“God”: Immanent and Transcendent

From my Western/philosophical Panentheist point of view, “God” (the ultimate infinite compassionate Reality) is both “here” (immanent) and “more than here” (transcendent), which to me simply means that everything unfolds in God’s presence.

It doesn’t mean that God is a spy, a judge, a bedroom-or-bathroom invader.
It doesn’t mean that God is a creator who is morally obligated to intervene in material processes for reasons known only to “Himself”.

What it does mean is that the universe is in God, and God is in the universe. Hence, “pan” (everything) is “en” (in) “theos” (God). If memory serves, it was St. Augustine who made the illustration of Panentheism wherein the world is represented as a water-soaked (“God-soaked”) sponge, floating in an infinite sea (which is also God). God is in the world, the world is in God.

However, the current God-debate is more often than not constricted to the theology of supernatural theism, which posits a kind of sky-father deity “out there”, who, as a creator, maintains and intervenes in the world. That, however, is an arbitrary view. Saying that God – in order to be real, to BE God – must be a creator, is as inept as saying that the moon must be made of green cheese, or it doesn’t exist.

One application of this concept is Jesus’s teaching about the fall of sparrows, “birds of the air”, which happens naturally without any intervention by God. The point is that the fall of sparrows and humans does not happen without context, in a vacuum. Rather, it occurs in the loving presence and awareness of God, the God who, precisely because “He” is not the creator or maintainer of the world, and does not intervene in its processes. Spying and miraculous intervention are simply not part of God’s “job description”.

So in actuality, it can be said that God does absolutely nothing as relates to the construction and maintenance of the world, for the simple reason that such activity is not in God’s nature to do so. Against the traditional view, God is neither “mighty” nor “All-Mighty”.

God is not “Doing”. God is “Being”.

But this does not mean that God is impotent or powerless. It only means that  God does not materially relate to or act upon the world.

However, that does not mean that God is inactive – because the presence of God does act in our deep subjectivity as a catalyst toward spiritual growth and enlightenment. This is the God-experience of mystical union and communion  which is not about miraculous physical intervention in the world or in the human body, but rather about the manifestation of God’s presence in the souls of sentient beings.

Once one becomes aware of the inner presence of God in oneself, one no longer has to entertain the idea of, or has a need for, a creator deity “out there” who supernaturally intervenes in the material universe. Because one already “has” God in the only place it really counts – the human soul, the human heart. God conceived as a transformative inner presence trumps God conceived as a mechanistic, intervening creator deity. The person him or herself is the locus of God’s activity. The material world spins on, following its own self-directed laws without divine intervention.

An additional comment from a Jodo Shinshu/Shin Buddhist framework, from which this blog hopes to operate:

Jodo Shinshu’s “Ultimate” – Amida Buddha – is not a creator deity, but rather the highest celestial primordial Buddha. Just as with the non-creating God conception, Amida does not intervene in the material world – first because he did not create it and bears no personal responsibility for it, and second because his effulgent grace causes the salvific reality of Shinjin – “perfect faith” – to arise in the deep subjectivity of sentient beings.

Shinjin is a free gift from the Sacred Transcendent. That is why Shin calls it “a raft from the Other Shore” – a vehicle that makes landfall softly and unbidden and that carries us across the ocean of samsara, all without any effort and self-power practice on our part. Our own Amazing Grace. Not a God, but rather the Buddha whose grace ensures the vivifying sparking of our own aspiration toward Buddhahood. Where, in his Pure Land, our own Buddha Nature finally blossoms and we begin to do the selfless work that enlightened Beings do.

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Jesus: Divine, but not “God”

Jesus’s famous saying, “Before Abraham came to be, I am” is only found in John (8:58), “the maverick Gospel”. Which should be something of a red flag to careful, serious readers.

In any case, Trinitarians misuse the text as “proof” that Jesus was calling himself ontological God. That is doubtful in view even within “high” Johannine christology itself, where John’s Jesus functions merely as “the finger [human being] pointing to the moon [God]”.

John’s Jesus, in John 17:3, explicitly excluded himself from the Godhead: “YOU [Father-God] are THE ONLY TRUE GOD”. Not Apollo, not Zeus. Not Jesus. Only God.

The phrase in itself is amenable to several non-divine interpretations:

1 John’s Jesus as a divine union mystic: “Who sees me sees the Father”, “the Father and I are one”. John’s Jesus also holds the incarnate Logos within himself, as he does the Spirit in the Synoptics. He is not claiming to “be God”, but rather to be seamlessly united to God and to the Logos.

2 As so many divine union mystics have expressed their union with God, so does Jesus – as with (say) the Sufi mystic who, pointing to himself, said, “There is no one in these garments but God”, and who ended up crucified like Jesus, by people who similarly misunderstood the claim. Which is not a claim to be God, but rather to be the “empty vessel” in which God dwells.

3 Many divine union mystics claim to experience a share in God’s consciousness, and in God’s timeless awareness: the “Eternal Now”. All of these people can say “before Abraham came to be, I am”, because, like God, they experience the Eternal Now, a timeless state.

4 In John, Jesus speaks in two voices: A) the Jewish mystic relating his divine union experience, and B) the incarnate Word. Of course, the Logos is “before” Abraham, knows the secret things of God, descends from and ascends back to heaven when He/It returns to the pre-incarnational “glory that I had with the Father before the world was made”.

None of the above requires that we must think that Jesus is speaking in capital letters and usurping the divine “I AM” that belongs to Yahweh alone. He has already excluded himself from the Godhead. He scolds “the Jews” who charge him of making himself “God” by telling them that – because they are not ashamed to call Israel’s ancient judges “gods” – they ought not complain when Jesus makes the much lesser claim of merely being God’s son.

At most, Jesus’s “I am” sayings, statements of divine oneness, and of his Eternal Now experience only represent pre-existence, not Godhead or divinity itself. This is standard Jewish theology, which held the real existence of many pre-existent beings, from the angels to the heavenly Son of Man from the book of Daniel. Jesus himself, at his Sanhedrin trial, precisely claimed to be that pre-existent celestial figure, who is “divine”, but not God eternal.

Torah-Observance Not Difficult

It is a particularly Christian failing to condemn the Jewish religion and its Law as a burden that was – fortunately for Christianity – removed by Jesus’s supposedly atoning sacrifice on the Cross. However, the Torah itself disagrees.

The Law was not “hard” for practicing Jews of ancient Judea. They considered it to be “just what the Doctor ordered”. The notion that at the time of Jesus and before, that Judaism had become “legalistic” is a canard. Granted, legalism as practiced by the Pharisees is real, but at the same time is an obvious abuse of Law-observance.

Yahweh, the Jews’ own god, had this to say about observance of the Law and its ease of carrying out, not as a burden, but as a gift:

Deuteronomy 30:11-20 New International Version (NIV)
The Offer of Life or Death

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy+30%3A11-20&version=…

It was Paul, and later, John, who came along claiming that the Law was a burden, and worse, that Jesus’s supposedly “atoning” sacrifice had invalidated the Law.

 

 

Bible Errors?

A mistake is a mistake, a contradiction is a contradiction. And there’s no reason that such gaffes must necessarily mean that the rest of a book is therefore useless. Of course, the Bible is widely held not only to be God-inspired, but also inerrant – and that’s the problem.

A fundamentalist view of scripture demands that scripture be free of error and contradiction, whereas an informed, critically-based view will allow for a certain percentage of error – even when that critically-educated reader is Christian. The works of Marcus J. Borg and Raymond E. Brown clearly illustrate this “Christian but not fundamentalist” approach.

The basic informed Christian biblical view seems to go like this: “We believe that scripture contains all truths necessary for our salvation, but that not all biblical texts were written solely for that express purpose”. Thus, scripture is “permitted” to be erroneous and contradictory, as long as its essential soteriological message comes through unscathed.

Enlightened exegesis also recognizes that salvific truths are not always and necessarily facts. Truth includes, but is not limited to, quantifiable material fact. The key to a biblical text is not in its factuality, its scientific and historical accuracy. The key is its meaning: “Believe what you like about a particular biblical story. But now let’s talk about its meaning”, as Borg (RIP) used to say.

Profound spiritual meaning often cannot be expressed in the language of fact, but only in the language of poetry, allegory, analogy and parable. For example: Jesus’s parable of the good Samaritan is spiritually true even if there was no historical Samaritan and no historical roadside crime victim and no uncaring passersby. Meaning trumps external issues of fact and history, and it cuts through to the numinous core of the message.

So, for critically-educated Christians, biblical error is not a game-stopper, as long as scripture’s essential messages of spiritual transformation, unattached to questions of scientific/historical fact, remain plain in the text, and as long as they successfully unfold in Christian life.

Living in the Amida-Dharma

It has been said that religiously experienced people think differently because they see differently. They have a perspective on life that mere World cannot convey. Their view of life prior to religious experience changes after the experience.

The changed view of life changes our life-perspective. It causes us to see or perceive differently relative to ourformer view(s), providing light in the darkness, a wider perspective or higher prospect from which to see people, animals, and universe. Since my conversion to Jodo Shinshu/Shin Buddhism, I now see all good and bad things in a larger context of connection to the spiritually Transcendent “Other Power” of Amida Buddha.

Bad days in our lives are only to be expected because bad days are de rigueur in the Samsaric realm – and the same applies to the good days. I think it was Albert Camus who said, that despite the suffering and absurdity of life, still, “joy, too, is inevitable”. So days spent in connection with Amida Buddha and the Buddhist Dharma are days understood in a certain light, a light that illumines daily life with a new shade or tone. That’s the central core: Life lit from within by the Dharma’s immanent (“here”) presence, and by its Transcendent (“there”) existence.

Post-conversion, I have not done many new and different moral or social things, the chief reason being that Shin is not a works religion. The adherent is expected to follow the basic Buddhist moral code (but does not expect to be saved or Enlightened thereby). Amida Buddha provides Shinjin (perfect faith) and his grace alone is the factor that will spark the fulfillment of our innate Buddha Nature when we cross into the Pure Land. We do not, and cannot, do this for ourselves, or earn it as a reward. A bad day for me, consisting (say) of sickness, public humiliation, theft, assault, personal loss, affects me no differently than it would anyone else. The difference is that now I see both good and bad, suffering and joy, unfolding against a backdrop of the divine presence of Amida Buddha. It really makes all the difference in the world – at least, to my world.

In Jodo Shinshu, no “good works” are required of us – at least, if they are directed toward the goal of Enlightenment. Good works are required, however, to lighten the load of fellow suffering beings – the practice of “compassion in action”. But all kinds of people, religious and non-religious, already perform good works, whether or not in expectation of earthly or heavenly reward. What makes Shin different is that it teaches that no good work or self-effort practice can redeem us or erase our karma or “wipe out our sin” (except that there is no sin in Buddhism). Amida does all that for us.

Living in the Amida-Dharma means acknowledging our own powerlessness to save and Enlighten ourselves; it means throwing ourselves into the merciful arms of the Buddha’s Other Power; and it means “letting go and letting Amida”. Our outer lives may not change very much, but our “inner man”/”inner woman” is indelibly marked by Amida’s powerful yet gentle touch.

 

“You Know it’s a Myth” – But it’s True

The Christmas season typically brings out secularists and atheists who rush in to discredit and hopefully to demolish the Gospel Infancy Narratives as being “myths”. By which they mean fictive, untrue stories by turns implausible, improbable and impossible. These they identify as the biblical narratives’ “magic” star; a massacre of male infants that has never been documented; angels “on high” proclaiming a Messiah’s birth; a virginally-conceived Savior; an angel appearing to the Messiah’s mother and whispering to the father in a dream; in short, all the tales that depict heaven having commerce with earth. The present writer objects to this wave of snarky criticism for several reasons.

The first objection is the critics’ indulgence in what the late Huston Smith termed “fact fundamentalism”. Which is the notion that if something is reported, especially in religious texts, something which is materially-scientificallly doubtful or outright impossible, then it must be dismissed as a lie, because it goes against science and reason.

Things such as Jesus’s virginal conception and the guiding star, of course, would fall into this category. My objection is 1) that religious communication typically employs the language of myth, analogy, allegory and metaphor, and 2) that critics of religion are obligated to be familiar with this fact. There are, in my view, some truths and some dimensions of human experience that cannot be expressed by any other kind of language, and in any other kind of imagery. In this sense, mythological language is a “specialist language” employed by religion to get across a message that is transcendent to expression by any other form of language.

If critics wish to challenge the validity of religious mythic language on the principle (say) that no Transcendent realms or beings exist, fine. But most of them whom I have read and encountered in online discussion groups have not the slightest inkling that religious narratives like Matthew’s and Luke’s Nativity stories seek to communicate non-secular (and Transcendent) truth in language and imagery that is chiefly “archetypal” in nature. I have found that lack of this kind of information and understanding, more often than not, makes “Christmas critics” disappointing conversation partners. They do not, or will not, understand that there can be true, as well as false, myths.

So what kind of (non-scientific, non-secular) truths might be expressed in the mythic language of the Infancy Narratives?

When a holy person is said to have been born or conceived of a virgin, this might signal that the life so originated and birthed is a completely new form. A new beginning. One that is not burdened with humankind’s heavy, sordid history; one that is unfettered by the clinging vines of the Edenic “Fall”; one that has capacities for teaching, healing and/or redemption unlike those of us “commonly born”. As such a being, Jesus emerges in the Infancy Narratives, even at birth, as one marked by the Transcendent and to whom salvific expectations can validly be associated. Matthew and Luke use their Infancy stories to communicate to the reader how Jesus was the same person at his birth as he would be during his mission and after his resurrection, i.e., “Jesus Messiah, Son of God, Savior”.

Some famous Christian art portrays the Nativity as occurring in a cave wherein lies a diminutive stable, a feeding trough for animals serving as a crib for the new-borne Son of God. A cave is a gash, a hollow, an opening in the earth. The association of cave and trough or manger suggests the idea that Jesus is not only born of heaven, but also of the earth, and the animals’ presence firmly emphasizes this conceptualization. When Luke’s Gospel mentions the manger, he is referencing a prophecy that the Messiah’s own people will recognize him when he comes – Israel, in the guise of its faith-seeking shepherds, has come to pay homage to the birth of its messianic Lord. And Matthew’s Magi, too, following the beckoning star, signify that Gentiles, too, have found and revere the divine child. “…the star does not make a statement about an astronomical phenomenon, but about Jesus: his birth is about the coming of the light that draws wise men of the Gentiles to its radiance.” 1

Considering the Infancy Narratives’ symbols and imagery, and employing our capacity to think allegorically and mythically, these stories begin to emerge as disclosures of the divine, expressed in specialized language.

New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan examined Luke’s resurrection story about two pedestrians encountering a wise teacher on their way to Emmaus after Jesus’s execution. Little by little, they are driven to the conclusion that this is no ordinary traveler. He knows too much about scripture and too much about Jesus’s role as agent for God’s Kingdom on earth. Finally, the three stop to rest at an inn, where the two travelers’ uncertainty is resolved when they see the stranger – whom they now recognize as Jesus – break the dinner bread. The Messiah, hidden, unmanifest, had been traveling with them all along but was only unmistakably disclosed through his Eucharistic actions.  Crossan says of this story, “Emmaus didn’t happen. Emmaus always happens”. The divine can remain “occulted” but then emerge by way of some of the simplest commonalities of life.

Similarly, the Infancy Narratives “hide” the divinity present in Jesus under a certain common, simple, but somewhat “coded” terminology. But it doesn’t take genius-level intelligence or high level scholarship to “break the code”. It’s there to be deciphered by anyone with the requisite curiosity and enough knowledge of mythical, allegorical language to appreciate its archetypal setting and unlock its allegorical meaning. Christians might even observe, with Crossan, “Bethlehem didn’t happen. Bethlehem always happens”. For them, the Son of God is made manifest in the believer, is born into the very heart of the soul, even now, some 2,000 years after the story’s origin.

1 The First Christmas, p. 182

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Prove God!” as an Inept Question

(Cross-posted from a Disqus Forum discussion. This has been touched upon here earlier, but might legitimately bear repeating:)

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Atheist Gore Vidal:

“God or what have you, is not to be found at the far end of a syllogism, no matter how brilliantly phrased.”

Philosophy, therefore, can’t disclose God (except perhaps intellectually, but then we are only left with the God or the non-God of the intellect, which is not “the real God”).

Science cannot disclose God because science only deals with matter whereas God by most standard definitions and connotations (except perhaps pantheism) is non material spirit.

This leaves personal experience, the direct apprehension of the divine or the Spirit, as happens in “gnosis”, intuition, and/or the specialized perception that occurs in mystical states and/or as a result of contemplation, prayer, and meditation.

Note that all of these latter things are private, non material, and completely subjective. Neither science, doctrine, the “rational intellect” nor philosophy can enter into this most intimate experiential field. Its contents, like the qualia, are not communicable and cannot be brought out into the external material world. For that reason, it is simply erroneous to think that they can be externalized or publicly shared and quantified.

“Prove to me that God is real!” is one of those inept questions. It’s like asking, “Prove that you love the pursuit of the good/the true/the beautiful”. At most, such things can only be suggested or hinted at. They cannot be shared. However, they are “invitational” and hinge on attainment of personal experience.

There are three steps in knowledge-acquisition:

1. The Injunction: If you want to know “X”, then DO “Y”.

If you want to know if it’s raining, then look out a window. If you want to find God, then look through the “windows” and “lenses” designed for that purpose.

2. The Experiment: Apply the Injunction; proceed along established lines; take notes.

3. The Conclusion and Peer Review: share the process and your conclusion with those who have previously, adequately performed steps 1. thru 3. This happens, for example, in the Zendo, where students submit their experiments and conclusions with those (the senseis) who have previously, adequately performed the process.

God-experience is open to all for confirmation or disconfirmation. It is not a matter of someone else being capable of, or obligated to, “prove God”.

THAT is only up to the individual who is willing to perform the three steps of knowledge-acquisition – and with the awareness that the knowledge so acquired is private, and can only be publicly “circumambulated”, not “proved”, with those who have already done the three step process.

Which makes the Conclusion in one sense open to being shared, but not to public confirmation, as with scientific/material quantification. The confirmation only comes individually, privately, and subjectively.

Thus is disclosed the folly of asking someone or anyone to “prove God”. The “proof” either comes spontaneously, or it comes at the Conclusion of the three step process. It cannot come from some other person, or from any other external source. “Only YOU can do it for yourself alone.”

Best to stop asking the question altogether.

https://disqus.com/home/channel/religion/discussion/channel-religion/prove_it_04/#comment-3519519666

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A short coda from the Jodo Shinshu point of view:

For Shin Buddhists, Amida Buddha has saved us from the three step process as surely as He has saved us from our samsaric plight. The three step process is perhaps important to those who are still seeking. But Shin people are no longer on the seeking path. Amida has found them.