A post from the MD discussions that I take part in:
Sam is totally identified with his religion. It's his tightly held persona. He's a Christian priest and it suits his needs. Strip Sam of his persona and you have dust and bones. But Sam has Value, I'm sure like Bono he performs good deeds.
I know you like Sam. I do too.
I've definitely pushed the boat out in the MD discussions recently. I've always previously kept my most deeply held beliefs under a tight(ish) rein - because it's a secular forum, so I have never felt it that appropriate to come right out and say 'hey, I'm a Christian, I really do believe this stuff'. But after one comment from a newbie, which - I thought - portrayed me as a hypocrite, I felt the need to lay my cards down on the table. This is what I said:
I would place my understanding of God within the Christian tradition, specifically, in the context of classical Christian mysticism. So to explain some of the core sense of that, I'll need to use two words 'cataphatic' and 'apophatic'. (I've written about this to DMB before, but probably nobody else noticed).
Can God be spoken about or not? The cataphatic answers the question positively, saying that there are things which can truly be said about God - so the language used in the Bible to talk about God is meaningful language. And it is also possible to say true things about what God is not. So God is NOT X, Y or Z. In contrast, the apophatic tradition answers this question negatively, so apophatic mysticism is the 'negative' tradition, which says 'not this, not that' etc. Specifically, it says that all language about God is meaningless so we should shut up and not 'yelp about God'.
The important thing to know is that these two answers to the question are siamese twins, rather like yin and yang, and they cannot exist without the other. The mainstream mystics in the western tradition (Denys, Eckhart, Julian of Norwich etc) have their different emphases and 'flavours' but in each case the language of their writings is predicated on the truth of both answers. So first there is the cataphatic response to the question, and there is an overflowing abundance of language referring to God, eg saying 'God is light' and then, in dialectical movement, there is the negation of this, eg saying God is darkness (this is STILL the cataphatic, NB), and then - *and this is the key 'apophatic' moment* - this distinction of positive and negative is itself negated by saying 'God is dazzling darkness'.
So, just to ensure this is understood, the cataphatic is *both* statements (God is light, God is darkness) and the apophatic is the paradox *beyond* the statements, that state of understanding or enlightenment when the soul has absorbed or developed the truth about God. In other words, the mystical writers in the Western tradition are using the natural language of theology, for "Good theology... leads to that silence which is only found on the other side of a general linguistic embarrassment" (Denys Turner). It is the difference between knowing nothing (the state of innocence) and knowing that you know nothing (the state of wisdom) - and the mystical tradition is a way of enabling the journey from the one to the other, _through_ the dialectic of cataphatic and apophatic.
(This mystical tradition, just to head off a possible criticism, isn't exclusively Christian. It has two parents - Moses going up the Mountain, and Plato's allegory of the cave - and it's the latter which brings out its relevance to Pirsig, for he is a neo-Platonist.)
So when I say 'God does not exist' I'm using the _first_ bit of cataphatic language (ie I'm denying 'God exists'). And Paul is quite right to say that I'm committed to saying 'God does not not-exist'. That is the apophatic response, and this is the paradox and failure of language to capture the reality of God.
Much more interesting than that technical stuff, however, is the spiritual journey within which that language makes sense. That is, the soul aspires to union with God, but is prevented from enjoying that union as a result of sin. Putting that in MoQ terms, our fourth level patterns seek to be fully open to Quality, yet are restricted by the social patterns which are harmfully static. The process of mysticism (as I understand it) is the discipline of renouncing all the static patterns so as to enable mystical union.
"In the Pauline and Johannine writings of the New Testament, life in Christ consists in a dynamic union with God. Depending on the emphasis, this union is presented as being with Christ as with God's divine self-expression, or with God (the Father) in and through Christ. God's spirit seals the union and initiates an ever-growing participation in the intimacy of the divine life. The presence of the Holy Spirit endows the Christian with a 'sense' of the divine that if properly developed enables the believer to 'taste' (_sapere_) God and all that relates to him." (Louis Dupre, 'Unio Mystica')
In other words, what motivates the quest for God is love; as Augustine put it, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Him. I understand the mystical tradition to be a process of breaking the back of the intellectual ego, so as to allow the soul to grow in wisdom, and grow into God.
Kevin (the newbie) said:
> I ask
> myself, what meaningful purpose would the leader of a
> Christian community have
> for engaging...no that's not quite right...for
> championing a stumbling block.
(the stumbling block being my - orthodox - assertion that God 'does not exist')
Which as you might imagine is quite a challenge.
Firstly, for the record, might I state (if anyone had any doubt) that I believe in God, I pray to God, I worship God, etc etc. It's the defining feature of my life. My relationship with God runs deeper in me than any thoughts or perceptions or considerations that might otherwise emerge. I am absolutely certain of the reality of God. Indeed, if that certainty were to fail, I would check myself in to a psychiatric unit, as I would have no other conclusion to reach than that my mind had failed. The reality of God is more firmly rooted in me than any sense of self, so if there is a conflict, its the sense of self which is suspect.
So why might I be saying 'God does not exist'? Part of the answer I've already provided; part is, as you rightly point out, that I am being provocative. But is it a needless provocation, or is there something more substantial? I think the latter.
A bit of personal history might help explain things. I was raised in a fairly standard Anglican home. Religion was there in the background, but it was never dominant. I became an atheist when I was 12, following a conversation with a conservative evangelical, when I was told that Gandhi was going to Hell because he didn't confess Jesus Christ as his personal lord and saviour. That seemed unjust to me; God cannot be unjust; therefore if he claims that then he doesn't exist. I remained an atheist throughout my teenage years, lapping up people like Richard Dawkins and all the other secular opposition to Christianity. I tucked into lots of 'alternative' understandings, both the occult and more mainstream mythological stuff like Campbell. Christianity was simply a busted flush. Nobody with any intellectual self-respect could possibly take it seriously.
I then went to university to study Philosophy and Theology (and read ZMM). My conscious purpose was to get lots of good arguments to bash Christians around the head with (I was very influenced by 'The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail' - source for 'The Da Vinci Code'). However, once I was dealing with the subjects at a serious academic level I discovered that most of what I understood about Christianity was wrong. What I had been rejecting wasn't Christianity- it was a degraded, watered down hybrid of Modern Philosophy and Protestant Fundamentalism. Once I realised how mistaken I had been, the scene was set for me to enjoy a moment of enlightenment, which is what has given me, ever since, the certainty that I refer to above.
But a fundamental driver in my personality now (which sometimes leads me astray) is to uproot and destroy the misconceptions that prevented someone like me from understanding, and therefore taking seriously, the claims which are made by the Christian faith. And those misconceptions abound, especially on this forum. Take the claim that a person believes that God exists. That might be considered (eg from a fundamentalist viewpoint) as sufficient for faith. To my mind, that is profoundly mistaken. Belief that God exists is next to useless in the context of Christian faith. (Even the demons believe - and they tremble). For the key thing about Christian faith is to be transformed by the love of God into a creature capable of sharing that love of God in the world. This is less about a belief that God exists than about developing the relationship with God, so that one gets caught up within the love of the Trinity, what the medieval mystics called the _unio_mystica_.
So when I challenge people by saying 'God does not exist' I am wanting to unsettle the belief - held by both believers and atheists - that they know what 'God' is, as explained to Paul. I think people have far too much confidence about the nature of 'God' (I wouldn't exclude myself either). So often belief or disbelief in God seems to be about the existence or non-existence of a particular entity with definable attributes. As if the difference between a believer and a non-believer were that in the universe of the believer, everything was just the same as for the non-believer, except for the addition of an extra item, the causal source of it all, called 'God'. I think such debates are totally unconnected with the living reality of what Christian faith is about. To believe in God is to see the world - ALL of the world - completely differently. To see the world in a certain way - and live out the consequences - that is what it means to believe in God, whether God is named as such or not. Yet one can claim a belief that 'God exists' and still completely miss what that means. And in precisely the same way, one can claim that 'God does not exist' - and therefore reject Christian faith - and yet have completely misunderstood what is being claimed and rejected. What I am trying to do (probably failing, but I'll always try) is to _remove_ a stumbling block. I am saddened that I appear to have created a different one.
By being (i) explicitly Christian, and (ii) saying that 'God does not exist', I am not being a woolly liberal post-modern trendy vicar. I am consciously trying to unsettle the certainty with which people say they don't believe in God. I think a lot of people (not all) are in the position I was in when I was a teenager - they reject a deformed part of Christianity, and believe that they are rejecting the whole. As I said to Ian recently, if he explained the nature of the God he didn't believe in, he would probably find that I don't believe in him either. Hence my regular quotation from Denys Turner: "in the sense in which atheists. say God 'does not exist', the atheist has merely arrived at the theological starting point. Theologians of the classical traditions, an Augustine, a Thomas Aquinas or a Meister Eckhart, simply agree about the disposing of idolatries, and then proceed with the proper business of doing theology".
But I DO believe in the orthodox Christian God, so help me God.
"I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless, that you have to change your life (or the direction of your life)...the point is that a sound doctrine need not take hold of you, you can follow it as you would a doctor's prescription. But here you need something to move you and turn you in a new direction."