Friday, December 30, 2011

God, bad and ugly

English: One of the finest forms of creations ...
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This is the fourth and final part of a long essay. Parts one and two and three are also available.

If we look at religion beyond the caricatures and stereotypes of ignorance and intolerance, acknowledging that these are based on very vocal and visible religious institutions and individuals, then we can admit that these are part of what religion can become without assuming that this is the truest or most revealing part of what religion is. (We might also see that prophets and other religious figures were generally combating this tendency toward religious fanaticism, but again, let's leave that for your own investigation.)

We can look at the communally artistic way that religion or the religious aspects of culture deal with the most profound existential dilemmas facing our curiously sentient species and ask what value there may be in exploring these questions by weaving them into a shared tapestry of meaning and social affiliation.

We can speculate about the human (or at least the Western) tendency to organize our perception and behavior (and thus our explanations and cultural constructions) along an axis with freedom, ambiguity and uncertainty on one end and structure control and clarity on the other. Might this also apply to our notions of spirituality and religion when it comes to the aspects of our cultural systems that deal with major existential questions?

We can allow for the possibility that the questions and concerns driving nonbeliever and the irreligious are not so different from those who seek God or engage in religious activities. Or even that there may be a useful dialogue, if not a degree of synthesis, available to such seemingly divergent perspectives.

And still we can ask, how exactly does God fit into all of this? 

Many scholars more informed and more intelligent than myself have written about the the questions provoked by trying to understand what is behind the cultural, psychological and historical construction known as "God". I do not claim to be a theologian or well-versed in the work of such individuals.

On the other hand, I have written about the topic because it is so fascinating.

Consider the following statements for a moment, even if they do not fit with your usual preconceptions:

We don't believe in God.

We don't know there is a God.

We seek God.

This kind of thinking is important, just as important as when the philosopher Paul Tillich wrote that God does not exist. He was reacting to how God had been conceptualized, but he was not saying that God is not real. Rather, God was the only truly real thing. God was too vast, too pervasive--too real--to be thought of as a phenomenon, whether that phenomenon was an object, force, person, etc. God was all, in all, above and below all. Basically, God exploded all of our human categories, yet we God gave rise to that which exists, to meaning, and to purpose. Not as an extrinsic creator, but as the source of the very meaning and interconnection which allowed "things" and "people" to exist and cohere in the first place.

This makes God much more alien and familiar, transcendent and immanent, personal and impersonal, than any mere idol of the mind, whether that idol was expressed in wood, stone, metal, paint, music, dance, or literature. These things could only point to God, to the object of ultimate concern, to the ground of all being; but they could never fully capture or limit God. The idea was not to make God even more of an abstraction, even less relevant to the everyday world of appearances dominated by the extremely persuasive theory of materialism, but to to point along with other apophatic and even wordless traditions to that which is hidden by its over-obviousness within that world of appearances.

In a similar fashion, consider the notion that one doesn't believe in God. As I've written before, any God you can choose to accept or reject is not really God, but a notion of God which is on its way to becoming a false idol. Believe in this usage covers both the notion of accepting or rejecting an intellectual proposition as well as the more affective, or emotional, idea of trusting deeply in something. Yet many contemplatives and mystics, often referring to the language of St. John of the Cross, talk of a dark night of the soul in which all intellectual and sentimental supports are removed or become unsatisfactory.

This should be no surprise if we take a Tillichian notion of God (which has forerunners throughout the history of theology) seriously, as one would have to go to the most naked and direct experience of the truth of one's reality to find the fullest possible awareness of such a God, a truth beyond all private notions and pretense. Of course, even this must  be a somewhat indirect and incomplete awareness since one has no frame of reference with which to look at the totality of such a God except; instead one would rely on the image of God as reflected in God's various expressions, including oneself.

This also fits with the idea that we don't know that there is a God, if such a God is beyond knowing. We can sense an interdependence of all things on a common source, which may or may not be deified in the views of some, but the subtle trick here is that when we think "There is a God!" we automatically have some notion of what God is and what that means, like coming up with a solution to a problem. Yet "God" cannot be solved. One could point to definitions of belief and knowing to suggest that it is, on some level, possible to believe in God or to know there is a God, but that misses the point. God is too real to be collapsed into the limited models and categories of the human mind, to be an object of the mind, even an object of belief or knowing.

And this bring us then to the idea that God is something we seek. God is the compelling force behind our deeper motivations, behind the patterns of psychology and physics, the essential drive of our nature and nature at larger. Of course, this could simply be a result of some fundamental aspect of consciousness formation in the brain, wherein our basic sense of reality and the construction of our most core worldview, the recreation of an "outer" objective reality as an "inner" subjective reality. It's true, or as much as we can verify it seems true, that what we take to be real, every sensation, feeling, perception--it is all a filtered and processed and biased projection of whatever is actually happening outside of our skulls.

That in turn means that whatever produces our root consciousness, whatever lurks beneath and serves as the platform for our deepest levels of awareness, even in the recesses of our subconscious mind--that which gives any notion or recognition of sentient awareness--could in fact also be what we are detecting when we seek the ground of being or the focus of our ultimate concern through prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Perhaps God is not something external to the human being, but essential to the human mind, the most basic code for programming our very existence. Because if we lack any awareness on any level and its necessary nest of perceptions and constructed assumptions, it is difficult to say we exist at all. Our subjective awareness, however primal, is the root of our being. God could be the name for the source of this awareness and how and why it takes a peculiarly and predictably human shape.

It is also possible that our individual subject experiences of consciousness are merely localized expressions of an infinitely vast field of awareness, which does not really contradict the previous hypothesis but expands it. Neither of these possibilities can be directly tested with the human mind because we can't seem to find a way to get outside of the human mind for a more objective perspective. But in a way, it doesn't matter.

It doesn't matter because either way, we are talking about something fundamental to our very natures. Whether that nature is simply a shared experience of an subjectively existing awareness or the shared experience of an objectively existing awareness, the methods for exploring and fulfilling this profound human experience, through prayer, meditation, and contemplation, as well as translating the insights of this shared experience, through communal forms of narratives and symbolic action, find an expression in all human cultures.

Yes, the traditions and institutions which shape and preserve these methods and insights can be corrupted, exploited, and otherwise abused. Yes, the particular collective experiences forming the history of a particular group will greatly influence the form and emphasis of their narratives and symbolic actions, which means that one's own experiences may not resonate as well with some religions as with others. And we could go on. But there is a kind of bottom line here about our shared humanity and our inherently religious nature, and yes, God does have something to do with it, for better or worse.
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