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Friday, September 28, 2012

The Resonant Absence

“When people tell me they don’t believe in God, I say: Tell me more about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in him either…God is not God's name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each. Call it what you will--spirit, ground of being, life itself; it remains what it always has…an awe-inspiring, mind-bending mystery.”
- Rev. Forrest Church

A ministers shaping and delivery of his addresses is known by the technical name of homiletics. A minister’s homiletics, his or her series of addresses, is, in part, a project of developing a religious discourse that takes place over a long arc of time, and has to incorporate therefore a varied range of theological ideas for consumption by a particular public, so as to keep that pubic engaged and experiencing the religious life from multiple angles. But if variety alone were the main purpose of a minister’s homiletics, he or she is no better than a showman plying more endless distraction to a ready audience. No, homiletics, varied over time, should have some sense of connectedness to it, not least because one’s congregation deserves a theology with at least some coherence, however loose and pliable. After all, ‘re-ligio’ means ‘to bind up again’, to make coherent a disparate and confusing world. Articulating a coherent theology is why ministers receive a theological education, rather than just training in creative writing.
This week, I have been a Minister of Religion (according to the Commonwealth of Australia) for one full year. During that time, and for all my blogs past, I’ve been, I confess, somewhat cagey on one these key subjects: the subject of God, which is one of those key ideas which give shape and grounding to a coherent theology. That is, up til now.

There are reasons for this caginess. Not least of which is that the way ministers learn to talk about God in a context of academic theology, is characterized by fine distinctions, nuance, and sustained argument at the limits of literal language, and also by metaphor, allegory, and symbol. Such language is easily accommodated in the academic world but easily collapse when you try to make them more ‘user-friendly’. A  purely academic discourse doesn’t usually make for a gripping, engaging read for those who have the good fortune to be innocent of non-specialist theological language.

Now, I feel I can make abstruse theology palatable without doing its meaning too much violence, but it’s certainly a balancing act and therefore risky that you might lose a few along the way, but that’s not the only reason to be cagey about talking of God here. Fundamentalists both religious and atheist have crammed the popular mediated discourse about God full of crass simplifications and shallow slogans, and this of course has not helped frame a balanced, careful, civil discussion. In popular culture the discussion has become just another human cock-fight, with atheists on the one side and believers on the other, and never the twain shall meet: it’s a vexed issue, in short. Now, no minister wants to be divisive; one must maintain a certain graciousness no matter what the subject is, nor how vexed. You don’t want to draw a line and suggest the bad people are on this side and the good ones are on this. But that’s where we are with the vexed God issue, at least in the popular debate about God. So to talk about God here is to reframe the popular debate into something else.

I say, debate and discussion. It’s been more like a particularly bloody phase of an age-old war of attrition, a phase born out of outraged human fanaticisms in the post-9/11 world. Offenses to decency, morality, and truth in the name of God have been so appalling, that there has been bred a real desire to pull the entire religious project down, wipe to slate of history clean and start over. (As if we could!) But just as religious fascists tar all of secularism with the same evil pigments, so too have fundamentalist atheist authors like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens bundled up all expressions and language about deity into the same filthy blanket before beating them to death and throwing them onto the rubbish heap of history. The struggle lately has not been particularly edifying I think, with its sweeping generalizations, cartoonish villainy, and straw man arguments. So as a professional theologian, I feel it rather my duty to put forth a view that fits neatly into neither camp, namely my own. There are many who think and feel as I do, and the moderate, nuanced centre needs voices.
But should I get into this here, now? I know people get antsy even hearing the word "God". But I thought: ah, the heck with it. Put all the cards on the table. I’ve talked around the subject, so for coherence sake, and to advanced a more civil debate, here’s what I think. At the moment. And before I get started you should know that the following views owe a debt to theological writers Karen Armstrong and Marilynne Robinson.
To be clear from the outset: don’t worry. There has been no “Road to Damascus moment” in my life, no mystical experience, no sudden awakening. I’ve never had some vision where I feel God’s spoken to me (an event that would fll within the spectrum on schizophrenia). What follows is the fruit of 55-years’ rather more mundane experience in that struggle between God and No God, involving both head and heart.

To start with, it will be easier to get to what I think God is, or rather what I mean when I use the word, if I first clear the decks of what I do NOT mean by the word.
No longer an option for grown-ups really
Given all we know from science, it doesn’t make sense to me to talk about God as an old man in sky doing stuff. It also doesn’t make sense to me to speak of god as a creator in a literal way: “Hey, presto! Here’s a platypus! Here’s a solar system!” It makes no sense to me to speak of God as some other being, even if that’s the only way beings like ourselves can conceive of God, as a kind of vast other personage.  In fact, I’ll go furher: it makes no sense to me to think of God as some sort of discrete thing unto itself at all, for that would be to limit something which is by definition unlimited. So, we can’t say there’s "A God", as though he’s an item or a species. Such inadequate understandings of God, as just another thing in a universe of things, even the whole universe thing itself, reduces God inevitably to an idol—a fetishized image of ourselves, one that conforms to the limitations of our human thinking, and thus one that can give our likes and dislikes sacred sanction. That is of course where the danger in conventional religious thinking lies. (Funny how God likes the same things we do and hates what we hate. What a coincidence!) And, by the way, if it makes little sense to talk of God as an item or a being, it makes even less sense to ascribe gender to God. So what pronoun to use? Karen Armstrong prefers “It”, but again that supports the idea that God is some sort of object, and just seems to have the wrong feel for God somehow. (Like a 50's B-movie: "It", the non-thing from beyond!)

The idea of God as a gendered being or being unto itself or a thing is a fundamentally reductive, and literal way of thinking. The irony is that this reductive way of thinking about God has been constructed by scientific empiricism post-enlightenment, which encouraged people to regard statements about God as fact rather than symbol of a deeply felt human concern. This forced religion in general into an overly rational, dogmatic literalism, which actually gave rise to the sort of Christian fundamentalism we abhor today. This has indeed proven to be the worst form of spiritual tyranny, leading to Crusades old and new.

A scientific, literalist, materialist approach has so colonized our minds that we aren’t aware we’re seeing through it as a filter. But there are other ways of thinking about the world outside our heads. To describe what I mean, imagine this: If we could reanimate, say, Beethoven, and hook him up to a neurological measuring device while he composed a piano sonata, we could capture a precise reading of everything that was happening in his brain at the time. That read-out would tell us the whole story, EXCEPT the mystery of the music itself. This is what I mean about literal reductive ways of thinking: music is just frequencies of sound arranged in particular ways. But who experiences music like that? (If you do, you may be tone deaf. But  tone-deafness is not an impoverishment of reality, it’s an impoverishment of your senses.) This is the difference between brain and mind, the differences between two kinds of truth, the literal and the numinous. You don’t go looking for God in the former, literal realm. If you do, you won’t find him, you’ll find an idol that looks very much like you.

Another example: it would be possible to measure the exact number, size, weight, and colour intensity of every blade of grass on my lawn. The resulting calculation would be a kind of truth, but without a felt context for that information, what use is the information? Does it have anything to do with the quality of its shimmering on a summer’s day and what it does to my heart? Does that true information have anything to do with how it feels against my back when I lie on it while I look at the clouds passing? Anything we might mean by God, I submit, is far more to do with the latter experience than the former information. My subjective experience of my lawn or of music is a mystery and mystery is as real as the keyboard on which I'm now banging.

So if literal, reductive ways of thinking about God are off the table, what’s left? How can I speak if not correctly, at least not incorrectly, about God? Let us acknowledge then that nothing precise can be said about God, because God is that which is beyond the ability of human reasoning to define. As theologian Don Cupit says: “We say God is ineffable, but we keep on eff-ing him.” If the concept is too vast to be A being, many have suggested (like Rev Forrest church in opening) that it may only make sense to talk about God as being itself. That which is. Or the Hebrew idea of Yahweh who introduces himself “I am that am”. Or as Thomas Aquinas put it: “Ipsum esse subsistens”. God is Subsistent Being Itself. The Eastern orthodox church has generally been better at this way of thinking. In the 4th century the theologian and monk Evagrius Ponticus warned thus: “Do not try to frame any idea of the deity.”

Absence can be meaningful
But without the use of words, without a clearly framed idea, we court mystery and invite the mockery of the literalist paradigm of our age. Where do we turn for any understanding or experiencing of a God as being itself? Many of us I know turn to nature. I think nature, although it may inspire us, can’t actually help us in this regard. Unless God is indeed the architect of the universe, or the stuff itself. This is no longer as it easy to sustain as it was in the time of Isaac Newton. He claimed the intricacy of the cosmos required the existence of an intelligent creator. God was needed to start the whole show rolling. So this gave support for the existence of the God of the Bible. However, if we begin to ask, well what happened before the big bang—something Aquinas and Evagrius would be asking if they were alive today--all we can say is, we don’t know.
Silence can speak with wondrous eloquence
 Silence. Absence of data.
What is the sound of silence?
How can absence be a presence?
Where is outside space? When is outside time?
You see what I mean by the limits of language?

Is this a dead end? No: it is a threshold. A threshold through which we may pass if we are brave enough.

What I mean by God is precisely that dimension of being which is beyond precise language, beyond our limited human faculties to conceive of, the vast silence, what I think of as a ‘resonant absence’. An awareness of what is missing from, or outside of, or beyond, what we experience with our mind and senses. But if God is fundamentally beyond us, how can we experience, or even understand, God? The good news is that there are precedents for approaching such a conception of the deity. Such a God was once absorbed or experienced, pre-enlightenment, through music, poetry, art, architecture, ritual and liturgy, through non-literal means, our way of existentially pointing to what is beyond our fathoming. Liturgy especially, which would have included ALL of them centuries ago, having the purpose of putting you in a more receptive frame of mind, one which is non-literal, which approaches the teaching of all the great religions not as assertions of fact, but as allegory, as poetry rather than science, an acknowledgement of mystery AS mystery, something over which we arrogant humans may have NO mastery. But we keep on effing the ineffable. Or as Woody Allen said, “God is silent. Now if only humans would shut up about him.”
Not seeing something doesn't mean nothing's there.
 Which is a way of saying I’m nearly mercifully done and I hope this hasn't been too much to ask of you, but I think a church that doesn’t talk about god once in a while is simply afraid of the notion. And a minister that never mentions him can’t expect people to know what he means when he uses the word. Now you do, or maybe you’re more confused than ever. People will ask: so you’re an atheist? And agnostic? A closet theist? I’m not an ist or an ism or an ic; I think for myself, which is what, after, all, Unitarians are meant to be doing.

Because finally whatever we might mean by God is all about us and how we perceive God. And that’s why it’s important for any religious project to maintain a sense of the value of human beings’ experience. Our subjective experience of life is a spectacular argument for our singularity among all things that exist—this strange amphibious creature that swims in nature but is afflicted with a capacity for reflection that can transcend nature. It is through that capacity only that I think we can have an experience of God, a kind of un-knowing that prevents idolatry, of making God in our image and likeness. “Do not try to frame any idea of the deity” means ‘empty your mind’.

And this approach is not new or my invention, but the most ancient form of spiritual practice. 'Blessed is he who is without sensations in prayer', said Evagrius-- none of this seeking for some kind of insight, or even a warm glow. You can’t feel God any more than you can think God, says Karen Armstrong. The Greeks called the approach of un-knowing ‘kenosis’. It’s the great satisfaction that occurs whenever we go outside ourselves, as we do through art or through love or service. It is what Buddhists and Hindus do through meditation, what the Quakers claim to experience through silence. To achieve that state in which the emptiness resonates with being. That is where we find God.

Or rather where I do. You will have your own views, of course, and I’d love to hear about them. But the point is how to live with the God we find. To remind myself what that’s like, I particularly find useful the sound of resonant silence that occurs just after a final chord and music stops, that resonance where the rafters seem to still ring with sound waves. Or looking at the seemingly dark places between the stars. The poet Dennis O’Driscoll says God is like "being in a dovecot after the birds have all flown". Absence, silence like that.

Maybe this nothingness is nothing pure and simple, but this awareness of what is missing, or what forever must elude us,  reminds me that we are always and everywhere in the presence of the infinite, that there will always be much more beyond what we know or can know. It is an absence that seems to beckon, a silence that seems to call, me, us, toward it.
Do you hear that? Some call it desolation, emptiness, nothing.

Others call it God.



  1. Thank you for this Rob. I particularly liked "God is that which is beyond the ability of human reasoning to define." BUT I also believe (with the Quakers) that there is "that of God in everyone" - the part of you and me that is yearning towards the infinite, towards God. Sue

  2. Thank you Rob,

    You've been absent and silent for too long my friend...I heard that still small voice that is less than a whisper and yet somehow more than silence in threaded through this...that seems to only really reveal itself in the utter desolation when the defences and our human arrogance is broken down...from that despair hope seems to burst into life...and oh and in that space when we give from self to the other and or allow the other give to self...Good to hear from you my friend...much love to you and the family...God bless and stay free X