Monday, 3 September 2012

Religion and Language

In the Graphic Novel "Promethea", Alan Moore speculates that without langauge there could be no God (or at least, no idea of God, yet alone religion) because there would be no way of expression an experience of the Divine to others, no means of communicating that relationship.

"Promethea" explores various faith traditions, including Paganism and Jewish mysticism, especially the Qaballah. He has this to say on the monotheism of the Abrahamic religions:

"Monotheism is, to me, a great simplification. I mean the Qabalah has a great multiplicity of gods, but at the very top of the Qabalic Tree of Life, you have this one sphere that is absolute God, the Monad, something which is indivisible. All of the other gods, and indeed everything else in the universe, is a kind of emanation of that God. Now, that’s fine, but it's when you suggest that there is only that one God, at this kind of unreachable height above humanity, and there is nothing in between, you’re limiting and simplifying the thing. I tend to think of paganism as a kind of alphabet, as a language, it's like all of the gods are letters in that language. They express nuances, shades of meaning or certain subtleties of ideas, whereas monotheism tends to just be one vowel and it's just something like 'oooooooo'. It's a monkey sound."

He argues that God(S) is/are the product of the human mind, human imagination and language, from a time when human societies didnt know how wind or thunder worked. Moore again, "We don't live in that world anymore. We need to leave that old creator god behind with all the other myths of those times and envision a new reality that is the connection of all Life, its value and importance, and the connection of Life Itself in all things, that is the true reality of our Universe, of which we are only one tiny part. The story is much bigger than what is told in the Bible, or even what Jesus knew and talked about with his limited understanding."

And to an extent he is right: all the images and ideas we have of God are man-made as are the structures we have to explore God. Yet God cannot be defined within the boundaries of human language but can, in a broader sense, be identified, pointed to/alluded to through the medium of language to a certain degree. Language reflects the "ideas" so language can have a providential role as a vehicle. Yes, the infinite has no boundaries (including that of infinity itself:) It is beyond infinity as well. Since infinity implies a degree of the finite, I guess the simplest yet most encompassing way to say it would be that it is all that is and yet beyond all that is. Thus, origin and essence not at a particular time but always and at every moment.

We can merely use our tools - especially language-  to talk about, describe, define, relate to God. But yet as I mused in a previous blog post, we can never truly "see" God.  The finger merely points towards the moon, however, it is not the moon. Language is like that finger which can to a certain degree to speak of God, however, it falls far short of being able to describe God in a comprehensive manner.

It falls short beause God is "No thing": God isn't something that can be described, merely experienced. As God said to Moses "I Am". God just is.

 The problem of an absence of language to discuss the supposed spiritual is not a limitation of language, it is a limitation of reality. Language only is meaningful to the extent that it can correspond with events perceived to occur in reality. If I say that there is an apple and a banana in Fred's lunchbox, listeners can expect that if they reach into the lunchbox, they can come out with an apple, a banana or both. You don't have to "believe" in apples or bananas for this correspondence between language and reality to work. The same is not true for those who allege an experience with God. There is plenty of language. There is not, however, any genuine correspondence with reality. Thus, no matter what words are used to describe this "spiritual" experience, there's no lunchbox, no apple and no banana. Reality can leave you empty-handed, not language.

Usually one contemplates the "attributes" of this Divine Reality. That there is something timeless, Eternal, without beginning or end, it is infinite, encompassing, Unity, Sacred, Holy, Transcendent, Immanent, Everlasting, Intelligence, Loving, Compassionate, Merciful, Consciousness, Bliss, Supreme Good, Formless Spirit, Origin and Essence of all existence, etc, etc, etc.....

These "attributes" usually serve as pointers in guiding and helping us orient our own "being" in the direction toward the Reality that is all those attributes and much much more than that as well. It is infinitely infinite and no matter how much we know or understand of this Reality, there is infinitely more to know for it is inexhaustible.

And yet,  language to describe God remains elusive, even when our understandings of God (or understandings of why God does not exist, for atheist friends) are most real. Spiritual experiences, as well as language to describe the world in which we live, are difficult to find words for.This lack of language for the Sacred is like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of my religious practice: I cannot both fully experience the Sacred and fully describe that experience at the same time.

 At points this is cause for frustration, while at others it merely affirms the extent to which I was truly present for a sacred moment.

We are often left searching, searching for words about what we believe, yet finding it easier to articulate what we do not believe (how very Unitarian). Struggling to speak in positive terms about our experience and what we do believe.

 A lack of certainty, however, is not the same as a lack of belief, something which many Conservative/Literalist Christians claim those of us of a Progressive or Liberal mind suffer from. If only we just read the Bible as they do we'd be Ok. But I cant. I don't.  For good or bad I am a thinker, someone who asks questions and is seldom happy with the anwer. In fact, I sense that to have strong belief, I must actually start from a place of doubt. I need to find words for my doubt -- much as I do for my belief -- and beginning with doubt can often be easier than starting with a position of faith and creating statements. We never never expect, or hope to receive, definitive answers, which is why we call this a life of faith. Yet so many people of faith try to define God or limit God to one religion or narrow theology. They have a particular concept of God and then try to argue that their concept - or perhaps construct - exists in a rather circular argument. But yet, instead I believe we should be looking for a common language through which to describe our conceptions of God -- we often end up frustrated, rather than enlightened by an argument rooted in genuine curiosity. Such frustration is I think part of the authentic dialogue of the seaker after God, and yet often miss-interpretted as doubt.lack of faith or "wooly thinking".

I'll end with some words from William Blake

"The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spake to them; and whether they did not think at the time, that they would be misunderstood, & so be the cause of imposition.

Isaiah answer'd. 'I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover'd the infinite in every thing, and as I was then perswaded, & remain confirm'd, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences but wrote.'

I also asked Isaiah what made him go naked and barefoot three years? he answer'd, 'the same that made our friend Diogenes the Grecian.'

I then asked Ezekiel why he eat dung, & lay so long on his right & left side? he answer'd, 'the desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite."


No comments:

Post a Comment