Friday, January 31, 2014

God and Me

An article from the Guardian by Chris Arnade entitled The People Who Challenged My Atheism Most Were Drug Addicts and Prostitutes recently made the rounds of the social media world I inhabit. In it Mr. Arnade chronicles the abandonment of atheism that came about for him as a result of his contact with people of extreme social and economic disadvantage who were sincere believers in God, through the impression of honesty, wisdom, and compassion he got from them. In the process, he observed that atheism is related to class and economic background, and that atheists are found in greater numbers among people of education and privilege.  The article, which was posted widely, generated a lot more conversation than I would have imagined.

Reactions ranged from anger about the unfair pigeonholing of atheists as overpriviledged elites one end of the spectrum to, on the other, an attitude that might be expressed: “Rah-rah, God wins! Eat that, bitches.”  With variants in between. What surprised me more than the volume and range of responses was that I found none among them that I resonated with.

 As an Eastern Orthodox Christian who’s devoted a good deal of time the past couple decades to practicing in Zen and other Buddhist communities, I’ve probably heard both pro- and anti-God arguments more than a lot of people do, to the point where I get weary of them, as they all seem to me to miss the point (I hope that what I take the difficult-to-articulate “point” to be will be indicated in the discussion below). So when thoughtful talk about God’s existence or lack thereof breaks through my aggressive non-interest in that discussion it’s extraordinary. But such extraordinary breakthroughs do happen. They’ve happened a couple times lately through books: one from a Zen teacher1whom I wouldn’t have expected to talk about God at all—and another from an Evangelical Christian minister2whom I wouldn’t have expected to find myself taking seriously in the first place. Go figure. The Andrade article caught my interest as it didn’t have the usual cloying feel of most “return to God” narratives.

Arguments for God’s existence generally have a feel of dishonesty to me, as they tend to be arguments for the existence of some sort of “being” separate from us, usually “personal” in the sense that this being is in some way or other a big, holy, omnipotent version of ourselves with whom we might, if we play our cards right, hope to have a relationship--as though this God were a large, benevolent parent. Though there are various levels of sophistication and subtlety used to imagine this personal God, his existence is generally acknowledged to be beyond anything we can reasonably comprehend, which makes the idea of “proving” his existence absurd.  I believe reason can lead us to awareness of what’s beyond it, but it can’t be used to prove what’s beyond it. I suppose it’s possible for me to imagine a person coming to a belief in God-as-a-being based on his or her personal experience of that God, but  such a person would surely realize that his experience can’t be used as proof. The fact that those who argue a case for God seldom seem to get this makes me doubt that they’ve had such an experience at all. I suspect in fact that most of those who defend God’s existence are relying on hearsay, or on someone else’s reported experience, or the hope of heaven by saying the right thing.  One meets theists of this kind who in fact seem quite closed to personal experience altogether, and who don’t understand the absurdity of that position

Atheism as it manifests among those who argue stridently for it—the ones who put up billboards and the like—seems to me often so  closely related to the theist position described above as to be its “flip side.”  It's often a forceful rejection of—even an attack on—the God-concept that’s been determined to be inadequate, rather than a simple letting go of it.3 The inadequate concept remains in place to be done battle with. I’ve noted elsewhere how often I’ve seen this manifest among Buddhist friends who don’t believe in God anymore but who are quite obviously really angry at him just the same.  Suggest to these folks that God might be taken to be something other than the sorry concept they’re attacking and you meet with resistance, often angry resistance. 

 “The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God,” says the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, “Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there's some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us. Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.” By that statement, most of the Christians I count among my spiritual parents can’t be said to be theists—and a good number  of the nontheistic Buddhists I’ve known and loved most certainly are.

Here’s what I think:  Regardless of our background or our parents’ intention, we’re all born believing in God.  How we deal with that original, innocent theism once we become aware of it is key to how we lead our lives.  It kicks in early. As soon as we escape birth canal and get our bearings, we’re confronted by large beings, mysteriously separate from us (this separation is in itself a new and disorienting experience). Prominent among them is Mother, though others are also soon distinguished.  We soon learn that these Others can be entreated to give us what we want. The impulse to seek the approval of the Big Other in order to obtain favors, needs, or love stays with us even as the mystery around the Others begins to diminish, and this impulse doesn’t go away on its own.  If a child is raised in religion, the Big Other is often transferred onto a really big other called “God.”  It’s possible to “believe in God”—whether this God is something like a Big Imaginary Friend or something more sophisticated—for a whole lifetime, with the hope of meeting him in some way after you die, if no event comes along to challenge that, or if you brace yourself against the inevitable challenges. But this nascent theism happens pretty well without religion (I happen to be a good example of a guy who grew up theist without a religious upbringing). Nonreligious theism, of the sort to which Pema refers, can be the most pernicious kind. It manifests in the impulses we have for the universe to be fair, or for our actions to be met with punishment or reward. That there’s ostensibly no “God” there can, ironically, make it harder to see.

But whether the God-concept is as blatantly simple as a bearded guy on a heavenly throne or a subtle as the expectation that if I eat right and exercise I don’t deserve to get cancer, theism haunts us until we recognize it in ourselves. When God, or God's equivalent, is finally exposed as an idea, an evaluation and response are required. If the concept is found to be inadequate or even harmful, many wisely reject it and move on to better things. But not all of us.  

We who came up against the limitations of the God-concept and found reason not to abandon it did so because we saw in God a truth we couldn’t in honesty deny.  Part of our reason for not letting it go was the recognition that we swim like fish in a sea of concepts that work to varying degrees when they point beyond themselves. The problem lies less in the concepts than in our clinging to them as ends in themselves (God is no different than struedel in that regard).  God can still be used to refer to the reality-beyond-reality in whose direction we aim to set ourselves. If you say “it” lies above or beyond reason, then “above,” “beyond, and “reason” already miss the mark, along with “it.” Conceptualizing, or even trying to put a word on this non-thing that can’t be spoken of without lying is tricky, and it works only if the concepts are understood as pointing the way to aspects of that reality--and if care is taken not to identify them with "it."  Some of us, upon discovering that our concept of God (whether it was taught us or was self-imposed) was blocking the path in that direction, understood the value of the direction itself and recognized with  gratititude that it was God who set us out on that path, even if that God was originally something akin to a fairy tale. Nontheists who claim that the God-term is too tainted to use for this non-thing have their point, though I’ve not heard another term (ultimate reality or the unconditioned or any of the terms I’ve just used) that isn’t problematical in some way either.  Those of us who’ve stayed with God understand the problem inherent in words and go on.  For us, to say  “God” is to acknowledge a  process of discovering and letting go of the various ideas about God to see what remains, to the point where what remains can’t be conceptualized—but God can still be used to talk about it. With this understanding, we can pray to God, privately and collectively, with honesty and conviction. Though we don’t often end up entreating  God for specific favors.

But the reason we held on to God wasn’t simply to have convenient language to use for the ineffable  that every word or concept belies. It was because we experienced intimacy with that ineffable we still call God.  The transcendent God is not separate from our experience; it is  expressed in and around and through us,  and we honor the struggle of our spiritual forbears  to articulate that experiencefrom their talk of that old tribal deity Yahweh on through all the millennia of further refinement. Again: we saw that if we didn’t cling to the concepts or make them ends in themselves they could lead us in the direction of truth.

 For some, like me,  a  powerful expression of the ineffable occurred in the event of Christ—and, yeah, “Christ” is among the most abused of fairy-tale-like God-concepts and, as too often understood, is worthy of abandonment. But we weren’t concerned with the fairy-tale Christ (or, if we started with the fairy tale, we got past it). We saw in Christ the expression of the ineffable in being and time. The Christ we saw made that transcendent reality into see-able, hear-able, touch-able humanity, revealing the already-present transcendent reality in and around us that we had been missing.  Christ revealed  God (for lack of a better word) as utterly transcendent of any thing or concept, to the point where—as some of the Church fathers affirmed—he can’t be properly said to exist, and then revealed the non-existent non-thing to be  profoundly intimate with all things and closer to me than I am to myself. Talk about this much, and you inevitably begin to speak in paradox.  Whether this Christ is a literal historical reality doesn’t matter a lot to me. At the point where what I’m talking about is perceived, the distinction between "real" and symbolic tends to fall away.

I encountered this Christ in the context of the Orthodox Church when I was a young man. The system of word and image I found there expressed to me the paradoxical truth of God manifest I described above and its implications so powerfully that I was ultimately moved to join up, in spite of the fact that up until that point I’d had little interest in participating in  Christianity.  I understood that the reason Orthodoxy’s complicated system of word and image resonated so much with truth for me was that it pointed to what was beyond it. It was the very consciousness of the inadequacy of the words and images that gave them their expressive power. Their beauty and eloquence was freed up by the understanding of their limitations.  The conceptual expressions of Orthodox theology thus rang with astonishing truthChrist, the Trinity, the way of prayer individually and corporatelyif I could resist the temptation to make idols of them by clinging.

 There was much I came to hate about the Orthodox Church, but that hatred mostly had to do with the institution and how badly it bears witness to the truth I’ve alluded to above.  My entrance into Zen practice in the late 1980s, after years of reading about it, occurred in a period when I was fed up with the church and felt the need for a break. But I didn’t start doing zazen in rejection of any of the truth I found articulated  in Orthodoxy, and I came to the practice without having jettisoned God. From the first time I sat down on a zafu, I felt that the practice of zazen went in the direction we’re all compelled to look after having gotten a taste for what’s true. And I came to love the Buddhist teachings that are related to this practice and inseparable from them. The confrontation of the Buddhist teachings with those  offered by my fathers and mothers in the Orthodox faith created  complications of a kind I came to be truly  grateful for.  Many of the conceptual differences that were troublesome at first were revealed through continued practice  to be insignificant.  Other seemingly irreconcilable differences were revealed, after a while, to be akin to the differences inherent in speaking different languages—or to the famous analogy of the blind men describing the elephant.  Nonetheless genuinely irreconcilable differences remained. The God-ward journey for me became the practice of living with these differences, like a koan. Not making them go away through some false equivalency, but not retreating from them either. The not-knowing that arose from this practice was experienced as a blessing, a means of seeing the truth of non-clinging to anything, including identity, religious or otherwise.

Back to the Chris Arnade piece. What I liked about it is that I saw in it someone whose attachment to a view of ultimate things was challenged, and I resonated with the way the challenge shifted his view. If Mr. Arnade simply exchanged non-God for “God,” I’m not so interested.  But if his turn to God was a move that enabled him to experience a bit of compassionate not-knowing in regard to both God and to his former atheism, I think he and I may have something in common.

This is all a long way of saying that I think nontheism is a reasonable and worthy response as long as it’s not the sort of aversion to “God” that fights against God rather than simply letting God go.  Conversely, “God” is another worthy response, as long as one doesn’t fall into the trap of making God something to be clung to.  The clinging creates idolatry: the worship of something that’s not therejust like the nontheists would accuse me of. But I believe that a strong aversion to “God” tends to keep the idolatry going.

Those of us who’ve come to see things in the way I’ve described above usually keep it to ourselves. You don’t often find us arguing a case for this view (and this reflection is not intended as an argument), as such arguments are generally futile, and the most apt response is silence. Nonetheless, efforts at articulation are valuable, I believe, in response to the imperative that arises to bear witness to our experience, even if they can ever only be stabs at it. I found the recent efforts by Brad Warner and Rob Bell that I referred to earlier both to be very worthy stabs.

            For those who take issue with my view, I invite dialogue, though with the following caveats:  To my Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters who’ll identify my aspiration to non-clinging with an abandonment of our faith: Maybe you’re right, but I’ve very likely heard everything you have to say, and have considered it. Unless you’ve got something new, your prayers on my behalf might be more beneficial than dialogue, and I invite them. For my Buddhist friends who’ll say that I’m simply hedging my bets or hanging on to nostalgia for the Big Imaginary Friend: Maybe you’re right, but I believe I’m also very familiar with your argument, so you might also save your breath and wait for the truth to, finally, dawn on me.

            It occurred to me that the long-winded ramble above might be summed up in fewer words—in very few words, in fact—by using a patched-together koan of my own creation. You can picture this happening in a traditional Chinese temple setting, or not:

Student: Master, do you believe in God?

Joshu: Oak tree in the Garden.

If you understand that Joshu is neither joking nor evading the question, you’ll likely get where I stand. In any case, may God bless you.



1. Brad Warner, There Is No God and He Is Always With You: A Search for God in Odd Places (Novato, CA: New World Library 2013).

2. Rob Bell, What We Talk about When We Talk About God (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2013).

3. I’m speaking here strictly of the militant atheists one encounters a lot these days.  I don’t mean to say that every non-theist who argues against God falls into the category of reverse-idolatry I’m describing.  Many atheists (who might better be described as non-theists) are making an effort to free God-believers from enslavement to a harmful God-concept, and that can be a worthy thing. I don’t take these people to be the ones doing the billboards though.


  1. Thank you for this post. It's been my experience that people seek fundamentalism on any side because like you said about god, you can cling to it.

  2. Dave... I didn't know (didn't remember?) you had a blog... how silly of me...

    Great post.

    I've read Brad Warner's book and enjoyed it thoroughly... though I've never practiced Buddhism... I've heard of Rob Bell but have never read any of his stuff. Maybe I should make the effort.

    Odd how similar our perspectives on theism are... maybe not so odd ;-)

  3. Thanks much, Ben and Michael. Michael--I can lend you the Rob Bell Book, if you like.