Can we make sense of 'God' as something truly universal? Or does the desire to hold the right answers only serve to enforce the barriers between us?
“This is the ultimate in human knowledge of God; to know that we do not know him” – St. Thomas Aquinas
What a strange tangle we humans get ourselves into when it comes to our belief in the existence of God. It is apparently an issue that the majority of us feel we ought to have a position on. I imagine many people think about their answer in private, just in case somebody hits them with the question when they are least expecting it. Of course, in the West, it has become rather trendy to respond to the question ‘do you believe in God?’ with an outright, ‘no’. This universe, in more people’s eyes than ever before, is an empty godless universe of causal chaos, background noise and sheer blind luck (kudos to those who get that reference).
To have a sophisticated discussion about God’s existence, we have to be serious about what limitations we impose on the discussion, i.e. what does the questioner think of as God? What entity are we trying to prove, or deny, the existence of, exactly?
From a personal perspective, I have no problem with the idea of God playing some kind of a role in my understanding of the universe. There are, of course, several different interpretations of God from various religions and philosophies, and I very much enjoy the view that all religions provide a particular way of understanding something fundamentally incomprehensible about this universe, and in a rather counterintuitive sense, this incomprehensibility of the universe is my understanding of God.
Via Negative is a philosophical position that states God cannot be spoken about in positive terms, the closest we can get to an understanding of God is to talk about what s/he is not. Or, as St. Augustine put it “If you comprehend, it is not God”. There is quite possibly something about this position that puts so many of us off the idea of God. Humans are, by their nature, intellectually proud, and to be faced with something they do not understand is very threatening to us. It is very common for people to duck out of discussions by saying something like, ‘oh, this is just too intellectual for little old me’. One quick self-depreciating blow to the ego and we can save ourselves the longer-term embarrassment of not knowing what to say.
But as with so many other examples, putting our egos to one side can open up something very profound and intellectually stimulating. Upon analysis, there is no reason whatsoever to feel threatened by something you do not understand, because it is something we, and quite likely every living being in this universe shares, namely we have no idea why we are here, where all of this came from, whether there is any point to anything we do. All things that exist come from nothing. When people think of ‘nothing’ they often confuse it with ‘something’ i.e. empty space or darkness. Empty space is not nothing, it is empty space! When we talk about things coming from nothing, this is closer to the actual meaning of the word. For something to genuinely be nothing, it has to be unknowable, for if there are any discernible properties to it whatsoever, that thing becomes a something, and we may then ask wherethat something came from.
This, for me, is beginning to look a little bit like God. If the Western connotations of the word God is providing too much of a barrier then we can easily substitute it for another word. As stated before, many religions have their own categorisation e.g. ‘Tao’ ‘Brahman’ or what some Buddhists might call ‘the void’. Even atheists have their own words such as ‘energy’ which, despite their desire to eliminate all non-sense data phenomena from their understanding, still points towards something unknowable, or at best, intangible.
This ‘nothing’ is absolutely necessary in order for anything to be anything. If you do not have nothing, you cannot have something, in the same way as you cannot have black without white, hard without soft, or sweet without sour. The Yin cannot exist without the Yang. So, to have faith in the unknowable is not something to cower from, but is in fact categorically important to being able to have an understanding of anything.
We may conclude from this, therefore, that humans will carry two Gods around with them. The first God will originate from this natural gap in our understanding about the universe and ourselves, the nothing which allows all somethings to be. As Alan Watts puts it, ‘a knower cannot know himself, anymore than a knife can cut itself’. The second God is whatever interpretation you wish to have of the first God. In the same way that art or music or dance is not confined by boundaries, but open to limitless self-expression, so too is our belief in God, for it is in fact nothing more than an attempt to understand that which cannot be understood. Imagine somebody claiming to have invented the dance to end all dancing, or the painting to end all painting!
As alluded to above, the social zeitgeist of the modern Western world is resistant towards religion. This is perhaps due, in part, to the problems religion is seemingly providing to the world, what with international terrorism being the current buzzwords of pure evil, and the social schism that regularly emerges between long-held religious social conventions and 21st century movements, e.g. gay rights and pro-choice. And it is true that almost every problem in life stems from people’s unwillingness to question their beliefs. And to be wrapped up too tightly in your individual interpretation of things, or your ‘second God’ will, of course, lead to conflict. This is not something particular to religion, it can be found in all sorts of areas of life, perhaps most notably politics.
The trick is to accept that despite our surface level differences, we all live with an inability to know the unknown, and the way we deal with this should be an excuse to share and learn from, rather than to divide and destroy, one another.