So far my posts in this blog have been concerned with treading carefully around the meaning of words like “religion”. I have pointed out the dangers of tribalism, and I have offered the term reconnection for anyone who has been taught to equate religion to superstition and tribalism. It is time to say something more about the good that is continuously finding expression in the world, and also continuously being thwarted, but responding with generosity and, in people who campaign for justice, creative anger. This good is what we embody when we are at our best. This is what we fail to live up to when we are at our worst. This is what makes demands, and can legitimately make demands on us, because to recognise the legitimacy of the call to make the world better is what being fully alive involves.
The outlook commonly called “the scientific outlook” is not a complete statement of what being human requires of us. We need to adopt not just certain commitments to reason, doubt and honesty, but also whatever is needed to protect those commitments from becoming dehumanising. We need some further ingredients, more risky ones, in which we are not disinterested: things like empathy and a sense of justice. Ultimately it is our very selves that we must commit to the project of living.
It is useful to have a name for the good that is continuously finding expression in the world. The name that some of us have learned to use is: G-d. By writing the word that way, I intend to convey that neither you the reader, nor I the writer, should assume that we know very clearly what I am here referring to. In fact, I find it a helpful practice to skirt around that word in my own thoughts (because it is so much abused) and seek for better ones. I will try to clarify immediately, but it won’t be possible to make it completely clear in one blog entry (I am limiting myself to about a thousand words). For the moment I will simply limit myself to showing how some very common misconceptions can be avoided.
First, we use the name G-d, rather than simply “good”, because we have perceived certain connections. The main such connection is that the very same good which “comes back at us” when goodness wells up in the world is also, we find, the one that “holds” or “catches” us when we commit our very selves to the project of living. We only manage to do this imperfectly (most of us very imperfectly indeed), but growth consists largely in learning to do it more fully. We find that complete truthfulness about who we are is not met with a blank response, nor with derision or condescension, but with compassion and a certain leveling unpretentiousness. That is really worth knowing.
It is very easy to answer the question, “Who or what made G-d?” We answer it by definition. We announce that the question is a non-question, because it is a category error. We think that there can be, and is, that which is real without the need for dependence on, or origin in, something else, and this reality is the very source that we called G-d. How can we claim to know that? We don’t claim to know it. Not for sure. But this is what we think.
You should feel that in all the above I am writing in a somewhat elusive way. You should be not altogether sure whether I am using words coherently. That is my intention, because we are in an area which cannot be completely captured in written language, and the attempt to suggest that it can does much harm. You should feel that all this does not put you in possession of a nice comfortable passive position, but what it does do is open up some helpful ways of thinking. You can start to ask yourself about candidates that could fit the description “not created” and candidates that could fit the description “makes things better” and ask whether there is some intersection between those ideas. You might consider some abstract candidates, such as “truth” or “logic”. It is very striking how easy it is to go further, and add more powerful words, words like “kindness” and “love”. But I don’t want to rush you into that. My main point here is that none of us can claim to know at the outset, nor to be able to guess just by our own hunches, what could fit the category of “that which is not made but simply is”, but framing the idea is at least a beginning.
Next, it is common, but misconceived, to set the question up the wrong way around. It is quite common for people to conjure up some entity in their imagination, some sort of a “being” with remarkable properties such as omniscience, love and power, and then ask themselves, “I wonder if this being exists?” They can then conclude “yes,” “no” or “don’t know”, as seems right to them, and very often the answer is “don’t care.” But all that is the wrong way round. Forget omnipotent, omniscient cosmic “beings” and come back to earth. The right way to proceed is to realise that there is reality there to be discovered, and to ask “I wonder what reality is like?” The question of existence of a “divine entity” or a “powerful being” does not arise; the question becomes “what is absolutely real? What is the foundation of things, and of my life, and of our lives? And what should we be reaching for?”
Now, in case you think I am going to get all sophisticated on you and end up with something different from ordinary Christianity (that is where I am coming from), let me say that, once you have got far enough discovering what is absolutely real, then I think you will understand why so much religious language seems to be about a “big powerful being”. But it is best to start with being honest with yourself and adopt the attitude of seeking not second-guessing. Seeking for reality.
Next, suppose that that which is absolutely real cannot be completely defined by or captured by you or I. This is very likely to be the case, and I think it is the case. It means that we will never be in a position to say, “ok, I have got it all clear, I have set it down in black and white. Now I know what is the absolute foundation of my life and of the universe.” If in fact we will never be in a position to say that sort of thing truthfully, then our most truthful speech will be all about attempts, and reachings, and journeys on. That is what science is like, and that is what art is like. That is what life is like. That is what all good religion is like.
Therefore, it is a fundamental error to try to squeeze religious language into a box, and to complain when it refuses to be completely clear (as long as it tries to be as clear as it can).
The word “G-d”, when it is used correctly, is all about “that which is absolutely real.” This is pretty much a universal idea in all religion, though it may be less than clear in some examples, and there may be a lot of confusion about what can be said to be absolutely real. In the Judao-Christian tradition, it is captured or hinted at in a very important and central idea, which is that you should not try to dictate the nature of this reality, but always allow reality to be what reality is. This idea is expressed in a name-phrase which means something like “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be” or possibly just “I am”. A wise learner will continually decide to avoid the word “G-d” because it is so abrupt and miss-used, and instead reach for phrases like these. A convinced atheist will object that a huge amount has already been asserted in such a phrase, because the truth of it might be simply “It is”—the foundational reality might be impersonal. That is so, but here we are speaking about learning and a journey, and it remains open that the truth of things might go beyond the purely impersonal. It might be that the appropriate response to the reality that holds all things is sometimes one of meeting, rather than only ever investigating. Reality might be that which I can look up to, not merely that which I can stand over.
I have been speaking of reality, and absolute reality. I will finish this entry by coming back to human beings. Each human is a precious expression and a reality, but I think most of us will know what I mean when I say there is also a sense in which we are all a bit unreal. We are unreal because we have unreal expectations, and because we don’t live up to our own standards, and we hide who we really are from others, and even from ourselves. Coming to know the absolutely reality and coming to be more real ourselves are two very closely linked enterprises. In the end you can’t do the first without also doing the second. Or, more accurately, allowing the second to be done to you.