So… I’ve read a lot about it. And this is how I’d sum it up.
Insofar as the world was created, God is that which created it.
This takes, as its basic metaphor, the act of a person setting out to construct something specific, like a painting or a pot.
Insofar as the world was generated, God is that which generated it.
This takes as the basic metaphor a natural process, such as a seed giving rise to a plant.
Insofar as the world has a source, God is that source.
This takes as the basic metaphor the beginning of a river.
Insofar as the world is sustained by something, God is that which sustains it.
The basic metaphor here is the physical phenomenon of holding something in place, like the ground under our feet, or the water under a boat.
Insofar as the world is conceived, God is that which conceives it.
The basic metaphor here is the psychic phenomenon of an idea taking place within a mind.
Insofar as the world has a purpose, God is that purpose… even if perennially deferred, just out of sight.
The metaphor here is our experience of being motivated to do something which we feel is meaningful.
Insofar as the world is being observed, God is the witness.
The metaphor here is the way our senses work (such as sight and sound and self).
Insofar as the world is considered as composed of the relative and particular (i.e. things), God is the Absolute.
That takes as a metaphor our concepts of relative-and-absolute.
Basically, any sentence you construct that has the World as an Object… the Subject of that statement is God.
And the key point here is that the verb… is pretty arbitrary.
You can basically pick whichever one tickles your tummy.
That is the Transcendent conception of God.
God is conceived in contrast to the world.
The flipside to this is an Immanent conception.
God is identified with and as the world itself.
So, God is not something else — It is, in fact, the very existence we observe, embody, and partake in.
And the key point here is that whether you choose to see it as transcendent or immanent is pretty arbitrary.
Whether you wish to split the thing you’re seeing into two layers or not is matter of interpretation, not fact.
If something is viewable both ways, then it’s not really a feature of the “something”; it’s a feature of your viewpoint.
So that is the basic dichotomy through which people think of God: transcendent or immanent.
But we can make others.
God can be conceived as singular — e.g. monotheism.
Or it can be conceived as multiple — e.g. a polytheistic pantheon.
Some see it one way; others see it the others.
God can be conceived as personal or impersonal.
That is, we can think of it like we think of humans, or we can think of it like we think of everything else.
And so on and so forth.
Here’s my first main point.
No matter which of the conceptualizations of God you take…
they all refer to the same thing.
They are all different devices for picking out the same precise… finding a noun here is tricky. The same precise… whatshamacallit. The same phenomenon. The same reality.
But different minds have different conceptual structures, the same way that every body has a different shape, and so will approach it differently.
And yet, despite the smorgasbord of different conceptualizations, we all manage to recognize them as related: this individual mind is trying to grasp at the totality… and it’s still talking to itself while it’s doing that, which means the totality comes out in this flavour.
And here’s the second.
At some point in the failed attempts to precisely conceptualize it this way or that way…
a glimmer of the nature of what you’re dealing with, and its magnitude, begins to dawn on you.
Somewhere down the line… it just… you know… hits you.
So, partly, this is due to the usual effects:
- We can refer to something offhand, or we can stop and try to contemplate it.
We can just say “there are elections taking place today in India” without batting an eyelid… or we can stop and try to think about what “India” actually is: 1.3 billion people — all with experiences as rich and vivid as ours… a host of distinct and overlapping cultures… millennia of history…
And after a while, we stop that, because we realize we cannot grasp it, and return to simply referring to it offhand.
And contemplating God is like contemplating India… but… like…. even more.
- We can try to describe something, or we can experience it.
It’s one thing to try and describe what a strawberry is like. But the experience you’re drawing on to make that description does not, itself, involve description. It’s just… well, what it’s like. There are no words attached, or even (conscious) concepts. But when the situation calls for a description, we can break it down and articulate it in terms of colour, texture, taste, whatever. And, if the situation calls for it… we can to some extent walk that back, and return to the relatively ‘raw’ experience.
Well… it’s kind of like that with God.
You stop talking about it… and go “wait… what is this?”
But it’s a little different. Because there’s such a thing as “not-India”, or “not-a-strawberry”.
You can turn your mind away from India and a strawberry… and onto something else.
But that’s not the case with God.
Once you have started to contemplate it, you realize that it’s involved in anything you will ever encounter — involved in anything that ever was, will be, or can be.
It’s a rather unique moment…
ugh, how to describe it….
…OK, for now:
It’s the mind coming into contact with the conditions of its own existence.
It is the mind’s coming to notice what’s happening right now, beyond the social situation, current activity of interest, and immediate physical sense impressions.
It’s a reversal of the typical course of consciousness: a return to the world as mystery, beyond the scope of any of the particular kinds of sense-making the mind might engage in at one time or another.
It’s the acknowledgement that there is something happening right here, within your own experience, which is beyond your grasp, but which encompasses everything that is, in some sense, in your grasp.
And once you notice that… something… you’d do well if you manage to stick your head back out from under the bedsheets that same day.
…not that you can escape it in your bed… but where else would you run to for cover?
Now, I have a very particular take on how to conceptualize God:
One should not hold to any particular concept of God.
You are a mind which engages in discursive reasoning — and so, it makes all the sense in the world to study some theology to get a handle on the notion. And I certainly prefer some ways of thinking of it to others. But these are all ladders which should be thrown away once they have done their job.
- Firstly, I believe this on intellectual grounds.
I think affirming any one of these conceptions relies on a misunderstanding of the faculty of language and conceptual thinking, and what power it has to capture the nature of our experience — let alone the nature of Nature.
- Secondly, on, shall we say, religious grounds.
My personal take is that believing in a particular theology is blasphemy.
It violates the First Commandment: I am The Lord, your God — you shall have no other gods before me — you shall worship no graven images.
To me, having a particular theology is a form of idolatry of the mind.
It might not physically be engraved in stone; but if it is static, then it is false.
- Thirdly, it is on practical, experiential grounds.
I think that holding to a particular concept is an active impediment.
It puts a stumbling block between your mind and God.
Just like defining a person you’re dealing with as “an X kind of person” prevents you from engaging with who they really are… defining God as anything too particular blinds you to it.
You see your idea of it instead of It.
And God, despite being so overwhelming, is also — somehow — a subtle notion.
An intrinsic part of it is that it isn’t anything in particular — it’s the one thing that isn’t anything in particular.
That makes it very vulnerable to definition; if you try to do that, it’s gone.
…but that’s just me. I am not necessarily advocating you take that same approach (…though I reckon you probably should).
What I am advocating is the viewpoint whereby all differing conceptions of God — though they be completely opposed and contrasting in the realm of language and concepts — are all picking out the same thing.
The way that “David Leon, that arrogant, stuck-up git” and “David Leon, that kindly, saintly, luminous human being” pick out precisely the same thing, even though they’re opposites.
Or the way that Venus is both “the Morning Star” and “the Evening Star”.
The two ideas may be opposites, but the object they’re referring to is identical.
Hence my peppering in of God — Nature — dhamma — Dao — in anything I write.
Each of these notions are fascinatingly particular in their conceptual, cultural, and spatio-temporal differences.
But, to my understanding, their referrent is one.
And that referent, so far as I am familiar with it, defies precise description. Which turns the conceptual plurality around it from an inconvenience into an inevitability.
In stead of a precise definition, it’s looking very much like I’m going to be expending quite a lot of effort in the future trying to gesture at it in various ways. You know, things like:
- God is the elevation of the aesthetic sense to the realm of metaphysics.
- God is the experience of presence itself — and as such, primarily meaningful to the lonely.
God only knows why. As my friend Kulbir mentioned to me recently, Guru Nanak likened talking about God to chewing iron.
At any rate, far more important than how you think about it is how you feel about it.
Resentment is understandable. Gratitude hurts less. Love is the ideal. Awe is a matter of course. Befuddlement should probably qualify as an act of worship.
I usually start with etymology — here, i’m closing with it.
“God” is an English word, derived from the proto-Germanic “ǥuđan”, whose proto-Indo-Eurpoean root “ǵhau(ə)-” meant either “to call” or “to invoke”.
Its Germanic forms were syntactically neuter — genderless — before the encounter with Christinaity masculinized them.
So “God” literally means “the Invoked”.
This word is unexceedably brilliant, and one of the reasons “God” is my preferred name for it.
You see: a word is a way to invoke a specific object or concept.
“Bicycle” invokes a two-wheeled mode of transport.
“Circle” invokes a geometric shape.
“David Leon” invokes me.
So, the word “God” means to invoke… well, that’s it. It just means “to invoke”.
The thing it’s invoking is… well… IT.
If we could be any more precise about it, we would. But we can’t. No name for it could be constant. That’s why the Biblical name for it is unpronounceable.
So that’s where I’ll leave off today.
Every single other word refers to some thing in particular.
A word’s function — its very nature — is to put bounds on the world and pick out a part of it.
The speech-act “things” something — renders it into a specificity, an object, a ‘thing’.
[Even the word “WORLD” does that.
It tries to ‘thing’ everything… and in so doing, cuts it up.
It sections off the experience from the experiencer — the object from the subject…
It sections off all the objects in the world (things) from the sum total of them (the world)…
And it sections off our experience of it from the thing itself — the “real world” is one thing, our experience of it another.
And thus, it in turn separates us from whatever we were in before we called it “world”, which did not feature those distinctions.
How to make our way back to that?
The one word which does the opposite…
the word which refers to that which cannot be ‘thinged’, which cannot be bounded…
the word which goes against the current of language and indicates a way out of the partioned landscape words cause us to inhabit, towards the horizon beyond…
the only truly general, absolutely open-ended word…
So that’s God.
And this sense of defeated frustration is what I get for trying to talk about it.
On which note: Religion involves a bunch of monkeys saying a bunch of things about God, and occasionally doing stuff as a result.
So we’ll discuss that in the next post.