God Talk


Carys, our 3-year old, lives in an enchanted world.  As she encounters a tree or car or dog or anything else, she often asks, “What’s it saying?”


“What’s the flower saying?”


“What’s the apple saying?”


Esther and I smile and respond with something like, “The cat is saying, `Hi, Carys.  It’s so nice to see you.  Won’t you please pet me?’”


This whole scene drives Ellis, our 6-year old, completely nuts.  Eeyore like, he offers his own answer, “Nothing.  The cat isn’t saying anything.”


Ellis seems to have reached Piaget’s concrete operations stage, and Carys’ semi-magical way of encountering the world offends his new logical sensibilities.


As the theistic perspective of my Roman Catholic youth and early adulthood gave way to what I now call a nontheistic perspective, there was a long period during which I reacted to God talk much the way Ellis reacts to Carys’ sense that the chair is communicating with her.  I had a visceral, negative reaction to it, as if fingernails were moving slowly down some cosmic blackboard.


Something has shifted since then.  The word God and ideas about God still aren’t of particular use to me personally, but I feel no need to stand in opposition to all uses of them. Some uses resonate once more.


(Some uses resonated for Einstein, who, at the very most, could be considered a pantheist, so I’m in good company.)


To be sure, I’ve yet to meet or read the work of a theist who can articulate a rational idea of God that I find satisfying.  Though it wasn’t my primary preoccupation while I was there, I took a two-year detour through HDS at one point, and I never encountered anyone, live or in print, who could do so.  If I were a theist, I’d join Meister Eckhart in saying, “Pray God that we may lose God for the sake of finding God.”  Whatever God is to a given theist, I sure hope God isn’t an idea.


So, am I an atheist?  In its simplest form, atheism rejects belief in a cosmic Swiss watchmaker who created all that is, and who is somehow outside (or even inside) the universe as we know it.  In this sense, I am an atheist. The anthropomorphic, workmanlike notion of God and creation seems to operate effectively as myth and as a narrative that can promote social control/ordering in environments of existential insecurity and weak political institutions, but improbable to me as an explanation of the existence and operation of the physical world. To this limited extent, I find the faintest resonance in some of the work of the so-called new atheists, though I think their general derision of religion is profoundly misguided.


One problem (though not necessarily the most critical or misguided) among others is that most of the new atheists seem to miss a diamond in the rough within our religions.  They seem to miss something my 3-year old experiences, and that I hope my 6-year old will recover despite his ongoing development of the rational faculties that are such a critical part of who we are and are so essential to human progress.


For all their many faults, the world’s religions, and particularly (in my view) the contemplative strains of those religions, have transmitted to us certain sensibilities and practices – technology, really – that can help ground and vivify our experience of the here-and-now and bring us together by piercing the illusion of separateness – from the natural world, from one another, and even from aspects of oneself – that causes so much individual and collective suffering.


Among the new atheists, Sam Harris clearly gets this.  (Anyone who doubts this should read his long footnote 12 beginning on page 293 of the paperback edition of The End of Faith.)  Harris is an advocate for an empirical mysticism, the key feature and program of which are cultivation of non-dual awareness: an awareness which puts in proper perspective this sense of an “I” that is separate from, and that positions itself as subject in relation to, all other phenomena.


Harris distinguishes this empirical mysticism, which he is for, from religion, which he is decidedly against.  He is particularly against the “faith-based” Abrahamic religions, but also against the forms of Buddhism in which we find people “in temples throughout Southeast Asia, and even in the West, praying to Buddha as though he were a numinous incarnation of Santa Claus.”


To put it briefly and crudely, Harris is against belief in the spirit realm.  God as projection of the “I” that is separate from and the subject of all other phenomena.


The empirical mysticism Harris describes is akin to Zen, as he is fully aware.  (Again, see the long footnote.)  I’m naturally with him here.


From the perspective of my own personal religious practice, I’m also with him on the God-as-anthropomorphic-projection point, as I’ve said already.


But Harris seems to be as frightened by the very word God as he is of particular definitions of it.  He maintains that all God talk must be banished, or else we are doomed.  “Words like `God’ and `Allah’ must go the way of `Apollo’ and `Baal,’ or they will unmake our world.”  (The End of Faith, p. 14).


Conceptualizing and talk about God (and any other conceptualizing and discourse, for that matter) is highly problematic to the extent it contributes to dehumanization of others.  But I’m not so sure words like God and Allah could be immediately or easily replaced with the empirical mysticism Harris favors if we could just do away with them, and I don’t think for an instant that doing away with them would cure all the ills Harris and others attribute to them.  If these words ever lose there attraction and usefulness among us humans generally, I don’t believe it will happen solely by force of the sort of rational argumentation Harris and others use as the chief weapon in their crusade against religion.


Nor do I think this empirical mysticism is categorically inconsistent with all God talk.  I see theists everywhere embodying the non-dual awareness that Harris promotes.  When I listen carefully and openly to their God talk, granting myself a certain poetic license they may or may not afford themselves, those fingers on the cosmic blackboard are not audible.


At any rate, I’m beginning to wonder whether this aversion to all God talk in secularized societies – my own former aversion included – may partially be a matter of aesthetics or temperament, at least in this particular moment in history, in this discourse context.  Particularly in the West, we are heirs to a long and complicated history of theism, of God talk.  We’re enmeshed in it, and not so easily separated from it.


Harris describes his mysticism not only as empirical, but also as rational.  God talk per se seems to offend Harris’s rational sensibilities the way my daughter’s conversations with pinecones and dolls offend my son.  (Harris might feel I’m playing right into his hand with that comment, but I certainly don’t equate my daughter’s stage of cognitive development with those of the theistic mystics I know.)


Harris and other atheists surely would object on the basis that belief in spirit gods has wreaked much havoc in the world.  Yes and no, but can the problem-side of this dynamic really be compacted entirely into the word God itself, encompassing every way one might use the word today?


Harris might also say I’m captive to the myth of religious moderation.  “Religious moderation, insofar as it represents an attempt to hold on to what is still serviceable in orthodox religion, closes the door to more sophisticated approaches to spirituality, ethics, and the building of strong communities.”  (The End of Faith, p. 21.)


Once again, however, I do observe the sort of consciousness Harris extols co-existing with God talk.  I also think Harris demonstrates little awareness of and/or sensitivity to the positive functions of theism, and traditional religion more generally, in social contexts beyond (and, yes, even within) the WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) context in which he (and I) live. The wisdom – both theoretical and practical – of taking a hard stance against all theistic religious perspectives is highly questionable, in my opinion.


I would describe this non-dual awareness thing as thoroughly empirical, but not particularly rational – at least not in the sense of reasoning one’s way to the perspective and experience about which Harris writes or finding it to be principally about rational thought.


Harris’s invitation, the invitation of Zen, and – dare I say? – the invitation of at least some theistic forms of mysticism (to keep using the somewhat problematic word Harris himself chooses to use), is to own our rational capacities fully while also experiencing the world (and ourselves within it) as the enchanted place it truly is.  (Monkey mind is it, too!)  As Harris (paraphrasing Shakespeare) says, “We really are such stuff as dreams are made of.”


Or, as the towering Zen figure Eihei Dogen said (anticipating Carys):


Entreat trees and rocks to preach,

and ask rice fields and gardens for the Truth;

ask pillars for the Dharma,

and learn from hedges and walls.


I don’t think all orientations toward religion are adept at helping us find and walk this path, and the God talk of one tradition (the Roman Catholic version of Christianity) became a hindrance for me at one point along my path, even as other strains of the tradition were introducing me to practices that put one in harm’s way of non-dual awareness.  That same God talk is an incredible blessing and the key to walking this path for many, many other Roman Catholics, however, and I make no claims that it is or should be a hindrance for anyone else, as it was for me at one time. Nor do I think immersion in a religious tradition is the only way to find or walk this path.


Harris may be right: perhaps God talk ultimately will fade completely from our discourse.  I could manage without it (though you will find it sprinkled among my posts and talks).


That said, I know and have learned a great deal from many people who both walk the contemplative path and relate to and express their experience through the lens of theism.  For many of these people, their God tends not to look much like that Swiss watchmaker.


(Even when God talk does tend in that direction, I’m more interested in how people live – how they act – than what they profess.  God talk doesn’t lead inevitably to bad conduct – and, sadly, non-dual awareness doesn’t lead inevitably to uniformly good conduct.)


Many of the theistic mystics I know are pointing other theists to the contemplative path – people who might not encounter it otherwise, or who might not be able to enter it outside the discourse of their birth tradition.


(And, let me hasten to add, the contemplative path is a big yawn, or worse, if it leads to quietism and mere navel gazing. Contemplatives have much to learn from the many strains of religion that emphasize lay life, social connection and social action to a greater extent than many contemplative religious orientations historically have. This is the great call and challenge to contemplative spirituality today.  Furthermore, the contemplative orientation itself may well be something of a matter of temperament, despite the various stage theories that abound within the literatures of the various contemplative traditions, and which put the contemplative orientation on top.  As Harris may or may not know, the Zen path ultimately points back to the everyday experiences and perspectives that we doubt could really be “it” as we seek the Zen path, as illustrated in the Ten Ox Herding Pictures.  The contemplative approach may well be the remedial plan.)


Then there are people like me.  I began my sitting practice within my theistic birth tradition, and the development of this sitting practice had much to do (in my particular case) with the dismantling of the conceptual framework I inherited.  After that dismantling occurred, I sat alone for over a decade.  I eventually turned to Zen, an established religion, because I wanted a context – communal, practice rich, and lightly conceptual – in which to support, express and share my experience.


Words and ideas matter, to be sure.  Some God thought and talk leads to dark places.  But silencing all God talk, were that possible, wouldn’t transport us automatically to bright places, and bright places admit many types of God talk. In fact, too little attention is given to the ways in which God talk can and does shine light into dark places.


If there does come a day when we dispense with all God talk, I suspect it will follow a long era marked by much creative God talk, not by bludgeoning the idea of God into submission.  Much creative God talk is happening now.  I’m eager to listen to these friends, whether or not the day Harris and the other new atheists wish for ultimately arrives.


Along the way, though I can’t make heads or tails of much God talk from a purely rational perspective (as if it were only, or even mainly, about that), I can choose to meet my friends in that place Rumi (a Muslim theist) wrote about:


Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase each other

doesn’t make any sense.


– Coleman Barks translation in The Essential Rumi