A talk, April 17, 2016 at Journeys, a weekly gathering of spiritual seekers in Estes Park, Colorado.
Here at Journeys we explore matters of faith. For the most part, we do this from what we would call a progressive Christian perspective. We take the primarily Christian faith concepts we have grown up with and we ask out loud our honest questions about what seems real, what does not, and what we, as maturing adults, actually believe. And we take away some thoughts and life applications about these things. It is good to be in a trusting company of humans where this can happen.
But there is always an unseen elephant in the room – or maybe there isn’t. Our faith is rooted in a presupposition that there is an ultimate cause – something we have chosen to call God. As Christians in America, we grew up calling God “Father.” Jesus was the son of God – somehow in a different way than we are. Yet we learned that we were created in the image of God. These concepts, whether we are comfortable with them or not, are rooted deeply in our collective psyche and its expression in our culture.
On the flip side, we grew up in an era where some philosophers and theologians dared to say out loud that God is dead. In fact, as early as 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
— Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann as quoted in Wikipedia
Many of us remember, exactly fifty years ago this week, the stark red letters on the pitch black background of the April 8, 1966 issue of Time magazine: “Is God Dead?” As an eighth grader, I remember being shaken significantly by this, too young to explore, process or absorb it with sufficient personal confidence or grounding.
While the conversation was much more nuanced, this seemed, at least to me at the time, the ultimate despairing triumph of science over religion. It was the penultimate question and thought of the twentieth century, when the explosion of the material seemed at last to have built and nailed shut the lid on the coffin of superstition.
In fact, I have often felt that the only legitimate reality left standing at the end of the twentieth century was a question mark. The gravity of it all is summed up well in J. Robert Oppenheimer’s famous quote of the Bhagavad Gita as he watched the explosion of the first atomic bomb: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Not being able, as a 13-year-old, to deal adequately with all of this, I am sure that I chose to repress the question. But we all know what happens with repression. The tadpole shoved under the surface of the vast pond of consciousness still becomes the frog, and grows and grows until it ultimately breaks back through the surface with a size and force that will not be denied.
And it is the re-emergence of this monster frog in later life that has given me – given us – the courage and freedom to make these statements, to raise these questions, opening the door to a rich garden of spiritual exploration. For better or worse, without these statements and events, we would not likely be here doing what we do and having this particular discussion.
So here we are, living the questions. And today the question is, “What is God?”, or even more bluntly, “Is God?” You’ll be shocked, I am certain, to learn that I have some thoughts about that.
And here is my basic position. God is the thoughts we project onto big mystery. I’ll say that again. God is the thoughts we project onto big mystery.
Working within the limits of our consciousness, there is really not much else we can say. In every tradition, God, while made metaphor and personified, is ultimately beyond thought and language. For each of us, then, that makes God a choice – a matter of belief or disbelief. Proof positive and complete definition are simply not possible.
It has always been this way. People in every culture have wrestled with meaning within the limits of knowledge. And the result of that wrestling has always been a concept of something bigger and other that contributed form and direction for personal and social life. We need not criticize. Rather, it is important to realize that for all time, we have been alternately creating God and then killing our creation when it no longer fits plausibly with our current context. And then we birth God anew.
Emily Dickinson says it well in the closing line of her poem, “This World is Not Conclusion”: “Narcotics cannot still the tooth that nibbles at the soul”.
So let’s have at it.
First of all, let me say that I choose to believe. What I mean by that is I choose to believe in something rather than nothing. Why? I’m not entirely sure. I think in large part I do so because I like the way my life works in that orientation. But choosing to believe begs the question, “What do I believe; what do I believe about God?”. In my writing on spirituality, I generally shy away from using the term God because of the longstanding Old Man Judging Father in the Sky image conjured by the word in our Western world. Instead, I tend to use a series of words, “Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source.”
Let’s take that apart.
Creator implies action. Nearly all world religious traditions view God as creator. Some people, particularly those we have labeled deists, speculate that God set things in motion and then stepped back, letting natural law and evolution take their course. God observes, if paying much attention at all, from a very great distance. We are essentially on our own to figure out the path forward within the confines of our consciousness. As the classes I was not able to attend here last summer described, some of the founders of our nation were deists and not at all the kind of evangelicals that want to “take back our country for God.”
Others, called theists, also view God as having created or set things in motion. But they differ from deists in that they believe that God, on an ongoing basis, intervenes to straighten things out. This has been the general orientation of Western religion. God created, we messed up, God intervenes. It is relational, but primarily in the manner of a corrective or redemptive relationship. We petition God for intervention. Sometimes God’s intervention comes also on its own, as help or judgment. Theism, of course, is the dominant position of traditional Christianity. It is the concept we were taught as children and remains deeply rooted in our collective Western psyche.
The Bible says we are made in the image of God. While I believe that to be true, the theistic God of the Bible seems more to be made in the anthropomorphic image of us. We made a big male powerhouse and put him in charge of everyone, especially the women and children.
In truth, it is our discomfort with this deeply rooted theistic concept that brings us to this room every Sunday morning. We no longer accept the theistic requirements of an anthropomorphized male God and we struggle mightily with the concepts of the fall of humanity and the resulting requirement of blood atonement.
In that regard, most of us actually fall to some extent under another label. In terms of the traditional Judeo-Christian theistic God, we are a-theists, atheists, not theists. That is a term that made us shudder in our youth. It is the horrible and evil “yes” in answer to the question, “Is God dead?”. And in reality, the theistic God of our older traditions is, beyond occasional metaphorical value, dead.
Abandoning traditional theism, I was happy to encounter another label that, insofar as I actually understand it, works much better for me. The label is panentheism.
Panentheism is the belief that the something we call God encompasses, interpenetrates and is yet greater and other than the universe. The word sounds like the more common term, pantheism, but it is much more expansive. They should not be confused. The pantheist sees God in nature, in the physical universe, and that’s pretty much that. The panentheist says there is always more, with limitless attributes of every kind.
The forest sages of the Upanishads, part of the wisdom literature of ancient India, were panentheists. They labeled this Creator the Self – capital “S” Self – which they described as the immanent, transcendent and essential reality of everything. Creation emanates from and is the expression of this Self. Creation returns to the Self. Creation is Self as action. Self is. Self does. Self is our true personal and transpersonal reality. Science is our discovery, our observation of the Self in action.
From The Isha Upanishad, as translated by Eknath Easwaran:
The Self is one. Ever still, the Self is
Swifter than thought, swifter than the senses.
Though motionless, he outruns all pursuit.
Without the Self, never could life exist.
In the panentheistic view, we are actually part of God – this Self of the Upanishads – creating. Some people say that we co-create, but that implies separation. In panentheism, we uni-create. We one-create. We are not all of God, but we are certainly part of God. We think. We move. And in that very thought and motion, a new world appears that did not exist only moments before. We one-create in every breath, every thought, every step. And that is why the chosen nature of each breath, each thought, each step is so important.
God – this Self – is Creator. I believe that when I trust my at-one-ment with God, the great “Is”, the great “I am”, actually works and does and creates as one with me. I am an active part of the unfolding creative activity of God. I ride the joyous wave of emanation into the void. Wow!
God is Creator.
Spirit implies conscious but not concrete connection. Spirit is how we experience God. We feel, we intuit, we sense synchronicity. Spirit is Jung’s vast unconscious, the ocean of archetypes bubbling beneath our waking surface. It breaks through in dreams and moves in our intuition and creativity. Spirit might be called the “how” of God’s action. We are touched and infused, we are activated by Spirit.
As a panentheist, I believe in God as Spirit. For me, that means I have a huge trust in God acting in and through me whenever I am not deluded by my little false separated ego-self. The Upanishads distinguish clearly between the lie of separation and isolation by contrasting, over and over, this small “s” ego self with capital “S” true self. From The Katha Upanishad:
In the secret cave of the heart, two are
Seated by life’s fountain. The separate ego
Drinks of the sweet and bitter stuff,
Liking the sweet, disliking the bitter,
While the supreme Self drinks sweet and bitter
Neither liking this nor disliking that.
The ego gropes in darkness, while the Self
Lives in light. So declare the illumined sages . . .
Paul, in the Christian scriptures, quotes a Greek poet, describing this Self as the one in whom “we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28 NRSV)
In my life I experience Spirit as intuition and revelation, as unexpected insight and the beauty of unfolding relationship. I see the action of Spirit most clearly when I look over my shoulder and observe the path of life – the nudging, the encounters, the crashes and lessons learned, the blessing of redemptive healing and the sense of direction that all add up to the person I am. And I rest in trust, in the presence, fullness, loving care and direction of that Spirit, for all that I will become.
God is Spirit.
Mind is the conscious aspect of God – of this capital “S” Self. Mind is awareness, the ability to see and to perceive. Mind is the way we experience. It is language and its manipulation. It is the Word from which everything springs. Mind processes all. Mind is the mill of creation. Isolated mind is monkey-mind, full of anxiety, fear and distraction. Connected Mind is the pure joy of essential experience, the flow of creative ideas and the choice to act with truth and compassion.
The Buddhists capture Mind in the now popular term “mindfulness.” The wise Buddhist priest, teacher and writer Thich Nhat Hanh urges us to mindfulness in his many books, calling us to undisturbed awareness of the present moment.
Reflecting on the Eucharist in his book, Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh says:
The practice of the Eucharist is a practice of awareness. When Jesus broke the bread and shared it with his disciples, he said, “Eat this. This is my flesh.” He knew that if his disciples would eat one piece of bread in mindfulness, they would have real life. In their daily lives, they may have eaten their bread in forgetfulness, so the bread was not real bread at all; it was a ghost. In our daily lives, we may see the people around us, but if we lack mindfulness, they are just phantoms, they are not real people, and we ourselves are also ghosts. Practicing mindfulness enables us to become a real person. When we are a real person, we see real people around us, and life is present in all its richness.
We live within the construct of our limited small “m” mind, bounded by the capabilities of our sense organs. Our eye sees the world differently than the eye of an eagle, or of a honeybee. Yet we believe that what we see and feel is what is, exactly and in totality.
The real temptation of the Garden of Eden was the temptation to believe that our individual mind is all, that the small “s” isolated self that we perceive and the world we experience around it is the sum total of existence. That is a fearsome perspective. When I stay stuck just in small mind, I fear for my life. There is never enough to satisfy me and never enough protection. Lust, greed, anger and violence are the natural responses.
When I live in mindfulness, I am aware of my connection to all around me. All that is. And I rest in trust even as I move into the unknown.
God is Mind. God is the practice of mindfulness.
Source is the alpha and the omega, the eternal continuity, the singularity and totality of God. It is the very point and location, the wellspring of creation – the place where nothing becomes something, where something becomes other. It is the place to which the waters return after they have exhausted the work of gravity and evaporated into the wind. Source is the eternal circle, where any point is the beginning of something and the end of something else, where truly there are no beginning, no middle and no end. Source is the richness of everything beyond imagination, the bottomless shopping bag of creation.
Think of Source as both the center and the perimeter of a spinning wheel. At the absolute center, there is complete stillness. Theoretically there must be this stillness because the top of the wheel above is moving in one direction, while the bottom of the wheel below is moving at the same speed in the opposite direction. Source is that still center of the wheel.
And source is the perimeter, the place where the spinning wheel meets the road. When a wheel is rolling down the road, there is actually no movement whatsoever at the place where the wheel touches the pavement. Stillness in motion, something from nothing.
Source is the infinite smallness and vastness of all that is – the particle we will eventually observe that, acting with energy, makes up the Higgs Boson; and the endless expanse we may speculate beyond the perimeter of the known universe.
Again from The Upanishads, a sort of benediction of Source:
All this is full. All that is full.
From fullness, fullness comes.
When fullness is taken from fullness,
Fullness still remains.
God is Source.
So there you have it, my projection onto big mystery. Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source. I’ve gone and done it – made God in the image I want – made myself in the image of God. Just another human’s elephant. But I like my elephant. I feel safe in its presence. It guides my path when I trust and follow it. It leads me by still waters and restores my soul.
Sometimes I catch glimpses of it. It is alive in the gift of relationship with Leonor. I hear it in the ripple of water over stone in the Fall River. I share it in the breath of conversation together here in this room. I look over my shoulder, I stand in the present, I trust and become the road ahead. Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source.
All this is full. All that is full.
From fullness, fullness comes.
When fullness is taken from fullness,
Fullness still remains.
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti
© Jerry S Kennell, Two Trees in the Garden. Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.
Jerry Kennell provides spiritual direction in person and by Skype at Two Trees Center for Spiritual Development. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone or text to (970) 217-6078. Click FOLLOW in the upper left menu bar to be notified of future posts.