Tag: theology

Copper Beech Tree

It’s Personal

On page 12 of Going Home, Thich Nhat Hanh said this:

“When we ask, ‘Is God a person or is God not a person,’ we get lost. In fact, God is not a person, and God is not a non-person. There is a German theologian who expresses this very beautifully: ‘God is not a person, but not less than a person’ “

In the unraveling of my worldview, this question was a principal thread, one on which the whole tapestry hung.

Memories: when I was in middle school, I chose to empty the lint screen on the dryer even though I didn’t want to and no one would know the difference. But I felt in that choice a warmth in the realization that God saw. God was, and was watching. It was banal, but it mattered, because it was the better thing to do. Because God cared about living by a better way. And because in this world, nothing was insignificant.

Memories: walking around the campus of Dallas Baptist University, wondering where God had gone, recalling a time when I’d heard God listening to me, felt God’s company in everything I did, and struggling with why that presence had left. Later I chose to believe what’s written despite what I might feel, to believe the biblical promise and allow it to come true through the phenomenon of belief: Lo, I am with you always; I will never leave you nor forsake you; I am with you.

Throughout my life, the personhood of God has been very important

When I started tugging the loose threads, challenging the many inconsistencies and injustices that I’d slowly become aware of in my community’s Christianity — when the fabric of my worldview unwove itself row by row, and when this principal thread followed suit (“Is God a person or is God not a person?”) — I did get lost.

For Thich Nhat Hanh, the personhood of God is a non-issue. To explain why, he quoted the theologian Paul Tillich, who said that God is the ground of being. Thich Nhat Hanh’s point was that God is bigger than our ideas, that God’s substance runs deeper than the images we use to describe God. You can see God as the fabric of existence: something real, but not necessarily someone.

I love Paul Tillich’s statement that God is the ground of being. I love ontology, the layer beneath the layers. In literature I love the subtext almost more than the text; ontology almost more than phenomena. The ground of being, this is a beautiful way to look at God.

It reminds me of the thrill I once got from the words, “The world is shot through with the glory of God.” Memories: I looked up after reading those words for the first time to see a tree dancing furiously in the wind at the edge of the parking lot. Its movement was infused with this: it danced because God is. Like the realization that even the lint screen mattered, it showed me a living world, significant down to the last molecule. God-filled, God-derived, joyous or painful, confused or at peace, all these things variously, simultaneously, wherever in the world they do appear, all because God is. And no matter how tragic things get, all of it well.

That vision of God-in-all speaks to me. So does Paul Tillich’s. I can see how, as Thich Nhat Hanh said, the notion of personhood isn’t necessary for it to work.

But personhood is necessary in other ways

It’s necessary for prayer. How can I talk to someone who isn’t someone? How can I believe that every last thing matters without also believing that God is witness? This is what I need out of my relationship with the noumenal: a place to contain this deepest, highest conversation.

So when Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Why do we have to imprison God in one of these two notions: person and non-person? Do you really need to define God like that?” (Going Home12), I say yes and no. I’m fine with saying that God is not just a person, that God is more. I don’t need God to sit inside the “person” box. But I do need God to possess certain qualities found inside that box.

I notice he keeps saying “neither, nor”

God is neither a person nor a non-person. I’ve always preferred “both, and,” and I wonder if there’s any important problem in saying that God is both. God is a person. God is a non-person. God is neither person nor non-person. I mean, as long as you’re starting from the tenet that words and constructs are insufficient to describe God anyway, is it a problem to play with the words you use?

I definitely hold that view on gender. God is not male. God is not female. God is not neuter. But given that our language necessitates third-person singular pronouns which must denote one of the three, you may as well use them all. God: he is with us. God: she hears us when we call. God: it is all that is. God: they are the ground of being. The pronoun itself is an icon, not the reality it refers to, and by remaining unattached to it, you avoid the trap of turning that icon to an idol: making the important mistake of thinking that God is, quite actually, he, and that it’s sacrilege to describe him any other way. “Do you really need to define God like that?” (Going Home, 12).

If God can’t be described with any fixed concept, because God is greater than we can describe or conceive, it’s no less correct to say, “God is both,” than, “God is neither.”

Then again, let’s not delude ourselves. What I’m asking isn’t, “How are we going to talk about God,” but, “What is God, actually?”

When you pray, are you heard?

Does someone or something care? Does it know about me, want things for me, interact with me? These questions go beyond perception. They scrape at the skin of what’s real.

It’s funny. I don’t know what the right answer is. But I have experienced the yes answer. I’ve prayed a question, waited, watched the answer emerge and learned what to do. I’ve sent desires of mine skyward and seen them fulfilled. Over and over, I’ve prayed and been delivered. I’ve struggled in quicksand and been rescued.

You could explain it away as coincidence; you could say I had the answers in me all along; you could say that when one makes certain moves, other moves naturally follow, a practical karma. But that’s not what I experienced. That’s not how it tasted as it happened. More importantly, had I been interacting with it on those other terms, I don’t think I would have seen the same outcomes. Since unraveling my belief in God and prayer, whenever I’ve tried to look within myself for the answers or trust to lucky coincidences or earned rewards, the effort has fallen flat. The good I experienced wasn’t invoked through those means. It came to me only when I was looking beyond myself to a person who loved me.

I have an unusual view on what personhood is

The other day, my friend said that cats aren’t people. I disagreed. A cat has a perspective, thoughts, feelings, intentions. Cats aren’t human, obviously. But they are people. The same goes for trees. I feel the same goes for everything, frankly.

My friend said she reserves the word “person” for people, which is funny and axiomatic, but I think I know what she meant. To her, the word “person” has an ineffable quality only found in humans. But to me the word has an ineffable quality which exists in all kinds of creatures. Cats don’t think human thoughts. They think cat thoughts. We don’t have cat-goals, but human-goals. We’re human-people. They’re cat-people.

Why does this matter? Because it makes calling God a person a lot less loaded. By calling God a person I’m not calling her a human being. I mean, I call a tree a person.

When Thich Nhat Hanh rejected Teilhard de Chardin’s statement that “the cosmos is deeply personal and personalizing, that it is in the process of personalizing all the time” (Going Home, 11), he did so on the grounds that saying so is dualism: “There are two different things. One is the person, and the other is the non-person” (ibid.). Later, talking about impermanence, he went on to say that the tree in the front yard doesn’t have a separate self, because without all the non-tree elements — the sun, the rain, the ground and so on — the tree could not exist. It and they are so interconnected, the line between “tree” and “not tree” loses its metaphysical practicality. Similarly, about the question of personhood, he said that “a person is made of non-person elements and vice versa” (Going Home, page 12).

But here’s the thing. Whether you believe that everything is personal or that nothing is personal, you’re equally rid of dualistic thinking. As long as you’re going to say it’s all one or the other, you’re kind of saying the same thing. It’s just a question of whether, for you, the silhouette is found in the positive or negative space.

God is not a person, but not less than a person.

God is a person, but also more than a person.

So long as I see personhood in a tree, I think it’s fair to call God a person. So long as each of my cells has a distinct self, and I, made of them all, possess a self that’s more than the sum of the parts, I think it’s fair to say the same is true of God.

God is a person. God is not a person. God is more than a person. God is something beyond the person/non-person duality. Does God know about me and care?

That’s another question. I don’t know. I hope so.

Two demonic physiognomies, expressive of malignity

Life Unknown

Speaking of spirits and how certain people in the Bible perceived them, The Oxford Study Bible had this to say:

“Corporate and individual human life was lived in an environment affected by the character and conduct, the actions and reactions of these other personal beings. It was important to be informed about what they had to do with what was happening to a person or a nation … At times it was needful to communicate with them and seek to influence their purpose and power” (page 165).

Other personal beings: “gods and spirits and demons” (164).

I once believed in demons. Then I wasn’t so sure. For years my working answer was a suspension of judgement.

Once, it felt risqué to admit I had doubts about the metaphysical reality of living spirits endowed with personhood and volition. Now it’s risqué to suppose there might be such a thing. If you believe in a personal God, it’s not as much of a stretch as if you don’t. If one great spirit is alive and personal, couldn’t there be other lesser spirits too?

There certainly are archetypes. And there’s something I remember hearing called memes. I’m not talking about an image with some text photoshopped onto it that gets passed around the Internet. When I first heard of memes, if I remember right, the word meant something like an idea that had its own personhood, an emergent consciousness. It referred to the mysteriously lifelike quality of archetypes. The suggestion was that these things can travel from one community to another on their own power, without the help of any human contact, direct or indirect. Are they alive? Could you call them spirit?

“Spirit” is a conveniently undefined word. I use it to mean an entity, not evidently organic but alive. Immaterial? Who knows: evidently, at least.

I like the idea of demons; I do and I don’t. I don’t like the canned malevolent image one gets from This Present Darkness: out to get you, better be afraid and wage war and so on. And I don’t like the word “demon” either, unless it’s in the Chinese sense I learned about in Dragonwings, where a demon is a complex being, not necessarily evil, but a force to be respected. In Western fairy tales, dragons exist to be vanquished. They’re flat characters with no redeeming qualities. In Chinese tales, dragons are more nuanced. They may bring you good luck or destruction. I prefer to think of demons the same way.

But do I believe in them? That’s a different question. I believe that people can drum up some very weird stuff through modern witchcraft, and I’m not about to go invoking paranormal beings to flaunt it that they’re not real … because I guess in some respect, I believe they are. I don’t know what to call this stuff or how to explain it, and I’m not ready to sign on to one paradigm or another. Are they demons? All I feel confident in saying is that they’re something.

Also, when just about everyone in the story of humanity has subscribed to a certain belief, I hesitate to toss it out the window with the comfortable hubris of empiricism. Not to say that if a thought is old enough, or widely-enough held, it must be true: there’s a time to reject what everyone has always thought. But I hold that the rejection should never be casual or dismissive. It’s wise to consider it carefully first, however outdated it may seem.

In any case, I think the question I’m dancing around is this: what is the nature of the life of the cosmos? Are patterns more than just patterns? Are they also people?

Is the sum of the parts alive in a way distinct from the way the parts are alive?

Do entities exist within and beyond our immediate experience, or are those just useful imaginations that help us interact with the world more effectively?

If not alive, why do they appear when invoked, and why do they interact as if alive? Is that just a human projection on the natural laws that govern nature and our experience of the paranormal?

My guess is that our experience of these “other personal beings” is more than just natural clockwork and coincidence, but that the images we’ve been using to describe them are probably flawed. It seems credible to me that there are different kinds of life, different sorts of beings, but that they probably don’t fit neatly into the “gods and spirits and demons” wrapper we’ve given them.

As the theologian Paul Tillich said, “God is not a person, but not less than a person.” In other words, it’s not like you think. That doesn’t mean it’s not real.

So how do you get to the truth of it? I have no idea. I guess just by opening your soul and staying in touch with what you sense and know, even and especially when you don’t have words for it.

I sense and know that everything is alive. That there are different strata on which life can exist. That not all of these are evident to us.

To live is to interact in part with the unknown. The unknown is not dead or inert. It’s difficult, but real. If you can find images that help you “communicate with … and seek to influence [its] purpose and power,” good for you. Use those images, but don’t believe they’re the whole of it, because you can’t own the knowledge of the unknown.

Mammatus Clouds in Tulsa

Not a Fib

“The divine name that is explicitly associated with [the Abrahamic covenant] is êl šadday,” said The Oxford Study Bible. “Its sign is the circumcision” (page 154).

Doesn’t El Shaddai mean God with Breasts? According to Harriet Lutzky it does. She’s the assistant psych professor at John Jay University who linked the word Shaddai to the Hebrew word šad.

EL. "God, deity" (Northwest Semitic languages, êl).
SHADDAI. "Breasty, with breasts" (Hebrew, šadday from šad "breast").

Strange that God would give Abraham this explicitly feminine name to call her, then ask him to respond with the explicitly masculine sign of circumcision. Maybe not so strange. It’s a reasonable exchange, a sexual one: she promises he’ll have her breast to nourish him; he dedicates his penis to her.

Anyway, I find this article — “Torah and Covenant” by Richard Elliot Friedman — pretty fascinating. It explores how the three principal covenants of the Hebrew Bible are written in the standard legal form of the day.

In itself, that’s no news to me. Having grown up in church, I’ve heard, I don’t know how many preachers talk about this. Still it lands differently when the actual legal contracts of the day are named and described, set in parallel to the familiar biblical text.

As I read, the thought that I can’t shake is this

They keep talking about the agreement being forged between the deity and his recipients, and I just keep wondering, how?

I mean, when these legal agreements entered the story of human history — when they happened (which they did: at some point in time, something took place and these agreements were made) — what did that look like? Despite my effort to resist making religion handmaiden to science, I can’t help but ask, did someone just make these stories up? Or did a flaming torch actually proceed between the opened halves of the sacrificial animal?

What did Abraham see?

The Abrahamic covenant is the one I keep coming back to. It’s easier for me to imagine a flaming mountain (the Israelite covenant) or a comprehensive deluge (the Noachic) actually happening. But Abraham was one man, not a nation assembled at the foot of Sinai, not a family struggling to survive a disaster. He was an individual who went outside to talk to God with no natural chaos or social pressure to cloud the moment, and he came back with a contract.

Unless that’s just the story that got told about him. Just the same, where did that story originate? These people didn’t write novels. They weren’t ones to base the integrity of their societal structure upon known fictions. I wish I could look back in time.

But that’s empiricism in me speaking, asking if God is real, if myth is fact, if any of this is history. I sense that the question itself is off. I know I’m dissatisfied with the answer, “No, it didn’t happen, but that’s okay and it doesn’t diminish the importance of the fib.” Because even though that answer attempts to respect the story while disbelieving it at the same time, it still reduces it to a fib.

It’s awfully difficult for us this day and age to swallow the notion that it’s not a fib, that it happened in real life just as the book says. That would require believing that way back when, God interacted with humanity in a way he’s since given up.

I actually like the idea that God isn’t the same person today as she was before. That God is learning and growing. That her psyche is linked to ours, that we’re how she experiences the world. That this is, in fact, why she created existence in the first place, and that our perceptions — of sunlight, stress, subway systems, grief, pancake syrup and all the rest — are thus personally invaluable to the divine.

If, over the millennia, God has been changing, causing his relationship to humanity to evolve as well, I guess it’s possible to say he once had the habit of turning into torches. Still, it’s hard to swallow. As ideas go, it’s a bit of a chicken bone in the gullet.

Again, I think the question is mistaken, but I’m not sure why

It’s not just that I don’t like the only possible answer, right? I’m not intellectually dishonest, am I? Maybe the question is mistaken for the same reason it’s not wise to intellectualize a koan: you can do it, but it misses the point (Zen Ghosts, afterward).

I believe that the stories are real, and that you have to take them on their own terms. You have to suspend judgment and forego the question of fact altogether. I know no better way to participate respectfully with these stories or to place myself in a dialogue with them that opens the door to the great good they can bring.

It’s not fib. It’s story — and in my view, story is an inestimably sacred thing. To ask its credentials all the time is to miss the opportunity to fall in love. It’s like correcting someone’s grammar when they’re giving you directions to the post office, or interrupting someone’s confession to inform them they have a crumb on their lip.

That’s the best I can do for now.

The Oxford may be able to do me one better

“By using the mechanism of known legal forms, and then by setting these forms in the context of narrative, in which the deity and the human beings are pictured in process of making those contracts, the Torah merges story and law. The result is that law is grounded in history. … Law, theology and history all meet in the presentation of the covenants in the Torah, and that meeting is pivotal” (Oxford, pages 160-161).

Maybe that’s why the previous question misses the point. This account is a merging of disciplines: it’s history, but more than history; law, but more than law; theology, but more than that too. In being all three at once, it’s also none of them in isolation, so the standards we associate with each discipline end up being somewhat irrelevant.

Or is that just an interesting justification?

I don’t think so. I think it’s an attempt to reconcile our current epistemology with their ancient one. Something’s always lost in translation. But there is something in their way of knowing that’s worth retrieving, though it can’t be done unless we brave the murkiness of the cognitive dissonance that exists between us.