Real progress in religion is hampered by the fact that its primary concern is such an enigma. What people name “God” – or better, what they mean when they use this term – is nearly impossible to pin down. This is partly due to the inherent difficulty in defining something that admittedly has no boundaries or limits. But perhaps an even stronger factor has to do with the indefinite nature of experience itself, like a moving stream in continuous change.
When these two factors (a supposedly boundless object and the dynamic subjectivity of experience) are forgotten, religion becomes a seedbed of dangerous conviction and spiritual oppression. Once orthodoxy is convinced that it has the last word on God, there is no end to what it might muster, justify, or condone in promoting and defending its truth. Well, there actually is an end, once there’s nothing left to burn.
As an outspoken critic of religious orthodoxy and its god – and now I’ve shifted to the lower case, for reasons to be explained shortly – I try to maintain a sharp distinction between our names for God and that which we are presuming to name. Our unique capacity as a species for meaning-making makes us susceptible to falling under our own spell, where we start to believe that reality is as we imagine it to be. (Of course, crucial to this trance-state is forgetting that we have imagined it!)
In this post I will offer an understanding of religion’s primary concern, specifically exploring how experience, meaning, and truth come together (or fall apart) in this often baffling enterprise. An operating assumption throughout is that our names and representations of God – in other words, our various gods – can never fully or finally capture the reality under consideration. If we can agree on this (and not forget it), then perhaps some constructive dialogue is possible.
Even if our depictions of God are different, and significantly so, at least we can learn to appreciate our different depictions as depth-soundings into the marvelous complexity of human experience. Why do we have to put our depictions (as art, story, or doctrine) up against each other for competition and superior standing? Why not celebrate this diversity, claiming it as proof that God is more (and other) than any of us can imagine?
God as Divine Absolute
It’s interesting how, at the higher levels of theological reflection, God is depicted in such abstract terms and extrapolated to such infinite degrees, that most (if not all) of our differences are logically eliminated. It no longer matters whether we’re talking about the ultimate reality according to Jews, Christians, Muslims or even Buddhists. Once you bracket out the traditional names for the Absolute (referring to what is utterly independent and unconditioned), the reality under consideration is identical.
The reason for this remarkable similarity has to do with the inevitable effect of pushing definitions into infinity (e.g., the Divine Absolute as omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent), which is to erase them or stretch them so far that they no long define anything. By definition, so to speak, the Absolute is beyond definition. Whatever qualities are attributed to it are necessarily amplified to an infinite degree – exploded into everything and beyond.
As the Divine Absolute, God is everywhere. If God isn’t in this tree or that cloud, or even in my enemy; if God is only in heaven or on earth, but not in hell – then there is a location where God isn’t, which logically means that God is not everywhere after all. If we are going to reflect on the logical perfection of the Divine Absolute, then anything that is in the nature of God will be without limits, that is to say, infinite. That’s why, at this level of reflection, the differences among our traditional gods dissolve away, leaving only The Unlimited which includes everything but is not dependent on anything for its existence.
This capacity for higher-order thinking is a fairly late development in our individual maturation, coming only after we have gained the cognitive functions and language skills to support what Piaget named formal operations, the ability for symbolic and abstract thought. I like to think of this as the “logical refinery” where concepts drawn from experience are stripped of their situational “dross” and changed into pure ideas, or ideals. God, at this level of abstraction, is not a being belonging to this or that tradition, but absolute and limitless Being, that which transcends yet includes existence itself.
Now obviously that’s not where most people are interested in spending their time and intellectual energy. Besides, a logical abstraction like the Divine Absolute is not something that does much to stir devotion or confirm the validity of your creed. Even worse, if it doesn’t produce religious apathy (who can love an abstraction?), there is a danger that serious theological reflection will lead to heresy. (The omnipresent God is in hell? Unacceptable!)
God as Patron Deity
That’s perhaps why more of us stay in the groove of our religious tradition – belonging to a faith community, going to worship and bringing up our children in the “right way,” studying the scriptures and denominational confessions, believing and behaving as we ought, doing our best to please, flatter, and placate our Patron Deity. The down-shift from a Divine Absolute to a Patron Deity is a step into full engagement with a personified representation of God who has had a long history with “our people” – the insiders, the elect, the chosen ones, the saved.
Patron Deity is a more or less technical term taken from the kind of relationship said to exist between the deity and devotee. This relationship is transactional and supported by the mutual exchange of submission for protection, obedience for reward, worship for blessing. Where exactly is the Patron Deity encountered? The answer is difficult for many believers to accept: In the myths, or sacred stories, in which the deity’s character is first introduced and subsequently developed. In other words, the Patron Deity is a narrative construct – the central construct – of a tradition’s mythopoetic (myth-making or storytelling) imagination.
Our modern Western loss of this mythopoetic imagination, which was the tragic cost that attended our “gain” in a reductive, objectifying, hard-facts-oriented worldview, required that we “interpret” (rather than recite, embody, and perform) our sacred stories as factual eye-witness reports of supernatural realities and miraculous events of long ago. Yahweh, the resident Patron Deity of the Bible, now must be regarded as existing outside the stories (since story has lost its power), somewhere “out there” or “up there” – in any case, no longer exactly here.
In the opinion of many, it is a blatant statement of atheism to even suggest that no one (anywhere, ever) has encountered the Yahweh depicted in our Bible. But in making the statement I am not denying the existence of God, only insisting that the personified representation of righteousness, potency, judgment and mercy – this particular Patron Deity, Yahweh – lives only in the Bible. If it sounds like I’m saying that God is nothing but a fictional figure stuck in the pages of a book, this only exposes how far the modern mind has fallen out of mythopoetic consciousness.
Most of us need to go back to early childhood to recapture a dim memory of when stories weren’t just leisure-time entertainment but our full-time occupation. The world we lived in wasn’t made of objective facts. Instead it was suffused with invisible creatures, heroic challenges, time travel, and numerous branching storylines that we might spontaneously follow into our next adventure. Our world was a narrative construct spun out of stories. The characters we encountered, while not literally existing, were real to us – more real than any dead-heavy fact could ever be.
Yahweh started his career in the imaginarium of the ancient Near East, among a few tribes of habiru that had settled in the Sinai peninsula. The sacred stories they told brought Yahweh to life, and Yahweh in turn brought their world into existence.
God as Holy Presence
So far, then, we have distinguished two very different meanings of God: the theological abstraction of the Divine Absolute, and the mythopoetic character of the Patron Deity. One more step closer to the ground brings us into special settings where God is encountered as a Holy Presence. The sacred precincts of institutional religion (temples, churches, mosques, and cathedrals) are artificial constructions where worshipers gather to call on the Patron Deity and join themselves once again to the timeless realm of sacred story. Typically some kind of ritual performance mediates this crossover from the broken time of ordinary life into the deep time of sacramental experience.
Before temple buildings and architectural sanctuaries, people were likely to have such experiences in natural zones like groves, meadows, grottos, seashores, riversides and mountaintops – places where “something more” seemed to come through, activating their sense of wonder, amazement, awe, or even trepidation. This something more should not be confused with something else. The particular name for God at this level – Holy Presence – is often and too quickly reduced to a being (the Patron Deity?) who adds the something more by coming in from elsewhere. As a spiritual intuition, however, this Presence is not added but “unveiled” (or revealed) as always and already there.
In my diagram above I leave open the question (with curving arrows) of whether the experience of Holy Presence precedes and inspires the mythopoetic imagination, giving rise to the Patron Deity as a personification of the something more; or if established stories of God are engaged in ritual performances that successfully conduct the worshiper into the sacred time and Holy Presence of the Patron Deity. In all likelihood, the answer is “both.”
This dynamic reciprocal support between the Patron Deity and Holy Presence is where conventional religion settles into orbit. Ordinary members are neither interested in, nor do they have the patience (and time) for abstract theological reflection. It’s sufficient to give agreement to doctrines of God’s infinite nature and power and love (etc.) without bothering to chase such statements to their logical (and heretical) conclusions.
Indeed your average believer will likely harbor some suspicion towards the “scholars and academicians” who stretch the concept of God beyond what our minds can comprehend. Their preference is for a theology that maintains allegiance to the Patron Deity of their tradition and demonstrates the prestige of their orthodoxy over others. More important than an intellectual exploration into God is the security of knowing that God is here when they need him, and will reward them for their faith and obedience in the life to come.
God as Grounding Mystery
Another direction that conventional believers won’t typically go is downward – which is actually a decisive step inward, to the Grounding Mystery of being-itself. This is where mystical spirituality lives, and its signature experience is essentially the same across (really underneath) all the world religions. It’s similar to theology in the way it pushes language to its limits, but instead of pushing out, mysticism pulls language in to its metaphorical foundations. Rather than an infinite being, God is being-itself, the power-to-be in everything that exists.
God as Grounding Mystery is the source and support of all things (as suggested in the metaphor of ground). You will not find this Ground by looking outside yourself, however. As the generative wellspring of existence, the only path into the Grounding Mystery is within: inward and away from outward attachments, beneath and past the center of your personal identity (ego), down into the place which is no place, where your being rests in and is released to the provident mystery of reality. If language is useful in labeling, classifying, qualifying, and explaining the outer realm, it is gradually surrendered to a silent wonder and profound tranquility, as there is nothing (no thing) for it to grab onto.
While my explanation of the distinct levels of meaning for God began in the abstractions of theology and stepped down from there, essential to my theory is the claim that it all really begins in the ineffable (wordless, indescribable) experience of the Grounding Mystery. This is, after all, where our existence is rooted and anchored, where each of us takes in our life and lets it go again, where I am and you are: the only place we can ever be.
This is the only place we can ever really be.