Going the long way around


A cleric does the “god is complicated” dance, with a large helping of “I’m more sophisticated than they are” thrown in. A doorstep fella asked him if he’d found God yet. Oh how vulgar.

It was the formulation of his question that raised my hackles. It implied that God was a comprehensible being awaiting discovery. Scratch the surface of existence persistently enough and he will be revealed.

Well yes. That would be because people like you are always talking about god – talking about god is your profession! – so it’s really not all that strange that people think you mean something by it. You treat it as a name, so people hear it as a name.

If god is not a comprehensible being, then why don’t you just stop talking about it altogether? Why are you a cleric if you don’t think god is a comprehensible being?

If we envisage God as a person clothed with epithets such as powerful, loving, just, fear-inspiring and omnipotent we are creating a manmade image. Sigmund Freud points this out in his book, The Future of an Illusion. “Religion comprises a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality.” In other words we have an innate tendency to invent the particular God that suits our needs. Ironically this is precisely what the second commandment fulminates against. A paradox lies at the heart of the doorstep caller’s question. The more you claim to know God and attempt to delineate his nature the less likely you are to have hit the bull’s eye.

Well then shut up about it! You can’t have it both ways. If we don’t know what god is, then we should stop endlessly going on and on about it.

It is only possible to escape from this impasse by re-orienteering our thought forms. Faith is not the progressive unearthing of God’s nature but a recognition that he/she is fundamentally unknowable. The signpost points not to growing certainty but towards increasing non-knowing. This is not as outrageous as it seems. An apophatic thread, a belief that the only way to conceive of God is through conceding that he is ineffable, runs throughout Christian history.

Yes but that’s just an elegant way of saying the whole thing was an invention from the beginning and it’s time to recognize that and move on. If god is fundamentally unknowable, then there is no earthly point in using the word. If god is unknowable then maybe it’s a gas, or empty space, or a virus, or a cruel savage demon. If you don’t know, then how can there be such a profession as being a vicar? You’re not a vicar for all the other things you don’t know are you? Why are you a vicar for this one? The [unknown] that has the label “god” – why are you a vicar for it? If you don’t know what it is, why do you call it god?

Is anything left or does this destroy the very fabric of spirituality? What remains is a Quakerlike silence during which we can respond to the numinous, develop our perceptions, hone our morality and enhance our wonder at the staggering complexity of the universe. Instead of ranting at the arbitrariness and high-handed conduct of the God we have invented, it is now possible to rest in a cloud of unknowing which gives us time and space in which to reflect on the fundamental questions of life. Why am I here? How can I best deport myself in this bewildering world?

But you can do that anyway. You don’t need god for it.

Persist and the rewards are immense. There is an exhilarating sense of newfound freedom. It releases us from the burden of kowtowing to the dictates of a holy book and it relieves us of the intellectual difficulties of accepting the dogmatic assertions of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. We are liberated and can follow our own spiritual path. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, spent a lifetime doing just this and found it uncovered an oasis of calmness and peace. “Follow my ways and I will lead you to golden-haired suns, Logos and music, blameless joys, Innocent of questions and beyond answers: For I, Solitude, am thine own self: I, Nothingness, am thy All. I Silence, am thy Amen!” Give it a whirl. I might just free you from the shackles of orthodoxy and kickstart your spiritual life.

I’ve already given it a whirl. I already don’t have the burden of kowtowing to the dictates of a holy book. I already don’t accept the dogmatic assertions of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. I don’t need apophatic theology for that; no one does.

He doesn’t care though, of course. He wants to have it both ways.

Comments

  1. eric says

    It [the question] implied that God was a comprehensible being awaiting discovery.

    The Bible implies that. We skeptics are just pointing out the logical inconsistency between an argument that God is fundamentally unknowable and the Bible’s knowable behavior.

  2. iknklast says

    God is only unknowable because he’s impossible. If it wasn’t for the fact that the God claims defy all logic and consistency, this vicar would think God was knowable. It’s an escape valve. He is well acquainted enough with the arguments against God that he realizes he has no defense, so he retreats to “God is unknowable” “God is mysterious” “God is ineffable”. Well, a lot of people I know assume god is knowable and “effable”…and they know who he is and what he wants. This guy probably also thinks he knows who and what God is, and that’s why he’s a vicar.

    I always find it funny when one Christian begins to sputter at another Christian because they’ve gotten it all wrong…I just stand back and let them blow. It’s better than the circus.

  3. Rodney Nelson says

    Certainly Yahweh and Jesus are portrayed in the Bible as physical beings, having detailed conversations with people, doing miracles and the occasional smiting, and otherwise acting like people with godlike powers.

  4. FresnoBob says

    What is the point of claiming there is some ‘thing’ to be known if the only thing there is to know about it is that it is essentially unknowable?

    Sounds like a text book definition of utterly wasting one’s time.

  5. says

    In other words we have an innate tendency to invent the particular God that suits our needs.

    I love this quote, because this is *exactly* what he’s doing, and he doesn’t even notice. Clearly, he needs an unfathomable god, to defend himself against those pesky skeptics, so that’s what he’s inventing for himself here.

    And I’m sure that when his needs change, when he’s in church talking to talk about what his god wants us to do, he’ll just invent a personal god again.

  6. screechymonkey says

    @5: Not if people are willing to support (with tax-free contributions) your attempts to “study” the unknowable. Of course, if any of them are ever so gauche as to ask for your verifiable findings, then you just accuse them of “scientism.”

  7. Margaret says

    it is now possible to rest in a cloud of unknowing which gives us time and space in which to reflect on the fundamental questions of life

    Sounds like he’s smoking some pretty good stuff. Still, it would do him good to let the cloud of smoke dissipate now and then for at least a glimpse of reality.

  8. mandrellian says

    Modern vicars/pastors/used-god salesmen who publicly exhort apophatic theology always give me the impression that they worship two Gods: one who’s unfathomable and unknowable and whose unfathomability and unknowableness is an opportunity to contemplate one’s orange and embrace the numinous (oh, how I loathe that fucking word); the other is a big ol’ dude who lives beyond space who’ll give you treats after you die (if you like him in the correct way). It entirely depends, of course, upon who’s looking as to which God gets the nod. Nice Mrs Swithins from the village who lost her Fred a few years ago (he was in the War, you know, vicar)? Big friendly treat-dude. The Guardian, with all its hip yooth lefty urban readers? Captain fucking Numinous all the way.

    I could be wrong about this vicar, of course – he could well only be devoted to a nameless formless pseudo-entity whose vacuous nature encourages him to, er, think nice thoughts. But if that’s the case, I can only echo Ophelia and ask “Why are you a vicar to this thing?” Indeed, far and away from being a vicar, why even attain or retain membership in a highly specific sect of a specific religion? Why even be a theist when you more closely resemble a deist?

  9. Lyanna says

    If we don’t know what god is, then we should stop endlessly going on and on about it.

    Now that, I don’t agree with. We should absolutely go on about it—in poetry and art and whatnot.

    Not in politics, and not in ethics, and not in logical argument. The vicar seems to be missing this.

  10. says

    But go on about what, exactly, Lyanna?

    At least part of what I mean (I’m not sure it’s all) is just that we shouldn’t keep talking about “God” in the normal way, as if it named something, when we’ve said we have no idea what it names. So I don’t mean we shouldn’t talk about various subjects and questions related to what people mean by the word. I do mean people who say they don’t know what god is should stop glibly using the word as if they did know. People who don’t know should stop using “God” as a name.

  11. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    As someone almost said:

    Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must go on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on …..

  12. Rodney Nelson says

    Deen #7

    Clearly, he needs an unfathomable god, to defend himself against those pesky skeptics, so that’s what he’s inventing for himself here.

    And I’m sure that when his needs change, when he’s in church talking to talk about what his god wants us to do, he’ll just invent a personal god again.

    I’ve noticed that when talking to atheists and skeptics a lot of theologians trot out an ineffable, essentially deist god whose attributes are difficult to discern. However when talking amongst themselves, many of these same theologians talk about the old geezer with flowing white beard who can be coerced to cure cancer (with the help of large numbers of trained medical and support people) and worries about teenagers masturbating.

  13. Martha says

    If that Guardian column were directed primarily at Megachurch believers taught that God has made them rich because they are so wonderful and that they therefore have no responsibility for others, it wouldn’t bother me one bit. You’re absolutely right that it’s pretty easy just to leave the god part out and arrive at the same conclusions. But if giving everything in life that makes us feel small a name encourages people to explore how best to live a meaningful and moral life, that doesn’t worry me at all. It’s a step in a responsible direction IMO.

    Also, Vicar as public philosopher isn’t an inherently bad role. Making people aware of the tradition of ethics and morality– in a way that produces constructive thinking– is probably a useful public function.

    Alas, I suspect Rodney Nelson (#16) is right and that many of these clerics present another face to their flocks.

  14. Bjarte Foshaug says

    @Deen

    Clearly, he needs an unfathomable god, to defend himself against those pesky skeptics, so that’s what he’s inventing for himself here.

    And I’m sure that when his needs change, when he’s in church talking to talk about what his god wants us to do, he’ll just invent a personal god again.

    Exactly, I think the underlying logic is you can’t be accused of saying anything wrong if you haven’t really said anything at all. Other theists can easily interpret a supernatural, personal creator of the universe into whatever sounds are coming out of the theologian’s mouth, but atheists can’t find anything specific to argue against, and any attempt at doing so can automatically be dismissed as strawmanning (“What you are arguing against is not what I mean by ‘God’.”).

    @Rodney Nelson

    I’ve noticed that when talking to atheists and skeptics a lot of theologians trot out an ineffable, essentially deist god whose attributes are difficult to discern. However when talking amongst themselves, many of these same theologians talk about the old geezer with flowing white beard who can be coerced to cure cancer (with the help of large numbers of trained medical and support people) and worries about teenagers masturbating.

    Or as Greta Christina put’s it, they only believe in the ineffable, abstract, metaphorical, philosophical principle kind of God When Anyone Is Watching.

  15. Bjarte Foshaug says

    If god is fundamentally unknowable, then there is no earthly point in using the word. If god is unknowable then maybe it’s a gas, or empty space, or a virus, or a cruel savage demon. If you don’t know, then how can there be such a profession as being a vicar? You’re not a vicar for all the other things you don’t know are you? Why are you a vicar for this one? The [unknown] that has the label “god” – why are you a vicar for it? If you don’t know what it is, why do you call it god?

    I think modern theology finally allows us to draw some definite conclusions about the nature of “God”:
    1. It’s called “God”.
    2. It doesn’t matter what “it” is as long as you believe in it and call it “God”:
    3. Whatever it is, it’s very, very, very important that you call it “God”, and not “Ogd”, or “Dog”, or any of the other possible arrangement of letters*.
    4. See 1-3.
    ________________________________________________
    * The reasons for this should go without saying unless you’re philosophically unsophisticated.

  16. trazan says

    I prefer listening to Alan Watts and Ram Dass for the “exhilarating sense of newfound freedom” and that sort of things. They are more entertaining.

  17. says

    If god is not a comprehensible being, then why don’t you just stop talking about it altogether?

    Yes, yes, a million times yes! Either the word “god” has a clear, sensible meaning or it doesn’t. If it does, then explain what it is, including relevant evidence for the existence of the thing signified. If it doesn’t, then shut the fuck up.
    If god is simply a term describing your personal wonder at the magnificence of the universe and your lack of understanding of it, then why not simply call it that? Why use a word with so much baggage?

    Why are theologians so averse to the idea of just speaking plain sense? I suspect it may be because then they’d have to admit that they don’t actually believe in god the way the rank-and-file do. They’d have to admit that they’ve been atheists all along. And then they’d likely lose their jobs.

  18. Sastra says

    One underlying problem with these almost-atheist public theologians is that they may not be clear on God, but they are clear on something else: it’s important to not be an atheist. An atheist, see, would not be able to feel and appreciate and experience the numinous, ineffable, unspeakable wonders of an incomprehensible, unknowable Other god which nevertheless manages to inspire a heartfelt belief that it would be a very bad thing to be an atheist.

    I’m not sure that this apophatic theology is on its way to atheism. It almost seems like nothing more than an elaborate defense strategy against it.

  19. sawells says

    My amazing powers of pedantry have been activated! You can’t ask “why are you a vicar for [God]?” because he isn’t a vicar for God, he’s a vicar for his bishop. It’s from the Latin “vicarius” meaning a substitute, as in a vicarious experience. The vicar has the job of standing in for the bishop.

    You may now go back to being right about everything else :) You’d think that “If nothing can be known about a god, how can you know there’s a god at all?” would be sufficient to dismiss all apophatic theology, but no, on and on it goes.

  20. says

    Ohhh! I didn’t know that. Or maybe I probably did at one point, I’ve probably seen it and thus known it for a second or two, but I didn’t absorb it. There’s no one good word for the generic thing – minister, priest, cleric, reverend – so I wobble between different ones. Cool info. Vicar is vicarious.

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