Thursday, April 14, 2011

Why still use the word "God"?

I love blog comments, and I love it even more when I get a comment that warrants more than just a quick reply. I got such a comment yesterday from Bret "Ginx" Alan. He wrote:
I advise against flimsy definitions of gods. I've heard arguments made by very intelligent people who want to redefine what gods are for one reason or another (Einstein comes to mind). The problem is... the universe isn't a god, nor are the basic underlying princples which govern the universe gods. The only thing which are gods are gods, and gods have a pretty clear definition in every religion (usually human-like, sometimes living in the sky or underground... that sort of thing). For all that you're changing the definition of gods, you might as well worship faeries and say "Well, they aren't those fairy tale faeries that flutter around gardens with wands."

I sometimes joke that my god is Truth and my religion is Justice, but I don't really see it as this. I merely use this as a metaphor to explain my philosophy. Maybe it's the English tutor in me, but I really can't stand it when people conflate words to be things they aren't. I know language is a living and changing construct, but are there no other words besides "god" for ideals or principles?

God just screams anthropomorphic being, and not only in Western culture. I assume you don't believe in such a thing. You believe in a more abstract view of what "gods" are. Except... as long as the word "god" is used, there will always be some kind of connection to the old. If I formed a new club, I wouldn't call it "The Nazis" and use the swastika as my symbol, then spend most of my time defending my use of it, claiming I'm going to redefine it.

I guess my actual question is... why is there such a lack of creativity among the spiritually non-religious who actually want religion, but lack one which represents them? By now, there has got to be enough people and the means (via the internet) to organize such a thing. I say this not because I want in or that I'm annoyed by what you're doing (I'm not, not that it should matter to you what I think), but because I think the religious landscape has become too homogenous for it's own good. Diversity is an important hallmark of a healthy society.
Great questions! A few thoughts.

I can't speak for all non-religious/semi-religious/non-literal theistic types. I have a couple of my own reasons for continuing to use the word "God."

First, I think it's too powerful of a word to let fundamentalists have a monopoly on it. There are many fundamentalists who can tell that something's foul in their religion but don't want to leave God behind. I think it's important for there to be a viable middle way between completely non-religious atheism and religious fundamentalism. Given the choice between the two, I'd unquestionably choose atheism, but I am among those for whom that just doesn't feel like a whole way to live.

Second, I'm not entirely sure I'm actually redefining anything as much as I'm coming to a fuller and more accurate understanding of something I've believed in all along. Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, but most Hindus understand their various gods as representations of an Ultimate Reality, a Reality we have to attach faces and images to in order to try to understand it. When trying to explain or understand something complex, you start with something concrete and simple. Think of the drawings of atoms or cells in fourth grade science textbooks versus college textbooks.

The God I'm exploring is not an ideal or a principle. I honestly think there is Something and that the mythologies and rituals that have evolved in the world's religions are gateways to understanding that Something. A friend of mine put this beautifully recently: Religion is a bridge, not a destination. People get caught up in the bridge and think that's It; they stay on the bridge instead of crossing it to where it's intended to get you. I think the anthropomorphic images are something we've attached to something much bigger and more complex, something we can't yet fully define.

The most common flimsy-ish definition of God that I've heard is that God is Love. It seems to me that in many ways, love in its myriad manifestations (self-love, romantic love, parent-child love, friendship) is as complicated and mysterious as, say, string theory. Science has yet to unlock certain other mysteries, such as how exactly life began, and what is the nature of consciousness. I'm certainly not in favor of a "GodDidIt, case closed" approach to these questions, but in the end, I won't be surprised if science reveals answers about our day-to-day living that are similar to what our religions have told us.

Religions are as imperfect as anything else that is evolved. I had experiences of holiness and sacredness within the context of a religion as flawed as Mormonism. I think I was mistaken about the images and meanings to which I attributed these experiences, but I don't think I was mistaken about the holiness. I'm aware that those experiences probably have a lot to do with some sort of chemical reaction in my brain and body, but then I want to know, Why did we evolve to have and crave those experiences? Religious practice for me was a way to cultivate and harness those experiences as a means to more effective living and loving. That's what I'm seeking to regain.

As to why we non-literal types don't make our own religion, to some extent, that's what the Unitarian Universalists are doing. For me, they're not quite what I'm looking for because I prefer something not quite so generic. One time when I visited them, they sang the familiar Christian hymn "For the Beauty of the Earth," except the word "Lord" in the chorus had been changed to "Source of all, to thee we raise/ this our hymn of grateful praise." And then everyone is free to insert whatever they want in place of Source, whether it's an anthropomorphic god, or a higher self, or a mother goddess, or the universe. I love that kind of open-mindedness, but for me, something more specific feels more potent. I also think this Something that I'm seeking to engage with and understand has too many facets for any one god(dess) to be an adequate representation. One day I might want Jesus. Another day Artemis will be closer to what I'm looking for. Other times, I need look no further than the spark of the God that is within me, as Emerson describes it. I like to think of the religions of the world as a grand buffet with all sorts of choices available, but no obligation to take everything.

Starting my own religion is actually something that has crossed my mind. I don't know if I ever will, but I like to think that in some small way, my blog is a part of gathering like-minded people who want a middle way. Andrew at God Will Be God writes a lot in the same vein as I do. I'm grateful for him and others like him that I've met since I started blogging.

So I guess to sum up, I don't throw out the word "God" despite its anthropomorphic connotations because I think anthropomorphic gods are effective though imperfect bridges to something bigger.

Related Posts: Defining Spirituality
                       "Why do you still like religion when you don't believe in it?"


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  1. This post is great! You sum up very well why I'm not quite drawn to the UU either.

  2. "I think it's too powerful of a word to let fundamentalists have a monopoly on it."

    That's admirable. I guess atheists just take the "let's make god less powerful" approach.

    "but I am among those for whom that just doesn't feel like a whole way to live."

    Atheism certainly lacks anything remotely resembling a way of life. Being a philsophically negative viewpoint, it is really just a position that rules out certain ideologies.

    I hope you find what you're looking for over whatever bridge you cross.

  3. You are one of my new favorite bloggers. >.>b This is almost exactly the journey I had. I found Taoism on the way out, but while I believed in the Tao I still had to pray, and I wanted to know who I was praying to.

    Once I found out that it was Inari, a lot of things made so much more sense. And as soon as I allowed myself to believe in her, and not try to explain her away or worry about how she existed, I had an extremely powerful spiritual experience. I hope you also find what you're looking for.

  4. Thanks, Feathertail!

    I'm (re)learning that some things really can't be measured and explained. (Love, for instance.)

    If you haven't read it already, you might like this post:

  5. "I like to think of the religions of the world as a grand buffet with all
    sorts of choices available, but no obligation to take everything."

    Ah, I love how you put that. Maybe we should make that the collective noun for deities: A Buffet of Gods. ^_^ I sometimes channel Ares, summon Athena or Ganesha to help me overcome obstacles, and pray to Papa Legba and even Odin (though I'm usually in a pretty foul and antisocial mood when I do that). Sometimes my spirit guides advise, lecture, and butt-kick me about my choices. I find them all great masks for real parts of either myself or of social connections, obligations, or traditions that I fall back on to manage or understand my life and those of those around me.

    As for capital-G God, I think for me God, the God I adress and the one that answers back through my subconscious, is a manifestation of the universe as it relates to me. I always imagine this like a hologram: The entire universe is vast and mostly concerned with everything else, but one tiny sliver, on itsy-bitsy perspective is mine, and my God is the universe aligned along that one axis, focused onto that unique connection between me and everything else - the way one sees the entire 3 dimensional image in a hologram but from one single perspective. And the anthropomorphic God is the interface my mind creates to make the universe accessible and personal for me through that one keyhole.

    As such I would claim that of course God really, truly exists... and I don't really think that I have redefined Him in the sense I understand Mr. Alan... that is the same God Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Jesus, and Muhammad encountered... He exists whenever a human engages his holographic model of the universe as it relates to him. The God we actually percieve may just be a construct, a mask, a metaphor we, each, create, but it remains a mask for the "real" world, just as the image my brain creates out of the impulses it recieves from my retina, as the sounds it creates from the impulses it recieves from my auditive nerve, or the sensations it creates from the impulses it recieves from the tactile nerves in my skin are a mask, maybe even a metaphor, for those "real" objects that were engaged by my senses.

  6. I second both the praise of Andrew's blog (through which I encountered this blog), and the woot! ^_^

  7. "
    I like to think of the religions of the world as a grand buffet with all sorts of choices available, but no obligation to take everything."

    It's like if you're writing poems about light. You might mention the sun in one poem, and CFL bulbs in a second, and a mirrored hallway in a third. Then you could write about different shades of black on a barely moonlit walk, and then the light in a lover's eyes.

    The most foolish reaction possible to such an anthology would be to pick out the poem on CFL bulbs and claim that the rest of the poems are in disagreement with it. It would be relatively easy, right down to building an altar festooned with swirly glass bulbs and posters of that picture of the earth from space. But it would also be stupid- the CFL bulbs weren't the point. Light was the point.

  8. Otter, I like this analogy a lot.

  9. I think that the statement that "God is love" is one that resonates with your post here.  The idea that this is flimsy-ish might not mesh with the striking hard-headedness of the statement.  If God is no more and no less than love, then this is simply a way of saying that of all the things / forces / powers in the universe, there is one and one only worthy of human worship: love.

    And though it sounds sentimental, I'm not so sure.  Science is finding out things about the energies that hold things together that we might as well call "love" as anything else... what do you call it when the energies of the human race seem not only to be connected but to be effectual at accomplishing and causing and moving and even healing?

    Love's as good a term as any, I guess.  

    Call it Andrew if it pleases you.

    Nice post.  Much appreciated. 

  10. Riparian, thanks so much for this comment. I think it's very profound, and the second paragraph especially articulates a lot more clearly what I was trying to get at.

    It reminds me somewhat of this post from Conversion Diary:  where the writer says that when we say God is love, we're not describing what God is; we're describing what love is.


Religion, skepticism, and carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism