Is God hidden? A letter to a friend

Andromeda galaxy
A reader in the UK sent me an email recently asking among other things “why God keeps himself hidden from the world?”

These were my thoughts in response:

We often think of God as a “Person,” or Supreme Being, separate from Creation, and following the logic of what “personhood” seems to convey, we might assume God has motives, will, desires, emotions, can change his mind, and can even be so temperamental as to destroy the world when really pissed off, as in the Flood story.

I have come to believe that God’s personhood, what I call “the personal metaphor,” is just that, a metaphor. Needless to say, it is used often in both testaments, and Jesus himself used it fairly consistently in referring to God. But it’s important to note that many other metaphors are used in the Bible. God is a fire, a spirit, a dove, a wind, a rock, light, and love itself. And whenever Jesus referred to the God as a person, he cast that person as “Father,” certainly to bring forth God’s benevolence.

The very word “persons” invites misunderstanding of Trinitarian doctrine. The Latin word personae could mean the characters in a play (the dramatis personae in theater programs), or even the masks the characters wore! God wearing three masks.

Eastern Orthodoxy developed the idea of the essence of God as being distinct from the energies of God, and maintains that the essence of God is beyond “beyond,” while God is known through his energies, and that we may unite with his energies in theosis.

Energy is force, and actually, I find “the Force” a more useful metaphor for God now. Not in every way, of course. I don’t believe that the Force is generated by living things and obeys commands, like in Star Wars, but I do believe that thinking of God as non-personal, and Force-like helps me.

For instance, if I were to ask why does gravity keep itself hidden, you would probably say it doesn’t, it’s just there, wherever there’s mass, there’s gravitation. We just need to notice how things act to notice its actions.

In a similar way, I don’t believe that God intentionally keeps teachings hidden, or himself hidden, (I’ll make a leap now and say Itself) It is everywhere, in all things, and discovering God is a matter of seeing things with spiritual eyes, of “loving God with all your heart, mind, and soul,” and “loving your neighbor as yourself.”

When we can do those things as Jesus said, we can see everyone as the child of God, and live in the kingdom of heaven, which is within us.

St. Hildegard of Bingen called God Haecceitas which means “This-ness,” and Meister Eckhart called God “Is-ness.” This titles are far beyond “personhood” as we think of it. This is a Force beyond forces. This is what creates and holds the Universe together, every Planck-instant of every second, everywhere that is. It is Everything, and beyond Everything, but more than anything else for our purposes, It is Love.

Beyond Impossibility

Living in a world of “conditioned existence” as Buddhists say,
is living in a world of possibilities, and impossibilities.

Freedom lies beyond impossibility.
All the Teachers know it.

Hence the koans:
What is the sound of one hand?
How does one pinch smoke?
What did you look like before your grandparents were born?

The voice of God from the whirlwind:
Can you bind the Pleiades?
Were you there when the morning stars sang together,
and the sons of God shouted for joy?

The eternal questions of the gurus:
What am I?
What is happening right now?
Is reality really real?

The questions of almost every child
until they learn that one shouldn’t question
the things that others no longer question:
What is beyond the end of space?
Can God make a stone so heavy he can’t lift it?
Who made God?

The questions that we don’t laugh at
because they return years later:
Why am I here?
What am I supposed to do?

Beyond impossibility
is this.

Seeds

The mightiest redwood grew from a small seed in a cone, and that, in turn, sprang from a seed from a cone from another redwood, and so on. For generations, centuries, millennia.

Every seed stores not only the raw potential of the mature plant enfolded within it, but of that plant’s future generations.

Every action taken or not taken today, every word said or unsaid, changes the timeline of the Universe forever.

And all futures spring from this present moment, as this moment in turn arises from all the past moments that have ever been.

The seed from which the whole Universe blossomed is the One.

The seed from which that One came forth is unfathomable.

My faith lies not in answers, nor questions, but in that mystery beyond, behind, beneath, within Everything. There is no surer foundation, no wider reach, no grander canvas, no presence more persistent. Or intimate.

When you can dance on nothing at all, you can never fall.

Thomas Merton Square

The Louisville Metro Council last month named the intersection of 4th and Muhommad Ali Blvd. "Thomas Merton Square," in honor of Fr. Thomas Merton’s epiphany.  To my knowledge, this is the only occasion of any government recognizing an event related to awakening. The occasion was reported in the Lousville Courier-Journal, .with some excellent writing that actually understood Merton and the meaning of his experience.

As Carl McColman at The Website of Unknowing observed: "It’s rather neat to see a landmark named in honor of a mystical experience!" I’ll say! And I’ve never seen a secular newspaper report so well the meaning of a mystical experience. The times, they are a-changin’! Thanks, Carl, for letting us  know about this wonderful news!

I awoke this morning

I awoke this morning
a poem flowing out of me
taking me from dreamland to morning light

An acknowledgement of all the Shadows
and the rightness of all the things I hide

A poem that wouldn’t end
because everything is part of it
A poem I couldn’t share, wouldn’t dare
for fear no one could understand but me.

A cat nuzzled me awake
Odor of an acrid litterbox
All perfect.

Before my feet touched the floor,
I realized
I am the poem I dreamed,
My life is the poem
written not for forty-seven years
But written from the first breath
I breathed,
the first body I owned.

Now there are billions
as much me as I am
living life in different circumstances
As I live life in mine.

All rage is mine, all love is mine,
all indifference and confusion mine.

I somersault naked off of water buffaloes behind the Taj Mahal,
And in Norfolk share the laughter.

I’m not alive
I’m life.

I’m awake.

A subtle lesson

Sometimes the difficulty of blogging is that what seems blog-worthy is so subtle, it’s very difficult to express. That’s what’s been going on with me, recently. Nothing big, dramatic, or exciting. Subtle things.

For instance, I had an experience recently with getting off on a bad start one morning having to listen to a political discussion that deeply offended me. Now, I can discuss religion with Fundamentalists, atheists and Wiccans, but politics, I can’t discuss, period, except for close friends, and even that can be very challenging for me. So, I was greeted to a political discussion at the beginning of the day dominated by a couple of loudmouth opinionbags whose presence I find intolerable when they’re in "rant" mode. I don’t join in such discussions, even when there’s a certain level of mutual respect and freedom to express one’s opinions–and honestly, there was then.

Except that I was the one that lacked mutual respect. The others might not have respected my opinion, but they do respect me. But when  certain politics comes up, I lose respect for the holders of those points-of-view themselves. And so, the day started progressing, with me despising some people I didn’t want to despise.

Soon a realization came to mind. It was something that Thich Nhat Hahn had once written, but I experienced it internally, as something I knew, not as something to consider: If I had had the same experiences, I would have the same views. I mean all the same experiences, (and only those): genetics, environment, reading, travels, past-life experiences and karma, etc. There is nothing in me that was different than which was in them.  Well. no room for despising after that.

I want so much to believe that I am "special:" The ego  frames us with a smoke screen that looks strong enough to hang a picture on: Because I believe my opinions, my politics, and POV is right, I’m bolstered into feeling "I" am right. And if I am, you definitely ain’t.

Every now and then, grace blows the smoke away.

Exotheism

I recently got a call from an old friend whom I hadn’t heard from in ages. He and I were part of the same radical Pentecostal campus fellowship a couple of decades ago, but I got a sense that his spiritual life is stagnant. I asked him about it, and he said he was having “diminished expectations” of God. Where he used to believe strongly that God intervened on his behalf, he’s not so sure now. I could feel his disappointment and confusion through the phone.

The shift to panentheism changed things radically for me. Since I no longer believe that God is a “person” (in the sense of that word meaning a separate, distinct über-entity), I can sense the truth behind so many apparently contrary theisms:

  • monotheism, because the One is … well, all that is
  • polytheism, because God is manifest in all things and revealed in many ways.
  • pantheism, because God is in everything.
  • agnosticism, because the thinking mind can’t grasp God.
  • atheism, because the idea of an überbeing in the sky seems woefully insufficient. to account for this.

If I’m in touch—in various degrees—with all of these, what have I left behind? What is the opposite of panentheism, the idea that God is within and beyond all things? We might call it exotheism, the belief that God is outside of all things, and especially, outside of you.

The “entry-level” stage of Western religions generally teach exotheism, and exotheism is a significant part of my friend’s pain. In the exotheistic view, God and you can only meet in a relationship, and as everyone knows, relationships are tricky things, and this is especially true of a relationship with the Almighty.

It might be the fearful relationship of appeasing someone who is angry, unpredictable and all-powerful. It might be the heady relationship of knowing all that seems worth knowing as you read the texts that God has apparently commissioned. It might be the wonderful release of surrendering your ego to something greater than yourself. It might be the joy of feeling the presence of the Beloved in prayer or worship. It might start off feeling wonderful, and lead to feeling frustrated with “diminished expectations.”
But most relationships have a serious flaw… unspoken demands that the other meet one’s needs. My friend’s “diminished expectations” were really the feeling of frustration that God wasn’t living up to his part of the bargain, not meeting his needs.

That perception that God is there to do things for us is perhaps the strongest barrier to divine presence. It works for a while, but dropping the demands of our neediness is essential to experience the divine later on in the journey as the soul matures. Then matters of relationship, self, inside and outside become as irrelevant as whether or not my egoic “needs” are being met. I’m just here, and so is my appreciation and wonder.

Hofstadter and this last week

This week has been good. To explain it, I’m going to have to start with my college days. During my undergrad years in El Paso, I was in an extremely conservative congregation. My desire to know God had been subverted, as it is with so many of us, to know “about” God, or more accurately, to know the teachings of a single religious perspective about God and become ever more deeply immersed in it, distrusting everything else.

geb.jpgHowever, I discovered a wonderful book that kept my mind from being completely nailed shut: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by the mathematician Douglas Hofstadter. Hofstadter’s book was written for the layman, and was entertaining. funny, and delightful. True to the title, he referred frequently to the works of mathematician Kurt Gödel, artist M.C. Escher, and Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The theme was the principle of what Hofstadter called “strange loopiness”—patterns that turn themselves inside out or strangely embed themselves within themselves, and this was years before the first popular books on chaos theory or fractals would appear.

Hofstadter explained not only what Gödel’s theorem was, but how its principle applied to the world at large. The theorem was a mathematical proof (and when something’s proven in math, it’s proven like nobody’s business) that it is impossible for any arithmetical system to be completely free of contradiction. For instance, in the set of positive integers, 5 – 7 is contradiction. To deal with it, negative numbers had to be created. (Remember when you were a kid how weird negative numbers seemed at first?) Taking it farther, in the realm of real numbers, the square root of a negative number was a contradiction. So enter the imaginaries, as if all numbers weren’t imaginary.

drawing_hands.jpgHofstadter playfully, lovingly, danced open invitations to a universe of contradiction, containing itself and looping back on itself; Möbius strips and Klein pitchers, Escher’s hands drawing themselves into existence, Carroll’s Jabberwockies gyring and gimbling in the wabe of Bach’s cancrizan canons inverting and reversing themselves, Zen koans turning assumptions inside out until there’s no-thing left to know.

After reading G,E,B, I continued as a zealous Fundamentalist for quite some time (before many spiritual morphings), but one thing had changed forever, and that was that I would never be able to fall for the idea that everything could be explained by reason.

Let’s fast forward a couple of decades: On January 22, 2006, I had a glimpse of the nature of the world. Yes, it was unsettling at first, but strangely empowering as well. But it didn’t last long: The actual glimpse was just that—a second or two—and the knowing (as opposed to thinking) of the “empty holodeck” lasted only a few days.

I Am a Strange LoopLast Sunday, I found myself missing it. I prayed to be able to see it again, to have a spiritual refresher. Thursday, I saw that Dr. Hofstadter has published a new book: I Am a Strange Loop. I sat down with it a while and saw, to my delight, that he’s taken it to the next logical level: ego, consciousness, identity, and what’s beyond. Like Steve Pavlina, Hofstadter is one of those gifted with using non-mystical and even non-religious language to teach some of the most sublime realizations.

That night, I dreamt I was on a planet called Cascadia, abundant with mountains, waterfalls and snow. I stayed there a while, but eventually decided to leave, and booked passage on a spaceship. The spaceship somehow became an elevator, and then I realized that Cascadia was inside the Earth, and that all the planets were inside Earth, like nested concentric spheres.

Then I awoke. And I knew that all the worlds are within. Within me, as Thomas Traherne wrote centuries ago, “it’s less that I am in the world, than that the world is within me.”

Let’s talk about it.

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