A plump, kindly old man with a full white beard sitting humming merrily to himself. He’s dressed in soft red flannel trimmed with white fur, topped off by an amazing red cap hung with silver bells. You sit on his broad lap and ask for all your secret wishes to be granted. Some time later, responses come shooting down your chimney in the middle of the night while you’re fast asleep and least expecting their arrival. Let’s hope your wishes were pure. Who knows what you’d find in the morning if they weren’t.
Think emptiness. Like a gas tank out of gas or a well gone dry – but emptier. Empty even of emptiness. Turn inside out and look again. There’s still nothing! It seems circular but isn’t it a fact that, originally, everything came out of nothing? Moreover, isn’t this similar to a God who abides nowhere, yet exists everywhere? Maybe, this is too much! Instead, why don’t you imagine God as a gigantic metaphysical merry-go-round, spinning around, with lively music, reflecting mirrors and flashing colored lights – children rushing to get on.
Many in the past – some even today – visualize God as a powerful Man living up in the sky who doesn’t mind taking the time required to oversee all our daily affairs. This God has traditionally been imagined as a strong male figure – but gigantic in size. Mountain chains could be crumbs stuck in his teeth. This God makes things – like daisy-chain universes, Alice-in-Wonderland dimensions, and way, way too many ungrateful people. This God can say a single word and whatever the word denotes immediately comes into being – whether stars, green glaciers, or fleas. It’s a good trick! Given such power and creativity, God has to be very careful with what He says. Everything He makes always comes out perfect – with the sole unfortunate exception of freedom. When God tossed that bit into the mix, it fouled up all the pre-existing perfection. But this wasn’t God’s fault, was it? A perfect God-built universe just gone all to hell! So, now, there’s God, just standing around, patiently waiting for us to get His universe back together again. He’s kinda tapping his foot – an omnipotent, omniscient type of guy. We should be awed, but it’s difficult to concentrate, given His infinitude. Maybe God should consider greater finitude if he really wants a better relationship with us. But perhaps He already tried that once.
Some people believe God is everything – one colossal unit. You, reading this, are part of God; me too, along with my cat, Maui – we’re all God – just not individually. It takes all of us, collectively, to make up God: the dust collecting on the dining room table, the doorbell’s electric buzz and even passing-by sweet cat farts, all together. If we leave out anything, God would be incomplete. So, given that God is everything, and everything consequently is holy, shouldn’t we begin learning to relate better to one another? On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t talk about it, just experience it; hold it like a sweet mint under the tongue. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be God knowing everything else is God too? Now, if we could only just get rid of all those tiny irritations hovering just beyond the edge of our exquisite spiritual sensibilities.
We’ve been informed, officially, that God is a close relative of select groups of people – maybe even a few unique individuals. By longstanding reputation, these people have an “in” with God. They’re considered almost super-human, even angelic, in comparison with ordinary human beings. We ask them for what we want and they, in turn, pass on our requests to God who almost always stamps them “Approved” since God owes these people a lot! Not many have done as much for God as they have, so God isn’t willing to cross them up. It’s best to develop a one-on-one relationship with such people – for example by attaching a plastic statuette onto the dashboard of your car or installing a larger concrete version out on your front lawn. Some people believe it’s impossible to reach God without first establishing this type of special connection. Listen, everybody knows God hasn’t made any actual appearances in the world for a very long while. Maybe God has gone away on a long vacation where days are measured in generations. Or perhaps God’s simply ashamed of us and has taken to avoiding our company. Or, maybe even, the problem is that God, without any formal notice, has taken out a final divorce and gone to live in some alternate universe and is now taking care of more reliable and loving beings. It’s been said, at times even fervently believed, that long ago and far away people were able to speak directly with God. Fortunately for us, they wrote some of it down and posted it in the form of an extremely long letter. Since this is all we now have left, we worship it.
The Evangelical version of God is a lamb holding a lightning bolt in its mouth. Peace and judgment in one. Love and consequences. Maybe the Evangelical God wants to keep us on our toes, especially since there’s nothing we can ever do on our own to reach God. All our best actions fall short – absolutely. Well, that leaves the Evangelicals just one ticket to ride. But it’s inexpensive! You simply have to say the right things about Jesus and everything turns out copacetic. At the end of the line, we’ll find our family and friends (provided of course they also qualify as “saints”) waiting for us in a cosmic community center called “Heaven” – a pretty joyful, boring, kind of place. How so? Because the Evangelical God has only a limited imagination, valuing faithfulness more than any other known human quality.
Perhaps God is not even Christian, much less Jewish or Muslim. Buddhists, for example, say that God is Not. Maybe God is Ganesh, the Holy Elephant, with all the other world religions acting out a dozen blind men feeling around the great mystical elephant. And isn’t it obvious that even six billion of us, using all of our five or six senses, could never, individually or collectively, picture God as God truly is? That’s why each religion has carefully stored up all its singular encounters with God, derivatively sharing these experiences with the faithful through their own distinctive writings and sacraments. Unaware of its own blindness, each religion believes that all other religions are vastly blinder than they. Each believes that God can be found only in their pocket, that their holy tokens are the sole authentic ones, and that the passing whiff they once experienced must certainly be how God truly smells.
So, let’s face it, God will never be fully known by humans. God’s existence, by definition, ranges infinitely beyond the farthest-most reaches of human understanding and sense – as a kind of super-reality. The only way we’ll ever be permitted to get near to God at all is in a relationship, and then only if we desire it, even if that sounds obvious. How it works is that whenever we reach out to God, God immediately reaches back. Given the right desire, we’ll always end up in a relationship. And depending upon the strength of that desire, we’ll be permitted to know as much as we’re humanly capable of knowing. God will open up to us, directly and proportionately (and certainly in greater proportion) that we are able to open up to God. Obviously, this is not a relationship of equals, but it should be the most important love relationship in our lives. So while it’s true that we’ll never fully “see” or “understand” God, each of us does have the capacity to love God and to feel God’s love in return. Every person on earth experiences this at some point in their lives, and all of us, in our heart of hearts, know that it’s real.
In the East, they have historically taught that God is everything and consequently that we “are” God if we’re but willing to recognize it. This is true in part. In the West, they have historically asserted that everything is everything, while God is God, the two being separate. This is also true in part. But, really, it’s not either/or. God has never been restricted to logic in human terms. God is transcendent and immanent; impersonal and intensely personal. God is wisdom disguised as a holy fool. Yes, God is separate from us, but if we’re willing to carry out God’s will, we’ll find that we are expressing God in human terms – just like Jesus did.
So even though God is not the same as everything, it’s true that everything is touched by God. We can discover traces of God anywhere and anytime if we begin looking through the eyes of God – which are right in our own heads. God looks at the world through us and sees God. The world is not God, but God does see God when looking at the world. So can you. Sometimes this experience, rightfully, has been referred to as the “Holy Spirit”!
(Published in Issue Five of Tiferet, A Journal of Spiritual Literature (2007) which is a wonderful journal that all “Nones” should seriously consider subscribing to.)