How many humanists, atheists and agnostics want to discuss how “God” might be relevant to their lives? A few years ago, I certainly didn’t, having left Christian ministry & its underlying framework behind. Perhaps the strongest reason behind my hesitancy was the way so many refer to the divine. God can be an excuse for violent pride & prejudice, for childish relinquishment of responsibility, for blind accepting of social convention, for authoritarian pronouncements, and (my favourite critique) for unsubstantiated wish fulfilment. We could list the crudités and cruelties committed ‘in the name of God’ ever since the word and its cognates were used. The same, of course, might be said of “Truth”, “Love” and “Justice” …
But I’ve come to admit that Christians and Muslims are some of the kindest and most helpful (also undemanding and open-minded) people I have known. By way of explanation for this personal tone (through the first half of this article), I am intensely aware of the context which has heated the cauldron of experience from which these thoughts (to extend the metaphor) are bubbling forth. I must recognise that they have been conditioned by my past and present situation.
A humanist activist who looked for deeper and broader spiritual roots, I found it hard to feel at home in the various traditions I wandered in and out of. Although my nearly five decades in various Church leadership positions brought many satisfactions and ‘awesome moments’, I also saw the bad and the ugly as well as the good and inspiring. Looking back, I was trying to shove my humanist head and heart into a God-shaped framework. It didn’t really fit my sense of the way things really are, but at the same time I was never a conscious hypocrite. Finally, in Buddhism, I found a helpful and liberating – unconstraining – context for my desires to deepen and my consciousness to broaden. Having no Creator-Judge at both ends of my time-line, has freed my mind to wrestle with the issues of achieving and encouraging better living here and now.
We could also argue that the G word too often and too easily evokes fixed views and deep emotions, which stifles a skilful, sensible discussion about the subject. But why should we consider it at all? With little competency in knowing others’ motivations, I can only speak for my own.
My motivation, as a happily committed but open-minded secular Buddhist, is to address what I’ve come to see (and finally admit):
(1) that I, as so many – from all faiths and none – have a deep sense that all life is contained within a pervasive positive reality;
(2) that this reality connects (or is connected to) every aspect of the universe; and
(3) that it favours and enables such virtues (skills) as generosity, honesty, kindness… and, ultimately, selflessness.
I see many theists as well as non-theists open to this reality and its meliorative dynamics. In practice, kindness is kindness – selflessness is selflessness – whether religious or not. Practitioners of all persuasions can learn from one another, even though we have different frames of reference and interpret the source of these qualities quite variously. After ten or more years affirming and teaching a non-theistic Buddhist framework, I have started to explore the oft-asserted view that all the varieties of spiritual experience are undergirded by a reality (a dynamic) which encourages and empowers an experience of life that is beneficial to ourselves, to others, and to the wider environment. For those who sense it, this reality provides a sense of personal integration, connectedness, and the deepest sense of freedom, peace and authenticity. When I think of it, that’s too valuable to dismiss.
My work within a collegial interdenominational chaplaincy team has impressed me that I (with my thoroughgoing secularity) and my colleagues (with their intense theism) are relating to the same dynamics. We all seek the healing transformation of prisoners’ lives. I certainly cannot affirm the religious views through which they interpret all virtues. But I have come to see the commonality of our shared love for people and our acknowledgement that some ‘power’ beyond ourselves is present in us in our work.
My colleagues call this “something” (designated as a ‘Him’) by the G word. I’m more comfortable with the traditional Buddhist phrase “other-power” (in contrast with self-power), which I understand as a psychological, not metaphysical, dynamic. Semantics aside, we all recognise (if only to ourselves) occasional enablements beyond our normal limitations. I unhesitantly designated ‘it’ as the “grace of God” or “love of Christ” when I was operating from a Christian frame of reference, so I can well understand why they do so now. But the experience is not the same as our explanations!
One Buddhist principle is to distinguish two kinds of truth. Understanding the first helps me avoid the pitfall of conceiving of G as anything other than an aspect of the dynamic universe in which we have emerged.
Every bit of our experience is necessarily framed within the limitations of our humanity. Whatever sense and interpretation we give to our perceptions (no matter how significant and helpful they seem), they are not the same as the reality that lies behind them. I cannot see the molecules, atoms and particles, and whatever else my hand consists. My ears cannot hear every frequency generated by an event – and cannot see them as the waves we’re told they are. Neither can my rationality hope to fully comprehend what I put my mind to. In this sense we are out of touch with the nature of “Reality” (R) and cannot know how our partial perceptions relate to the whole. All we have is our sense of our senses (including our thoughts) – our reactions to R. If these are subjectively consistent, and congenial with the reactions of others, they seem proven. But we cannot know the ultimate R of anything.
Some Buddhist philosophers call this kind of perception “conventional truth” – and then posits an “absolute truth” which is known at Enlightenment. I’m not convinced. Whether by meditation, mescaline or some otherwise induced mystical moment, our sense of the absolute is the result of how our senses and our brain (with all their limitations) are processing and presenting to us some aspect of R. This is quite different from R itself… and well removed from what we tell ourselves and others about it.
Thus, my experiences of something seeming similar to what others call God is no proof of an objective G (nor of the objectivity of whatever I might call it). But subjectively, for individuals and groups, the experience (with a designated name) can be persuasive. That subjective persuasiveness is often identified as absolute, truly representing some aspect of R in its fullness (and many Buddhists do so, similar to their theistic counterparts). But this, it seems to me, is wholly unjustified. Thus, my faith in a beneficent, magnificent force promoting all the virtues and connecting the universe (see paragraph five above) might serve me well. It might (and seemingly does) encourage positive action in both favourable and unfavourable circumstance. It keeps me calm when things go wrong and helps me release anxieties. But is it “really so”? How can I know? Does it matter?
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