Naming the Whirlwind: speaking of “God”

Naming the Whirlwind: speaking of “God” November 7, 2013

God is not

The voice in the whirlwind

God is the whirlwind.

— Margaret Atwood, “Resurrection”

After writing my last post about atheism and belief in “God” and exchanging thoughts with several people in the comments, it occurred to me that “God” is not a word we hear a lot of in Paganism.  We hear about gods (plural), and Goddess (feminine), and the god (definite article and often lower case), consort of the Goddess.  The reason for this is that Paganism is an intentional challenge to or critique of the traditional Western conception of divinity as singular and masculine.  For many, if not most, people who have been raised in Western civilization, the word “God” invokes images and qualities associated with the monotheistic god of the Abrahamic faiths, including transcendence, masculinity, dominance, power-over, etc.  The gods and Goddess of Paganism are a needed corrective to this imbalanced picture of the divine.

In my last post, I suggested that the word “God” could be understood apophatically — not as a description, but as a question.  “God”, in this sense, is not the answer to our questions about the meaning of our lives.  “God” is the name for the question itself.  After giving this some thought and reading some comments, it occurred to me why this approach must seem impossible for some people and relatively easy for others.  For many people, the word “God” is content-laden.  Far from being devoid of content, the word is filled with meaning, usually meaning derived from the the Judeo-Christian-Islamic (JCI) tradition.  And, as stated above, Pagan conceptions of the divine generally are a reaction against the JCI tradition.

I certainly felt this way when I left my faith of origin, Mormonism.  For a long time, I could not even bring myself to say “God” unless it was prefaced by the definite article “the” and preferably only after “the Goddess”.  The word itself had such strong negative emotional associations for me that I avoided its use altogether for years.  Just saying the word “Goddess” was a powerful experience.  It opened up, not only realms of intellectual possibility theretofore unexplored by me, but also to realms of emotional possibility.  “Goddess” opened up the possibility of a deity that cared nothing about traditional notions of purity and obedience.  And it also opened up the possibility of experiencing divinity immanently, in relation to the material world around and through my very own body.

But after many years of avoiding “God”, I recently started being able to talk about “God” again.  I didn’t realize this until I wrote my last post.  There, the “God” that I was talking about was not a masculine counterpart to the Goddess.  Nor was it the God of my Christian upbringing.  It was, rather, the name that I gave to an almost inarticulate intuition of something, or perhaps a longing for something.  I think sometimes that I experience God mostly as the presence of an absence (as opposed to the absence of a presence).  I don’t know when exactly it happened, when the word “God” was largely stripped of its JCI associations for me.  Perhaps I was aided by the fact that, in the religion of my youth, Mormonism, we spoke less of “God” per se, and more of “Heavenly Father”.  Or perhaps this shift was facilitated by my need to be able to converse with my Mormon wife and with my son who was, until recently, Mormon, without getting tangled up in terminology.

I’m sure, though, that the word “God” remains a stumbling block for many of my readers: Pagans, and atheists, and Atheist Pagans (and even for Christians who think I am talking about their God).  Whether I like it or not, the word “God” commonly connotes an implied “he” and also an implied exclusive singularity.  This is overcome in part by using feminine pronouns with the word “God” (“When God spoke, She said …”), but this has its own problems.  As does the awkward hybrid designation “God/dess”.  I’ve used the term myself, but there is something ungraceful about it, linguistically speaking.  If we can’t use “God”, because of its associations with Yahweh/Jehovah/Allah, we should have another term that evokes the same sense of the numinous, a term that invokes both the mystery and the emotional power that “God” invokes for others.

Why use any terms at all?  Why not just remain silent, as many atheists prefer to do.  I think silence is a valid option.  “The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”  (Tao Te Ching)  But there are other valid responses: singing, dancing, ritual.  And speaking is another option.  The tricky thing about language is that it both opens up horizons of possibility and it also delimits or forecloses other possibilities, and it does this simultaneously.  The experience I described above of speaking “Goddess” is a good example.  Saying the word out “Goddess” loud opened up possibilities for me, i.e., of experiencing the divine immanently, but it also foreclosed other possibilities.  At best, “Goddess” is ambiguous as to the place of masculinity.  Ann Ulanov writes, “it is very much a human impulse to try to picture God and God does come to find us in those very pictures as well as in the smashing of them”.  We have to try to “picture” God with our language, but we have to be continually smashing those linguistic idols as well.

One of the commenters to my last post said they like to use the term “The Sacred Spirit”.  “Spirit” is a common choice, it seems.  Unitarians often speak or sing about “The Spirit of Life”.  But unfortunately, “spirit” is often juxtaposed with “matter” or “body” in Western culture, and these are qualities that many Pagans would include, not exclude, from what is being described as “Spirit”.  “Universe” is another common choice, especially among non-theists and philosophical naturalists.  I think, though, that the word suffers from the same difficulty as “God”.  Where “God” is commonly associated with the transcendent or supernatural, “Universe” is sometimes understood reductively.  I prefer “Cosmos”, which is more poetic.  In any case, we need a word that makes room for the experience that we associate with these terms.  Rather than a “God-in-the-gaps“, we need a “God-who-makes-gaps”.

“The divine” is a catch-all that I often use.  But I really have no idea what it means.  “Mystery” is a term that I like.  And also “the Holy”.  I like the imagery of the “Pregnant Abyss” which can be found in Milton, Jacob Boehme, Schelling, and others.  I like Brian Swimme’s phrase, the “All Nourishing Abyss”.  And Emerson’s “Wise Silence”.  These are all phrases which seem to make room for the experience that I associate with “God”.  Other terms I like are “the Dream Dreaming the Dreamer” (which is like a mini-koan) and “the Cosmic Dance”.

What words or phrases do you use to name that experience of mystery and wonder which many people call “God”?

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  • Kenneth Apple

    Tao, unpersonified natural law is the closest term I’ve found, or the Xartus of Indo Eurpean thought or the Great Nature of Shinto. I have to say, the way I feel and the term I would use, often changes day to day and that’s okay.

  • I have found myself using the term “mystery” a lot lately for this purpose. Or, if I’m feeling pluralistic: mysteries.

    Paul Tillich sez: “The name of infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of our being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. “

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      Mysteries is good.

  • Courtney

    Hi John! Just a little intro… I’m in my early 20s and exploring my spirituality. I found your blog a couple weeks ago and have since been reading as much of it as I can. It was only recently that I started exploring Paganism at all; I always just thought it was people who believed in witchcraft and worshiped nature. I had no idea how diverse it was, and your particular brand of spirituality resonates deeply with me. I look forward to responding to your thought-provoking posts in the future!

    Anyway, I too struggle with what to call… It. Sometimes I go with the Universe (but I agree that can sound reductionist), sometimes the All (but somehow that sounds pretentious), and sometimes with Everything (although that hardly sounds wondrous at all!) Honestly my favorite is the Story. The story with no ending. (As opposed to The Neverending Story…!)

    I also have a hard time distancing the word “God” from unpleasant associations. It seems to me that far too many people use God to refer to their ego’s personal sense of righteousness. Thus God too often appears to me as some harsh, frowning father on a cloud who hates gay people and works himself into a fury when people have sex before marriage and watches folks masturbate.

    However, I do think it can be empowering – although difficult – to reclaim a concept as expansive as God from those who would try to impose their beliefs and bigotry on the rest of the world. So recently I’ve been trying to get myself back into the habit of thinking about “God.” One thing that has helped me is realizing that I was viewing God as a name. I know that even in Christianity, God isn’t actually his name, but much like “Dad”, we “children” tend to see it as a de facto name anyway. In fact, God isn’t even a proper noun, but just a noun. And a mass noun at that. A mass noun is like rice, as opposed to peas. You could say you found a pea on the floor, but not a rice (you’d have to qualify it with “a grain of rice”) and you eat peas but not rices. God is not one thing but the sum of many things – of all things. I don’t believe a human can feel all of God, but you can feel some God. I also don’t really feel God should be capitalized, but I’m still doing it for now. We’ll see!

    Also – thanks for pointing out apophatic theology! I had never heard of that concept, but it makes a lot of sense to me…

    • Courtney, thank you. I love the pea/rice analogy! I’m going to have to borrow that. I like “Story” too. Are you familiar with narrative theology?

      • Courtney

        Thanks – I’m glad!

        Narrative theology? That’s a thing? It sounds an awful lot like it might reflect the conclusions I’ve been coming to on my own…

      • Courtney

        Although, after a bit of searching, I can only find narrative theology in a Christian context. Which is interesting enough, but… eh. Few things are as draining to my spirit as Christianity. Just reading about it turns me off of using the word God again.

        My “theology” more or less centers around the idea that asking whether the universe is good or evil, benevolent or cruel, etc. is the wrong metric. What the universe is without debate, unless you simply aren’t paying attention, is interesting. Whether you’re looking at the objective truths that science allows us to understand, or the depths of the human spirit that art and fiction help us to glimpse. And that the divine organizes itself into such an immeasurable amount of diversity throughout the cosmos, throughout Earth and throughout life and culture and each individual so that it can tell endless, endless stories to itself – which is, in turn, all part of one great Story. To me, ennui is the greatest sin. 🙂

        • John Halstead

          >”I can only find narrative theology in a Christian context …”

          Yes, a lot of good theology starts in the context of Christianity, and so has to be translated into a Pagan context. I would recommend this *How Do Stories Save Us* as a start.

          >”To me, ennui is the greatest sin.”

          Reminds me of this quote from Camus: “If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”

          >”What the universe is without debate, unless you simply aren’t paying attention, is interesting.”

          Reminds me of another quote:

          “I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood. An infant who has just learned to hold up his head has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to find out. In a couple of years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he’ll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place. Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that
          we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why.” — Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

          Here’s to exploring the neighborhood and sharing our stories about our explorations.

          • Courtney

            Sorry for the late response, John, but I really do appreciate the resources and the quotes! The Hills of the Horizon posts really hits home, and one of the commenters’ observation that “Story is the operating system that takes the massive amount of seemingly random data of human existence and presents it in an organized fashion” is something that will stick with me. As for the book, it’ll take me a bit longer to obtain and digest that, but the snippets I can see are intriguing. According to page 5 and 6, I have quite the Catholic imagination! (“Do you believe, with Albert Camus, that there is more to admire in human beings than to despise? Do you find that with Erasmus and Francis of Assisi that in spite of all folly, stupidity, illusion and even sin, reality in its final moment is trustworthy?”)

            I imagine that using such a massive, contradictory and broad text as the Bible would force Christian theologians to get pretty creative in having it all make sense.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    It’s an interesting article. A central problem I have is that I can’t take it for granted that we’re speaking the same language when we say, “god.” It’s a quirky form of anthropological non-cognitivism. Just as we can’t take it for granted that “love” means the same thing across personal and cultural boundaries, we can’t take it for granted that “god” is understood either. It’s not just blind men and the elephant, it’s blind men where you can’t assume that there’s elephant at all.

    Part of this is the problem of tacit knowledge (Polyani) in that I can say and describe Mouse (since one name is as good as another) but saying and describing Mouse isn’t Mouse, nor is it my experience of Mouse. It’s not a relationship that can be shared, because Mouse was a specific individual mouse, I was I, and the moral burdens (or revelations or gnosis) of that relationship are the moral burdens of that relationship. (I should probably make it clear that Mouse isn’t the only relationship I have to deal with.)

    And part of the problem is that “god language” is so personal and political that it’s difficult to use without reframing or offense. At best, the listener feeds back to me their understanding via a different theological system. At worst, I’m an idolator, blasphemer, or just plain crazy. It feels like pagan communities are tearing themselves apart between people who say Mouse was a god, I was a god to Mouse, Mickey Mouse is a god, all mice are part of God, and Mars is a god. Mouse is Mouse is a cop-out in that debate. But it seems like a reasonable step.

    As I said in the other thread, “god” strikes me as a linguistic and philosophical “false friend” between people and cultures that have radically incompatible meanings.

    • ” It feels like pagan communities are tearing themselves apart between people who say Mouse was a god, I was a god to Mouse, Mickey Mouse is a god, all mice are part of God …”

      🙂 Or maybe that’s just part of the great Mouse Dance.

  • Edith Scheie

    The Lakota people call it “The Great Mystery.” That works for me.

  • The whirlwind continues to be a powerful representation of deity for me as well.

    • JohnH2

      I am not familiar where ‘whirlwind’ as divinity is coming from?

      My guess is Job: “the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind” but that might be just what I am familiar with? I doubt it is from Heart-Of-Sky (Hurricane) in the Popol Vuh, the divine center around which are repeated waves of creation and destruction.

  • 12StepWitch

    Lovely post.
    Like a proper person in recovery, I use “higher power” quite often. I also use the term God and big u Universe, and “the Divine” interchangeably.

  • Henry Buchy

    god herself

  • Y. A. Warren

    I am the commenter who often uses “The Sacred Spirit”. I also use “Universal Energy”, as in the alpha of “Universal Energy” from which all energy that manifests as matter on earth is currently referred to as the Higgs Boson.

    I think of positive energy as analogous to stars and other physical, finite manifestations of positive energy as manifestations of “God” and negative energy as analogous to black holes in the universe that are dead for eternity.

    To call “God” love is fraught with problems, as we seem to have no agreement on what that word means. I prefer to use the term “responsible compassion.”

  • Akhilesh Pillalamarri

    Hi John, I’ve been a long time fan lurker on your blog, and I find I can resonate a lot with some of your stuff, especially how you’ve arrived certain religious conclusions from an intellectual perspective without feeling the full emotive force of practice and prayer. In the context of your post here, this is related to how I feel about the term God. Although I support polytheism intellectually, I find it hard, in moments of genuine prayer, to address gods. In moments of poetry or contemplation, yes, I think of gods, but deep philosophical reflection makes me think of God, as an abstract being, sometimes personal sometimes impersonal, filled with all qualities. I think this is because when this exercise is emotional and not intellectual, I don’t want to take the time or effort deciding which deity to pray to, which face to picture, whose jurisdiction my current problem falls under. God is necessarily the concept that refers to the divine and spiritual without making the effort to qualify it or consider it through a more concrete manifestation. I can think of no better term for this except for God. Life Force, Universal Spirit, Great Mystery all serve a similar purpose but they all often need further explanation and aren’t as pithy as God. I originally come from a Hindu background, so I am familiar with the way God is used in this sense, not to refer to devas, not even in the sense of a supreme deity such as Vishnu, but in the philosophical sense (bhagvan or ishvara as a personal being and brahman as impersonal) as a concept referring to the divine in a much more abstract sense than the Judeo-Christian-Muslim term of the word God. Although I’m not truly a practicing Hindu, I find the philosophical terminology a good framework in which to mesh my beliefs and reconciling the simultaneous oneness and plurality of the divine experience. After all, all the terms are synonyms. I think people in the West need to do more to reclaim the word and concept of God from a strictly Judeo-Christian association, easier said than done.

    • Thanks Akhilesh! I love my lurker fans! I think you put it very well. We need to reclaim this word, which is both abstract and intimate. But it’s an uphill battle. Thanks for bringing the Hindu concept of God (vs. gods) to my attention. I think its an apt example.

  • I have never been able to settle on one word that I’m completely happy with, and in a way I like that. It seems reflective of the whole nature of divinity, and the uncertainty around what divinity even is. I don’t use “God” a lot because it can cause misconceptions, but I will happily use it when having conversations with people who understand what my beliefs are. Cosmos and Goddess (or often in writing, God/dess) are my favourites, though.

  • Hi John, I’m an agnostic/atheist druidy type and for me, the preferred term is ‘the sacred’. I don’t do personal deities and have issues with the gender binary of god/goddess stuff. I think the word ‘God’, especially capitalised as a proper noun, is misleading. Most people in Europe and the USA take ‘God’ to mean a specific, monotheistic, Christian deity (apophatic theology notwithstanding-how many churchgoers have read ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’?). ‘Sacred’ seems to encapsulate the sense of awe at something greater than oneself, without framing it as a personal deity.

    • Can you imagine the looks you would get if you started using “Cloud of Unknowing” instead if God at a Christian church? 🙂

      “The Sacred” is a good name I think.