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SERMON ARCHIVE

 

 

Practicing the Absence of God

(Dedicated to the memory of Anton Szandor LaVey)

Why does one person believe in God, while another does not? Both may be equally aware of the equivocal arguments for and against the existence of God. Both live in the same world and see the same events. And to one the heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament showeth his handiwork, but for the other, the universe is a void. Why?

I suspect one either intuits the existence of God or one does not. One has a sense of God, the other does not. And yet this is not quite right. To leave it at that implies that the one who intuits God is like a person who has an ear for music, while the one who does not sense God has a theological tin ear. The radio waves are being broadcast, but the atheist just doesn't happen to have his antenna up.

Let me rather say that, at least in my experience, the atheist does not merely fail to pick up on God. No, one may actually intuit the absence of God. One may sense that there is no God. Indeed, that is how it seems to me. This occurred to me the night before last at Heretics Anonymous, when we were talking about mystical experience. I wondered, might there be a mystical experience of such a nature that it would dispel belief in God, that would vindicate atheism and unbelief? And then I realized that my experience, though there is nothing particularly dramatic about it, is of a universe empty of God, a rarefied atmosphere of metaphysical emptiness.

Am I saying that I know God does not exist, because of my intuition? Of course not. I do not want to fall prey to the error of Presence Metaphysics. I do not want to jump the gun and conclude that whatever seems clear and distinct to me at this moment must therefore be true. The real universe we sense and taste is the one within our head. We can't get past it.

And why is it that we intuit God or intuit no-God? I have no idea! Partly it may have to do with your success in developing a super-ego, with your relations with your father. Whether you are pessimistic or optimistic. There must be causes, though we cannot easily see them. And for lack of seeing them the ancients posited predestination. It must be the electing decree of God that decided what nothing apparent seems to decide: who will believe and who will not believe. And this is another example of the usage of "God" to stand for what we do not know. Who knows why we believe? "God knows." In other words, no one knows! Who or what determines whether we will believe? "God"--in other words, nothing we know of.

I am reminded of one of the great spiritual classics of Catholic Christianity is a brief book called Practicing the Presence of God. I have come to think, by contrast, that what is needful is "practicing the absence of God." To bathe and bask in the emptiness, the lack, the void.

Spines and al-Ghazali, both Pantheists, reasoned that if God exists at all, then God must be all that exists. If God is infinite, then that means nothing can form the boundary of his existence. If anything else, so much as a single microbe, were to exist, then God would be limited to that degree. Now it is plain that many things do exist, so Pantheists deduced that all things are God. All things are forms of God, not truly what they seem to be. Monists go a step further and declare that all individual things that seem to exist in reality do not. All but God, Brahman is illusion.

But can we believe that the universe is an illusion? A shadow play? I feel uneasy with this claim, especially since the cash value, the result of it, is to say that religion alone is important and that insofar as we recognize the beauty, the grandeur, the glory of a thing, we must hasten to translate it into God. We hasten from the thing to God, and thus we cancel out the thing. By calling it "creation," we signal that we are interested really only in the creator. I have said before that I believe any doctrine of Creation is inimical to the sense of wonder, which I regard as the central spiritual experience. Why? Because we prematurely answer the question of the whence of the world by referring it to a creator, a pseudo-answer that leaches the amazement from an amazing thing.

In the same way, if the meaning of life is dictated by a concept of God, if morality is settled by reference to the supposed will of God, then life has no meaning. It is derivative, second-hand. You haven't the chance to decide what it means for yourself.

We must, I say, practice the absence of God. As the mystics of the Kabbalah said, God must contract, withdraw into himself for there to be room left over for the world to exist. God must retreat. He must decrease for you to increase. So you must exorcise God!

Freud said that we imagine God as watching over us, protecting us, having the answers to give us, setting the rules for us to follow--all because we are neurotically fixated on the illusion that our parents could provide these securities, these assurances. Life has shown us that our parents, mere human beings, are not up to the challenge. We ought to reduce our expectations, accept the limitations of our parents as mere humans, and more importantly, the limits of our own existence as human beings with all the contingency and uncertainty that implies. But we can't bear to do that. So instead we elevate nostalgia to divinity and believe in heavenly parents who will guarantee eternal life and providential protection, We want guardian angels and gods who will come to us in the midst of the cold night and rock us back to sleep with empty promises that everything is all right.

Freud administered the bitter medicine of reproof: we must renounce such illusions if we are ever to achieve maturity and wisdom. We must learn to live with merely mortal wisdom, merely human resources, though of course those are quite considerable! Far greater than religion wanted us to realize! Religion sought to keep us mewling infants, mortgaged to dependency. Religion was a drug, its assurances comfortable opium dreams. And there will be withdrawal pains if we wish to break that addiction. We must learn to live without god, without illusion.

You may reply that I have defined God too narrowly, and you may go on to redefine God as meaning human potential. When you are done, the word God will bear very little relation to any traditional use of it. I wonder why you feel you must continue to use the outworn and outmoded word at all? Why is it so important? Why can you not let it go? Isn't your very insistence on hanging onto it at all costs evidence that it is after all a security blanket? If you are enamored of speaking of "God within," why can't you just talk about human nature within? Human greatness within? Why isn't that enough?

Take your liberal redefinition of God and paraphrase it. Call it something as impersonal and abstract as it deserves, and declare a moratorium of the word "God." See, after a while, whether it makes any difference. If you have lost something besides a name, a word, then I guess it wasn't just a name. As I suspect, you may be more of a closet theist than you wanted to believe!

Whenever I hear people say that they do not just believe in God but experience God or Christ as a watchful presence in their lives, I am not impressed with the reality of their faith. Rather, I fear for their sanity. They are cultivating a delusion. Even if there is a God, what else is going on in their heads but the cultivation of a delusion? It must be a psychological projection. I know there are ways for sophisticated believers to assimilate this fact and make the best of it. Tillich said we must inevitably create a symbol for God since God is infinite and we cannot grasp that. So we make our images of God, our symbols for God, and we try our best to remind ourselves that God is always more than the image, the figment.

But I think that is trying to have your cake and eat it too. Occam's Razor leaves only the fact that your God that you seem to experience is essentially an imaginary playmate. And you would be better off without it. Just as when you were a kid and gave up your unseen playmate it was a step toward maturity. Say good-bye to the imaginary playmate called God. Practice the absence of God.

In practicing the absence of God you will be laying a heavy burden down. What I mean is this: inevitably the world and life disappoint your beliefs in divine Providence. The world refuses to conform to our expectations. And we will seemingly do anything to avoid accepting that we were wrong. That the universe is morally neutral and indifferent to human welfare. We would find the universe a frightening and uninhabitable place if we believed there was no God pervading and permeating it. But would it? I think the opposite is true.

When tragedy strikes, when loved ones die, is it comforting or edifying to you to imagine that God had some reason for killing them? Was the suffering of Job alleviated or rather compounded by his belief that God must have had a purpose in it? Why make tragedy worse by elevating it to the outrage of cosmic injustice? Some song asks indignantly, "Why do we never get an answer" to the problem of evil? Well, what kind of answer did you have in mind?

It is like Samsara and Nirvana. Reality only looks so bleak because you had exaggerated expectations for it. Samsara isn't so bad once you realize it was never supposed to be Nirvana. The world certainly operates as if there is no God. Why continue to suffer from the static, the friction, of swimming against the ontological current? Get rid of the headache that comes from the never-ending cognitive dissonance of insisting there is a God in a Godless universe. How long can you keep it up? How long will you stay in denial? Recovery groups like to talk about the problem a dysfunctional family never faces as the elephant in the living room. No one will admit its there, but there's just no way it's not going to make a difference! Well, in this case, the problem is that the elephant, the God, is nowhere to be seen in the living room, yet the family insists it's there. But that's just as sick! As with any other neurosis, you don't have any chance of getting better as long as you refuse to face reality.

Robert M. Price
December 6, 1997

 

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