Tag Archives: divine presence

Unqualified Mystery

De Mello: “The fact is that you’re surrounded by God and you don’t see God, because you ‘know’ about God. The final barrier to the vision of God is your God concept. You miss God because you think you know. That’s the terrible thing about religion. The highest knowledge of God is to know God as unknowable. There is far too much God talk; the world is sick of it.”

Here’s a piece of calculus predicting our human future: Calculus FutureTranslated into narrative the formula states that our representation of God, divided by our identification of self, multiplied by our interaction with others equals the evolutionary future of humanity. Let’s break it down.

Our representations of God come from many sources – scripture and tradition, intuition and revelation, reason and logic, imagination and fantasy. Whatever its source, we must be careful not to confuse any representation with the reality it represents.

This is, in fact, the classical and orthodox definition of idolatry, even though much of the new orthodoxy and fundamentalism in the world’s religions fall – and fall passionately – to this temptation. Any representation of God will necessarily be less than God, an understatement, a reduction to ideas, words, and images of an ineffable mystery.

And yet, it is an irresistible impulse of our minds to mentally represent the mystery in ways that make it intelligible, relevant and useful. What we call God – the real presence of mystery or the present mystery of reality – must be rendered meaningful by the mind, which it does by telling stories, playing with metaphors, or simply dancing out the ecstasy.

What is produced from this creative activity is not a substitute for the mystery or some final definition, but rather a symptom of the inexpressible, a sign pointing beyond itself, a suggestion of Something More.

Still, for whatever reason, we come to settle on our preferred representations. Perhaps our religious tradition requires it, we find it convenient, or maybe it just “fits” with the general picture of reality known as our world(view).

But our representations of God must always include (whether by expression or concealment, projection or compensation) our identifications of self. Since these representations come out of us, we should expect them to reflect and bear the signature of our nature and personality.

What I call the mythological god – which refers to the narrative character at the center of the sacred stories (or myths) of religion – is at once the creative expression of an evolutionary ideal (power, goodness, love), a reflex of our insecurity as a species, and a dramatic counterpart to what we admire, despise, or fear in ourselves.

Just as a providential god compensates for our dependency on a larger order, so a judgmental god confirms the shame and guilt we try to keep to ourselves, and an all-loving god externalizes and covers everything with a caring intention. Whose god is the “true god” is a question without an answer, for the simple reason that it is based on a false assumption that our representations of God (in other words, our various “gods”) match up to the reality we generically name God.

My formula suggests that our representations of God are just as much, if not more, about us than they are accurate portraits of the divine mystery.

It might sound as if I’m building an argument for atheism, when in fact it’s “post-theism” I’m boosting here – the idea that the real presence of mystery is always and necessarily beyond (and after: post) the patron deities of religion. To the degree that we get caught up in devotion to our god (lowercase = representation), the stage is set for interreligious competition through the ordination of bigotry and violence.

As my formula shows, the package of how we identify ourselves, along with the representation of God that complements or compensates for it, gets carried out into our interactions with others. It’s here that orthodoxy – our “correct” beliefs about God – translates into ethics. Our god will tend to inspire and justify a certain regard for others, a certain way of behaving towards our neighbor – whether friend, stranger, or enemy.

It seems obvious that a religion which generalizes love, encourages compassion, and challenges us to forgive and get along would be preferable to one that excludes, condemns and justifies violence as a means to redemption. The evolutionary future of humanity on this planet – if there’s any chance of it being a long and prosperous one – will depend on our ability to reach out and make benevolent connections with each other.

But didn’t god (the mythological god of the Bible) require the death of his son for the salvation of those who believe? Isn’t he poised (and morally obligated) to condemn to hell all unbelievers? The myth of redemptive violence is a strong current in Christian orthodoxy – one that reflects (and exposes) something about the myth-makers who invented it in the first place, as well as those who defend it today.

I’m not suggesting that Christianity is all this way, or that it is exceptional in this regard among the world religions. There are many Christians who reject the myth of redemptive violence, which of course calls for a critical, less literal reading of the Bible and a more conscientious stance on sacred authority.

As our planet continues to move into a global culture, the motivation and consequences of our interactions grow in importance.

Again, post-theism is not about a “one-world religion” – either as an outcome of interreligious competition (one wins and eliminates the others) or by blending religious differences into a generic stir-and-serve. It acknowledges a “spiritual intelligence” in all human beings, and even affirms the constructive place of religion in its development. Our representations of God are useful to the degree that they provide community support, devotional focus, and fresh inspiration along the way.

At a certain point, however, this process can get bogged down in the specialized vocabulary of a tradition’s god-talk. More and more is “known” about God – more accurately, about god (the orthodox representation) – as less and less of God is experienced. How God is represented eventually eclipses a direct (mystical) vision of, and communion with, the present mystery.

Worse, this worship of the representation can – and increasingly will – result in spiritual frustration. The progression of our continuing evolution as a species is capped off and boxed up in an ideology incapable of lifting us to the next level. A living spirituality gets strangled in the net of commentary.

Can we set our idols aside?


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Faith in the Wake of Tragedy

Excursus: The senseless slaying of innocent children and faculty at a Connecticut elementary school challenges our faith in a god who cares for us.

Over the course of my conversations with Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard and Tillich, our working definition of faith has shifted away from nouns and deeper into verbs. Faith is something much more fundamental to life than the orthodox doctrines we may subscribe to, or our willingness to suspend critical judgment and honest skepticism in their defense. Faith is about letting go – but not letting go of intuition, common sense, and reason for the sake of believing something passed down by religious tradition.

Instead, we release ourselves to the real presence of mystery.

But how does this translate into life – especially when a tragedy like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting upsets our confidence in the security and order of things? In such times, religious people struggle to connect the horror and loss somehow to god. God is (supposed to be) in control, everything (presumably) happens for a reason, and in a moral universe (like ours) people get what they deserve. If these things are true, how can we find our way through this calamity?

Here’s how it typically spins out. Those innocent children and school faculty are now with god in heaven, and Adam Lanza is in hell where he belongs. This doesn’t answer why the innocent had to suffer and be taken prematurely from life here, but at least it restores the moral balance – or better, our need for moral balance.

The explanation continues. This senseless tragedy lacks any meaning and purpose only because we have a very limited perspective on life events. In reality, everything happens for a reason. Religious people don’t take the same angle on the puzzle as science, however. Empirical science is based on the assumption that every event has a cause, or rather many lines of causality behind it. But theological orthodoxy looks ahead rather than behind, searching for a greater purpose working itself out through the (only) apparently random events of life. Just because you can’t discern the purpose from where you stand doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

One more step. This reason or purpose moving everything along is not mere fate, but the intelligent will of a personal god. Thankfully nothing happens outside of god’s control, and the reasons behind everything that happens to us are god’s reasons, god’s purpose. God wanted those first-graders with him in heaven and not with their families on earth – so that’s why it happened.

Appalling? Yes. But again, it’s only because you can’t fully know the mind of god. All of us want to hang on to this life, to keep what is ours. On this side of things loss can be insufferable. But just think what glory awaits the faithful. Just believe, and stop asking questions.

Let’s try a different approach.

People don’t get what they deserve – either in this life or in the next. The universe isn’t moral. Bad things happen to good people, and bad people get away with doing terrible things. What happened in Newtown was horrible, an unfathomable evil.

The mass murder of innocent children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School didn’t happen for a reason. While the various lines of causality leading up to it will be investigated and some of them made clear, there is no higher purpose that can justify the violence and blood-shed. Not everything that happens happens for a reason. Some events are simply absurd, without inherent meaning or greater purpose. A person of faith can believe this.

And what about that god who’s in control of everything – who either caused the events to unfold as they did (the hardline stance) or allowed them to happen (the softer version)? We must remember that this god is the invention of our mythological imagination. No matter how passionate and persuasive true believers may be, no one has ever encountered or been in communication with the mythological god – ever. He lives only in our myths. He didn’t cause or allow the school shooting. He doesn’t have a greater purpose that made it necessary to end the earthly lives of eighteen first-graders. He didn’t, and doesn’t, because he isn’t.

With all of that said, and after every theological explanation has been exhausted and thrown aside, there is a real presence that awaits to be found in the midst of all the grief and anguish. The comfort will not come when the question of why god caused/allowed this to happen has been answered, but when we start asking a far better and more relevant question: Where is God in all of this? (I’ve capitalized the word to signal my use of it as a reference to the real presence of mystery at the heart of our human experience.)

God is in the pain. God is in the absence. God is in the doubts. God is broken and given to the bereaved families as consolation, solidarity, compassion and support. God is in the community that gathers around the loss, remembers the victims, and renews its faith – one day at a time.


Posted by on December 16, 2012 in Timely and Random


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