I have recently read Karen Armstrong's A Case For God. Karen takes us through the whole sweep of human pre-history and history and the ways humans have envisioned and related to God over the millennia. One of Karen's main points is the difference between seeing God as A BEING and seeing God as BEING ITSELF. In this post, I will examine the difference between these two ways of seeing God.
GOD AS A BEING
As an elementary Catholic school child, I learned in my Catechism class (as did Karen Armstrong) that God is A BEING. God is, in fact, THE SUPREME BEING. In its trademark question-and-answer format, the Baltimore Catechism states:
QUESTION: Who is God?
ANSWER: God is the Supreme Being, infinitely perfect, who made all things and keeps them in existence.
This invites us to see God as A Being (just as we are each a being), but as A Being much greater, much wiser, much more powerful than we are. We are lesser, finite, imperfect beings. God is The Supreme Being, infinitely perfect. Each of us is a being created by God. God is The Supreme Being who has always existed and who has created all other beings.
Here are two consequences of viewing God as A Being.
- We can contain, describe, and define God: Envisioning God as A Being suggests that God is someTHING out there which (though incorporeal) can nonetheless be contained, described, and defined. God exists (as we do) and possesses characteristics (as we do). God's existence (unlike our physical existence on earth) is immortal and eternal. God's characteristics (unlike ours) are perfect and infinite: God is infinitely and perfectly knowing, infinitely and perfectly wise, infinitely and perfectly powerful, infinitely and perfectly loving, infinitely and perfectly just.
- Our ideas about God are either right or wrong: Envisioning God as A Being also suggests that any given idea about God is either right or wrong. Since God is A Being who exists and possesses characteristics, I can be right in my ideas about This Being, and if your ideas differ from my right ideas about This Being, then your ideas about This Being are wrong. I may feel that I need to convert you to my right ideas about God, or worse, that I need to destroy you because you are a source of heresy or even blasphemy.
Karen Armstrong points out that this view of God as A Being - who can be contained, described, and defined and about whom our ideas are either right or wrong - is a relatively recent one that coincides with the flowering of modern science during the Enlightenment. Karen explains that, as science came into its own and improved people's lives so extensively, the thought patterns upon which science is based were exalted more and more until they became the only legitimate type of thought. This type of thought is called logos. Logos is logical, thrives on analysis and differentiation, insists on rational proof, sees time as linear.
Karen Armstrong explains that logos is proper for science but not for religion, where different thought patterns are needed - the thought patterns of mythos. Mythos sees deeper truth within logical contradictions, teaches wisdom through story, thrives on art, feels comfortable with paradox, sees time as spiral.
Logos sees God as A Being who can be contained,described, and defined and about whom our ideas are either right or wrong. Mythos sees God as Being Itself.
GOD AS BEING ITSELF
For millennia before the scientific age and the exclusive focus on logos - stretching back into the reaches of pre-history and surviving here and there through the Enlightenment and into the twenty-first century - we find people who see God as Being Itself. In other words, God is seen not as A Being but as Being. What does this mean? As it turns out, language begins to fail us when we try to talk about God who is not A Being but Being.
To see God as Being Itself is to see God as completely beyond anything in our experience. Everything in our experience is a being. We know what a being is (which may be why we feel comfortable envisioning God as The Supreme Being), but what is Being? We don't know.
As I think about this, I am not sure if we don't know what Being is because Being is not within our experience - or if we don't know what Being is because Being is so intimate a part of our world that we can't see it, or in other words, because we are so enmeshed in Being that we can't step back from Being enough to get a view of it.
Examining the previous sentence makes me see that the two possibilities - Being as not part of our experience and Being as something we are too enmeshed in to see - may really be the same thing. That is, something can be so intimate a part of our experience that we don't experience it! We can't separate from it enough to experience it consciously.
But it is also true that there are things beyond our experience. As a simple example, color is beyond the experience of a person who has always been blind. No matter what words we use to describe blue to such a blind person, we will not be able to convey the experience of blue. Lacking physical vision, the blind person does not have the capacity to experience blue. Just so, it may be that we lack the capacity to experience Being Itself.
Whether because we are too enmeshed in Being to experience it or because Being is truly beyond our capacity to experience, we simply do not have language to describe Being. Everything we know in our world is a being. Nothing we know in our world is Being. Yet, from the dawn of time, humans have recognized that Something Beyond - let us call this God - is there. The sages have recognized that we in our finite, mortal, human state do not have the capacity to contain, describe, define God. But we do have the capacity to experience God.
Karen Armstrong points out the difficulty we have with language about God. For instance, can God be said to exist? We know that a being exists, but can Being be said to exist? We sense that Being is there, but we also sense that Being does not exist in the way that a being exists. A being may exist one day and cease to exist the next day. Being seems to be that which makes possible the existence of any particular being. So Being is there, but Being is not there in the same sense in which any particular being is there, even an incorporeal being. Being is not there even in the same sense, for instance, as an angel is there.
Here is what I would say about Being. Being is the Beyond-Description in which we all participate and which is there in a sense far beyond that in which any particular being is there. And I'm going to go out on a limb here - basing this on what humans consider their highest aspirations and making the assumption that our highest aspirations over the ages tell us something about the nature of Reality - and say that Being is somehow the source of compassion, beauty, joy - all that gives our lives the deepest fulfillment.
But what is Being? We don't know.
Here are three consequences of seeing God as Being.
- God is beyond our capacity to contain, describe, and define: I have spoken about this above.
- None of us is "right" about God and none of us is "wrong": Different ways of envisioning God can be right. Mythos holds that deeper truth underlies apparent paradox. Buddhism, Christianity, Druidry, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Voodoo, Wicca, and all other faith traditions hold truth about Being. The Pagan religions have much to teach us about integration of truth. As far as I know, Pagans have never tried to set themselves up as holding THE truth and have never tried to "make wrong" or destroy other religions. Instead, Pagans have taken it for granted that other peoples would envision God, or Being, in other ways - ways that might add to their own understanding.
- God is experienced in the practice of compassion and in ritual: Holding correct beliefs about God is not important and not even considered possible. Since Being cannot be contained, described, or defined, it is not possible to determine correct beliefs anyway. What is important, first, is correct practice - what we think, say, and do. Correct practice is rooted in compassion. Throughout the ages, people have recognized that the practice of compassion draws us into the Heart of Being. What is important, second, is the enactment of deep truth about Being in artistic expression - through myth, story, poetry, music, song, dance, drama, mime, visual art - and through ritual, which has been described as poetry in act. All of this allows the soul to experience Being at a level beyond the reach of logical language.
My next post will consider more of what it means to envision God as Being Itself.