Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sure and Certain

"No Words"
- at the Desert Retreat House -

A few years back Richard Dawkins wrote his now-famous book, The God Delusion, in which he ridiculed religious explanations about the “real world” as “false and delusional” ideas fabricated by human beings designed to help get some greater insight about the nature of life. 

The other day I read somewhere that Dawkins’ book has become somewhat of a “bible for atheists.” Oddly enough, even though I am a “believer,” I sort of agree with some of what Dawkins had to say. While I do not think “God is a delusion,” I do believe that all our words about God are human inventions designed by people over the ages to help get some inkling into the transcendent mystery of our human existence.  From the stories told to children about a “God” who is a superman in the sky controlling the world to the volumes of advanced systematic theologies taught in seminaries and universities, all our words and ideas “about” God are, in essence, little more than feeble attempts to understand and know that which cannot be known or ever understood.

Over the ages, the great mystics and the most celebrated theologians of all religious traditions have essentially agreed that “talk” about God never really explains “God.”  The Sufi poets, Hebrew mystics, great Christian saints like John of the Cross, well-respected theologians like Augustine have essentially asserted that the only thing about “God” that is sure and certain is that those who claim to be sure and certain that they know who God is, don’t know who God is - and the more sure you are, the less you really know.

I have often quoted (and really love) the story of someone who was perhaps the greatest theologian of the Western Christian Church, Thomas Aquinas - who in the 13th century wrote so many volumes of theology that his books could barely fit in a room. As St. Thomas lay on his death-bed, some of his secretaries asked what they should do with all his books, his life-work?   He waved a dismissive hand and said something like, “you can burn them if you want, they are nothing but a pile of straw.” He understood that his work was not to be taken all that seriously, a bunch of words and ideas he wrote to help “get at” something of the great unknowable mystery we call “God.”

As I see it, we need “God- talk” to help us “get at” the mystery of transcendence, but our God-talk can never explain the mystery. Nothing we can ever say about “God” is ever sure and certain. This is even a good lesson for atheists to learn as they write their own “sure and certain” volumes about a God who does not exist.

I came across a book on my shelves the other day about the common wisdom of all the world’s great religious traditions. The author made this fascinating observation:

Over the years religions of various sorts
have argued endlessly and disgracefully with one another.
But what if a Christian sat down and said,
‘Well actually I do not know much about God,
and everything I do say is so inadequate as to be false.’

Then a Jew or a Muslim might also say,
‘It’s funny you should say that,
I do not know much about God either.’

How could they then have an argument?
And if they did have an argument, the winner might be the one
who proved that he knew less about God than his opponent.

The desert where I live is always a place of great mystery - maybe even more so in the summer when the emptiness seems more fully empty and the silence more thunderously silent. On this Sunday morning, as I sit in the silence and embrace the emptiness of the great unknowable Mystery I call “God,” I utter this ancient Sufi prayer:

You are the All – without beginning or end.
You are the One – incomparable, without measure.
You are without limit and beyond understanding.
You are everywhere and in everything.
You are GOD - beyond the beyond.