God: WTF?

Whatnot. Whatsit. Whatjemacallit. Whosit. Whassat. Thingy, thingummy or just plain thing. Doodah, doofah or doofus. Yerknow. Oojemaflip. A click of the tongue, an indrawn breath and rubbing the fingers together…

Readers can probably add several others – gizmo springs to mind, although it tends only to mean something technical and is maybe too well specified (besides which, it’s the name of a friend’s cat…). “It’s on the tip of my tongue” is matched with “spit it out”, and we even felt the need to borrow the French “je ne sais quoi”, as if we hadn’t already enough ways of saying “something not very specific”.

I thought of this need we seem to have to have a plethora of completely nonspecific words in our vocabulary, which I’d argue is an evolutionarily driven adaptation to the way we tend to think when reading a comment to a post from Chris Mullen (Religion, Essentialism and Violence) at The Partially Examined Life facebook page, this being by Trent Erikson, which I quote in part:-

“When it comes to “liberal religionists” like Karen Armstrong or John Shelby Spong, it is often hard to see any distinction between the concept ‘God’ and concepts like ‘the universe’, ‘being’, or ‘love’. The virtue of the liberal religionists is that it is easy to interpret their worldviews as atheistic. I find it frustrating when people point to liberal religionists as exemplifying a redeeming version of religion, since the redemption of this version of “religion” comes largely from the fact that it is not religion, but atheism. I’m all in favour of “post-religions” that reject belief in existence of God, the soul, the afterlife, and other supernatural beliefs yet that retain the symbolism. ritual, mythology, and community of religions. But I also get frustrated when people mince words and fudge the distinction between atheism and theism. I realize keeping things vague and obscure probably has social utility in facilitating a transition from religion to “post-religion”, but I’m a person who strongly values clarity and transparency of thought, so personally I recoil at that sort of thing.”

The snag is that while it might well be “easy” to interpret the viewpoints of liberal believers as atheistic (and, as a panentheist, I am firmly in the camp of the vast majority of liberal believers who reject the supernatural theist interventionary God-concept, and so who can be labelled “atheist” taking “theist” to mean only that God-concept), it is not how most liberal believers see themselves.

Mostly, in fact, we don’t “reject belief in the existence of God”, we firmly believe in the existence of God – for some value of “God” which may not be specified, and indeed may not be capable of specification. In this, we are following in the footsteps of large numbers of mystics, all of those mainly in the Eastern Orthodox community who practice “apophatic theology”, and even the Thomistic tradition of theology in the Catholic Church, which holds that “God exists” is not a statement which can validly be made, because it reduces God to a “thing” within creation, whereas God is seen as the fount of creation but not as part of it.

We may, perhaps, be in the mould of John Caputo, riffing off the work of Jacques Derrida, when he describes God as a weak but insistent call in his two books “The Weakness of God” and “The Insistence of God”; not, indeed, a “thing”, but nonetheless entirely real (for some value of real).

The thing is, to a great extent my sympathy is with Mr. Erikson. The significant “SR” part of my consciousness is a scientific rationalist materialist one, and would very much like to find that everything was reducible to simple mechanisms. Even that, however, has had to come to terms with emergent behaviours, complexity and chaos, and is these days persuaded that things are just never that simple, often can’t be reduced that way and are at a very fundamental level not predictable. In some ways, the task of the theologian (“faith seeking understanding” as Anselm put it) is exactly in line with his thinking – work out how exactly this “God-thing” functions, and there you are. The trouble is, both what this “God-thing” is and how it functions both remain fairly obscure apart from the blind alleys of speculation, such as that of the Christian schoolmen (and most philosophy of religion) who seem to have thought that by tacking on a few “omni-s” and the odd “meta-“, “para-” and “hyper-” they somehow reduced the phenomenon of that-which-is-God to comprehensibility. In fact, it either becomes incomprehensible due to paradox or flatly impossible in the face of reality as examined by science, or it gets even less comprehensible due to foundering under the sheer weight of verbiage (as often seems the case where postmodernists tackle theology).

It’s all very frustrating, particularly for someone who values clarity and transparency. I can well see the temptation of saying that God only exists in fuzzy thinking, and is therefore again a kind of “God of the gaps”, a concept which still exists among those who want to cling to some semblance of the interventionary God. That kind of God, however, generally ends up being little more than the God rejected by Einstein when he said “God does not throw dice”. Admittedly, most pagan pantheons have had a God who is (or does) exactly that, from Pan and Loki through to Lady Luck; Hinduism has several, Japan has seven (which may explain why, for the Chinese, 8 is a lucky number – or then again, not). These, however, are never fundamental, more remainders, that bit of the numinous which forever defies prediction or description.

Of course, for some radical theologians, a remainder is exactly what one is looking for – the eternal conviction of a loss which is of something one never had and which ultimately is nonexistent, for instance, in Peter Rollins (who perhaps actually deserves to be called “atheistic”, which (for instance) Karen Armstrong does not). Meanwhile, proponents of “theopoetics” think, it seems, that that-which-is-God is best found in figurative, impressionistic wording rather than in clarity and precision. That would tend to evoke emotion rather than reason, of course. Certainly, in my experience, God is at least as much a phenomenon of emotion as one of rationality – which is where my rationalist side and, I suspect, Mr. Erikson give up and retire in disgust.

There is, however, a lot to be said for not tying down definitions, for keeping language somewhat unspecific. This is, in fact, the only way in which I can have productive conversations with the theologically conservative – we can exchange ideas productively only so long as we do not get down to defining things (including God, but also the soul, afterlife and, of course, the miraculous) but leave this undetermined. It is perhaps this avoidance of the definite which fuels this post by Artur Rosman –  certainly I could identify as “anatheistic” for some value of the term, even if not quite that proposed in the post. Not not theist, in a sense.

It is also, I found, about 25 years ago on Compuserve’s European Forum, the only way I can have a constructive exchange about theology and the spiritual with atheists. There developed there a very long-running thread, lasting rather over a year, titled “Dieu?”, in which I took the step of positing a box, represented by [   ]. We investigated how this [   ] could be used to facilitate, for example, talk about experiences of the numinous, which several self-identified French atheists were happy to admit to having in some measure. The snag came when I suggested that we put a label on this box (potentially empty, potentially filled with various things, potentially, mainly for Buddhists, containing merely a mirror), and that the three letters “G”, “O” and “D” would do (actually, in that context it was the four letters “D”, “I”, “E” and “U”), pointing out that historically people had used this label to explain similar experiences. At that, the atheists universally balked. It seems that, for them, G-O-D inevitably means the supernatural theist, interventionary God, and can mean nothing else. For me, of course, it is merely a label for this [   ] which I do not expect ever to be able to define, but which forms a necessary part of my experience.

Indeed, on the first occasion when [   ] burst into my consciousness, the three letter acronym which would have fitted best would have been “WTF”. Whatever it is that God actually is, the last thing I can do is say “God does not exist”. Except in the sense of Catholic orthodoxy…

Sorry, Mr. Erikson.

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