Sunday, 14 April 2013

Troubles With God

I’m always receiving interesting gifts, from all sorts of people. Some are left on my doorstep, some come through the post and still others through the various aspects of the internet. I was sent the following last year, it is by Rabbi Rami Shapiro.

"Atheists One and All

I’m now stuck at O’Hare. New airport; new conversation.

“Do you believe in God?” The fellow asking me this is a Christian minister who overheard me say that I teach religion and Bible at Middle Tennessee State University.
“It depends what you mean by “God.,” I said. “If, for example, you mean a God who has a son, no I don’t believe in God.”
“Then you are an atheist, since there is no God other than God and that means the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
“Fair enough,” I said, “Do you believe in Krishna?”
“The Hindu God?”
“No, the Lord God of the universe, the one true God as described in the Bhagavad Gita.”
“Of course not.”
“Then you, too, are an atheist.”
It never pays to be clever. What I thought was a clear and compelling argument against theological hubris was in fact an invitation to a battle of the gods.
“I’m talking about the God of the Bible,” he said.
“Why is your God more true than someone else’s?
“Because it is the God of the Bible.”
“Why is your Bible better than mine or better than the Gita?”
“Because it is the Word of God.”
“Your God is true because your Bible says he’s true, and your Bible is true because your God says its true.”
“And you don’t see this as circular reasoning?”
“It is simply the truth.”
And that is why I am always wary of truth."

I have similar conversations myself, from time to time; I generally enjoy them, but sometimes I do not. Why don’t I sometimes enjoy them you may well ask? Well because they do not go anywhere. It is very difficult to engage in conversations with people whose minds are snapped shut. It’s that old hubris thing again, people seem so certain about things these days. What troubles me about fundamentalists whether of religion or atheism is that they seem to want to reduce God. When they talk of God they talk of something almost human or something a bit more than human. They seem to reduce life down to some kind of mathematical equation that can either be proven or disproven. The God that people talk about believing or not believing in seems so much less than God, I find most of the conversations a little bit crazy to be honest. It ties people up in knots and leads to arguments often over minutae. I am less interested in what people believe or do not believe than in what they experience in and through their lives. Belief and disbelief, as we understand it today, seems so very limiting.

It has not always been this way. The problem it would appear is that we have allowed belief, or disbelief to overcome practise, we have forgotten what religion is actually about. In “The Case for God” Karen Armstrong explains that until the modern period the major traditions were primarily concerned with practise and not doctrine. As she stated “Religion as defined by the great sages of India, China, and the Middle East was not a notional activity but a practical one; it did not require belief in a set of doctrines but rather hard, disciplined work, without which any religious teaching remained opaque and incredible.” Religion it seems was essentially about how a person lived. It could not be understood by reading about it, it could only be experienced by living by it.

Questions about faith and belief have changed over time, even the words themselves do not mean what they once did. Faith has its etymological roots in the Greek work “pistis”, meaning trust, commitment, loyalty or engagement. This was translated into the Latin “fides” meaning loyalty and “credo” which meant, I give my heart. The authors of the King James Bible translated this into “belief”, which came from the English word “bileven”, which meant to prize, to value, to hold dear. Faith in God meant a trust a loyal commitment, an active living way of being, not belief or disbelief as we understand it today. This though had changed by the modern period when belief began to be understood as a rational proposition to be argued over.

Karen Armstrong argues that the “reason why so many of us in the west find the concept of God so troublesome today” is because we have forgotten how little we know. You cannot prove or disprove God within anything as limited and or limiting as the human mind, any God you could either prove or disprove would somehow be less than God. The ineffable is experienced or not in life itself, or at least this has been my experience.

The problem is reductionism, we have reduced God to something we think we can prove or disprove; we have fallen into the trap of intellectual hubris; we have forgotten how little we really know; we have fallen for the trap of trying to prove or disprove what God is or is not.

I recently came across the following by by Robert Walsh "The Unproven God"

"There’s an Oxford philosophy professor who says he has determined by sheer logic and mathematics that God probably exists. While Richard Swinburne says he is not 100% sure about this, he claims to have demonstrated through probability theory and complex mathematical formulas that God’s existence is more likely to be true than not.

The God he is trying to prove is a familiar one, and in some respects reassuring. This God is a person, and “he” loves beauty, goodness, freedom, order, morality, and human beings. Haven’t we always hoped that God would turn out to be like the good side of us, only more powerful?

It seems bold of me to say this about a professor at Oxford, but I’m willing to state with confidence that Dr Swinburne’s calculations are pure hokum, complete bolderdash. He thinks God is a problem to be solved. He doesn’t get it that God is a mystery, and is always and forever beyond every mortal attempt to figure God out and settle God once and for all.

God cannot be proven nor disproved. If you can prove it, then it’s not God; it’s something less than God.

Live in the world. Experience its joys and its pain. Try to find the path through it that is right for you. Listen carefully to the voices around you, the voices within you, and the voices from the past. You may come to know that there is a mystery animating the Creation and you. A creating sustaining, transforming mystery. Or you may not. If you do, you may choose to give it a name; you may call it God. Or you may not. But don’t waste any of your precious time trying to prove it."

God for me is not some distant creator beyond life itself. God for me is a loving presence that permeates all of life, it points me onwards, drawing me out of myself to some place beyond the limits of my thinking and understanding. God enables me to do what I never dreamed was possible. That said I know I can't really explain what it is I experience. All i know is that by reaching beyond myself I connect to some kind of presence that enables me to live in a way I could not before. 

I wonder what God means to you? Maybe God means nothing to you? Perhaps you do know what God means to you? Maybe you do not care?

Dag Hammearskjold the Nobel Peace Prize winning former General Secretary of the United Nations once said “I don’t know who – or what – put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer “Yes” to someone or something. And from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that , therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal”

I can personally relate strongly to this. It may sound a little mysterious to some people, but I feel what he is saying. I feel it because I have known the same experience. A life that suddenly had meaning and direction, when previously it meant nothing. That said I can’t really make sense of it, but I know I’m not alone in experiencing it. Human beings have been wrestling with this since the beginning of human history.

In “Letter’s to a young poet” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote

“I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing, live your way into the answer.”

To me this is what it’s about, to seek and struggle and to live the questions themselves. We need to do more than just ask the questions. You have to live the questions themselves you have to experience them and then somewhere in that struggle an answer may well be revealed, or maybe not. Either way I am convinced that by doing so we will live purposeful lives for the good of all.

The key to the religious life for me is that it is about putting something other than our own self centred wants and needs at the core of our lives. The most dissatisfying and dissatisfied lives are the ones that are merely for the good of themselves. If you want to experience the love that is God you can do so in that space that is created when you give to another from your heart and you receive from another from their heart. For me that’s all I need to know about theology, that God once again comes to life when we give ourselves to another and they give back to us in return.

Somewhere in that space is God, but don’t waste your time trying to prove it or disprove it with your mind, just put self giving love into practise and I guarantee you that power will change your life.

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