It was a hot St. Louis summer and I was trying to teach Metaphysics to a classroom of undergrads. I heard giggling from somewhere in the room, right after I had announced that the homework assignment was an essay on “the God problem”. I repeated the assignment, and again heard the same tinkling of laughter. This time I noticed that it was coming from an area of the classroom where several young Indian women were sitting.
I inquired about the cause for the laughter. There was silence for a moment but then one of the young women answered me. “The idea of God being a problem seems funny to us. If I walk along the beach on a sunny day, I may doubt that the grains of sand reflecting the sun are true sources of light, but I could never doubt the sun. As Hindus, we are not so sure how real we are, but we have no doubt about God”. I was taken aback. I had spent countless hours, whether in the classroom or in dorm lounges, arguing back and forth about the existence of God. How could these young women have no doubt about God? Why did it seem strange to them that God should be thought of as a problem?
Shortly after that experience, the French philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, visited our campus. In preparing for his lecture, I read his major work, The Mystery of Being. He makes a distinction in that book that has proved central in my thinking ever since. The young women were right; the idea of God being a problem really was funny. But more importantly, it was profoundly wrong. Problems are to be solved and solving problems means objectifying them, separating ourselves from them. We have all been solving problems since our first days in school and it is perfectly legitimate to do so.
But Marcel claims that not everything can or should be conceived as a problem. Life contains mysteries as well. This does not mean a mystery in the Agatha Christie sense; her “mysteries” were, in Marcel’s language, problems. Who killed Colonel Mustard in the library? We know that’s a problem because it has a potential solution. And isn’t all of life about problem solving, about finding solutions? Isn’t everything either a solved problem or a problem waiting for a solution?
Marcel argues that mysteries are not reducible to problems because we cannot objectify them; we cannot isolate them from ourselves or submit them to laboratory conditions. Mysteries climb back up on us, just when we are trying to push them away. In Marcel’s words, they “encroach on their own data”. They prove to be inseparable from us and thus resist being turned into problems.
A problem is something that can be made into an object, thrown in front of us (the literal meaning of ob/jacere). But a mystery is something that cannot be reduced to the status of an object. The reason we cannot put it in front of us or make it an object of scientific inquiry is that we are inextricably in the mystery and thus inseparable from it.
Our existence, the existence of others, the divine reality, life, death, truth, good, evil—all are mysteries, not problems to be solved. But if we cannot and should not solve mysteries, what do we do with them? We participate in them. We marinate in them. The Bible enjoins us to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” It is a process of immersion, not calculation.
A colleague of mine informed me recently that he was an atheist. “What would change your view?” I asked him. “I would need a scientific proof for the existence of God” he replied. I pointed out to him that this request reflects the same kind of confusion lying at the heart of so many of the popular books on atheism filling the shelves of our bookstores. I told him that if he wanted to participate in the divine mystery he should take six months and live in a monastery, learning meditation, chant, and the reading of sacred texts. He might even practice being deeply present to the mystery of every moment: the opening of a new bud in spring, the smile on a baby’s face, the sound of a violin playing in the distance.
Participating in the divine reality, knowing God, takes practice, not calculation. God doesn’t appear as the answer to a set of operations on our computer. We need commitment and dedication; we need patience and prayer. To come to know this divine reality, which is our own deepest reality, we need to remove the obstacles we place in front of this realization. Our culture is one of denial and distraction. We keep ourselves too busy, too inundated with noise, too burdened with our “to do” lists, to simply be. We have actually confused doing with being.
When Uncle Charlie asks his eighteen-year- old nephew at the Thanksgiving dinner what he wants to be when he grows up, the young man says, “an entrepreneur making big bucks.” He doesn’t say, “a fully evolved, God-centered self.” Being reduces to doing in our culture and eventually even doing itself becomes identified with the level of monetary compensation. “I want to be a $300,000-a-year man.”
Does God exist? My short answer is “yes” but it’s not that simple. When anyone affirms that God does or does not exist, it’s important to know what they’re affirming or denying. One meaning of God is what we call in theological conversations “traditional theism.” This position understands God as an entity somewhere in the universe (usually in a place called heaven). He is often imagined sitting on a throne and is definitely a male, usually with a gray beard. This God is a separate being. If you add this God to the two of us (you, my reader, and myself) then there are three.
I do not believe in this kind of God. There is, however, another meaning of God. This understanding of the divine mystery is referred to as panentheism. This is different both from traditional theism and from pantheism. In pantheism, the universe and God are identical. In panentheism, however, the universe is in God but God is more than the universe. This is essentially the mystical understanding of God that is found in virtually all of the sacred traditions.
I first learned this in graduate school when I was studying the 13th-century theological giant, Thomas Aquinas. He asserted that God was not an entity among entities but rather the existence of every entity, the to-be-ness of everything that is. God for Aquinas was Subsistent To-Be-Ness whereas every entity — molecule, plant, animal, human person, or angelic being — participates in this To-Be-Ness.
This is what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was talking about when he wrote:
Thee God we come from, to Thee go.
All day long we like fountain flow
From Thy hand out
Mote-like in Thy mighty glow.
The images climb on top of each other. First, the simple process of coming and going, the great mystical insight that everything comes from and returns to the divine mystery. Second, the phenomenon of water flowing from a fountain, an illusion of otherness since the identity of flow remains only water. And finally the tiny motes swimming in a splash of sunshine. None of these images totally transcends dualism but the cumulative effect connotes, at least to me, an existence less isolated than the one pictured in the Newtonian physics popular when this poem was first penned, the billiard ball models of reality that filled our high school science classrooms .
Meister Eckhart, the great 14th century German mystic, wrote that the drop poured into the ocean is the ocean, but the ocean is not the drop. In the same way, the person drawn into God is God, but God is not the person. But just as there is nothing in the drop that is not water, so too there is nothing in us that is not God. We either recognize this and live in love’s abundance or deny it and live a diminished life. As one of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas states: “If you do not know yourselves, then you exist in poverty and you are that poverty”.
Hindus say that God is Sat-chit-ananda, truth-consciousness-bliss. This divine mystery is trans-personal but not impersonal. The divine does not become analogous to the electricity that operates in our computers, our lights, and our heating system. Though not a person, the divine remains personal. It persons in persons, just as it molecules in molecules and maples in maple trees. It is always more than its manifestations, never less.
God is the very being of our being. Everything that exists is God in manifest form. Everything that exists is a way the Divine reality experiences the God-self. Everything that exists is breathed out as somehow separate from God and breathed in as the Divine reality itself. In the last analysis, there cannot be anything other than God.
This God does not live in a place called heaven but resides at the heart of everything that exists. All our reality is God. All our experience is God. Even the experience of an atheist is an unremitting experience of the divine reality. This is the God in whom we live and move and have our being.
The closeness of this God is not an option. As the Qumran states, God is closer to us than our jugular. Whether we recognize this closeness is our only option—the reign of God is spread out in front of us but that doesn’t mean that everyone sees it. The difference lies in whether or not one realizes one’s deepest reality, cooperates with this flow of life, aligns oneself with this grain of the universe, and accepts this outpouring of being.
A question in one of my college exams was whether or not there was more reality after God created the universe. This was a classic dilemma. If I said there was more reality, then how could God be infinite? If I said there was no more reality, then was I not a pantheist? The only way between the horns of this dilemma was panentheism. We are at the same time divine and other than the divine, much like the wave on the lake that can be understood as in one sense an independent wave and in another sense identical with the water. Yes, the wave is somehow different and we can look at it in isolation from all the other waves and we can even name it if we choose. And yet, there is nothing in the wave that is not water.
This all sounds well and good, but seems very idealistic. What about evil and all the suffering in the world?
The problem appears already in ancient philosophy, just as it does in the writings of many contemporary atheists and agnostics. We are told that there are three propositions we cannot consistently utter at the same time.
1. God is all-powerful
2. God is all-loving.
3. Evil exists.
The argument compels us to drop one of the three propositions. Perhaps God is not all-powerful; then God is an impotent idol. Perhaps God is not all-loving; then God is a monster. Perhaps there’s no evil or suffering; but that contradicts our experience.
At this point, we can easily recognize the fact that this argument is based on traditional theism, the understanding of God as a separate entity, a larger than life being. This being exists separately from us and can intervene in our affairs at will. Why, then, is that intervention so infrequent and inconsistent? Why does God choose to save two lives from the plane wreckage and take seventy? Why does God riddle one body with cancer and spare another?
The mystics in all the traditions concur in the realization that in the final analysis there can be nothing else than God. The truth lies in our identity with the divine; all the problems lie in our belief that we are separated. The belief in separation creates the ego or the false self, the illusory “self” that we believe is distinct and separate from everything and everyone else, including the theistic God. Such a God, however, living apart from us and choosing arbitrarily to intervene in human affairs is not the God of panentheism.
We are waves on that infinite sea of being. The divine energy constitutes our being and the being of everything that is. The divine manifests in countless forms and this results in what our egos judge to be evil and a source of suffering. But evil and suffering are no more a problem to be solved than is God. All of this diversity coheres in the texture of manifested reality.
We participate in this mystery of good and evil, joy and sorrow, life and death. In the face of what we can only see as evil, in the pain of what we can only feel as suffering, we ask God to fill us with the experience of the divine presence. And when we see the suffering of others, we ask God to increase our sense of compassion to help them and we pray that they experience the divine life as healing and help in every need. In the last analysis, we are not called to solve suffering but to respond to it.
Language breaks down in the face of this mystery. But this is clearly not asking a separate God to intervene; it is asking the “God With Us” (this is the biblical Emmanuel) to be ever more present in our awareness and ever more tangible through our compassion. This God is not expected to fix everything because it is only in the limitation of our understanding that things are broken.
This is the God in whom I believe. This is the God for whom I would presume to make a case. This is the God who lives in the mystery of our existence, the God who is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
By Ron Miller
From a competition Ron entered in America magazine. The entry was to be limited to 2500 words and entitled “A Case for God.”