Beyond Language

If God is God, if that concept is to have any meaning for me, then I need to go back to the language of mythos—the language that leads us through language into that which lies beyond language.

Karen Armstrong describes a ritual that used language in this way, during the tenth century BCE in India. The Indians of that time gave the name Brahman to the unseen principle beyond the gods, the sacred energy that held all the world together, and in fact was the all of reality. The Brahmin priests developed the Brahmodya competition.

The contestants began by going on a retreat in the forest where they performed spiritual exercises, such as fasting and breath control, that concentrated their minds and induced a different type of consciousness. [The] goal [of the contest] was to find a verbal formula to define the Brahman, [but then it went beyond that.] The challenger asked an enigmatic question, and his opponent had to reply in a way that was apt but equally inscrutable. The winner was the contestant who reduced his opponents to silence–and in that moment of silence, when language revealed its inadequacy, the Brahman was present; it became manifest only in the stunning realization of the impotence of speech.

How often do we carry language to the very limits of language, and enter that kind of silence?Sunlight in Water

I remember something I learned when I was an undergraduate student at Aquinas College. The very wordy Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas had said, at the end of his days, that all of his work was like grass, and should be burned in the fire. There was no way to put the true reality into words. I was lucky enough to grow up reading the words of the Christian mystics like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, who moved beyond the dogmatic Catholicism of their time and my time, into a relationship with the divine that was beyond all dogma, beyond all images.

One of those mystics was a Dominican preacher, Meister Eckart. In the pre-modern 13th century he wrote:

For if you love God as he is God, as he is spirit, as he is person, and as he is image–all this must go! Then how should I love him? You should love him as he is nonGod, a nonspirit, a nonperson, a nonimage, but as he is–pure, unmixed, bright “One” separated from all duality; and in that One we should sink eternally down, out of “something” into “nothing.”

I think my experience was rather unusual for kids my age. But it reminds me that even in the most dogmatic of situations, that element of mythos is not totally lost from our world. Even among the fundamentalists, I know that there are people who move beyond narrow literal images into something beyond—something more silent and mysterious and expansive. So when I criticize that system, I do not mean to imply that there can be no authentic spirituality among them. I do mean to challenge the solidification of those images of God into an idol, and into a weapon to condemn those of us who choose a different path.

Quotes cited in Karen Armstrong, A Case for God


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. 

Words about God: Reason vs. Myth

People have been searching for God, and making idols about God for a very long time. But we have some particular ways of doing it in the modern era. I believe one such phenomenon that has become an idolatry of our time is Biblical literalism. Fundamentalists claim to be bringing back the fundamentals of ancient Christianity, but in fact, their version of Christianity has not existed anywhere prior to the last one hundred years or so. They claim that every word in the Bible is the literal and factual truth. But scholar of religion Karen Armstrong reminds us that literalism is a very modern way to read the Bible, a way that was unheard of prior to this era. In A Case for God, she talks about the historical context for our modern idols.

After the destruction by the Romans of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, during the first century of what we call the Christian Era, there were various groups of Jews wrestling with their new religious predicament—much of the Hebrew Scriptures were centered around the temple, and the rites and rituals of the temple, but now there was no temple.

One group of rabbis began to re-work their faith into a guide for living as if the temple was everywhere, and how they lived should reflect the priestly status of all the Jewish people. They began to develop new practices for living, and created the beginnings of classical Judaism. They felt perfectly free to re-arrange the Biblical texts, or draw new meaning out of them, use them metaphorically, or even disagree with them. Eventually, a body of literature grew up around this effort, that we now call the Talmud.

There was also another group of Jews making new meaning out of the old scriptures. They were re-interpreting the old texts around the person of their teacher Jesus, whom they saw as the Messiah, who had been crucified by the Romans. They too re-arranged texts, interpreted them metaphorically, and added new writings and practices. They too were grappling as Jews with a temple-less Jewish faith, though now we call them the early Christians. But neither these early Christians, nor the rabbis who shaped the faith of Judaism, were biblical literalists.

Karen Armstrong writes that before the modern era, which was beginning about the time that Columbus set sail for America,

“religious discourse was not intended to be understood literally because [they believed] it was only possible to speak about a reality that transcended language in symbolic terms.”

Armstrong talks about how in premodern cultures there were two recognized ways of acquiring knowledge. Logos, or reason, “was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world.” Mythos, or myth, “focused on the more elusive, puzzling, and tragic aspects of the human predicament that lay outside of the remit of logos.” The modern world is a world devoted to scientific reason, and has lost track of the meaning of myth—in fact, myth is now defined as something that is not true. But in pre-modern times, myth was the common language of religion, and helped people to wrestle with the challenges that were not so easily solved by reason. Mythic words were meant to be a doorway into that which was beyond words.

The language of myth was linked to the practice of ritual, in which people entered into a communal experience of story in a way that transcended logical thought or emotion. They were brought to the limits of their rational understanding, into the presence of the mysterious and ineffable, and emerged with a new capacity for living within the tragedy and bliss of this world. Religion was not something that people thought, but something that they did. People who put in the hard work and perseverance it required “discovered a transcendent dimension of life” that was also “identical with the deepest levels of their being.” Potholes flow DSC00653