It was irritating, and yet it was fascinating — in an “oh my God” sort of way.
On the morning Amtrak train to Penn Station, two 20-something women sitting behind me kept up a nonstop dialogue for nearly two hours. Their topics were inane with not a shred of content. No listening, just pushing out words intended to be clever.
Every now and then, one or the other would say, “Oh my God,” and then voice some surprising situation, like a boy who never called or a friend who was trapped in bad hair.
On the one hand, “Oh my God” was verbal filler. But it also expressed an understanding of God as the one who explains the surprises of life, the one who makes sense of the perplexing. This wasn’t the expletive that calls down God’s fire. Or the teenager’s “Oh God!” aimed at snarking a grown-up.
No, this was different. The two young women clearly were grappling with issues for which family, schooling and life hadn’t prepared them. They were at sea. They had a friendship and a birthday to celebrate in Manhattan. But they couldn’t go any deeper. Thus their mantra: “Oh my God,” asking God to explain the unexplainable.
Perhaps we could call this “bottom-up theology.” Not understanding God from the top down — pulpit to pew, theologian to student, book to reader. Rather, asking what an ordinary person means when they say “God.”
For one thing, I doubt that their “Oh my God” has anything to do with a dynamic faith. But it must have something to do with God, because they could as easily say, “Oh my cheese!” It has to do with a vague sense that there is a being called “God” and that being has potency.
It isn’t the potency of the avenging God or punishing God or cruel God who often appears in Christian theology. Rather it is the potency of, say, a parent, or a best friend, or an admired teacher — a providential potency, helpful, kind, benign.
In fact, bottom-up theology tends to be kinder than top-down. Too often top-down theology weaponizes God, making God the “gotcha” of getting even, the proof of right opinion, the hard hand of gaining power. This is the tribal God who chooses a side and then, if proper obeisance is made, smites all foes.
The God of bottom-up theology is more a friend, as Jesus declared himself to be, a companion who finds the lost and escorts them home, a Spirit of presence, sustenance for the beloved.
In a week when top-down religious thinkers were, variously, debating the virginity of Mary, bristling at talk of relaxing on celibacy and inviting God to open the floodgates of gifts and desires, here were two women making a much more humble supplication to God.
Yes, it might seem absurd to see their inane chatter as having anything serious to do with God. But it was exactly that absurdity to which Jesus responded. He had no use for the top-down thinkers and custodians of religion. Jesus responded to the simple “I hurt” of life.
TOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York.