Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hang-ups to seeking God, Part 2: God isn't one of the "gods"

There are some things I would suggest though for the person really seeking God and not just claiming to seek...

1. By using the cliched atheist logic of taking the concept of gods from polytheism and different depictions of God from monotheism and conflating the two and referring all descriptions of the divine as various gods, it may look like you are being culturally relative and theologically impartial whereas anyone objecting to this can be presented as biased. But there is a flaw. Polytheistic gods are seen as manifestations of some higher existence but yet they are represented merely as a super-class of things aside other things. They are the biggest, baddest of the anthropomorphic sentient beings, and collectively they control things like nature, but in the end they have little relevance outside of their sphere of influence. They themselves have origin myths of their birth or creation. They are not trivial, but the question remains, what higher or more expansive existence are they are a manifestation of?

All "gods" in the sense that atheists use the term are in fact human-made. That is no surprise. All terms reflect human mental constructions pointing to some idea or experience. But even the lesser gods of polytheism reflect something humans perceived not only about the world outside of themselves but the world within. Comparative religionists and theologians and philosophers have been through such issues over and over and over. Even the switch to monotheism, which some claim is correlated to a change in food security/means of production/social organization, was a human idea. So what? All religions and descriptions of God are humanity's way of relating their internal and external realities and appreciating the significance of their existence and of existence itself. In animism, ancestor worship, polytheism, and monotheism, these questions are explored and there is a sense of relating back to the whole, to the totality of existence. In animism this totality is reflected in the spirit that is imbued in every object. In ancestor worship and in polytheism is the often unnamed source or creator of the ancestors or the gods - the power and logic that sustains the whole cosmological system. In monotheism, this totality and this sustaining power become the central focus in a unique way.

But other systems in a sense can be thought of as similar to monotheism. For example, in Taoism you have the space or capacity or potential in which reality can rest and from which it emerges and this is the Tao. And the heavens and the Earth are birthed from this. In Buddhism, you have shunyata or emptiness which is in more or less the same role as the Tao and then you have form, or phenomena. Form is really just an expression of emptiness, and emptiness is really just form. In certain "Hindu" systems, there is a similar non-dual duality of Atman and Brahman, the eternal and the individual. In these systems the emphasis is focused on the totality and its sustaining power/source in a somewhat impersonal way, with the Tao being the most impersonal and the Atman/Brahman scenario the least. In each of these systems, however, there are still ancestors and gods. That is because there is still a distinction between certain classes of concerns and how they are represented. The impartiality and integrity of the system is intact as well as sense of humility with such a system being only partially comprehensible to the human mind. Other concerns were addressed by manifestations of this system, i.e. gods and Buddhas and avatars.

In some ways this is similar to ancient Judaism, where angels were often sent from God to be his messengers or to enact his will in the world. There is a sense of a huge gulf between the totality and its sustaining power/source, which is now conceived of us as God (not as "a god") and humans. And yet we keep seeing prophets and others writing that this isn't the case, and that God is near us always, and that God loves us. Monotheism, then, takes down certain ontological barriers and merges what had been separate. The system is more than a "just a person", but isn't less than a person. In fact, what we consider personhood would be reflection or aspect of the divine Person. Yes, the Source is in many ways inscrutable, but it is is not aloof or unapproachable. Jesus took this aspect of Judaism to its fullest flowering, calling God by the term "Abba", which some say in modern parlance is akin to the term "Daddy" - the reference of a little child to a loving father.

Now it might seem that I am suggesting these Asian forms were a middle step to monotheism and not quite as developed, but let me clarify that this is an ignorant, wrong-headed view. If you ask children in the West "Where is God?" they will point outward to the sky, whereas if you ask the same of Eastern children they will point inward toward their hearts. Buddhism, which has a couple millenia on Christ, says that the highest state is experienced as a consciousness of boundless compassion and wisdom, and in the similarly ancient (Hindu text of) the Chandogya Upanishad, we read: "In the center of the castle of Brahman, our own body, there is a small shrine in the form of a lotus-flower, and within that can be found a small space. We should find who dwells there, and we should want to know him. And if anyone asks, 'Who is he who dwells in a small shrine in the form of a lotus-flower in the center of the castle of Brahman? Whom should we want to find and know?' We can answer: 'The little space within the heart is as great as this vast universe. The heavens and the earth are there, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars; fire and lightning and winds are there; and all that now is and all that is not; for the whole universe is in Him and he dwells within our heart.' "

In other words, these traditions (East/West) were coming at the issue from different directions and if we appreciate and make allowances for that in terminology and context they seem to have been coming to many of the same kinds of conclusions. Cultural studies show that in the East perspectives tend to be shaped by a holistic perception and cognition while the West is characterized by a tendency to see things piece-meal, so we can appreciate such differences in approach. And other traditions seemed to have been on a similar track as well. Here is an example from Black Elk, a Holy Man of the Oglala Lakota of the Sioux: "The heart is a sanctuary at the center of which is a little space wherein the Great Spirit dwells, and this is the Eye. This is the Eye of the Great Spirit by which he sees all things, and through which we see Him. If the heart is not pure, the Great Spirit cannot be seen... In order to know the center of the heart where the Great Spirit dwells you must be pure and good... The man who is thus pure contains the Universe in the pocket of his heart."

So, then, just because person describes God as a vengeful, wrathful being that is immature and judgemental and another paints a picture of God as loving and kind, these are not "two gods", but two different depictions of God. Remember, we are talking about the totality and its sustaining power/source. So for polytheism the entire pantheon and its attendant parts and accessories would be that "whole". In monotheism, this "whole" is God. So Zeus versus Yahweh is an inappropriate comparison. In atheism, this "whole" is (as many have described it) a cold impersonal fluke that is bereft of any meaning other than the subjective impressions we project onto it, a system of phenomena and their tendencies that are not in need of any explanation other than causal descriptions.

This is why some folks refer to atheism as a religion - because it is based on a set of metaphysical assumptions that, intentionally or not, by commission or omission, by affirmation or negation, make a claim about the nature of this "whole". Even agnostics either live like there is a God or like there isn't one. The point isn't to argue whether or not atheism should be called a religion, but to properly frame the question of what is being sought or rejected. With that out of the way the other suggestions will go faster...

2. Hence, it isn't really about seeking God, or Buddhanature, etc - at least not with your feet or your intellect. It's about getting to know God. If God creates and sustains all of existence, then you don't have to go anywhere. If, as many traditions hold, we are a part of/participate in the divine, then God can't ever be far from us. That is, the difference between a world with God or without is whether you expect to find God or not. We all know the importance of expectations and other assumptions in shaping how we look at things, at how we perceive reality. We tend to see what we expect to see and ignore or explain away the rest. No one can debate you into making that basic choice to really try living with God.


3. Many people are hung up on why the nature of God or Enlightenment or whatever isn't so obvious to everyone. First, I would send someone back to #2 to think about that a bit more in relation to this question. Let's face it though, with our big brains and imaginations and capacity for self-deception, is it really any wonder that we could over-complicate things to the point that we can't just do what so many traditions advise and sit in peace a just KNOW our connection to all things and that which sustains all things? The general idea expressed by karmic entanglements and by original sin can be reframed for those hung up by the terms. The basic idea is that sentient beings have the capacity to imagine and communicate real and false views and to create choices based on such views. We can be distracted and misled by these views and the feelings the generate.

By not seeing ourselves as being part of an complete, interdependent whole, we A) have a sense of incompleteness deep in our being that we try to fulfill, which can lead us to B) unhealthy cravings for that which we think can fill that hole, and in turn we C) continue to seek fulfillment in ways that in the long run are ineffective. Also, if we fail to see our (the value) of our connections to others, it is that much easier to ignore, abuse or manipulate them in our quest for wholeness. Some even resort to charity, because it makes them feel good about themselves. But their shallowness is exposed when they don't receive the gratitude and recognition they believe they deserve. In the end, it is recognizing we ARE a part of a complete whole and that we are not isolated that is the key to what various traditions label as liberation or salvation. But this requires humility and gratitude.

4. Liberation/salvation - removing the barriers to knowing or fullest selves (and hence a greater appreciation of/insight into God) - is intertwined with true humility and gratitude. If you are seeking humility and gratitude, think of everything that has to happen every day just for you to exist, let alone survive or thrive. Think of all the people that are involved in getting the various items you eat to your store, from the earliest cultivators and hunters to the guy who unloaded the truck and stocked the shelves. Many traditions also tell us to love others as much or moreso than ourselves. That is bound up with humility and gratitude. But for some of us it doesn't get through. Which is why some taught to seek God in the least - that is, among the poor, the sick, those with bad reputations, criminals, and outcasts. It isn't that the rich and privileged don't suffer - some of them may suffer more than the poor! But being among the rejects, not as a savior, or helper, or charity-giver, but as an equal, as a fellow human being, and really getting to know these people. It can turn your understanding of how thing are or how you thought they are on its head. It can screw up your priorities. Some think that such people show us God because they are desperate and need to believe (the old "crutch" argument), but you may just find that this gets things backwards - that because they aren't blinded by many of our distractions they have a clearer view.


*Note, my use of "complete" here, as in "complete whole", doesn't complete as in having exhausted itself or finished some goal; rather it means complete as in meeting our most fundamental needs which can include offering us the challenges necessary for our growth and development.

1 comment:

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