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Does Being Exist?

Does Being Exist? May 16, 2008

If the title of this post seems odd, I agree. But it helpfully shows why adherents to panentheism, Sufi Islam, some branches of Buddhism, process theology, existentialist theology, linguistic theology and pantheism (and perhaps others such as “mystical atheists“) find themselves frustrated by repeated questions such as “What sophisticated arguments can you offer for the existence of supernatural beings?”

Paul Tillich, one of the great and extremely influential theologians of the 20th century, spoke of God as Being itself rather than “a being”. In other words, the discussion is not about a certain type of being (immoral, invisible, omniscient and omnipotent and presumably omnivorous as well) that exists in the universe, whether he be called Yahweh or Zeus or Ba’al Shamayim. The discussion is about the nature of Existence itself. Is reality deep? Does it have transcendence as one of its characteristics? Of course, we cannot answer that definitively from our perspective. Could the mitochondria in our bodies be expected to perceive the nature of the existence of the bodies of which they are a part? We have only metaphors and a perception that we are part of something greater than ourselves, which transcends us and embraces us. The language we use is symbolic of mystery and is not intended to be an explanation.

This concept is not a new one, although it is obvious that it is unfamiliar to fundamentalists and to those non-religious individuals who have only heard about religion from fundamentalists. The Sufi mystics of Islam have long interpreted the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith that “There is no God but God”, to mean that “nothing but God exists”. Everything exists within God – i.e. panentheism. This doesn’t mean that God is thought of in “supernatural” terms in the sense that the soul was thought of in this way in Greek, Hindu and classic Western Enlightenment thought. What was referred to as “the soul” in these traditions is now viewed by many as an emergent phenomenon rather than a separate spiritual substance. In the same way God may be viewed not as a separate spiritual substance that permeates the universe, but as a higher level of organization of that which exists.

No one suggests that science isn’t science because it doesn’t hold the same conclusions that science did a few hundred years ago. But Christians are berated by atheists as not really being Christians because they don’t hold precisely the beliefs Christians did almost two millenia ago. Am I the only one who can see the irony in this?

Theologians have been exploring understandings of God other than those of classic theism and contemporary fundamentalism for centuries. Yet those who are unfamiliar with this intellectual and spiritual enterprise continue to ask questions that are the theological equivalent of “If humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”

So if you are looking for evidence that ancient deities and angels exist, with or without wings, residing on Mt. Olympus or just beyond the moon, I don’t believe that such entities exist. They were ancient explanations for what we today recognize as natural phenomena. But if you are asking about language that can give symbolic expression to the sense of awe many people feel about the “miracle” that anything exists at all, much less that we exist and can ponder the nature of our existence and wonder about these mysteries, then theology has a lot to offer. Not logical arguments for the existence of invisible persons, but metaphors that allow us to give voice to our limited and inadequate perception of life’s inexpressable mystery, then theology has a lot to offer. That doesn’t mean that amateurs can’t do theology, or write poetry, or make music, or even make scientific discoveries. But in every field, there is a body of knowledge and wisdom that has accumulated that allows one to not repeat all the mistakes and positive groundwork done in the past and build on what has gone before, rather than reinventing the wheel. If one wishes to discuss theology at that sort of level of academic sophistication, it involves significant reading and research to inform oneself, and not simply a handful of conversations with fundamentalists.

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