What do we actually mean when we speak of God?
“Do you believe in God?”
If I’m completely honest, I have a love-hate relationship with this question. Love because it’s a question that is deeply meaningful to me. Hate because I’m that guy who will respond with a kind of digression about how it all depends on how we define that term. For the most part, this results in the questioner’s eyes glazing over and the dawning realisation that what I’m saying is no longer of any interest.
But, alas, the question must be asked. Because, the reality is that the term — at least in its colloquial usage — means very different things to different people. Two people can say they believe in God but mean very different things.
My own journey on this question has evolved over time and has involved a hefty dose of ‘deconstruction’ (I hesitate to use that tired phrase). Yet, deconstruction was/has been woefully incomplete without some kind of healthy reconstruction process(es). This has looked like abandoning the theistic personalist god of my youth: god as a kind of super-human being that often amounts to nothing more than a projection of our own ego/s onto the divine. Rather, over time, I came to embrace a notion of God expressed in and embraced by many of the classical theistic traditions, albeit in their more mystical schools: God as the infinite ground and wellspring of Being itself. That is, God is not merely another being amongst beings (even if that being is the greatest conceivable being), nor is God an object among objects. God is the one indivisible Source of all that is; that unconditioned creative energy which gives rise to the very category of being itself. This notion of God is at once classical, nondual, and panentheist. And importantly, it is one that is not in opposition to the scientific endeavour and scientific epistemology (i.e. the empirical method). It is a notion of God that is also ancient, having been deeply formed by Neoplatonic thought and idealist metaphysics (which early Christianity was likewise deeply shaped by might I add).
A key text for me when wrestling through these questions was David Bentley Hart’s ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’ (TEOG). I came to read it during a time when I began entering a kind of spiritual desert. It was a formative and enriching read; traversing the topic of God across the great theistic traditions. One of Hart’s central theses was the notion that God can be conceived of in terms of the Sanskrit term Sacchidānanda: as infinite Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. This conception of God is a panentheistic one: not collapsing the ontological difference between the divine and the world (pantheism), nor giving in to a dualist theism (or deism) where God functions as a distant supreme being — think of the watchmaker analogy. Rather, God is simultaneously the source, means, and end of the world; reality is held within God yet God is not strictly identical (or reducible) to reality.
All of this is well-and-good, but how does it square up with experience? Some may be irked by my prioritisation of experience here, but at the end-of-the-day, experience is the one thing we can be sure of. You and I are consciously experiencing this very moment. And, our experience of the world is an important source of knowledge, even if we need to exercise a degree of discernment in how we understand/interpret said experience(s). Without going into extensive detail, I can say that this conception of God makes intuitive sense to me experientially: what I could only categorise as ‘mystical’ or ‘unitive’ experiences point me towards this ineffable mystery called God. But, I also encounter this God in the quiet and the mundane. In the face of my neighbour and, yes, even the stranger. In those moments where I “lose myself in the service of others” (as Mahatma Gandhi puts it) where the ‘veil’ is momentarily swept aside and I seem to catch a glimpse of the transcendent in the immanent. God is in and through all things yet simultaneously transcendent of them. There’s a paradox here, but as those such as Dr Iain McGilchrist point out, such seeming paradox reveals a deeper truth at play.
To end, I’ll leave a brief (by Hartian standards) quote from TEOG on what it means to speak of God (taken from page 30). It beautifully (and far more eloquently) captures what I’ve been trying to articulate in this piece.
“To speak of “God” properly, then — to use the word in a sense consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Bahá’í, a great deal of antique paganism, and so forth — is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true consummation. All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension; hence, much of the language used of him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence. All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known: that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with a fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.”