Religion didn’t just fall out of the sky fully assembled but evolved over many thousands of years. It emerged as a way of securing the everyday world of human concerns to the deeper mystery supporting all things. The experience of this mystery – what I call the present mystery of reality, or Real Presence – is engaged spontaneously and at a level below the reach of articulate thought. For this reason it is properly named “mystical,” available only to contemplative attention and essentially ineffable (beyond words).
If you observe anything for very long, the subject-object screen separating you from the thing observed can sometimes fall away to the realization that both you and that thing are grounded in one reality. This breakthrough to oneness doesn’t negate what makes you different from that thing, but instead helps you see beneath the difference to your co-presence in being. You are being in human form, and that other thing is being in a different form, but it is being-itself presenting (or presencing) as both.
Now, this doesn’t sound very religious. It would be some time before our minds developed the philosophical acuity to think into such abstraction. In the dawning age of religion, the first efforts at representing this experience of mystery were perhaps through rhythm, song, and dance. Gradually icons, artistically crafted images in paint, wood, clay, and stone, qualified the mystery in visual terms.
Such sensory-concrete images were eventually transmuted into conceptual metaphors and put into the framework of narratives called myths (from the Greek for plot). Elemental metaphors (personifying the forces of nature), theriomorphic metaphors (represented in animal form), and finally anthropomorphic metaphors (taking on the features and personality traits of humans) provided ways of converting an ineffable mystery into something increasingly more personal and relational. The myths of religion tell of the exploits of this or that deity, how the tribe is related to, dependent upon, and/or commissioned by the will of the deity.
If you’re coming to religion and enter by way of its metaphors, stories, and beliefs, it is easy to assume that the myths are depicting a deity which actually exists, out there in the external dimensions of metaphysical space. If a religion really gets locked into a literal reading of its myths – effectively forgetting the true “genealogy of god” – this insistence on regarding God as a separate being can become an insurmountable block to spiritual awakening and freedom. It is also a principal motivator of violence against others who don’t believe in “our god.”
If Yahweh (the patron deity of Jews and Christians) made the universe, intervened on behalf of Hebrew slaves, spoke to the prophets, and miraculously lifted the dead Jesus back to life, then why doesn’t he do similar things for us today?
Typically, literalists will guard their orthodoxy by laying the responsibility on us, saying that our age has become sinful, perverse, secular and faithless. Consequently god has abandoned us to our wicked ways and withdrawn into heaven, or we have lost the ability to feel, see, and hear god. It might also be that everything god has to say has been said, everything needing to be done has already been accomplished. Now all we need to do is believe.
For your own good you are admonished to heed the “experts” – teachers, pastors, clerics, bishops and theologians who are professionally committed to the tradition and its orthodox heritage. Don’t question the Bible, don’t challenge the preacher, and by all means don’t try to work it out for yourself. The end of the world is at hand and you can’t afford to rely on your own judgment. If your soul is to one day see the bright streets of paradise, you’d better listen up and stay in your seat.
I’ll let you in on a secret.
A large number – perhaps the majority – of those professional custodians of religion don’t believe what they preach, not really. Many of them came to their credentials by way of denominational training that likely included a critical study of Christianity, its historical place among the world religions, as well as the evolution of the Bible and its competing representations of God. From the pulpit they proclaim with authority what they privately doubt and discuss over coffee in their closed circle of peers.
I know. I lived in those circles for nearly two decades.
What these professionals know is that God is more than what can be said. The discrepancy between our representations (god) and the reality (God) they qualify is so impossibly vast that our images, thoughts, and talk about God are like scratchings at the surface. “Standing on a whale, fishing for minnows,” as a Polynesian saying goes. Our concept of God is our first idol.
But don’t tell the people. They can’t handle the real truth, so we spoon-feed them from the cramped little boxes of stale theology we push to the side during the rest of the week.
If God (the real presence of mystery) is more than our words and images can express, then we also need to admit that the reality of God may be other than what we believe. In short, we just might be clinging to an idol that entirely misrepresents the present mystery and is actually preventing us from a genuine experience of God’s presence.
The transcendent God is transpersonal – beyond personality, more than we think, other than the patron deities we worship, obey, and promote. It’s important to understand that we are not talking about the hidden nature of a god out there whose actual personality is inscrutable to us. God’s transcendence is another way of saying that our representations of God are merely qualifications on something that cannot be named or known objectively. You don’t leave behind the patron deity in order to look still farther out for a bigger and better god.
Acknowledging the transcendence of God means letting go of your beliefs about god in the interest of coming again (or for the first time) to the Real Presence of mystery here and now. First your grip is relaxed, then the screen falls away. You wake up to the realization that the creative source and gracious support of all things is all around you, right here with you, and rising up from deep inside you – just as you are.