2017-05-05

There Is No God, and She Is Always With You

Something called “Spiritual Atheism” is a growing phenomenon. An internet search will turn up lots of material, and recent books by Chris Stedman (Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious) and Alain de Botton (Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion) also support religion and spirituality without endorsing a traditionally theist, personal God. De Botton argues that atheists, instead of deriding religion should steal from it because
“the world’s religions are packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.”
A decade ago, a spate of books appeared that were grouped together as “The New Atheism.” The new atheists included Sam Harris (The End of Faith, 2004), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell, 2006), Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great, 2007). These books derided belief in God and also despised faith, spirituality, religion, and religious institutions. What we’re now seeing is a New New Atheism that doesn’t want to deride anything. While still disbelieving in God, this New New Atheism values faith, spirituality, and religion.

The idea that there is no God is actually a staple of Christian Theology going back centuries. The 9th-century Christian theologian John Scotus Eriugena, for example, wrote:
“We do not know what God is. God himself doesn’t know what he is because he is not anything. Literally, God is not, because he transcends being.”
Got that? This is a Christian theologian saying that God does not exist. Eriugena also says God isn't nonexistent in the way that, say, unicorns or good mass-market American beer are nonexistent. Rather God transcends the categories of existence and nonexistence, being and nonbeing.

To get a handle on Eriugena’s point, consider the commandment in Exodus and Leviticus prohibiting idolatry. The prohibition may have begun as a practice of tribal identity: “We’re the people who don’t do statues.” It may have started that way, but the ban on idols ended up pointing the Hebrew people toward something important. As a statue is fixed and static and unchanging, a person might also have certain ideas, beliefs, concepts that become fixed and static. The commandment against idols came to be understood as not just about statues but about any concept or thought-pattern that has become fixed and rigid. By abjuring graven images, the Hebrew people were subtly reoriented toward a conception of God as dynamic, unfolding, and always beyond whatever you can imagine, always other than anything you think.

The divine creative movement of the universe is dynamic, changing. Human understanding is ever unfolding. Idolatry means clinging to a fixed, static conception; closing ourselves to new learning. This, I think, is what John Scotus Eriugena was on about. Any time someone says God exists, she has some idea of what this God is that exists. This is problematic because any concept at all, if you’re stuck on it, is an idol. As soon as you have an idea of God – any idea – smash that idol and return to a stance of total openness to whatever the world might present to you without forcing it into one or another of your preconceived conceptual categories.

If you were to sincerely practice living this way, you would find yourself saying a lot of things that contradict other things you’ve said. Congratulations. That means you’re not making idols of your past statements.

“God” might mean community-forming power; love; the greatest source of beauty, mystery, or creativity; the widest or deepest inspiration to gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; origin; any ultimate context and basis for meaning, value, ethics, or commitment; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; or the cosmos. These, too, are concepts that could become idols. By saying “God” we are also saying more than all of these definitions. Or rather, maybe, less.

We’re saying X – while at the same time whispering “but remember, also not X.” By saying “God,” we are invoking a tradition which, for all its abuses and its nonsense, also includes the reminder that all our ideas are inadequate, a tradition which calls us to smash our idols, a tradition that says there is more there than our words can say – so much more that even our truest words are also false to the fullness of the mystery within which we live and breathe and have our being.

There is no God – that is, there is no possible concept that can encapsulate all of the wonder and the paradox that is this dear life – the wonder and the paradox that is directly staring us in the face every moment, saying, “hey you, knock over the idols of what you think you know and wake up.”

Whatever you think you know, this moment has something new and fresh to teach you. Are you listening? Are you looking? Always. For there is no God, and she is always with you -- whispering: “Pay attention.”

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