Spirit in the Material World: Which Way Is Up?

Last week, God answered a prayer in an unexpected way that made sense of the whole ordeal. I looked toward the sky, smiled, and said, “You’re a piece of work, Lord. Thank you.” My eyes lingered on a lone wisp of cloud in the metallic blue sky. I marveled at the thin layer of ozone making a blue shield against the blackness behind.

The blackness behind, I thought. I’m looking at blue light refracted off gas molecules in the atmosphere. Behind that is space junk, planets, asteroids, stars, noble gases, and a whole lot of nothing in between.

“God,” I said, “why do I look at the sky when we talk?”

I felt silly. I had no reason to believe God was up there instead of somewhere else. Thousands of years before Christ, humans interpreted astronomical events as divine and the notion stuck. Even though we know Earth is a tiny ball swirling through an infinite void, we pray and worship as if God resides directly above our heads. He is looking down on us from above. Our loved ones go up (we hope) when they die. At least our beliefs about what lies below have a little more scientific heft. It is, it turns out, quite hot down there.

Before you accuse me of splitting hairs, let’s talk about why this is important. We base a lot of our worship and ritual on a cosmology that is not only archaic, but pagan in the most primitive way. The first notion of airborne deities wasn’t even theology; it was animism, the earliest form of science. Hunter-gather societies attributed divine qualities to what they didn’t understand. Morality, sin, worship, and doctrine were irrelevant. Imagining God in the sky is neither good theology nor good science. Yet, almost every modern religion uses the Heaven-above-Hell-below-Earth-in-between construct, in practice if not in doctrine.

Syncretism like this is nothing new. Christianity has always absorbed pagan traditions. God being above also works on a metaphorical level. The sky demonstrates God’s mystery and glory. God is figuratively higher than humans, so looking up in praise or raising hands in worship makes sense. But . . . what if we’re wrong? What if God resides somewhere else, or everywhere else? Our metaphors matter. They inform and affect the spirituality of everyday life. How would worship and prayer change if we imagined God next to us instead of above us? Would it make a difference if we imagined God beside that homeless person on the sidewalk or next to the prisoner in his cell instead of looking down from Heaven?

These questions lead to a bigger one: Should scientific knowledge inform spiritual practice? Can “scientific evidence” enhance faith beyond providing ammo for apologetics? I don’t have good answers to these questions. But I did an experiment while on a walk this morning.

I prayed and imagined that God was all around me instead of just above me. I’m not going to tell you what happened. The scientist inside is admonishing me not to confound your experience by telling you mine. Let’s just say I highly recommend doing a field test of your own.


  1. I always looked up because that's the direction Jesus' followers were looking the last time anyone saw Him.

  2. I find I look up because of 2 things: I still feel awe in looking at the sky, and its the least distracting place to look when I want to focus on him. Otherwise I have to close my eyes.

  3. I would say that our looking and thinking of God as residing upwards comes directly and initially from Genesis 1:

    In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (bold mine)

    The writers of the OT, in their non-scientific narratives, would have used this primary point as the foundation of the metaphorical direction of God. But we often miss the spiritual description of God in Genesis 1 and skip right to the image of God metaphors as if God has physical aspects like us. (I also notice a conspicuous absence of hell, but that is a different conversation altogether.)

    The other influences you mention are still very much prevalent, but we shouldn't forget the influence of the creation narrative.