Trying to Define the Undefinable

I want to delve deeper into the discussion from Karen Armstrong about logos and mythos. Modern religion has taken the language of reason, and attempted to apply it to the realm of mythos. Whereas, prior to the modern era, the word faith meant trust, commitment, and dedication, in the modern era, faith came to mean an intellectual affirmation of unprovable facts about a divine being. When reason was beginning its ascent, many Christian religionists fell into the trap of shifting to the language of reason to try to defend and define the undefinable. They drew further away from the mystical and miraculous elements of the faith stories. The Deists, for example, saw God as an unseen clockmaker, who had set the world in motion like a well-oiled machine.

But as Newtonian science began to explain more and more of origins, there was less and less need for this rational God, and eventually God became superfluous to the scientific endeavor. In the meantime, the logos way of looking at things had become the norm. So when religionists fought back in defense of God, some did so in a literalistic and idea-based mode—they claimed that truth could be found in the literal words of the bible, and that faith required that one believe every word of this literal bible as historic and scientific fact. Of course, some words were emphasized more than others, and this approach to truth fostered intolerance of anyone who held differing interpretations.

We have been so thoroughly immersed in the modern era, that it is difficult to imagine the realm of mythos. If our only option for understanding God is that big guy in the sky, no wonder that another phenomenon of the modern age has been the rise of atheism. Atheism affirms the methods of science and the language of logos as the only reliable path to truth, and concludes that it is impossible to find evidence to prove that God exists. Fair enough! But the only God some atheists are now choosing to debunk turns out to be the God of the fundamentalists—that big guy in the sky.

One of the criticisms of the work of contemporary atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris is that they refuse to debate with theologians who have more nuanced and expansive understandings of religion or divinity. They too can be intolerant of any who disagree. Barred GateBoth fundamentalists and these atheists are relating to a God in a box—a God that is defined and described as if it were possible to say exactly what God is.

There are many attributes of their God that I find good reason to debate—I don’t believe in a God who is male but not female. I don’t believe in a God who is squeamish about sex. I don’t believe in a God who would send His children to the eternal torment described as Hell. I don’t believe in a God who would arrange for his son to be killed, to satisfy his anger at the mistakes of human beings. I don’t believe in a God who would cavalierly destroy this earth, and bring up a few obedient followers to some new place, to gloat over the suffering in triumph. 

But deeper than any of these particular attributes is the fact that I don’t believe in a God that can be defined by human logic. The word define means to place limits around. That God is too small for me. 

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Do You Believe in Rocks?

Beach RockThe word spirituality comes from the Latin root spirare, which means to breathe. When we breathe, we are alive. We are in relationship, physically, to the world around us, to all other breathers of air: all the human beings, all the animals and the birds, all the trees and the plants. It is first of all a very material, chemical exchange. Breathing is life shared among many beings. When we stop breathing, we die. Breathing might be called the first prayer. Spirituality is first of all about what breathes us into life, what inspires us.

But this word spirituality also comes with a lot of baggage. It has been associated with dogma and religious doctrine. It has been understood as separate from the earth and the body and our physical reality, and also declared more important than our physical reality. Some people have been repelled by the idea of spirituality because they associate it with the irrational and the supernatural, something that requires accepting beliefs that don’t make sense, that don’t fit the facts.

However, spirituality doesn’t have to carry all that baggage. In fact, it may be critical to our lives that we unpack that baggage and find a definition of spirituality that can breathe again. And here is one place to start: spirituality is not about our beliefs, but about our experience. Spirituality is our experience of the larger reality of which we are a part. Spirituality is our experience of connection—our connection to this living earth and all its creatures, our connection to other people, our connection to all that is mysterious and beautiful at the heart of life.

Spirituality is like breathing. Just as the invisible air enters our lungs and brings oxygen to each cell, so spirituality—as experience—brings the outer reality that is so much bigger than we are into the inner feeling of it. Each person’s inner experience may be different from that of their neighbor. When we emphasize experience rather than require certain beliefs, our religious communities can include spiritualities as different from each other as Pagan and Atheist, Christian and Jew. Each person can follow a path that fits their own experience of reality. We are not asked to believe in a particular spirituality, but to be open to the possibility that people’s spiritual experiences have validity, even if they are different from our own.

Now, some might ask, “How can atheists have spirituality?” If we understand spirituality as our experience of the larger reality, then atheists have spirituality when they experience, in their own meaningful way, that larger reality of which we all are a part. Perhaps that experience is mediated by science or skepticism or meditation. That’s fine. Spirituality does not require a belief in God or Goddess or heaven or hell or any of the ideas that have become associated with spirituality. It is not about belief, but about experience.

Pagan writer, Starhawk, describes this distinction between beliefs and experience in regard to her experience of the Goddess. She says:

People often ask me if I believe in the Goddess. I reply, ‘Do you believe in rocks?’ …The phrase ‘believe in’ itself implies that we cannot know the Goddess, that she is somehow intangible, incomprehensible. But we do not believe in rocks—we may see them, touch them, dig them out of our gardens, or stop small children from throwing them at each other. We know them, we connect with them. In the Craft, we do not believe in the Goddess—we connect with her; through the moon, the stars, the ocean, the earth, through trees, animals, through other human beings, through ourselves. She is here. She is within us all.

Starhawk, The Spiral Dance