God, on a bike, replying to a friend
...on the way to work.
You ask me if God exists, and the short answer is, “No.”
If God existed, God would be fundamentally like us. God would be a created, time and space bound thing, of some kind. Perhaps a very superior kind of thing, but a thing all the same. I’m not saying this to play word games. Often, when I hear arguments about the existence of God, the argument seems to be about the existence, or not, of a (very special) thing. The atheists are correct; there is no such thing. Religious people who argue for this “thing’s” existence, even though they may call it a “being”, have not learned a basic religious insight called the “via negativa:” we really can only say what God is not. We cannot define God. If we could, it would not be God.
The more interesting question for me, is to consider our exceptional scientific ability to observe, learn about, and explain things. If we could describe everything we can measure, would that explain everything? Is there a formula “waiting” for someone to exposit it- some theory of everything? Would that formula satisfy the longing of our hearts for meaning and understanding? Or have we some fundamental inability to explain and understand “all?”
Is it perhaps simply not possible, in principle, to describe and fully understand a totality from the inside? The fish in a lounge room aquarium is not limited, perhaps, to understanding life only within the aquarium walls. It may see images and reflections, and feel vibrations beyond the glass. Sometimes it may leap above the surface of the water into the dimension of air. In its own fishy way, it will hypothesise about a wider reality beyond its aquarium. It may even have intimations about the existence of other, parallel aquaria.
From our perspective, it is easy to see that the wisest fish is the one who meditates upon the parallel aquaria, and marvels at the elegance of the formulae for their existence, and then lives as the best fish it can be. The foolish fish is the one who knows and understands “all”, or in principle thinks it can know, when not all the resources of its little world will let it measure something as basic as the moon.
If I conclude there is a fundamentally unknowable mystery to my existence and being, then it makes some sense to say there is God. If I am too much part of something, too dependent upon it for my existence and being, to significantly grasp the greater wider being, then there is God. But if I can describe and understand it- even if it is so big that there is not time for me to do so- if it can be done in principle, then who needs a God? There is no God. In this understanding, we are God, if anything is God, for we understand. Knowledge is power.
Be clear about this: I am not proposing some “god of the gaps.”I am saying we can never understand; we are too much a part of the picture to ever fully know it. This is, finally, a proposition of humility. It will live with and within its reality and in some sense worship it. It grants this reality, this God, ultimate worth.
And part of the humility in recognising the Mystery, is to own up that our recognition is, ultimately, an intuition. We make our best bet, our best judgement, and live with it.
I remember our surprise in Year 9 at discovering we had a school hymn, a most unexpected thing for an Australian state school. The new headmaster, for some reason, had decided we must all learn it by heart.
These things shall be: a loftier race
than ere the world had known shall rise,
with flame of freedom in their soul,
and light of knowledge in their eyes.
They shall be gentle, brave, and strong
to spill no drop of blood, but dare
all that may plant Man’s Lordship firm
on Earth, and Fire, and Sea and Air.
Perhaps it was an inspirational hymn for we who thought we were still growing up as part of an empire; there must be some reason I remember it! But ultimately, in this hymn, although I once found it listed in a Christian hymnbook, Man’s Lordship is supreme. Christian theology understands the basic sin of humanity is to claim to be what it is not; which is God. To have pretentions to be in control, to claim Lordship over earth and existence is our fundamental hubris.
We answer the question, “Is there a God?” by our attitude to our existence. Traditional boundaries and arguments do not apply.
Either we are a part of, and live with and under reality,
or we are, finally, in the business of planting man’s lordship firm. We (seek to) llive over against reality.
We are used to saying we “believe in God,” or not, as a proposition, arguable and perhaps even provable as right or wrong. But belief in New Testament terms was much more about a way of living; a way of throwing our lot in with someone. In this way of thinking, a so called atheist Greens MP, seeking to live at one with the world, might be more of a believer than a so called Christian, who sings my old school hymn, and loves it.
If we shake things up so much that the atheists are sometimes believers, and we are denying belief to some active practitioners of religion, what does it mean to be “religious?”
We sometimes assert we have a “nodding acquaintance with God.” There are those of us who recognise or feel we can only live humbly with creation, and not lord ourselves over it. But we have only a nodding acquaintance. The Mystery remains unknowable. We nod respectfully as we meet on the road, but never expect to have a conversation. We are like the farmer who pauses, sometimes, down at the rain gauge, and leans against the fence looking out across the paddocks. He is not thinking, and not talking. The green, the hills, the clouds... are all “just there” and he is with them. And then he goes back to his crop and works.
Sometimes I, too, stand and look at the hills. But I cannot be content with this. I want to get past a nodding acquaintance. I want to understand. I want to relate. I want to be more actively and consciously a part of the Mystery. I am too impatient to simply live with. I want to add to. I am interrogating, badgering the Mystery. I want to fill the emptiness. I want the Mystery to talk back, to acknowledge me.
And as unknowable as I know it to be, I cannot leave it alone. I will not settle for wonder and beauty and awe alone. I want to know more fully. Why pain? Why knowing? Why anything? Why is joy so profound, and yet so limited?
Religion is a profound discontent with the Mystery. Religion knows it is not God, and cannot control God, but it also cannot leave God alone. It consciously seeks God out. It is passionate about knowing the Mystery, and knowing more of the Mystery. It becomes disciplined in its investigations and questions. In this way of thinking, some of what we might more familiarly call “doing science”, is also deeply religious.
Christianity is one discipline within religion. Its heritage seeks not only to live under God, but with God. It seeks to co-create. It not only wants to know more of the Mystery, but to actively work with the Mystery. There is a profound sense of providence; a sense that whatever the Mystery “is”, it is good. It desires that everyone is neighbour; there is no economic trickledown theory, no particular privilege; we are all God’s people. The figure of Jesus of Nazareth is our inspiration. He is our exemplar, our pioneer, our inspiration for engaging with the Mystery and co-creating with the Mystery. If we see him, we say, we have seen God. If we throw our lot in with him, there are times when our nodding acquaintance gains another reality.
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