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.