Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Does God exist? Wrong question!

Here’s the right question: What is your idea of God? If God is an individual distinct from ourselves and the universe, count me among the unbelievers in that idol.

My current definition of God is spiritual reality, and who doesn’t believe in spiritual reality? Who denies the existence of honor and greed, truth and deception, beauty and evil and goodness? These intangibles point to an immaterial universe, a spiritual dimension. That’s God. Of course, there is much more to be said about this ineffable mystery.

In the National Catholic Reporter, Tom Fox quoted S. Elizabeth Johnson as setting three ground rules for the quest to recognize God:
1) God is an ineffable, incomprehensible mystery and we can never wrap our minds around the fullness of who God is.
2) Therefore, every word we use to speak about God is metaphorical, symbolic or analogical. It always means that and more.
3) Therefore, we need many words, many names, many images, many adjectives for God. Each adds to the richness and texture and the greatness of what we mean when we say "God."
I think many who would call themselves unbelievers in God would nonetheless accept this description of spiritual reality.
To a young man deeply wounded by the Christian right and now striking out on a new path, I wrote that he no longer needed to proselytize for atheism as he’d been doing, but in the past he needed to do it to clear his mind of Christian nonsense. Gratefully he saw his situation in a new light and replied, “How deeply indoctrinated into Christianity I had been!!” He added, “Negative voices of hatred and intolerance are damaging to the human condition and that includes atheist intolerance towards healthy spirituality.”

At an arts event someone wanted to know if I believe that a person who rejects God will go to heaven. This question makes no sense in the spiritual paradigm emerging today. The question begs further questions, “What’s God?” and “What’s heaven?”

Some readers will shout, “Who is God?” not “What is God?” to which I reply that both are appropriate + More. God is spiritual reality, much more than any answer to who or what or any other question.

My interlocutor kept referring to God as “Him” but, when I said that was a problem for me, he graciously changed his language. I appreciate that. I prefer “what” and “it” in reference to what we call God, because these non-gendered words free minds from the image of a guy or set of guys that our culture creates with the he-him-his God-talk. When I point out to Christians that God is more than a man or men, they’re not hearing anything they didn’t know before, but religious training prevents their using more freeing language.

A speaker—I forget who—asked the question, "Would we expect that a horse could define a human person?" It’s just as foolish to expect that humans can define the spiritual reality we call God. A strong element in Christianity insists that its definition is correct and superior to any other tradition’s ideas about it—that only Christian ideas come from God. I find this doctrine of revelation small-minded and arrogant.

At the School of Theology many years ago I was introduced to The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous classic of Christian mysticism. To the disapproval of my instructor, I expressed indignation at the author’s consistent use of he/him/his in reference to the mysterious Unknown that so fascinated and enraptured him or her. (It could have been a woman and that would help to explain the author remaining nameless.) She or he, although contemplative, was caught in Christian conceptions, not only the male god but also a preoccupation with sin and judgment. It was disappointing.

It is heavy-handed religionists who restrict the Unseen Order, the Ultimate, and they do it by limiting it to particular images. By trying to foist certain beliefs on others, Christian literalism eliminates the possible good this religion could do. Christianity used to play a positive role in politics—during the civil rights struggles, for instance. Today, it is waning as a positive spiritual force and seems to be losing some of its integrity.

Ex-Catholics, for instance, comprise one-tenth of the U.S. population, many of them specifically identified by Fr. Richard McBrien as women, gays and lesbians, divorced people, and critics of official teachings on sexuality and reproduction. The Vatican's intransigence toward these groups is hastening the exodus of U.S. Catholics from the Church.

Typical headlines in our country read: “Christianity losing ground in U.S,” “Atheism on the Rise in U.S.,” and “We are all Hindus now,” a column by Lisa Miller in Newsweek. She quotes a Pew Forum survey which finds 30 percent of Americans calling themselves “spiritual, not religious,” and 37 percent of white evangelicals (surprising!) saying that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” Miller concludes, “It’s about whatever works.”

I see all this as positive. The evolution of thought on religions and spirituality continues unabated, showing a Larger Purpose in the universe. History’s unfolding directs humanity toward a higher moral consciousness. Humans are both directed by and direct the universe toward this Higher Order.


Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra, & John Adams. (related reflections, June 3, 2008)
Deepak Chopra, himself a spiritual leader, wrote about the Dalai Lama,
The most mystical thing about him is also the most ordinary: . . . He’s happy in the midst of chaos and turmoil.

The most inspiring thing [the Dalai Lama] ever told me was to ignore all organized faiths and keep to the road of higher consciousness. "Without relying on religion, we look to common sense, common experience and the findings of science for understanding," he said.
Yes, but missing here is reference to the reality we call God.

I just finished reading David McCullough’s John Adams. Reading it became a spiritual exercise because the great man’s role in forming our nation was attended by affliction and vicious attacks. It led me to reflect on courage and the surprising ways events can play out for good and bad. McCullough quoted words of Adams that “could have been his epitaph.”
Griefs upon griefs! Disappointments upon disappointments. What then? This is a gay, merry world notwithstanding.
Adams did and the Dalai Lama does what I strive but often fail to do—maintain steadiness and even joy while miserable conditions, my own or the world's, grab my attention. This ability often accompanies the great.

John Adams decried religious conflicts but accepted a “Supreme Being.” He said,
[The universe is] inscrutable and incomprehensible . . . the whole system is under the constant and vigilant direction of a wisdom more discerning than ours.
While Chopra and the Dalai Lama impress me as spiritual models, I am most impressed by Adams’ subordination of human knowledge and wisdom to a higher knowledge and wisdom.

5 comments:

Florian said...

You really need to explain what you mean by “individual” and “distinct”. What is an “individual”? Literally, it means something that's un-divided. It's one and not divided up into more than one. I believe you have referred to God in the past as “The One”, so why would you complain about God being “individual”? And, of course, you can't complain about God being distinct. God is distinctive. If God is ineffable, infinite, and things like that, that makes God a pretty distinctive being. I don't see any other beings around me that are infinite.

So, it seems God is both individual and distinct.

You are trying to make God pantheistic (not distinct from the universe), but that doesn't work.

Jeanette said...
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Jeanette said...
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Jeanette said...

I'll let the eminent theologian Karl Rahner answer for me.
" . . . what is correct about all of these statements is the plain fact that we do not know God by himself as one individual object alongside others, but only as the term of transcendence."
(Foundations of Christian Faith p. 64.)

Chris said...

I just discovered your blog. I must confess that I find your perspective rather puzzling. It seems to me that you regard cataphatic theology to be false in principle. But surely, you are well aware of the importance of the apophatic tradition and the via negativa that is essential to traditional Christianity. Many people today are drawn to a Divinity of immanence because it seems more compatible with the monism of modern philosophical materialism.