The biblical god lives nowhere but in the sacred stories of the Bible itself, and in the mythopoetic imagination of its audience. And while this might sound like atheism, it is far from it, for the simple reason that the fictional character of god is acknowledged as a metaphor of the present mystery of reality.
It’s only when this metaphor is mistaken for an objectively existing being who matches the description, that the claim is rightly denied and atheism is born.
But this case of mistaken identity is really only a recent phenomenon, historically speaking. For the longest time, theism – the type of religion which conceives of the present mystery as a storied character with a personality much like our own – cautioned its devotees against taking god literally, particularly in Judaism where this was condemned as idolatry.
The present mystery of reality can be viewed through the lens of personality and will, but that is more about our need to feel at home in the universe.
The executive center of our personality is the “I” (or ego) from which we look out upon everything (else) that is “not me.” Arriving at this separate self is a slow process of individuation, whereby self-consciousness emerges out of the deeper substrate of sentient life (i.e., our living sensual body). This process isn’t without its complications, and each of us tends to get snagged along the way, pulling us slightly or severely off kilter and resulting in the condition described by religion as “out of joint” (Buddhist dukkha) and “off-center” (Greek hamartia: an archery term meaning to miss the mark).
The successful establishment of a separate center of self-conscious identity opens three distinct paths back to reality. First is the subjective or inward path to the grounding mystery of our own existence; I call this ‘interiority’. Second is the objective or outward path to the wholly other that both confronts and eludes us; I call this ‘alterity’ (or otherness). And third is the consilient or upward path to higher wholeness; I call this ‘unity.’
It’s important to understand that religion didn’t begin in special revelations of supernatural beings, who then settled into their cultural roles as patron deity of this or that tribe. The sacred stories were not eye-witness accounts, but rather expanded metaphors of the present mystery that grounds us from within, confronts us as other, and includes us in wholeness.
The fictional character of god was a narrative vehicle by which these distinct dimensions and their associated experiences could be represented, contemplated, and finally engaged.
Spirituality begins its career under the tutelage of mythology, where the mystery that cannot be named is given a name, disguised in personality, and depicted in the role of world creator, provident caretaker, moral authority, and revealer of truth. God is “heavenly father” or “mother earth,” the one who watches over us and provides for our needs.
But at a certain point, just as with the secular myth of Santa Claus, the fictional character needs to fall away in order that the deeper meaning can be both grasped and internalized.
What we call theology is a second-order reflection on the first-order production of mythology. It goes far beyond merely cataloging the personality profile of god and converting sacred stories into orthodox doctrines and morals. At its best, theology conducts a deeper contemplation of the metaphor of god, to the point where it breaks open to the three dimensions of reality: God as the Grounding Mystery, the Wholly Other, and as Communal Spirit.
In my diagram I have arranged the conventional theological terms “transcendence” (beyond) and “immanence” (within) in a way that can help differentiate what is unique about each of these dimensions. I am also adding the qualifiers “ontic” (as concerns the existence of things) and “noetic” (as concerns the mind and what we can know).
Let’s start with the grounding mystery. As we allow awareness to detach from the separate center of ego identity, it is able to descend along that interior path and deeper into our experience of being alive. Sinking past ego means also sinking below the reach of possessive pronouns (my, mine), reflexive thinking (about me), the subject-object distinction, and even language itself.
The grounding mystery (or ground of being) is ontically immanent in the way it completely suffuses our existence. And because it falls below the threshold of language, we also say it is noetically transcendent, or beyond the mind and what we can talk about.
If we move from our centered ego, not deeper within but out and across to the other – another person or object apart from us, we are confronted by a mystery that is ontically transcendent (as other) as well as noetically transcendent. Alterity, or otherness, goes beyond the simple fact of our separation from what is “not me.” The other confronts us with its presence, even as it recedes into its own interior depths. This is what religion means in referring to God, beyond our concepts and personifications (god with a lower-case ‘g’), as wholly (or absolutely) other.
Finally, as we engage The Other in this one, that one, and everyone, we become aware of our mutual togetherness in sacred partnership, genuine community, and the whole provident uni-verse (“turning as one”). This higher wholeness is ontically transcendent to us, at the same time as it finds embodiment and affirmative expression under those myriad names and forms (noetic immanence).
As communal spirit, the present mystery of reality fills the manifold of existence like breath (Latin spiritus) saturates the lungs, connecting this to that and holding all of us as One.
If mythology is intended for our gradual emergence into self-conscious identity, oriented toward a personal god who watches over us and requires something of us, theology breaks this metaphor open for the purpose of engaging us directly with a reality beyond our ego. Disguised in this god of mythology is the God of theology, a trinitarian mystery that is simultaneously Ground, Other, and All.
This is the experience of reality on the other side of (after: post-) god. Then at last, theology itself must surrender to silence in the presence of mystery.