Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Non-Disappearance of God

Roger Ebert, the esteemed movie critic, said a few months before his recent death that he considered himself a Catholic, but "I cannot believe in God."

This may surprise or shock many people who see adherence to religion and a belief in God as inseparable.  What Ebert might have meant was: I no longer believe in a God who allows evil (like the cancer that killed him) to exist, the kind of loving father who is also the all-powerful creator depicted in the Bible.

This idea of anthropomorphic God who directs our lives, Karen Armstrong suggests, is merely a "starter-kit," something we receive in our childhood and are expected to build upon. We are expected to grow up.

Christians may never let go of the words of Jesus about his heavenly Father caring for us, but they learn, through experience and reading of theology, that the idea of God has to be more expansive than this. 

We need a more mystical notion of God as the unknown and unknowable, not the omniscient, eternally static Supreme Being of 4th century Neoplatonism or the God of the Old Testament, who angrily punishes or lovingly rewards. As Matthew Fox once wrote, our universe is expanding, but our idea of God remains static.

Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit scientist, saw the universe moving toward the future, with God "up ahead," not "up above" like a divine Santa Claus.  Such a concept of God images the unknowable God either as the great silence or the creative potential that exists in the mysterious space of the future. God is the ultimate coming-to-be.

In what I have written about the contemplative mysticism of Thomas Merton, I have explored the "negative way" of the mystics: God is the unknowable Unknown yet the ultimate gound of being, who is Being itself, and beyond all knowing.

A recent article by Richard L. Rubenstein in the New English Review (3-4-13) helped me understand a bit more about the so-called Death of God, which means the death of the limited idea of the Old Testament, anthropomorphic God cited above.  God can, rather, be seen (says Rubenstein) as the Holy Nothingness, the Great Silence, an idea with ancient roots in several religious traditions.

"In place of a biblical image of a transcendent creator God," Rubinstein writes, "an understanding of God which gives priority to the indwelling immanence of the Divine may be more credible in our era"--that is, after the so-called death of God.  God, as the Ground of Being and all beings, can be understood as the ground/basis of all feeling, thought and reflection.

The mystical idea of God as Holy Nothingness does not mean, says Rubenstein, that God is a void; rather that since nothing means "no-thing," nothing is not the absence of being but the overflow of being. So too, as I have shown, silence is not the absence of sound but the source of presence, human and divine.

"The infinite God, the ground of all that is finite, cannot be defined for there is nothing outside of God, so to speak."  The infinite God, Rubenstein says, is not a thing, but a no-thing. This does not seem far removed from the God revealed to Moses as the "I am who am" or the God Thomas Aquinas called not a being but Being itself.

All of this speculation seems important as I continue to encounter books, many successful, by atheists or agnostics who recount their loss of God. They have grown up not to a more complex notion of God but to a rejection of the God of their childhood. It seems to me that their very atheism or agnosticism is part of an honest recognition of a broader idea of God than that with which they were raised. It is the type of God depicted "up there" in the movies enjoyed so much by Roger Ebert.

But such a God is mythical and cannot explain reality. Such a God has disappeared, been denied, even laughed at by best-selling atheists (Richard Dawkins, et al.) because such an idea of the divine is not in sync with reason and science. It seems to me that those who reject God on such terms are really rejecting the older concept of God since the real God is inescapably everywhere, immanent as well as transcendent.

Once a thinking person defines God as a being both omnipotent and omniscient, there is no way out of the problem of evil: how can it exist in a world made and governed by a loving God? The problem here is not with evil but with the idea of God.

It seems to me that God, Being itself, is alive as a personal, loving presence in and through all reality while the old idea of God has, for many thinking believers, died.

Maybe, without being too irreverent, we can say the death of God has been greatly exaggerated.


Chris McClelland said...

These thoughts about God are interesting, Jerry, but perhaps my understanding is limited by my reading on the subject, which includes Merton and other Catholics and some "New Age" thinkers, and recently the LDS "Mormon" Church. It seems to me a personal God who understands and has compassion for my suffering and limitations, and is unconditionally loving is the best idea I can come up with...

Gerald Schiffhorst said...

Chris: Thank you for this. I, too, believe in a personal God and did not intend to indicate otherwise in my inevitably rambling post. This loving, caring God, however, does not control our lives but gives us freedom, and this personal God is also beyond nature (storms, diseases); so we cannot blame God for evil. God is transcendent yet immanent: a basic idea in Catholic theology, both indwelling and close yet not limited to any one idea since God transcends space, time, human understanding, etc.