This is the third in a series of articles, and is really a continuation of the second which discussed the nature of God. (It would be helpful to be familiar with that before continuing.)
There I concluded that God should be considered as an impersonal, cosmic, creative mind, rather than a personal father figure and literal Creator, which is how God is understood in Christianity. Here I’m going to consider how such an error, if that’s what it is, might have arisen.
Mystics, Eastern gurus, and esotericists are frequently quoted as saying that no words can describe the ‘Ultimate’, or similar term; it is beyond Existence, Absolute Nothing, ineffable, it is beyond all attribution, and so on. If that is true, then it is clearly impossible to describe God as ‘He’, loving, merciful, a law-giver, a judge, and so on. If any being with such personality traits exists, then he could only be a god, a deity, a lesser figure, not the ultimate GOD.
Why then do Christians believe that this being is GOD? I suspect that they have confused ‘God’ with the archetype, in the Jungian sense, of the Good Father, or the Wise Old Man. Such archetypes have a deep, shaping influence upon human affairs, without most people even being aware of them. This is more likely than Freud’s simplistic idea that humans have created and imagined these ‘heavenly’ figures, based on their experiences with their own parents. (Freud’s thinking was very limited, given that he was a dedicated materialist, and would not be able to contemplate the Jungian idea.)
There is also the problem that strict monotheistic traditions may have an inadequate understanding of cosmology — how the complex, multi-levelled universe really works. For example, Christians may believe in angels in addition to God (perhaps as a way of avoiding polytheism?), but there may be much more that needs to be taken into account. If it seems to a monotheist that a prayer has been answered, that some form of guidance has been received, that something extraordinarily fortunate has happened to them, then they are likely to attribute their luck to a personal God. Other lower beings in the hierarchy might be a more accurate explanation, however: their own Higher Self, a guardian angel, spirit guide, or what the ancient Greeks, including Socrates and Plato, called the daemon.
Christianity is an offspring of Judaism, so must have inherited many ideas and attitudes. I think that it is reasonable to describe everyday Judaism as exoteric. There are also, however, various Jewish mystical and esoteric traditions. This may be only my opinion, but these are likely to have a much deeper understanding of the issues than mainstream Judaism.
Perhaps the best known of them is the Kabbalah. Here is how a modern Kabbalist understands these issues: “God the Transcendent is called in Kabbalah, AYIN. AYIN means No-Thing. AYIN is beyond Existence, separate from any-thing. AYIN is absolute Nothing… Out of the zero of AYIN’s no-thingness comes the one of EN SOF… EN SOF is the Absolute All to AYIN’s Absolute Nothing. God the Transcendent is AYIN and God the Immanent is EN SOF. Both Nothing and All are the same. Beyond the titles of AYIN and EN SOF no attributes are given to the Absolute. God is God and there is nothing to compare with God”¹.
No use of the word ‘He’ there. Instead we have the En Sof as an Absolute Oneness, which is what I mean by the impersonal, cosmic, creative mind.
Another series of articles I’m currently writing is called Why Christianity Must Change or Die, inspired by the writings of John Shelby Spong. (For a guide to that, and my other writings on Christianity, please see this page of my website, about half way down.) He contemplates exactly the same issues I’ve been discussing here. In a chapter entitled The Future Church: A Speculative Dream, he says that he wants to challenge the concept of God as understood in traditional Christianity, which is theistic, or “an intervening, personal, supernatural presence who can invade history to make a specific difference”. He later says that he wants to redefine God in nontheistic terms, to dismiss “the supernatural, external God of theism in favour of an understanding of God as the Ground of all Being, the source of life, and the source of love”².
Spong seems to be waking up to the deeper, esoteric version of Judaism, which is one branch of the tree known as the Perennial Philosophy, the idea that at their core all religions are saying the same thing. Perhaps Christianity as a whole would have been better served if it had also sought its inspiration in the Jewish Kabbalah and the Perennial Philosophy. This leads to a further thought on Christianity’s monotheism; could “there is only one God” be a misunderstanding of what was originally intended “God is one”?
For anyone who has been following this series since the introduction, my opening statement is becoming clearer. There I said that I thought the term ‘spiritual atheist’ is an oxymoron. It seems, rather, that there are two meanings of the word atheism, which should not be confused. One would be a hard atheism, which denies God and anything supernatural (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett). The other would be a soft atheism, which can be very spiritual, but merely against theism, and wants to redefine how we think of God. That form of spiritual atheism would obviously not be an oxymoron, but I still don’t want to lose the word God.
1. Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi, A Kabbalistic Universe, Rider & Company, 1977, p7
2. Why Christianity Must Change or Die, HarperSanFrancisco, 1998, p186, p209