I was in an RV with two other women heading for Santa Fe when one of them, my friend Jane, came out as an atheist. We were on our way to a workshop I was going to lead called Divining the Body. I was sure Jane would be the only atheist in the group and I felt protective of her, knowing how often people bring up God at events like this. Though I had left behind my notion of a personal deity by then, I hadn’t replaced it with anything else. I was lingering in the liminal space between theist and post-theist, but Jane’s announcement jolted me toward action.

“How does it feel when everybody talks about God like they do?” I asked Jane.

“Oh, I’m used to it now. It won’t matter. You can forget about it.”

But I couldn’t forget about it. I drove hundreds of miles wondering how I could make this feel as good for Jane at it was going to feel for everyone else.

We stopped at the Albuquerque airport to pick up three women from Missouri who started talking about God the moment they arrived. Every time I heard the word, my ears burned. I’d look at Jane and she’d just shrug her shoulders.

“It was raining, but God got us a great taxi driver who got us there on time.”

“I was married to an alcoholic, but God set it up that way so I’d learn patience.”

“God helped me find just the right man on eharmony ... God gave me a child with disabilities ... God gave me cancer because ...”

I wanted to shout, “Who exactly are you talking about and how does this work?”

When we arrived at the retreat center, we had two hours before our first gathering. I still had no idea how to handle things, until a thought occurred as I entered our meeting room. When we convened in a circle I made the announcement, “There’s only one rule for the weekend. You can share anything you want, but you can’t use the word G-O-D.”

“Can’t say God? Why not? How are we going to talk?”

“Because we’re trying an experiment,” I said. “If we have to come up with new ways to describe what we’re talking about, we’ll get clearer about what it really is. It’s a global world now and we have to practice relating to people who don’t share the same notion of God.”

They weren’t happy about it, but they agreed and we kept the rule all weekend with just a few slips. By Sunday lunchtime, I felt a palpable energy in the room. Women spoke in concrete terms and their words radiated with self-authority. They grounded their wisdom, rooting it in real terms and real stories. They took responsibility for the lives they were creating. I did this. I chose that. I moved this way and not that.

Meister Eckhart wrote that the “highest and dearest leave-taking is … leaving God … for GOD.” That means leaving our idea of the sacred for an experience of the sacred. To me it means embodying divinity, acknowledging I Am That. I am a salt crystal in the sea of God. There is no separation. Everything that is is God unfolding, divinity materializing, yin yanging. Divinity is the wave, matter is that wave in particle form—two versions of the one thing.

After that weekend, I asked people in all my workshops to refrain from using the word God while we were together. I encouraged them to share whatever they wanted, but to use only concrete terms, to speak in such a way that listeners could see pictures of their words and enter into their story. Initially there’s some resistance, since it forces thoughtful and slower speaking, but it also offers a way into our creative power, providing us with a lens to see ourselves as cocreators.

We had left God for GOD. We were cells in the body of Unfolding Creation—part of that, one with it—not separate and alone, calling out for help, but intimately and infinitely connected.

Teaching in Tandem

When I was invited in 2018 to cofacilitate a spiritual retreat with Michael Morwood in Nova Scotia, I knew I had to let him in on my rule.

Michael had been a priest in Perth, Australia, until resigning from his ministry after then-Archbishop Pell banned Michael’s book, Tomorrow’s Catholic: Understanding God and Jesus in a New Millennium (Twenty-Third Publications, 1997). Michael was an evolutionary thinker who would not be silenced, and he’d gone on to write several more books, marry his wife Maria, and teach throughout the U.S. and Canada. We sat across from each other at a bed and breakfast in Truro, Nova Scotia, buttering our homemade scones at 8 a.m. when I came clean.

“Michael,” I said, “I hope you don’t mind, but it’s my practice to discourage people from using the word G-O-D during my seminars.”

He looked at me, put down his scone, and took a sip of coffee and said, “Jan, I hope you don’t mind, but it’s my practice to discourage people from using the word C-H-R-I-S-T during my seminars.” We laughed out loud and knew right then we’d be a good team.

Michael and I brought two different perspectives to the table, in two very different packages. I was a storyteller using song, poetry, and videos that urged people to reel God in from celestial realms to cellular realms, to give divinity a change of address and localize the creative force in their own beings. I spoke about the relationship of our feelings and commitments to our faith and prioritized this over an unexamined adherence to religious beliefs.

Michael’s work was less emotional, more cerebral. His hope was to bring people back to the life of Jesus the man, who reminded us we were similar in nature and capable of doing anything he did. Michael chiseled away at the abstract notion of Christ the anointed one, which was foisted on Jesus by Paul, who never even met the Jewish teacher and first wrote about him 20 years after the crucifixion. He encouraged us to let go of traditional religious teachings that are not helpful or believable and to let the simple teachings of Jesus infuse our lives: take care of the poor, stand for justice and peace, ground yourself in your oneness with Creation.

We had five days to dust off the debris of outdated ideas and break into hearts so the Spirit of Now could wash over us. Eighty-three evolutionary journeyers convened every day in a huge, cold Gothic church. We meditated, we prayed new prayers, sang old songs, listened hard, and questioned deeply—resisting, advancing, burrowing, burying.

Many were pastors, with half of their congregants eager to evolve while the other half clung to traditional prayers and age-old songs no matter how sexist and patriarchal. How does one who has grown beyond beliefs like original sin, the need for atonement, the notion of people as incorrigible sinners pastor to a people who still believe?

Forever Changed

Near the end of our week I looked into faces and saw pain, angst, and worry on a few. I asked the group outright if we needed to grieve the losses we faced, remembering my own struggle to let go of the old.

A few half-raised their hands, not wanting to be seen. I offered myself as a container for their sorrow, so they could direct their grief to me to hold, sanctify, and release in a sacrament of our making. I put on the music of Rafe Pearlman singing an Aramaic version of the “Lord’s Prayer,” and its haunting sound filled the cavernous cathedral. Next, I approached the altar, lay down on the red carpet, and rested my head on my crossed arms.

I then began to keen—weeping, sobbing as I took in their pain and felt my own grief for the length of the song. Agony and ecstasy comingled in the moment. I lost touch with everything but the sound of letting go. My sense of self folded into a sense of All. I was a vessel, receiving energy, blessing it, pouring it out.  

I have no way of knowing what happened to the others that day, for we have no language to speak of such mystery. There is fire on my tongue but no words. I do know that something transcendent happened. People were different. There was a lightness of being. Intimacy in the air. Sighs of relief and gratitude.

We had left God for GOD. We were cells in the body of Unfolding Creation—part of that, one with it—not separate and alone, calling out for help, but intimately and infinitely connected. We looked exactly the same—crumpled corduroy pants, flannel shirts, sneakers and work boots—but we were transformed in our very cells.

And when they spoke after, it was with conviction: I will return to my church and we will evolve together. I will not say prayers I cannot believe in. I will write music to replace the hymns we must retire. I will share this with my people and we will walk a path of our own making.

Forays into divinity are not rare for people who give up the notion of a faraway God and dwell like salt in the sea of infinity. For those who imagine God as the ongoing, unfolding miracle of creation—a verb, not a noun—it is not a stretch. There is nothing to seek when that force is the air you’re breathing, the air in your lungs, the oxygen in your blood.

You can relocate God in your own body as both are one: ongoing creation, ever-expanding. The Force of Life is breathing you. You can relax now. You’re in the arms of heaven and earth, your Father and Mother. This is the “kingdom of heaven spread out around you.” Welcome home.

Award-winning book, Still on Fire: Field Notes from a Queer Mystic, Leaving God for GOD, Jan Phillips, Unity Magazine

This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.

About the Author

Jan Phillips is the author of 10 books. She speaks often at her home church, The Unity Center in San Diego, California, and leads events at Unity churches across the country. Phillips has performed with Pete Seeger, presented with Jane Goodall, Ph.D., and worked for Mother Teresa in Nepal and India. Visit janphillips.com.


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