When they told us in Sunday School that God is everywhere, they could have been talking about the recent news cycle. With Harriet Miers, we see that God lives in the politics of the US Supreme Court nomination process. In a culture defined by the separation of church and state, President Bush and his allies have mastered the use of religious affirmation as a deflection not only of criticism, but of critical thought. God is thus a trump card, a free pass. If the president, senators, and members of Congress can justify their decisions by appeals to God, why not judges?
''Acts of God" is the phrase applied to staggering natural disasters, from Katrina and the Pakistan earthquake to the coming avian flu. At the same time, survivors of such catastrophes credit God for having saved them, as if God callously let all those others die. Humans are perplexed when wanton suffering occurs, especially among children, and assumptions about God are overturned. The question becomes, How could God let this happen? Today, in Pakistan, where fatal disease, hunger, and thirst go unabated, the very ones who praised God last week for sparing them are pleading with God now, to no avail.
In the argument between creationists and scientists, those aiming to defend God make absolute claims about mysteries of the deep past as if they themselves were there. Air Force flyers have thought of God as their co-pilot in the past, but in today's Air Force, God sits atop the chain-of-command. At the US Air Force Academy, which was rocked by sex scandals not long ago, God is now the designated dean of discipline, but this jeopardizes infidel careers. Unit cohesion requires conversion. Indeed, displays of faith can be a prerequisite for promotion throughout a government where the White House itself is a House of God. In Iraq, meanwhile, someone will turn his body into a bomb today, killing others by blowing himself up while saying, ''God is great!"
Who is this ''God" in whose name so many diverse and troubling things take place? Why is it assumed to be good to affirm one's faith in such an entity? Why is it thought to be wicked to deny its existence? Most striking about so much talk of ''God," both to affirm and to deny, is the way in which many who use this language seem to know exactly to what and/or whom it refers. God is spoken of as if God is the Wizard of Oz or the great CEO in the sky or Grampa or the Grand Inquisitor. God is the clock-maker, the puppeteer, the author. God is the light, the mother, the wind across the sea, the breath in every set of lungs. God is the horizon. God is all of these things.
But what if God is none of them? What if every possible affirmation that can be made of God, even by the so-called religions of revelation, falls so far short of the truth of God as to be false? Who is the atheist then? The glib God-talk that infuses public discourse in contemporary America descends from an anthropomorphic habit of mind, dating to the Bible and beyond, that treats God like an intimate friend or well-known enemy, depending on the weather and the outcome of battles. But there is another strain in the Biblical tradition that insists on the radical otherness of God, an otherness so complete that even the use of the word ''God" as a name for this Other One is forbidden. According to this understanding, God is God precisely in escaping and transcending comprehension by human beings. This can seem to mean that God is simply unknowable. If so, humans are better off not bothering about it. Atheism, agnosticism, or childish anthropomorphism -- all the same.
But here is where it gets tricky. What if God's unknowability is the most illuminating profundity humans can know about God? That would mean that religious language, instead of opening into the absolute certitude on which all forms of triumphal superiority are based, would open into true modesty. The closed creation, in which every question has an answer, would be replaced by an infinite cosmos where every answer sparks a new question. If what we mean by ''God" is the living pulse of such open-endedness, then God is of no use in systems of dominance, censorship, power. God is everywhere, yes. But, also, God is nowhere. And that, too, shows in America, especially in its fake religiosity.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe. His most recent book is "Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War."
Copyright 2005 Boston Globe