by Meredith Gudger-Raines
In my World Religions seminary class, we learned that there are something like 300,000 gods in Indian Hinduism. “And actually,” Dr. Ariarajah said, “there are probably many more than that.” All Hindus pray to several main gods—like Vishnu, Siva, Vashti—but there are gods that are more localized to certain regions of the country. When you get down to it, every little village has their own god.
These gods have names and personalities and characteristics. They have actions that they take and things they are control. They are highly organized, complex figures. Even though these different characters are well-established, Hindus also recognize that none of their 300,000 gods are The God. These gods are not in competition with each other. Rather, they are just many ways to know the one eternal God or Spirit.
I find much wisdom in this system of gods, all who represent God in different ways and places. We Christians are quick to bristle at anything that looks like poly-theism, the commandment against idol worship on the tip of our tongues. But if we can suspend our judgment for a few minutes, we can learn from the Hindu system of a god for each village.
We actually practice this kind of theology in subtle ways. On Super Bowl Sunday, my congregation prayed for the Seattle Seahawks. If you ask my people, would they swear in all seriousness that God is a Hawks fan? No, I don’t think so. My people are smart, and they would acknowledge that United Methodists in Massachusetts probably pray for God to bless—ahem—another team. We would affirm that we pray to the same God, but about opposite teams.
I know, praying for football teams sounds a bit silly. But what about the community that prays for expanded fracking because it means more jobs? What’s their relationship to the community that prays for stricter environmental regulations because they feel the effects of pollution? Does God care about the environment or about people’s livelihood? What about the community who needs a God who understands how to manage urban sprawl? Do they pray to the same God as the congregation in a town that is tearing down unused buildings? What about those who use female pronouns for God? Can they worship in churches where God is only known as He?
Of course, our universal God understands the needs of these different communities, and more. But do we? Do we acknowledge that the particularities of our place are actually particularities? Do we understand that, just because God understands our concerns, doesn’t mean that they are God’s only concern?
I’m not the first to observe how divided our country and our church are right now. I wonder if we have taken our particular views of God and made them universal, without realizing it. After all, my God is God. We don’t have different names for the fracking God and the environmental God.
The thing about Place is that you can only know your place when you know someone else’s place also. Until you see others’ perspectives, you are in danger of seeing your particular perspective as universal. Until you pray with someone who is different than you, you may think your concerns are God’s only concerns.
Of course, there are many things about God that are universal. We do believe in one Holy Spirit, who is among us and within us, uniting us all. But if we never encounter someone else’s place of worship and work, we are in danger of mistaking our particular concerns for God’s universal character. We’re in danger of worshiping one God who looks an awful lot like us—and arguing furiously that there is no other God but our God.