Musings on God

I have often told my readers how important I believe myths and parables are to our understanding of the world. Unfortunately we sometimes suffer greatly when these pointers to the truth are taken literally.

(I recently came across a clue as to why parables are so popular. According to research quoted by David Di Salvo in his book What Makes the Brain Happy and Why You Should do the Opposite, the brain prefers relevance to reality!)

One of the most influential myths is the biblical Genesis account of creation. In Genesis there are two versions of the creation myth. In one, the so-called Yahwist version, God having made Adam and Eve in his own image, sets them loose in the Garden of Eden with a simple command: ”You may eat from any tree in the garden but do not eat of the tree of knowledge. If you do, you shall die.

But subsequently, as you all know, Eve was beguiled by the serpent and wanting to know the difference between good and evil ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree. She then encouraged Adam to do the same.

Most biblical commentators say that Adam and Eve were subsequently expelled from the Garden of Eden, rendered mortal and forced to endure suffering, because they had disobeyed God. But God’s motive was deeper than this. God tells his heavenly court, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not now be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

So one might surmise that the original sin was not so much as to disobey God, but to attempt to be like God.

The thirteenth century German theologian, philosopher and mystic, Meister Eickhart, said:

Know that by nature, every creature seeks to become like God.

Surely those in antiquity might have thought, but perhaps been reluctant to express publicly, why is it that a supreme being (God) might have access to both knowledge of good and evil and be imbued with immortality which He might want to deny to the rest of us? If a creator God had manufactured beings in his own image, why would He have not bestowed on us all of His characteristics? Does this God of our antiquity have such an ego that he would not want anyone else to share such benefits?

And surely there is some injustice in the circumstances that someone special gets to be God, immortal and omniscient but the rest of us must be satisfied with a much lesser existence.

No doubt few of my readers would have heard of the famous Greek orator Gorgias, the charismatic former pupil of Empedocles. The eloquence and seduction of his oratory led Plato to marvel at Gorgias’s verbal skills. Plato wrote, “I often heard Gorgias say that the art of rhetoric differs from all other arts. Under its influence all things are willingly, but not forcibly made slaves.” But Gorgias was the first to conclude that other minds are out of reach of our own, individual mind.

Jesse Bering in The God Instinct wrote:

Gorgias went even further than simply noting the illusion of true intersubjectivity. He concluded that, because other minds cannot be known in reality but only perceived, perhaps they don’t exist at all. After all, one can’t actually see, feel, or weigh another person’s mind; rather, all we can really observe is bodies moving about, mouths talking, and faces contorting. For this reason, Gorgias is still regarded as the first solipsist – someone who denies on philosophical grounds, the very existence of other minds.

Now this is a breathtaking conclusion. Despite the qualitative evidence that every human has physical, social and emotional characteristics just like mine, a solipsist cannot take the step of acknowledging that such beings probably have a mind like mine as well. If we deny these beings a conscious mind, we deny them their humanity as well, for as far as we can discern it is such self-consciousness that defines our humanity.

The solipsist then, in his own peculiar way, has set himself up as someone superior, almost a God, in a way fulfilling the ambitions of Adam and Eve.

Let us put those thoughts aside for the time being. But we will come back to them.

I recently published an essay on my blog site which I titled In the Beginning. In this essay I posited that there were two types of creation story in both mythology and science.

One suggested that the universe was created “ex nihilo” (out of nothing). This is in fact the traditional biblical creation story and the story told by science behind the “big bang” theory.

The other type of creation story suggested that creation was the result of manufacturing order from chaos. This process suggests all the constituent parts of the Universe (matter and energy) were pre-existent and creation was the act of assembling such constituent parts into the universe as we know it.

I find it difficult to believe in a creation “ex nihilo”. Despite the common belief among many scientists in the “Big Bang” theory, it stretches credulity to believe our universe, and perhaps other universes, emanated from a dimensionless singularity in space/time. In my previous essay I quoted Pierre St Clair from his fabulous book Cosmology on Trial, who demonstrated that many of the assumptions behind the notion of a “Big Bang” creation are dubious, to say the least.

Viewed in this way, the creation story is the exact opposite of making something out of nothing. It is, on the contrary, a filtering process that makes something out of everything. Creation is not capricious or random, it is intelligent and a process of selective subtractions and ordering. The implications of this are profound. It means that if in the beginning there was Brahman, the Ground of Being or the Godhead, we are all nothing less than a part of that Godhead.

But this alternative proposal, of an eternal Universe, has long been supported by a number of religions.

The Sufis believed that the only way to accept the proposition of a singular, eternal and indivisible God Was to obliterate any distinction between Creator and creation.

Consider also the teachings of Vedanta, which declares that Creation is not an act by an extracosmic God or a random process of blind nature, but is the evolution and involution of Pure Consciousness. Accordingly the Creation is beginningless. In Vedanta the ultimate, supreme reality is Brahman. The Atman is the individual soul. Life’s ultimate purpose is to restore Atman to Brahman.

Aldous Huxley, the English writer, novelist, and philosopher, attempted to distil the common essence from the Eastern wisdom traditions and the thoughts of Western mystics and influential religious figures. He drew upon the works of Taoist philosophers, Buddhists, the followers of Islam, the Vedantic sages and Christian mystics. His distillation of the commonality of all such belief systems he published in a book called The Perennial Philosophy.

In the introduction to his book Huxley wrote:

The metaphysics that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being — the thing is immemorial and universal.

Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions. A version of this Highest Common Factor in all preceding and subsequent theologies was first committed to writing more than twenty-five centuries ago, and since that time the inexhaustible theme has been treated again and again, from the standpoint of every religious tradition and in all the principal languages of Asia and Europe.

Huxley was attempting to make the case that whatever the Deity might be, and however it might be described in different traditions, there was in fact only one such Deity. As well, he showed that underneath the trappings of the various cultures involved there was a great deal of commonality in the belief systems.

The notion then that there is no distinction between the Creator and creation is quite pervasive in many of the world’s religions. There is a modern term for this conception of the divine: pantheism. Pantheism means “God is all” or alternatively, “All is God.”

The pantheistic philosopher, Michael P Levine asserts:

Nothing can be substantially independent of God because there is nothing else but God.

In other words what we call the world and what we call God are not independent or discrete.

Ken Wilber, the doyen of transpersonal psychologists, asserts the perennial philosophy holds important insights. In Buddhism the ultimate nature of reality is called sunyata.  Sunyata, which is a Pali Sanskrit word, is often translated into English as “emptiness”, the “void” or “nothingness”. But that translation leads to error, because the “void”, as the English author and devotee of Japanese culture, R H Blyth explained, does not mean featureless, but seamless. The English mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead agreed. He believed that sunyata simply means the seamless coat of the universe.

As Whitehead put it:

Sunyata means that, just as the arms and the legs and fingers are quite different entities but are also parts of one body, so all things and events in the Universe are aspects of one fundamental whole, the very source and suchness which is the Real itself.

Wilber, in commenting on these statements writes:

The ultimate psychology is a psychology of fundamental Wholeness, or the superconscious All. At any rate, let us simply note that this Wholeness, according to the perennial psychology is what is real and all that is real. A radically separate, isolated and bounded entity does not exist anywhere. There are no seams in the world, in things, in people or in God.

According to developmental psychologists, when a child comes into the world it initially believes in a naïve and simplistic way that it is in fact the universe. But as the child ages the process of individuation begins and it actively attempts to create a sense of identity in order to separates itself from others and from the rest of the physical universe. In this process the ego is created. In many ways a human’s further development requires the transcendence of the ego and resolution again with the Whole. As we saw earlier in Vedanta this is portrayed by Atman’s journey back to Brahman.

It is worthwhile reiterating that in order to create a self-identity we superimpose an illusory boundary upon prior Wholeness.

Now it seems to me that this is a far more sophisticated viewpoint of the manifestation of God than the rather simplistic, naïve representation in the story of Genesis. But if we dig beneath the surface maybe the Genesis myth is pointing to something similar. In the beginning Adam and Eve were with God. The Old Testament account even relates to them strolling through the Garden with God in the cool of the late afternoon. But then Adam and Eve asserted their independence by eating of the Tree of Knowledge. They were subsequently thrown out of the Garden (i.e. separated from God). The Christian religion then provided a mechanism to be reunited with their God through the mediation of Jesus. So this reflects the perennial theme of Oneness, then Individuation followed by Reconciliation.

But there is a substantive difference between the myth of the Old Testament and the myth of Vedanta. The Christian myth invites us to follow its dictates to return after death to be with God.

Vedanta on the other hand suggests that we have never actually been separated from God. Indeed it suggests once we transcend the illusion of Atman we will realise that we are part of God or indeed that God is part of us! In this way, what seems to be separate and distinct is in fact a single reality, and that reality is what we call God.

The self-identity created by the above-mentioned illusory boundary creates a dilemma for humanity. The ego, ever seeking to make the self special, resides in that self-identity and indeed depends upon it. Whilst transcending Atman and being restored to Brahman is the pinnacle of our spiritual quest, it spells death to the ego.

Reza Aslan is an Iranian-American author, public intellectual, religious studies scholar, producer, and television host.  In his book God: a Human History,  Aslan describes his own faith journey in this way:

My own journey was from a spiritually inclined child who thought of God as an old man with magical powers, to a devout Christian who imagined God as a perfect human being; from a scholastic Muslim who rejected Christianity in favour of the purer monotheism of Islam, to a Sufi forced to admit that the  only way to accept the proposition of a singular, eternal and indivisible God was to obliterate any distinction between Creator and creation.

Aslan continues:

I arrived at pantheism through Sufism. But one can find the same belief in nearly every religious tradition. Pantheism exists in Hinduism, both in the Veda and the Upanishads, but particularly in the Vedanta tradition, which holds that the Brahman (Absolute Reality) alone is real and everything else is illusion. “Nothing is which is not God, and God is everything which is.” It can be found in the Buddhist principle that the world and everything in it are merely aspects of the Buddha – that all phenomena have their being in a single reality. As the great Zen master, Dogen Zenzi (1200-1253 CE) said, “All existents are Buddha Nature”. It is deeply embedded in Taoism, where the divine principle is presented as the ground of all being. “There is nowhere [the Tao] is not….. There is not a single thing without Tao,” wrote the fourth Century BCE Chinese philosopher Chuang Tze.

Now it seems to me that “in the beginning” not only did all matter/energy exist but also consciousness. The astrophysicist Bernard Haisch, in his book The God Theory also agreed with this hypothesis:

I also argue that individual consciousness comes about through this same process. Our minds are filtered from the mind of God. ….we are each individuated manifestations of an infinite consciousness.

So now we come back to the proposition of the solipsist who insists there is only one mind and it is his, to the realisation there is indeed only One mind but it is infinite and we all share part of it.

We might then be led to believe as we consider the Universe as it is written in the Upanishads. Thou Art That (Tat Tvam Asi in Sanskrit).