* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, February 17, 2014

The "G" Word

I've wrestled with using the word "God" for some time now. I know that there are some people who invent their own definitions in order to keep using the word without necessarily meaning what other people mean by the word.

"God is the space between people."
"God is a person's ultimate concern."
"God is the life force that flows through all things."

This is all well and good, except that I know when I use the word "God" without going into detail to define it, other people are going to conjure up whatever their own image of God is, and most likely they're going to have an image of God that is somehow connected to the Judeo-Islamo-Christian God. Even if they have a different image of God, it's not likely to be identical to my image of God. I keep using capital-G "God" at this point because that term has come to be synonymous with a singular higher power, most often portrayed as intelligent, willful, and benevolent, with a vengeful streak toward people who hold different opinions or lifestyles than the person doing the portraying. Given that I can't control what a listener does with the word, I generally choose not to use the word "God" (unless I'm asking a question about someone's specific claims about their image of a deity).

That doesn't mean I don't have any ideas about God. Aside from acknowledging that no actual gods exist in objective reality -- that indeed there is no credible evidence to support claims of supernaturalism -- I still have some ideas about God. Those ideas extend to any god, goddess, ancestral spirit, fairies, and so on. If I were to use the word "God," I know what I would mean by it. Maybe it's better to get over what other people will do with the word in their interpretation.

God is a word people use to describe a deep part of ourselves. Sometimes, it's easier to imagine that inner part of our being as something outside of us. It's easier to imagine talking to something external to ourselves; it's easier to imagine being comforted by something external to ourselves; it's easier to imagine being loved by something external to ourselves. Some people get so accustomed to imagining this deep part of themselves as something external to themselves that they forget that God is the inner part of their being. They start to believe that what they imagine about God being external to them should be what everyone imagines about God. It's difficult for them to see that, since God is just a word people use to describe a deep part of themselves, everyone is going to have a different image of God.

People have concocted a lot of gods, as it turns out. None of those gods are real, but they are the ideas that were evoked from the inner lives of lots of different people. People feel angry sometimes, so they might imagine a god that is angry about the same things. People are awed by nature, so they might imagine that nature has gods too, that nature has a self. People imagine gods that act and feel the way those people act and feel, and sometimes people imagine gods that act and feel in ways that those people wish they could act and feel. From within different people, many different ideas of gods have emerged. None of those external ideas of gods actually do or feel anything, but they reflect what people do and feel within the innermost parts of their being.

Sometimes imagining that God is something external can be used as a buffer. When people say that God blessed them with certain abilities, they can speak boldly about themselves without seeming egotistical. When someone says that God punished a group of people with a hurricane, that person is actually expressing personal hatred or fear about a group of people and using an external idea of God as a deflector. When people pray that a person will recover from an injury or illness, they are actually expressing their own desire for the person's recovery... which is kind of odd, when you think about it. Why not just say what one wants or feels?

I believe people don't say what they honestly want or feel because they either fear how other people will respond or they fear that they are somehow not enough in their own lives. Using the idea that God is something outside of them allows people to talk about things they would be otherwise afraid to talk about. This doesn't make God real as something outside of them. It just offers people the illusion that they are not actually talking about themselves. It provides a persona on which people can project what they want and what they feel, and this feels safer than vulnerable authenticity.

The ideas people create about gods have inspired lots of stories, and many of these stories hold incredible bits of wisdom. Unfortunately, sometimes people forget to look for the wisdom within the stories and believe that the stories are intended to represent surface-level reality. Stories become "histories" rather than legends, and histories are about recounting factual data. Stories about gods aren't about factual data; they're about the inner development of people -- about growth within a person and between people. When we recognize that God or god (or goddess) is a word we use for something deep within ourselves, then it becomes easier to look at stories about God or gods (or goddesses) as lessons about who we are rather than vessels of factual data. Stories about gods are stories about us; when we make them more than that, they become less useful.

We don't insist that other people have the same innermost being as us. We shouldn't insist that people have the same God as us. Neither is possible. Whatever God you believe in is something you have imagined. If you don't believe me, ask 10 of your adult friends to describe God (or better, to draw a picture of God) using their own words and not quoting any sacred text. How many of your friends describe God exactly as you do? This isn't a matter of blind men describing an elephant. People have different descriptions of God because people have different selves. This is a problem for some, because they expect their God to do something that isn't possible -- something that they are not capable of doing.

Our innermost beings are not capable of producing miracles in the world around us. Our innermost beings are not capable of changing other people. When we forget that God is a word we use for something deep within us -- an intrinsic part of ourselves -- we develop untenable expectations. God is a way for us to forgive ourselves for doing something that goes against our guiding principles. God is a way for us to guide ourselves toward better decisions, greater integrity, or more authentic love for others. God is a way for us to comfort ourselves in the face of loss. Having a word for that deep part of ourselves is useful. Until we make that word mean something more.

When I hear anyone talk about deity or fairies or ancestral spirits or anything of the like, I understand that they are telling me something about themselves. Sometimes translation is difficult when people become more academic in their communication, but I know that these are just ways that say things about themselves that they would otherwise find difficult to communicate. No one can ever tell me anything about God that I don't already know. No one can ever tell you anything about God that you don't already know. I can't worship anyone else's God, and neither can you. I can't know anyone else's God, and neither can you. God is a word we use for something deep inside of us, an intrinsic part of us. We can never know someone deeply enough to truly know their God, but we can appreciate that when people speak of God, they are speaking of themselves. They are speaking of a very deep part of themselves.

I may still avoid the use of the word. It's a messy word because so many people believe that it means something different than what it actually means. I may still strive to speak about what I want and what I feel in a way that is vulnerably authentic and leave God out of the conversation altogether. Should I start using the word "God," though, you'll at least have some idea what I mean. More importantly, I'll have a clear idea what I mean. It helps me listen to people sometimes, except when they insist that their imagination defines objective reality for other people. Maybe this will help you in some way, too. There are probably volumes that could flow from what I've articulated here, but the basic idea that all those volumes would flow from is still fairly simple: God is a word we use to talk about our innermost being.

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