Sunday, July 19, 2009

The case for God -- Part 4

Karen Armstrong may not make a case for God, but she makes a pretty good case for agnosticism. Again and again she takes moderns to task for "belief." She urges instead "unknowing," an awareness of the limitations of knowing that just happens to be embraced by many contemporary scientists, theologians and philosophers, including, of course, herself.

"Real" religion is not belief, says Armstrong, but a deep-felt response to what we do not know. Attention and interpretation, rather than creed and dogma. Whatever we say God is, he is not that. He is less and he is more.

So why use the G-word at all? Why drag into the future a name that is almost irretrievably burdened with millennia of objectification (notice how I said "He is less and he is more."). The New Atheists say, simply, "Don't!" In their view, the very word "God" is an anchor that holds us in the past, or a great stone that we, like Sisyphus, must forever push up a hill into the future. For Armstrong, on the other hand, the word is like a scared scripture which defines itself by constant reinterpretation. She might agree with the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis:
We have seen the highest circle of spiraling powers. We have named this circle God. We might have given it any other name we wished: Abyss, Mystery, Absolute Darkness, Absolute Light, Matter, Spirit, Ultimate Hope, Ultimate Despair, Silence. But we have named it God because only this name, for primordial reasons, can stir the heart profoundly. And this deeply felt emotion is indispensable if we are to touch, body with body, the dread essence beyond logic.
I have quoted this passage from Kazantzakis's Spiritual Exercises in blog and books. It seems to aptly express the deus absconditus of the mystics, the thing seen through a glass darkly, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the numinous flame that burns in every atom, every flower, every grain of sand, every star. But lately I have begun to wonder if "God" is precisely the wrong word for the "dread essence beyond logic," at least at this point in our cultural evolution. In spite of the case Armstrong makes for a God of Unknowing, the word almost inevitably evokes our Baal, our idol -- a divine Person seen in a mirror brightly.

I will leave it to others more qualified than me to sort out the biological and cultural origins of religion. A sense of the sacred seems to be part of our biological heritage. I suspect that the Ultimate X will defy our comprehension for a while longer, maybe forever. In the meantime, in my most attentive moments, I hear Kazantzakis speak as if to me alone: "We are one. From the blind worm in the depths of the ocean to the endless arena of the Galaxy, only one person struggles and is imperiled: You. And within your small and earthen breast only one thing struggles and is imperiled: the Universe."