Coming to Terms with God

When I was a teenager, hanging out in the beatnik coffee houses of New York's Greenwich village, I once ran across these words scrawled on a men's room wall:

God is dead — Nietzsche.

But, just below, there was another line penned by a different hand. It read:

Nietzsche is dead — God.

Nietzsche, in case you don't know, was a famous 19th century German philosopher, who proposed to "free" humanity from what he regarded as its ignoble subservience to religion. Although Nietzsche's candor shocked even some of his materialist-minded contemporaries, he had nevertheless given voice to a secret hope, shared by most of Europe's intelligentsia, that eventually scientific progress, founded on a materialist worldview, would indeed wean the ignorant masses from their superstitious belief in God.

A century later, however, this hope has proved vain. Despite materialism's success in winning over the educated classes, the masses have steadfastly refused to relinquish their traditional religions. What's more, in recent years even many intellectuals have begun to abandon the materialist worldview in search of a new spirituality—one which offers a vision of life based on something more than a mere struggle for physical survival and worldly goods. On the eve of the 21st century, then, religion—at least in its most general meaning of a return to an Origin1—is far from dead. But what about God?

For traditional believers, of course, God is also very much alive. But this is not always the case for modern seekers, many of whom feel distinctly uncomfortable when they hear "God" used as a term for the Divine. Part of the reason no doubt has to do with certain social and political connotations the word has acquired. Today, much of the public discourse about religion is dominated by fundamentalists of various traditions, each claiming that the only "true" God is the one narrowly defined by their own particular sect or creed. Worse, the most fanatical of these militants have, "in the name of God," increasingly resorted to violence and terror in their attempts to impose their views on others. Among more tolerant seekers, the employment of such odious tactics has understandably tended to give God a bad name—so much so that (as one of my students recently remarked) for some "God" has almost become a four-letter word.

In an attempt to dissociate themselves from this kind of rabid fundamentalism, some seekers have simply chosen to drop "God" from their vocabulary, and find, instead, some alternative which carries less doctrinal baggage, such as the "Divine Spirit" or the "Higher Self." Those who adopt this strategy, however, are in danger of throwing a lot of babies out with the bath-water.

For one thing, despite fundamentalist claims, "God" does not, as a matter of linguistic fact, belong to any one sect. Actually, "God" does not even belong to a particular religion. The word can and has been used quite legitimately to translate into English equivalent terms from many different languages and traditions. This means that Jews who pray to Elohim, Muslims who bow to Allah, Hindus who perform puja for Krishna, are all, quite properly speaking, worshipping "God." Thus, while abandoning "God" certainly distances us from fundamentalists, it also poses a semantic impediment to spiritual dialogue and communion with the vast majority of human beings who are not militants or fanatics, and want nothing more than to practice their religions in peace. What we become in effect is a de facto sect of elitists, who feel themselves too sophisticated to speak the common spiritual language of ordinary people all over the world.

But there is more: In addition to cutting us off from dialogue with our neighbors, abandoning "God" also cuts us off from access to the Collective Spiritual Wisdom of our species, as it has been preserved in the Sacred Writings of the world's Great Traditions.

For unless we intended to learn a dozen or so indigenous languages, we must read these works in English, and (with the exception of Buddhist and Taoist texts) when we do, what we find is that they all revolve around this word "God." Moreover, anyone who peruses these writings will find that centuries of insight and exposition have infused this little word with an incredible multitude of meanings, ranging from the gross to the subtle, the personal to the impersonal, the literal to the symbolic, the mythological to the theological, the metaphorical to the metaphysical, the relative to the absolute. To abandon the "God" of the Great Traditions, then, is to abandon all these meanings as well.

Finally and most seriously, in abandoning "God" we also abandon the Ultimate Meaning of this term, as it has been Realized by the mystics of all traditions. And even though God's Ultimate Meaning cannot, according to the mystics, be definitively communicated in words, preserving what can be said about it is nevertheless of fundamental importance. For it is only through cross-cultural comparisons of expressions of this Ultimate Meaning that we can begin to see how all of humanity's spiritual traditions—theistic as well as non-theistic—spring from, and point back to, the same Ineffable Source. In fact, it is precisely the ineffability of the Ultimate Meaning that, paradoxically, constitutes the first point of mystical unanimity. Here, for example, is how the contemporary Hindu mystic, Anandamayi Ma, puts it:

God's true being cannot be described, for when speaking of "being" there is the opposite of "non-being". When trying to express Him by language, He becomes imperfect.2
More specifically, God's "true being" cannot be expressed in language because, as the Jewish Kabbalists insist:
The hidden God, the innermost Being of Divinity so to speak has neither qualities nor attributes...All that can be expressed are His symbols.3
This is why the Sufi, Abu Bakr al-Kalabadhi, writes that even though we qualify the Divine with relative attributes such as "Wisdom," "Mercy," "Power," "Will," etc.:
The fact that we describe God as having all these attributes in no way bestows any attribute on Him: our description is merely our own attribution, an account we give of an attribute which exists through Him.4
For, in reality, according to the Christian mystic Dionysius the Areopagite, God: neither soul nor intellect;....nor can He be expressed or conceived, since He is neither number nor order; nor greatness nor smallness; nor equality nor inequality; nor similarity nor dissimilarity; ...neither can the reason attain to Him, nor name Him, nor know Him; neither is He darkness nor light, nor the false nor the true; nor can any affirmation or negation be applied to Him, for although we may affirm or deny the things below Him, we can neither affirm nor deny Him, inasmuch as...[He] transcends all affirmation, and the simple pre-eminence of His absolute nature is outside of every negation — free from every limitation and beyond them all.5
Now let us compare these statements by mystics belonging to the four great theistic traditions (Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) with the following description of Reality's Ultimate Meaning given by Nagarjuna, one of the greatest philosophers of the non-theistic Buddhist tradition:
It cannot be seized either as existent or nonexistent, either as permanent or impermanent, either as unreal or as real...It is not anything composite or incomposite; not any dharma or adharma; it is neither seizing nor abandoning, neither arising nor perishing; it is beyond the four kotis of `is' and `is not'; getting at it one does not find in it anything that can be clung to.6
We may also compare these statements to what Lao Tzu, the founder of the other major non-theistic religion, Taoism, said about the nature of Reality: "The Tao about which anything can be said is not the true Tao."

Even from these few examples we can see that, in keeping with Leibniz's Law of the identity of indiscernibles7, the Ultimate Meaning of "God" for mystics of the theistic traditions is identical to the Ultimate Meaning of "Reality" testified to by the mystics of the non-theistic Buddhist and Taoist traditions: for "THAT about which nothing can be said" is indistinguishable from "THAT about which nothing can be said"— or, as the Bard might have expressed it, a no-thing by any other name is a no-thing just the same.

Even so, the response of some seekers may be that this is all well and good, as long as we are, indeed, talking about God's Ultimate Meaning. What they object to are those anthropomorphic relative meanings—such as "Father," "Lord," "Judge"—which are so much on the lips of the fundamentalists. From the mystic's point of view, however, the fact that "God" has so many levels of meaning is not a liability but an asset. This is because in most traditions the relative meanings of "God" interlock in such a way that each relative meaning points to a higher meaning. Consequently, even the most exoteric images of God can serve us as valuable signposts and stepping stones on a path that leads to an eventual Gnosis of "God's" Ultimate Meaning. Here, for example, is what Dionysius wrote about the various images used to portray God in the Christian Bible:

...the reason for attributing shapes to that which is above shape, and forms to that which is beyond form, is...the feebleness of our intellectual power which is unable to rise at once to spiritual contemplation, and which needs to be encouraged by the natural and suitable support and upliftment which offers forms perceptible to us of formless and supernatural contemplations...8
In a similar manner, the great Sufi shaykh, Ibn `Arabi, explained the different levels of meaning contained in the Qur'an and other Islamic texts in terms of people's different levels of aptitude and preparedness:
...the prophets, apostles and their heirs...strive to express what they say openly, so as to combine what is outer and public with what is special and inward, so that the special person will understand what the generality understand and more...9
Not even the Buddha, who usually shunned references to a Personal Deity, was above employing such a concept when he deemed it beneficial to his listeners. Thus, when two young Brahmins, Bharadvaga and Vasettha, asked him if he knew how to attain union with the Hindu God, Brahma, far from denying the Deity's existence, he answered:
...with the Buddha, when asked about the path which leads to the world of Brahma, there can be neither doubt nor difficulty. For Brahma, the world of Brahma, I fully know. Yea, I know it even as one who was born there and lives there.10
Nor does he try to "correct" their theology during the rest of his discourse. Instead, he proceeds to give them detailed instructions on how to practice mental purity, concluding with these words: "Verily, Vasettha, this is the way to a state of union with Brahma."11

From the mystics' perspective, then, the error made by fundamentalists is not that they make use of relative meanings of "God" in their teachings and practices, but that they mistake these relative meanings for the Ultimate Meaning. Consequently, advancement on the spiritual path is blocked both for themselves and their followers. It was for this that Jesus criticized the Pharisees when he said:

Woe to you, experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to Gnosis. You, yourselves, haven't entered, and you have also barred the way of those who are trying to enter (Lk 11:52).
This was also the basis for the Buddha's critique of the Brahmin-Priests of his day. They taught that one could attain Nirvana simply by supplicating the Deities with formal rites and rituals, without having to undertake the arduous work of self-surrender. But it is precisely when it comes to this work of surrender that the relative meanings of "God" prove most valuable.

Perhaps, there are a few exceptional souls who can, indeed, give themselves wholeheartedly to a "God" conceived in such abstract terms as the "Truth," the "Emptiness," or "Consciousness, Itself."12 For most of us, however, it is easier to begin by practicing devotion to some archetypal manifestation of the Divine—like the "Blessed Savior," "Merciful Lord," or the "Buddha of Compassion." These archetypes engage our emotions and purify our hearts at a much deeper level than purely mental concepts can ordinarily reach.

This brings us to a final reason why some seekers are uneasy with the term "God," which has little or nothing to do with its social or political connotations. Many people harbor subconscious feelings of anger or fear towards the Divine which the word "God" arouses. This is especially true for those of us who had a traditional religious upbringing which we later rejected as being too restrictive and dogmatic. The problem is that even though we may have intellectually outgrown certain childhood images of God as, say, a "Heavenly Father," emotionally we have still not yet come to terms with the realities these images symbolize.

This is beautifully illustrated by an episode Alix Taylor recounts in her spiritual autobiography, A Door Ajar. As a child raised in France, she had been baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church, but abandoned its dogmas early on. Still, she possessed a strong spiritual intuition and this, combined with a series of extraordinary experiences, motivated her to undertake a lifelong quest for Truth. Before she could make any significant headway, however, she first had to come to terms with her past.

This happened when she was a young woman living in New York. She had joined an ad hoc group of fellow seekers who met regularly to read and discuss an eclectic selection of philosophical and spiritual books, one of which sparked in her a renewed interest in the practice of prayer. When she tried to say the Lord's Prayer (which she had learned by heart as a child), however, she found she couldn't bring herself to do it. A friend suggested she recite one line per week until she pinpointed exactly where the obstacle lay. Following his advice, she discovered she had no difficulty with the first few lines—Our Father, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy Name—but that, for some reason, when it came to the line, Thy Will be done, she clammed up. This prompted her to examine her feelings about both her human parents and about God. She realized she was still in revolt against her domineering mother, and this made her distrust all forms of authority—including the authority of a "God," whom she was no longer certain even existed!

Nevertheless, she determined to keep on with her experiment to see what else it might reveal. Again, she tried to recite the Lord's prayer, but again when she got to the phrase, Thy Will be done, she found it impossible to say. Focusing her attention inward, she discovered an even deeper layer of resistance, having to do with the epilepsy that had plagued her since childhood. In her own words, here's what happened:

Instead of surrender, I touched into anger in myself, as well as frustration and self-pity. It was due to this epilepsy that I felt I could not marry for fear of ruining a man's career, even perhaps killing a child...I was only too glad to blame some big giant in the sky for my situation, for manipulating us all like puppets.13
As it would be for anyone, confronting such emotions was extremely painful. But, whereas other seekers might have turned back, in search of some easier practice, Alix knew instinctively that there can be no spiritual progress until all resistance to the Divine has been surrendered. Consequently, she persisted, night after night, trying not only to utter the magic words which would unlock her heart, but to actually mean them. At last, on a particularly hot summer night, she writes:
I slipped under the sheet, my whole body was perspiring but my mind was finally still and ready to surrender, and I spoke the words with all myself. Then something happened that I could hardly believe. I felt as if a presence had engulfed the whole room. Extraordinary calm and peace entered as well as surrounded me. I did not dare pull the sheet from off my face to look at that presence. I was sure I could not bear whatever it was I might see. Even so the room's atmosphere appeared to have increased in luminosity and the sheet itself seemed to glow with incandescence. I had found myself bathed in peace.14
What is especially important to note here is that Alix, herself, was unaware of these negative feelings towards God which lay dormant within her. It took a devotional practice, based on a relative meaning of the Divine as a "Heavenly Father," to bring them to light. Moreover this was not a practice to which she was drawn because it was easy, but one which she actually found extremely difficult to do. But, of course, that is precisely the point. The more we feel resistance towards a particular practice, the more we are apt to be in need of it.

So if you feel personally uncomfortable with the word "God" because of something that happened in your past, you might want to follow Alix's example. Instead of trying to avoid this term, you might want to undertake some practice which focuses directly on it. In this way you can bring whatever negative emotions you have towards "God" out into the open, where they can be examined and surrendered. For, it is only when we can engage in all forms of spiritual practices with perfect ease—surrendering ourselves to the Divine under whatever Name It presents Itself—that we are ready for the Revelation of THAT which accepts all these names, precisely because it has no proper Name of Its Own.

May all of you be blessed with such a Revelation!

- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Spring 1998. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.


1. Etymological, re = return to point of origin; lig = bound (as in ligament.) Thus, religion is a binding back to one's origin.

2. Sri Anandamayi Ma, Matri Vani: Vol 2, 2nd ed., trans Atmananda (Calcutta: Shree Shree Anandamayee Charitable Society, 1982) pp. 136-137.

3. Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941; reprint, New York: Schocken Books, 1961) p. 207, 215.

4. A.J. Arberry, The Doctrine of The Sufis—a translation of a work by the 10th century Sufi, Abu Bakr al-Kalabadhi (reprinted, Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1983) p. 18.

5. Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology and the Celestial Hierarchies, 2nd ed., trans. eds. of The Shrine of Wisdom (Nr. Godalming, Surrey: The Shrine of Wisdom, l965) p. 16.

6. Venkata Ramana, Nagarjuna's Philosophy (Delhi: Motilal, 1978) p. 128.

7. Leibniz's Law of the identity of indiscernibles states that, if there are no discernible differences between two things, they are identical.

8. Mystical Theology and the Celestial Hierarchies, p. 24.

9. Ibn Al'Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, trans. R.W.J. Austin (New York: Paulist Press, 1980) p. 259.

10. "Tevigga Sutta" in A Buddhist Bible, ed. Dwight Goddard, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970) p. 68—I have replaced "Tathagata" with the more familiar "Buddha."

11. Ibid p. 71.

12. My own teacher, Dr. Wolff, was just such a soul, but even so, hear what he has to say about this practice: "...the thinker must learn also to feel his thought, so that, in the highest degree, he thinks devotedly. It is not enough to think clearly, if the thinker stands aloof, not giving himself with his thought. The thinker arrives by surrendering himself to Truth, claiming for himself no rights save those that Truth herself bestows upon him....This the state of the mystic ignorance—of the emptied heart. He who has thus become as nothing in his own right then is prepared to become possessed by wisdom herself. The completeness of self-emptying is the precondition to the realization of unutterable Fullness. — The Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object, p. 178.

13. Alix Taylor, A Door Ajar (Palo Alto, CA: White Wolff Press, 1994) pp. 52-53. (Note: A Door Ajar may be ordered directly from White Wolff Press, P.O. Box 52071, Palo Alto, CA 94303.)

14. Ibid pp. 53-54.