Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Ordinary Mystics 6: God

Chapter Four: God

If the purpose of taking the Nazirite Vow is to dedicate yourself to God, it is vital that you have some idea as to what God is. I will not define God for you. Indeed, to paraphrase Lao Tzu and the Tao te Ching, the god that can be defined is not the Eternal God. Nevertheless, if I am to use the word “God” and to make some sense when doing so, I have to be clear with you as to how I use the word, and what it means to me.

There are five basic positions one can take vis a vis God: theism, atheism, agnosticism, pantheism, and panentheism. Each of these come a variety of cultural guises, but I will try to offer the most basic definition of each.

Theism is the belief in God as a Person. Somewhere up or out there exists a self-conscious Being who creates life and judges the living. This God may or may not have chosen the Jews, sent his Son to earth to die for our sins, or dictated the words of the Koran to Mohammed, but religious competition aside, this is the God that most western believers seem to believe in.

The closest ideology to theism is atheism. Atheists agree with theists that the word “God” refers to a self-conscious Person who creates and judges all life. Atheists and theists differ over whether or not such a Person actually exists. Theists say “yes,” atheists say “no.”

The argument between atheists and theists is like that between those who believe in unicorns and those who do not. I happen to fall in the latter camp. While I understand what a unicorn is—a white horse with a spiral shaped horn in the middle of its head—I do not believe such a creature actually exits. We can agree on definitions even as we disagree on when the definition refers to an actual thing or not.

Agnostics agree with theists and atheists as to the meaning of the word “God” but just are not certain there is enough evidence to decide where or not God actually exists. While it appears that agnostics take a middle of the road stance, in practice most agnostics behave as if they were atheists, ignoring the dictates of the god they are not sure exists or not.

Pantheism offers a true alternative to theism. Pantheism means all is God; God is the universe, God is nature. God is not a Person separate from the world, but the world itself. Pantheists may not have a personal image of God at all. God may be the Force, or the Great Spirit that animates all life and is inseparable from it.

I fall into the fifth theological camp: the panentheist. The difference between the pantheist and the panentheist is slight in fact and huge in implication. Where pantheism sees pan/all is theos/God, panentheism sees pan/all en/in theos/God. God includes and transcends the universe. God is all that is and more.

I take my panentheist understanding of the word “God” from the Book of Exodus where God introduces himself to Moses at the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:14). Asked his Name, that is to say, asked to reveal his essential nature, God says to Moses: EHYEH ASHER EHYEH. EHYEH is the future imperfect form of the Hebrew verb TO BE. ASHER means THAT. God tells Moses that his Name, the essence of Godhood is I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE, or, as I understand it, I AM BEING, itself. God is not a being, or even the Supreme Being; God is BEING itself. All that is, is God, but God cannot be reduced to all that is.

When I teach this idea to children I often use a bag of plain M&Ms. I pour them into a huge bowl and invite the kids to take one of each color. We then examine our candies and note the differences in color. We talk about why we prefer one color to another. When we are finished talking about the M&Ms, we eat them, slowly, one at a time.

 “Can you taste the difference between the blue M&M and the red M&M?” I ask them. No. Despite their differences in color, despite our preferences and prejudices, all M&Ms taste the same. It is the same with God. While manifesting in a seemingly infinite array of colors, shapes, sizes, etc., everything is essentially One Thing, God.

The implication of this understanding of God for human relationships is huge. If God is all, then you and I are God as well. To see ourselves and each other as manifestations of God is the key to living in a godly manner. Let me expand on this with another example from my teaching days.

I used to explore this theology by given each child an eight inch piece of rope. I instruct the children to tie a knot in their rope. We then compare knots and see how different one can be for all others. Then we discuss the relationship between the knot and the rope. The rope is the knot. There is no thing called “knot” that is separate from the rope. The knot is simply one variation of the rope.

I then ask the children to tie a second knot in their piece of rope. We compare these as well. Each one is unique and distinct yet both are simply the rope.
 When you can see the knot that is “you” and the knot that is the “other” as both part of the rope, I explain to the kids, then you are going to deal with that “other” in a way that honors you both and the rope itself: justly, kindly, and humbly.

Everything is in God; everything is a part of God. When I work with adults, the best analogy I know for this panentheist theology is that of the ocean and the wave. God is the ocean, and you and I are waves of that ocean. While no wave contains the entire ocean, the ocean contains all of its waves.

When you engage the world, however, chances are you don’t see others as waves of God’s ocean. You imagine, and have been raised to believe, that the world is comprised of separate, distinct, and often competing selves, and that God is something Other than the world. This belief, in one form or another, is at the heart of all religion.


Maggid said...

Many Thanks - you teach me so many cool things . . .

Raksha said...

I have a problem: I'm a panentheist who still prefers to call myself a pantheist, even though I know that word isn't an accurate reflection of what I really believe. The problem has more to do with what other people claim to believe about God than what I believe myself. As far as I can tell, my belief is identical to yours and it even comes from the same place: EHYEH ASHER EHYEH.

And yet I still balk at calling myself a panentheist. I know that God is both immanent and transcendant, but I focus on the immanent aspect exclusively. I often call it the Goddess or the Shekhinah, depending on my mood and who I'm talking to. I don't want to talk about the transcendant aspect of God and I don't want to hear about it either, because before I know it, I'm dealing with someone else's "transcendant." Someone will be saying "Didn't HaShem command you to do X, Y or Z..." and trying to lay some kind of guilt trip on me.

In other words, the "transcendant" God somehow always turns into the theistic God, who rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior--as defined by the other person or by tradition, of course. And that's not what I mean by God whatsoever! I guess you could say that functionally I'm a pantheist-- even though I'm really a panentheist.

I know panentheists who call themselves atheists for the same reason. More than one, in fact.

No One Special said...

*nods knowingly*

So much to think about and ponder.

Thank you, dear Rabbi!