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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Notion of God

A good friend recently said, after reading my essays on religion and ethics, that my god is like that of the "Godless Capitalists and their state religion." My god, he said is "reason, rationality, and the ability to think out thoughts that are grand, just, all embracing, capable of growth and development, inviting others to enter and converse, politically correct, culturally acceptable, succinct, respectful, tolerant, fairly clear, and desiring acceptability."

Mine is a god "without any discussion of God, a world unto itself that is unreal and will never come to be because there are too many Taliban out there to allow its simple unspoiled existence." My god, he said, is as "faceless as idols and yet is a mirror reflection but afraid of the deeper heart that must be constantly evolving" and is "just as human as what Adam and Eve tried to construct." "And in the rising sea, fading coral, vanishing wildlife, and surging tide of have-nots clamoring at the tide of billionaires," my god "will breathe its last, because to put it simply, it is mortal and is too fearful to accept morality -- and surrender to a Higher Power."

In his assessment I find a very close unity with him in intent (or what philosophers call "intentionality" meaning existential direction or even vocation), though a clear disagreement in expression. To me, the former is much more important than the latter. I shout my solidarity with his intent and want to continue to engage him in our common directionality,  especially in dethroning the gods that now rule our culture, economy, and politics.  However, I first need to assure him that what he has described is not my god even though I do affirm many of the attributes he articulates.

I try not to have a god though I know that trying doesn't make me godless.  The struggle against the idols and illusions of our world never ends. But I generally have ceased God-talk because God is a symbol in a narrative that I have found has bad (even if unintended) consequences. That doesn't make me an atheist. Both theism (as mono or poly) and atheism are narratives that many have found useful over the ages in giving them a sense of meaning and therefore endurance in the trials of life. But when they become fixed doctrines with absolute symbols and defined rituals to which others must convert, I have no more patience with them.

With people for whom God-talk is still important, I sometimes employ the language of "Spirit of Love" or "Meaning of Life" or "Transcendent Unity." But even those terms can imply some Being out-there, all-powerful and all-knowing, who commands obedience, submission, surrender, and the acceptance of the truth He has revealed, which is written, interpreted, and managed by special representatives. That is the narrative I reject. It is a narrative that often sanctifies classes and autocracy, that rationalizes extraordinary clans, nations, and institutions, that puts responsibility for the discovery and creation of meaning outside the human collaborative, and that legitimates a few enlightened ones to call the shots.  (Terry Prachett in his "Discworld" series does a masterful job of dealing with this narrative; but I think that calls for a separate reflection.)

My meaning narrative (or, if you will, notion of God) is evolving. One key point in its evolution I recall was a series of sittings with Clarence Liu who was then a priest and vicar general for the Catholic Diocese of Honolulu and Rashi Tenoye, head of the Zen Dojo in Kalihi Valley and our sensei. Zen Buddhism is neither theistic nor atheistic, but a practice of sitting, breathing, meditating to quiet the brain chatter and open one's self for an encounter with -- and here you can name it if you want -- Spirit, Reality, Love, Wholeness, God, Interconnection with All, Universe, Singularity. Together the three of us read Meister Eckhart and discussed his illogical poetic expressions from Christian Mystic and Mahayana Buddhist perspectives.

I experienced that, through our words in sentences and stories, we can get back to the very act of speaking that defines us all and from which all the diverse words, sentences, stories emanate. That creative act of authentic speech at the very point of initiation reveals itself as not-words, not-expressions, not-symbols as words, expressions, symbols are being uttered. This singularity prior to, but simultaneous with, symbolic expression including speech, art, science, logic, philosophy is for me the point of connection with the All, Nothingness, the Transcendent, the Divine. The narratives, the koans, the rituals, the art and all the symbolic expressions that give meaning to the world originate here and now and with--the point of presence. This is the connecting point between humanity and divinity or of divinity in humanity. I learned not to confuse the spoken with the speaking, the symbols with symbolic act,  religion with the religious, and to never, ever accept a doctrine, a truth, a world as done, complete, absolute.

"Transcendence" became meaningful to me as an ongoing activity of innovation by using what has been given to us in order to critique it and pass on to greater understanding. Transcending existence is Lonergan's pure desire to know, Bergson's élan vital, Chardin's growth of consciousness through complexification, Merleau-Ponty's existential intentionality, Ignation spiritual development, Einstein's skepticism, Rifkin's empathic globalization, and so on and on.

I experience the singularity, which continually calls into question what we have just learned and said and which drives us to transcend, as the sense of presence here, now, and with. In everything I say and do, even when I am focused on persons, things, and happenings in the world, I have a background presence of my relationship with space, time, and others in the world which is also a reach for infinity.  It is in this relationship that the notion of God by whatever name appears. It appears in the tension of my existence, the point of contact to the inner and outer, spirit and world, self and other, reason and affection, a primal relationship which is not past nor future, not absolute nor relative, not being nor nothing, not virtual nor real, not image nor reality. It is the singularity where all the formulas and narratives begin and break down, encountered at the very point from and to which thinking and loving, reason and affection, nothingness and reality emerge and return.

My notion of God is the transcending existence that I am and that we are at the point of presence, here, now, with. My meaning narrative is the description of the emergence of being from nothingness that I experience in our journey beyond and before all expressions which I can inchoatively express in psychological and sociological, biological and historical terms. I need not prove an Absolute--like the Objective of Lonergan's pure desire to know, Teilard or Deutsch's Omega Point in evolution, Hegel's End of History, Aristotle's First Cause that winds it up, Calvin's Divine Monitor that rescues it. Nor can I. I need only affirm my and our own transcending existence and keep it activated. My faith surpasses all belief.

[I build my notion of transcending existence on the judgment that all knowledge is symbolic, that our encounter with the world is through symbols--ever complexifying images and models through which we achieve reality, meaning, truth. Imagination is the capacity that defines our species, that allows us to recall the past and map the future, to create a self and form a world, to feel an other and build a community. But that epistemology is matter for another essay.]

My notion of transcending existence is radical, heretical, and treasonous because it calls into question all belief. It undermines the foundations of all institutions. It denies the untouchability of any person, place, thing, society, nation. All culture including its religious content, the economic system by which life and wealth are sustained, and the public realm including its system of government are vulnerable to critique and change. Transcendence is discovered in the stories of revolution and the biographies of revolutionaries in religion, art, science, politics, economics, and philosophy. My notion of God is a stirring to revolutionary action that keeps me from surrendering to higher powers by stirring up power in those in lower ranks--the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the disrespected--to take on those higher powers.

But that too--the call to revolutionary action--is matter for another reflection.