Describing the Indescribable

Following on the heels of the Catholic grandfather whose nine year old granddaughter is a soft polytheist comes this very good essay by rabbinical student Joshua Stanton titled “Finding Language to Describe God.” He says:

My belief in God and ability to describe God are not necessarily correlated. During profound spiritual experiences, I am often least capable of describing what makes them feel spiritual. The awe of the moment can eclipse — and even temporarily suppress — my ability to give words to the very awe that I feel.

This lack of words for the Sacred is like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of my religious practices: I cannot both fully experience the Sacred and fully describe that experience at the same time.

As I mentioned last time, I have had (a very precious few) mystical experiences of Oneness. I can’t describe them any better than that. My experiences of the gods, ancestors and spirits tend to be more describable, but they too have moments that are truly ineffable.

Language is a curious thing. It creates a strong association between things (an object or a concept or a quality) and our words for those things. That association is one of the primary ways magic works. But just as our magic has limitations, so does our language.

The process of describing something limits it. If a ball is round it is not square or triangular or oblong. If it is red it is not blue or green or black. If it is rubber it is not leather or glass or stone.

How do you limit the limitless?

Things that are well known have names: football, lion, John. We say the word and a stream of qualities and attributes fills our minds. Things that are not well known must be described by listing some of its qualities and attributes and ignoring others. If you don’t know me, you could describe me as a 50 year old white male, 5’9” and 210 pounds, brown and grey hair with a mostly grey beard. Or you could describe me as a Pagan, Druid and Unitarian Universalist. Or you could describe me as an industrial engineer working in a corporate headquarters. All of these things would be true and none of them would be anywhere close to describing what – much less who – I am.

What qualities are sufficient to describe the infinite?

When you describe something you deconstruct it. Yet in a common mystical experience, what is experienced is Unity, Oneness, Wholeness. This is Stanton’s version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It can only be experienced in whole, but it can only be described in part.

How do you deconstruct the indestructible?

We have been trying for thousands of years. When we’re arrogant, we come up with doctrines and rationalizations and proofs for the existence – or the non-existence – of God.

When we’re wise, we tell stories and sing songs, drum and dance and perform ritual. We let all our senses take part in the communication and we open a door to let our subconsciouses make the connections and work the magic that our rational minds aren’t equipped to handle.

We speak of Paganism as a religion of the body as well as the mind. We usually take that to mean sensual pleasures are good and not sinful. While that’s certainly true, it also means we can learn through our bodies as well as our minds.

The rabbi-to-be is conducting a “search for meaning and words to more effectively describe God.” He has stated his problem very well, and as someone who follows the God of the Book, it is understandable that he would seek to understand the Divine through words.

As a Pagan, I would remind him that understanding can come through many avenues and descriptions are only one very limited way.

“the truth is held within a tale”
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About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.