Monday, January 2, 2012

God is impermanence (the wrath of God)

This is part of a series reflecting on God-talk and Buddhist terminology. It is an opening to dialogue, not a final word on the subject.

We fear impermanence because we try to construct a stable environment for our bodies, hearts and minds out of conditioned (and therefore ephemeral) things; yet impermanence tells us that these things produced by caused and effect are like illusions and cannot be the basis of lasting contentment. The Gospels teach that we must build upon solid rock rather than shifting sand. There are many examples of this notion in the Buddhist sutras and the Bible.

There is also talk in the Bible about the wrath of God, which is tied to God's righteousness, and in the Psalms there are images of mountains, rivers and kingdoms trembling and even melting in the presence of God. (The seen at the end of the Raiders of the Lost Ark comes to mind.) In Second Book of Kings, a great wind, an earthquake and a fire precede the presence of God when Elijah is hiding in a cave, and this imagery is seen again in the Psalms. Even Jesus says his presence won't bring peace but conflict.

Well, that sounds kind of awful, doesn't it? Isn't Jesus the prince of peace? And how could a Buddhist ever sympathize with any of this? The mind boggles and the heart sinks.

But let's ask ourselves, what does happen when we try to build or sense of self and our happiness on conditioned things? Are there no consequences for this? And what exactly might we mean by talking about the presence of God? Why is it sometimes considered to be so destructive and violent and at other times so healing and peaceful? Is there some truth to The Onion's claim that God suffers from bipolar disorder?

An important thing to keep in mind for this series is that theists personify things that Buddhist do not. Just as we saw with karma and dharma, God's wrath is better understood from a non-theistic perspective by making it impersonal. Think of it as the consequences of ignoring dharma and karma. You reap what you sow, and when what you build on sand, especially the quicksand of greed, hatred and ignorance, the subsequent collapse and destruction and destruction are inevitable.

To expand on that, consider a Buddhist passage:

Before Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. During Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers. After Zen, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.
There is a transformation here, just as there is when we read in one Psalm that in the presence of God the mountains and hills are rejoicing and clapping their hands and in another they are melting. The Bible, especially the Psalms, tends to use extremely powerful and dynamic imagery.

But even given whatever superstitions one may be tempted to ascribe to the Psalmists, the Old Testament tradition clearly included those who did not really see God as anthropomorphic, and even those who did would have recognized the symbolic nature of these poetic depictions of mountains. The Psalms, primarily poems and songs, capture the dynamic of what the Psalmist is experiencing.

So what is up with melting mountains and hills that jump and skip for joy? There is no one single answer, because deconstructing poetic and allegorical images always leaves it less than what it was. But from the view of impermanence, we can give a bit of a cipher by thinking about how we subjectively create our experience of reality. This is expressed in the Buddhist image as well. But Buddhism also teaches us that we project our ego onto everything we encounter so that we end up not really "seeing" the mountains as they really are.

So, what happens when the light of ultimate truth, of seeing things as they really are, begins to break into our worldview? It begins to melt like snow in the hot sun. It's impermanence is revealed. Of course, there are different ways we can react, but fear and despair and doubt are high up on the list. Do we really want our lesser self, our limited ego, to be displaced from the center the universe, from the seat of creator? Whether we personify the interdependent cycle of form and emptiness or not, it is still unsettling to be put in our place. We may feel, especially if we do personify the reality behind this cycle in our understanding or depiction of it, that we are being attacked or assaulted.

This is the wrath of God, which is closely bound up with karma and the righteousness of God. Whenever a person or group in the Bible turns away from God, i.e. turns away from the deep truth of their being, they turn back to their limited egos as the center and creator of the universe and trying to find security through conditioned things. This inevitably ends in God's wrath, in the folly and futility of defying impermanence. The Psalmist talks about how technology, political power, and other things are unreliable in the time of trial. How the heavens and earth are like garments that God tries on and which wear out. How like a flower or blade of glass or puff of wind human existence is. Impermanence indeed.

Lest you think there is still no basis for this kind of comparison, keep in mind that God's wrath is often compared to these same things (throwing dead vines, grass, or flowers into furnace, for example) and often in the same passages. It is generally understood that when Jesus says he came to bring division rather than peace, he meant that he knew his message would be upsetting to those who felt secure in their egocentric realities. The old heaven and earth must pass away. This is seen in the Book of Revelation as well, which is widely abused and misused because it is an apocalyptic style of writing which is even more intense than the Psalms.

Clark Strand, former Buddhist monk and organizer of a group which uses the stories of the Bible as koans for meditation and reflection, picks up on this theme in his book How to Believe in God. Following his research into the various interpretations of John's Revelation and is own experience with the text, he comes to see it as a reflection of the interior landscape, both of a single human and humanity collectively. There are various trials and tribulations, and God's wrath is poured out. Those who persevere, not through strength or cleverness, but by faith, are reborn as God enters the new Jerusalem. It is a powerful image of union with God, or, with an dawning awareness of ones union with God.

We can compare the horsemen of the Apocalypse to the story of the four kinds of horses, a parable attributed to the Buddha. While some may hear the Dharma and strive to seek enlightenment right away (the first apocalytpic rider is often thought to correspond to Christ spreading the Gospel), others may wait until they are motivated by experiencing the threat or reality of violence (War), scarcity (Famine) or Death itself. This is possible why it made sense in popular representations to actually make disease (Pestilence) the fourth horseman.

And what of our reaction? Some, when faced with the collapse of their egocentric reality, are humbled and through this humility, they are open to new insights and possibilities. Others become embittered, clinging to the wreckage of their shattered visions. There is indeed a wailing and a gnashing of teeth, and a war against God. But not in any conventional sense, and not necessarily in any fully conscious sense. Of course, this is just as futile.

Now, the tricky question is, what does the image of the death of these people mean? Why are they cast into the lake of fire? For many in the Christian tradition and in the Jewish tradition which preceded it, this is about an anthropomorphic God destroying and punishing his enemies, end of story. Be sure you are the winning team. But if we follow the theme developed here, that in nonsensical. Buddhists have no problem talking about the hell realms, they just don't see them as permanent or imposed by some cosmic judge. Yet there are parts of Christianity which also see Hell in much the same way, again, except for the personification aspect, especially related to the disposition of karmic effects.

In fact, for me, it is the personification that really causes the most problems with the notion of God's wrath--the idea that God either must do something or wants something that would hurt people. I've heard many analogies, often flawed and clumsy, of God as a loving yet stern father who must at times punish and chastise his wayward children. Yet whenever Jesus, who would have been shaped by the Torah, the Psalms, and the Old Testament prophets, uses the image of the father or shepherd in the opposite way, as the parables of the lost sheep and the prodigal son attest.

In the end, the wrath of God, the discomfort of impermanence, is a passing thing. This is a recurrent theme in the Bible as well. And the mountains are once again mountains, the rivers are once again rivers, the heavens are once again the heavens, and the earth is once again the earth.


  1. I have grave doubts about Samsaric gods:

  2. The reference here is to those instances where "God" refers to that which encompasses form and no-form, the unseen source which everywhere seen, akin to emptiness, Buddha-nature, or Dharmakaya in Buddhism.


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