Seeking the God Beyond God

Seeking the God Beyond God May 13, 2011

“The problem with the idea of one God is that it is either one too many, or not nearly enough.”

Walt Wieder

I continue to sit with the program I endured at my recent local Unitarian Universalist clergy retreat, “Whose Are You?” It privileged a classical theistic view, a dualistic universe with a deity that is personally involved in the lives of people, intervening in events. Specifically it turned on a calling of a person to a specific work. In this case ministry. But it also implied the utility of petitionary prayer.  We were invited at some point to pray for each other. I gather from comments in the full form of the curriculum this aspect of praying is even more pronounced.

Now for most religious communities in the West, what’s the beef? Isn’t that how it works? Why should I take umbrage at this?

Of course those who know Unitarian Universalists know it is nowhere near so cut and dried. While the roots are deep within Protestant Christianity, the rationalist part of the movement has taken a sharp turn toward non-theism. The two principal theological currents for much of the twentieth century have been humanism and naturalistic mysticism.

So, attending a workshop for UU clergy, which modeled everyone to respond in dualistic theistic ways is worth noting and reflecting upon.

I recall more than twenty years ago when I first embarked upon the path to becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister and meeting with some who were concerned about my Buddhism because it was so “spiritual,” and therefore for some, indistinguishable from Christianity – and in this seeing how I was part of a current that would likely be the dominant form of Unitarian Universalism for a while, wondering a bit whether I would find myself in the place of those disgruntled UUs who saw their form of the tradition slipping into a minority place. And not particularly liking it.

This is partially true, I suspect. But there’s much more to this, I feel, than sensing one’s contribution to the tradition isn’t appreciated.

And, of course, it would be foolish to extrapolate too much from such a small sample, twenty-five colleagues in New England. Still, the curriculum was developed within the auspicious of the denomination and has been used around the country. So, clearly it represents something…

Now, I have no problem with a multiplicity of stands within our liberal tradition. It is how we work. The bottom line for us is a covenant to not turn away, but rather to walk with.

Cool.

And I’ve seen wisdom rising in the hearts of my classically theistic friends. Often these things are just how we explain our deepest experiences. I’m cool with that. Really…

And, I want to hold up the possibility of another way, perhaps one with fewer traps along the way…

This way has no problem with classic theistic language. The universe is large and mysterious and the usages of tradition can be compelling. I often refer to the whole mess as God without apology.

I don’t even mind prayers as aspirations for others or oneself. Without meaning this as dismissive, I find wishful thinking has its values. Our wishes works as something mysterious within our human hearts.

But.

And.

When we start to think of a deity that will fix things, or can, if we move for a second beyond sentimentality, we encounter serious problems. A deity that intervenes for this person but not that, who allows whole populations to starve or be murdered while blessing others is not a god I want to encounter in a dark alley.

Now, if it were true, that’s a different deal. But, from where I sit it looks painfully like projection. Horses and their horse gods. And I see no reason to project my sense of self onto the cosmos. Not only does the mask not fit, but it misleads me about my place in the scheme of things.

Instead I suggest a different walk in this wilderness.

One I think more useful. At least it has been so for me.

In the great Zen classic anthology, the Blue Cliff Record, the very first case sets the matter up.

The Emperor Wu of Liang asked Bodhidharma, “What is the first principle of the holy teachings?”

Bodhidharma replied, “Vast emptiness. Nothing holy.”

The emperor recoiled, and then asked, “So, who is this standing before me?”

The master replied, “I do not know.”

The emperor did not understand and so the master crossed the river and went on to Wei.

Later the emperor took of this matter with Master Zhigong. Zhigong asked him, “Does your majesty know who that is?”

The emperor replied, “I do not know him.”

Zhigong said, “That was the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, conveying the mindseal of the Buddha.”

The emperor felt a wave of remorse and was about to order a messenger to find the master Bodhidharma and beg him to return. But Zhigong said, “There is no use in sending a messenger. Even if everyone in the country went after him, he would not return.”

This is no cheap relativism. This is not saying I don’t know, and neither do you. It is an invitation into the heart of the matter.

Only don’t know.

I suggest this deep not knowing as the way.

Opening heart.

Opening mind.

And not knowing.

Only not knowing.

(Thank you, Kate & The Zen Community Aggregator for helping me to restore this…)

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