education (God help me if I were to write the word “mankind” in an essay), and all my comparative religion classes with all of those different faiths’ different imaginings of God, I should have a more open-minded understanding of the divine. I should be able to escape that God from the Michelangelo paintings.

Yet somehow it still all comes back to an old white dude with a beard.

This has all been on my mind since hearing Brian Lehrer interview Karen Armstrong on his radio show this week. Armstrong was in the studio to promote her appearance at the Rubin Museum that evening, where she was slated to “Talk About Nothing” with Imam Shamsi Ali of the 96th Street Mosque as part of the Talk About Nothing series (as KtB recently blogged).

Although talking about nothing might be a seemingly strange enough concept for a public event, Armstrong explained that it wasn’t so unusual for two religious minds to shoot the breeze about nothing when, essentially, God is nothing.

She said, “God, as the great religions have at their best said, is nothing, because God is not another thing. God is not another being.”

When Brian Lehrer commented that this was maybe a more Buddhist concept, she disagreed, saying, “You don’t associate this kind of theology with the monotheisms, which are, after all, religions of the word. And yet all of them have this strain whereby they insist that at their best, God is not another being; otherwise you are creating an idol, a reality that you’re creating in your own interest.”

The more I think about it, the more in awe I am of that statement. The way I picture God is really just a device by which I can practice my religion. And yet, when it comes down to it, any imagining of God I might have is inherently a graven image, a degradation that I have created for my own selfish purposes. It’s sort of a catch-22.

For some reason I feel compelled to call upon Psalm 19: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O God.” Whatever You are, or aren’t.

So I guess in the end I’ve just transitioned from Leon Russell to The Melodians. What can you do?

Jessica Miller graduated from Barnard College in 2009 with a BA in religion, and is psyched to finally have an answer to the question, “so what does one do with a religion major?” Her writing has appeared on Jewcy, Mashable, and the Huffington Post.  In her spare time she can be found sailing, playing music, and blogging about boomerangs.