Moby Dick: The Unknowable Other

“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure...” I find that white whale from Moby Dick a compelling character, because it is so ominous. It is such an unknown, and unknowable.

Who is God? What is God? Can God be known? There is a great difficulty in this word ‘God’. As soon as that word is said, ‘God’, most people think they know exactly what you mean. An idea comes to mind, we are put in a box for using such a word, a box which contains lots of other ideas. To some this is a positive box, but to most here in the west it is a negative box. A box for foolish people, boring people, a box for intolerant people, a box for those who have closed their minds.

As it has been said – “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” I am desperate to tell a different story. I am desperate to take those boxes we inhabit in people’s minds and smash them apart.

“So, do you believe in God?” Someone asked me recently. “Well, the short answer is ‘no’. And the long answer is ‘yes’”. I told him. “Let’s put it this way, the God you don’t believe in, I certainly don’t believe in him either.”

Most people, ordinary people, which is to say, not Unitarians, view God as a ‘being’ or ‘object’ out there. They may not be able to put it in so many words, but they intuitively believe that this is what everyone thinks when they use this word: ‘God’. And it’s a fair assumption - the Oxford English dictionary defined God as ‘a superhuman being’. Because this definition, this understanding is so prevalent amongst people, I think the theologian Thomas JJ Altizer was really on to something when he re-cast Christian mythology as the actual death of God.

It seems in this day and age we must shock, and rail against these prevalent understandings in order to give people the space to step back and consider what we are afresh. Otherwise we will ever be held captive within those small boxes in people’s imaginations.

 The famous Times Cover 'Is God Dead?' from 1966.

The famous Times Cover 'Is God Dead?' from 1966.

For me then, this idea of the objective God, the superhuman being that hangs above creation, is not simply false, it is the very antithesis of God - the spectre of people’s imaginations. To proclaim the death of this God is truly to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, it is to set the oppressed free. For what is it to be imprisoned? It is to be so overwhelmed by the nihilistic void of meaninglessness, that one retreats into an idyllic fantasy land and pulls pull wool across one’s eyes. In as far as Religion is an eternal return to the past, religion is Dead.

Next month, I am going to the Unitarian Theological Conference which is being held up in Manchester. As this conference draws closer I have watched as some have become rather hot under the collar, worried that this conference is a nefarious strategy by the ‘Christian wing’ of our denomination to define our ‘Unitarian Theology’, and thus set the agenda for our denomination. I think this idea is rather silly for a number of reasons, most of all, the very notion than anyone could tell a Unitarian what to believe.

This conference does arise however because it recognises the dire state of theology within our movement – which is to say it is simply not being done. I think the reason for this is, if we look at the last of our theological heavyweights in our denomination going back to the 19th and early 20th Century: Alfred Hall, James Martineau, Joseph Priestly, and so on, all of them continued to hold to the idea of God being objectively in the world. As our culture has experienced the loss or death of this God, in art, literature, philosophy, and science, our denomination has failed to articulate a robust post-metaphysical theology.

Doing theology now, as Unitarians, I think is important, lest we be reduced to a bare footed, tea lights, and whale music spirituality. But doing Theology does not remotely imply either getting everyone in accordance, or returning to some theology of yesteryears.

The death of God liberates humanity to affirm life. Classic religion is the ultimate way of saying ‘no’ to life, of denying the value of this life in exchange for the magical one to come, or a false one now. The objective, primordial God of this Classic Religion is life denying. In recognising the death of God – the corpse or primordial spectre of this God shows up as what it truly is, the epitome of Evil. And I think most people, in turning away from or even being disgusted by religion today, subconsciously recognise this fact to be true.

As Altizer points out, one of the best examples or expressions of this spectre of the primordial God can be found in Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’. Moby Dick the whale is white, voiceless, and indifferent, unknown, and unknowable, a dreaded creature of the deep. This greatness and power is to be equated with Satan - hence that concealed passage - “I baptize you not in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, but rather in the name of the Devil.” Therefore, in moving forward, in affirming the death of this primordial God, we uncover a new faith, a new way of affirming this life. It inaugurates a new creation in us, in not trying to conserve something, but rather in opening people to the radically new. Love, joy, affirmation, and mercy.

 Moby Dick.

Moby Dick.

All of this I think raises the problem of metaphor. Metaphor is fine when everyone in the room knows certain language is being used as a metaphor, but then someone comes into this space for the first time, and it’s not clear that something is a metaphor. The Lord’s Prayer is an obvious example of this. I have no problem saying the Lord’s Prayer, but I say it knowing that the primordial God of up there is dead - ‘Our Father who art in heaven’ is a metaphor for invoking the highest ideals of humanity.

On one hand I think we should strip away such metaphor, so that the language of our religion can be the language of everyone. But then I realise that that leaves us with nothing. The rich depths of our religious texts and religious poetry are often dense and complex in nature; it breathes metaphor. Every religious community has its own language which shifts and evolves with time. Part of what it is to become a Unitarian within this community is to become enveloped in that language, to grow, and self-identify through that shared language.

In as far as Religion is an eternal return to the past, religion is Dead. There is an interesting impulse built into religion: when it perceives threat or crisis, it attempts to return to some earlier mode in which it once perceived itself, an old ethic, an old way of being, an old way of thinking. The spiritual quest must ever drive us onwards, and to return to what has gone before can never be an authentic response to the spiritual life as we experience it.

This is an impulse which will need to be guarded against at the Manchester Theological Conference – there is no going back. To begin a sensible, robust conversation about theology within the Unitarian movement in the 21st Century would have to be a radically new kind of undertaking.

The death of God, the embrace of life, is the outworking of our inherited faith tradition. It’s the necessary culmination of it. To have faith now is to embrace life, embrace the world, and to not to turn away from it.

Amen.