What do you mean by God?
August 15, 2010 by Bill
“What is this thing that you white people call God?” asked a Native shaman. “You are always talking about it. It’s goddam this and goddam that, and in the name of God, and God made the world. Who is this God? You say that Coyote represents our Native God, but if I say to you that God is Coyote, you get mad at me. Why?”
Some of us are willing to take that “why” seriously. For thousands and thousands of years, humans have searched the heavens for something that we call “God.” At least 100,000 years ago, Neanderthal people stood in awe before the mysterious forces of nature. The thunder, earthquake and forest spirits animated the trees, the animals, wind and storm. Since these gods or spirits must possess supernatural power they sought to gain their favor by offering gifts and sacrifices of animals and human beings. Much later on, the gods were thought to live on sacred mountains, such as Mt. Sinai or Olympus, coming down to earth from time to time to sire children (as in Genesis).
Over the centuries, human beings created new gods to meet the changing needs of the people. And so when the Hebrew nation was engaged in much fighting, their god was a war-like god; a nationalistic, militaristic god who would help them in battle and bring them victory. But later on, when their god proved to be not nearly as powerful as their opponents’ god, they had to devise a new god to meet the new demands of the nation. This new god would become a god of mercy and compassion for these beaten “chosen” people. And so, once again, a god was created in the minds of human beings to meet the changing needs of the people.
Today, in our orthodox Christian tradition, we are still heavily laden with the debris of archaic images coming down to us from the ancient world, and any religion that stubbornly adheres to a traditional theology hopelessly at odds with the scientific findings of an enlightened age is doomed to sink into a stagnant superstition, as well as a spiritual bankruptcy.
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote: “The most important single question facing modern human beings is this: What do you mean by God?” “All of our graven images of God are vanity,” said Isaiah in one context. And still, today, within another context, we repeat the vanity. Is it not true that we, many of us, make images in our mind of something “out there,” some “divine blur” who plays the role of a peeping Tom – watching, watching?
That most basic, most fundamental of all religious questions confronting contemporary humanity is, again, “What do you mean by God?” The answer contains perhaps the most profound difference between Zen/Taoism and orthodox Christianity. The word “God” means nothing in itself.
A number of years ago, a major Protestant denomination took a poll among grade school children and adults who had been active in church school. They were asked: “How do you think of God?” Are you ready for this? The adults gave exactly the same answers as the grade school children but with a different choice of words. God turned out to be either a “cosmic bellhop,” just waiting for you to ring, via prayer, or else he was seen as a “celestial hitman” who “took John in an early death – for it was God’s will, you know.” Sometimes God was called a “divine window peeker,” constantly watching to make sure you’re being good – the ultimate voyeur.
It is impossible to understand how so many could still, in these modern times, be so buried in this archaic and primitive anthropomorphism.
We still think of a god “out there,” as though it is God and us, God and the creation – as though God is something apart from everything else.
A Zen master explained how childish this view is considered in Zen thought: “God against man…man against God; God against nature, nature against God; man against nature…nature against man…a very, very funny religion.”
Thousands and thousands of ministers tell people all about God. They talk about what this God wants, expects, likes, dislikes, loves and hates. They talk about what movies and books he approves of, and so on: one absurdity piled on top of another.
Those same ministers cannot even explain how a light bulb works. Yet, without a moment’s blush or embarrassment, they will tell people all about the mystery behind a million galaxies, and what that same mystery expects you to do today.
The cemeteries of history are filled with the graves of such dead gods: Astarte, Baal, Zeus, Isis, Horus, Osiris, Jupiter, Thor. Today it would be well to bury another archaic god: the God out there of vengeance and anger; a theological policeman whose beat is the universe, a heavenly trigger man.
Conventional theologies and dogma have come and gone thousands and thousands of times. Historians of religions estimate that there have been at least 100,000 distinctly different religions since the Neanderthal period.
The little systems have their day and cease to be. But the great experience of the human soul in the supreme hours of beauty, love and intellectual illumination come back again and again in sacred religious dimensions through a spirit that is beyond human comprehension.