‘God’ an address
God is an idea; an idea which humanity cannot let go of. Even amongst people who ‘don’t do religion’, or ‘don’t do spirituality’, they almost all without exception contend with the God question at some point. It can’t be ignored. It’s an idea that almost seems imprinted on our souls - the notion that there is something or someone that transcends my finite thoughts, my narrow conception of the world. Is there not something beyond this? Intuitively coming to terms with this sense of mystery is what religion is. All peoples of all the world contending with the mystery. And in as far as all religions, all gods, and all mythologies contend with the mysteries of the cosmos and of the human experience, they’re all true. They’re all an authentic response to the mystery we are all presented with. As the Sufi mystic says, to not recognise this, to not recognise the diffuse nature of truth, is to fail in recognising truth at all. Do not attach yourself to any particular creed exclusively, so that you may disbelieve all the rest. For, he who knows doesn’t know; he who knows he doesn’t know, knows.
This insight goes to the very heart of discerning the nature of God. If the nature of truth is diffused, the nature of God also must be diffused. You cannot say God is ‘up there’; you cannot point to God. God is not a being, God is beyond being, beyond the category of being or not-being. He neither is, nor is not. He neither exists or does not exist. To find God, we all in our lives go on a spiritual journey, a quest for self-knowledge, a quest to learn our innermost nature. To know ourselves is to know God. A quest to find the image of God within ourselves. For if God is diffused, then God’s centre is everywhere; as the medicine man Black Elk said, ‘anywhere is the centre of the world.’ Black Elk also points us to the circular nature of God. Anyone then who has an experience of mystery, “knows” there is a dimension to the universe unavailable to our senses. She has an intuited sense of that dimension. For me this awe, this sense of wonder, is encountered most vividly in nature.
I was walking last week through the grounds of Essex University - long grass, large oak trees, nearby lake, wind blowing, and in that moment the transcendent beauty of that place hit me. There is something much bigger than the human dimension. This experience of mystery at play, however we experience it, is the force that humanity in ages past has personified into its pantheons of gods. And in as far as the mystery at play has a plethora of characteristics, so do the gods. We have heard of Gods of thunder, Gods of war, Gods of compassion. As well as there being Gods out there in nature, they are in here also. In here different emotions and thoughts can be personified as different gods contending with one another. Or, as is more common, in the Christian tradition, personified as different spirits or angels at war with one another. But all of these spirits, all of these gods, all that is, is contained in the Hindu tradition within the Brahman. The Brahman God within Hinduism is like the over-god. All other gods or spirits are mere expressions of the Brahman. Brahman in Hinduism is the unknowable God, the impersonal God. Brahman is the totality. He is neither good or bad, he is all.
The God we encountered last week in the story of Job is akin to this impersonal Brahman God, for he contained all that was good and bad within himself. He was the totality and therefore a paradox. So, where does the circular nature of God come into this? The circle is a recurring mythological image. We can think back to Black Elk who talks about everything Native Americans do as being in a circle. Their tepees are arranged in a circle, the nest is a circle, the horizon is a circle. Or, we can think of Eastern Mandalas. Or, in the Hebrew Bible, we can think of that curious vision in Ezekiel of the divine being presented as wheels within wheels, or these circular windows behind me, or dome shaped mosques… All such circles represent a divine totality. If you imagine your life as a circle, and this building as the centre of that circle (serving as that symbolically), you go out from here, you experience more of the world and then you come back to here. Back to the source, before going out again.
Or your home is a similar centre of that circle. The circle recurs infinitum, both physically in the world, but also symbolically in how we live our lives. The life cycle, the day cycle, the seasonal cycle. Or in thinking of God, you could understand impersonal Brahman as both the centre, the source, and the totality of that circle, and emanating out from that centre are all the expressions of the divine. All the pantheons of all the gods. We might talk of centering ourselves, which is to say, to recognise all the values and impulses pulling you in this way and that, but recognising at the centre of all that complexity, at the centre of your complex self, is the source, which is the silence to which we return. The circle reminds us that whatever it is that you believe, whatever your system of thought is, it can’t possibly contain the cosmos in all its complexity. It can’t contain the totality; we are too finite and limited for that.
And so these mythologies and conceptions of God which we inherit from our ancestors can act as a kind of map to the self, helping us to navigate the interior world of spiritual discovery, and gain new insights. But the danger, and this was what Emerson recognised, is that in inhabiting our mythological systems too closely, we can cut ourselves off from the authentic religious experience, the experience of the mystery at play, the unmediated experience. Our personal conception of God, or our ethical framework, can become the final obstacle we must overcome, the final thing getting in our way, blocking us from experiencing the mystery, the divine, in all its paradoxical awe-inspiring majesty. And then, our eyes are opened, and we experience the eternal in ourselves, in the present. And we take a deep breath, and we are the centre of the eternal circle, and all is well.