Naming the Ultimate, Part One

I suspect that we think about the ultimate because we can’t manage to see ourselves as ultimate. Or infinite. Or eternal. Or all-knowing. And that hurts! It hurts to be a too, too solid, limited, fragile creature.

So, we think about the Spirit of Life. God. The gods. The Ultimate Concern.

Search the internet for the names of God. Besides the ninety-nine that Sufis chant, just start with “A” and work through time and geography. Or read Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods. I’ll bet you don’t know them all! Furthermore, you probably only believe in one or two or five at the most.

Always, human beings have pinned names on the absolute.

We call those who do not believe in the gods not a word of their own choosing but “a-theist.” Everyone is defined by the naming of the ultimate. We human beings take this quite seriously.

Alan Watts called this ultimate thing, “the which of which there is no whicher.” That about sums up the idea, doesn’t it?

Inevitably, with the naming comes the assignment of attributes: “Omnipotent.” “Omnipresent.” “Omniscient.” I learned to chant these long, hard words as a child in Sunday school. It’s what God was— Everything. Everywhere. All the time . . .

Walking to school? Yes! In the bathroom? Yes! Watching dad working at the factory? Yes!

The thought was reassuring. And frightening. And threatening. This was the Big Guy in the Sky, who had walloped the world in a flood and made Noah a sailor. The Big Guy who waxed the Egyptian kids and drowned—again with the drowning!—hard-hearted Pharaoh’s army.

This was the Big Guy who would wipe out the world with fire next time. And He really, really didn’t like human nature.

“But wait!” I said. “What about . . .” And so it went, ‘round and ‘round in my little primate brain. I was wrestling with the which of which . . .

Naming the ultimate. Assigning attributes to the absolute.

“The which of which there is no whicher.”

Always this ultimate was about what we—poor farmers in the Midwestern United States—weren’t. And this exhausts at least one avenue of inquiry: we limited creatures want some “whicher” out there that keeps an eye on the (clearly dangerous) machinery of the universe.

But then my little primate brain realized just how blatant a case of wish-fulfillment this was. And so off I went, searching for another “which.” About that . . . next week.

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