What is God? How do we put the inexpressible into words? Do our words divide us? Forty-one Friends from Southern Marches Area Meeting have met met today to discuss “God language”.
Looking at God language is timely, as we face a revision of Quaker Faith & Practice, when this fundamental question will have to be addressed. There is the Whoosh! Epistle of July 2012, asking whether we can “acquire the confidence to find our own words to express the ways in which we understand the divine? Can we encourage others as they reach for the language that is right for them?”. These new ways are continuously being explored in the Friend, where we read of “something ‘other’”, “the mysterious source of vital universal energies”, “an all-encompassing presence”, “the gnosis of the all-pervading unity”, “the place of unity and truth”, a “being that isn’t a being”.
A Friend shared with us how she had had a powerful experience in Meeting for Worship, when she was suddenly enveloped by a feeling of overwhelming love and emotion. Her experience led to a shedding of a belief in a God person, and a period of spiritual blankness. It was like no one picking up the phone when she rang. But she felt the need to try and explain it and find a connection again, and so read about religions and came to a whole new interpretation of God, not as a person, but something far bigger, both outside in the universe and something within her. Janet Scott’s 1980s Swarthmore Lecture had been a great help, noting that there are many religious models and warning that these are only interpretations of the truth. A true model would entail no one form of words, no single concept, no single belief or set of beliefs.
Plans for us individually and in small groups to rewrite Advices & Queries no. 8 (“Worship is our response to an awareness of God”) in a way that might be more accessible to people from other faiths or none were abandoned as we spontaneously entered into a deep sharing for the next 75 minutes.
Can we, we were challenged, grasp the concept of an invisible deity? And what of the “will of God”? If we don’t know what God is, how then could that which we do not know have a will? Belief is about trust, and is associated with experience rather than statements.
What distinguished early Friends from others was based not on what they believed but what they experienced, and they used different words to express this: the Seed, the Light of Christ within. We must look for where the words come from. We do however see Quaker tolerance wilting.
Even those of us from a non-faith background can find that traditional God-language resonates for us. “The unborn, uncreated, unmanifest empty void” comes from 29 BC, but is a Buddhist saying that also speaks to us.
We value the silence precisely because we know that language divides. Our experience of the great beyond can also differ. God can manifest itself both personally and impersonally. “God is” and “God is not” are both equally meaningless statements!
We must take care not to be too cerebral. A little girl once said of her Quaker Meeting that God came to their circle and spoke to them. We may say “with God’s help” or “with divine assistance” – but either way we need it. Our real need is to listen to where the language comes from. It is not a matter of tolerance but of deep listening and trust.
Words must also be used to convey the inexpressible. How can we share if we do not struggle to find the words? If we are to get to the deep spiritual experience we need to listen, so that it can be shared. Numinous experiences can, however, be too difficult to speak about – but this difficulty does not mean that we are deluded.
We do not see things the way they are, but the way we are. We necessarily have our limitations as human beings. But even in our smallness and imperfection, we provide a means – perhaps the only means – for the universe to look at itself. We are part of everything else, the all that is, of which we can only be part. May we relish the gift of life and be awake, with joy. In the end, we all come from the same place.
We have looked at immanence, transcendence and emergence – of coming into the Light. This can mean holding onto paradox and uncertainty. “God” is when we find there is nothing else to which we can give thanks. We may see God’s goodness, and the divine infiltrates everything.
Others too have shared deep experiences with us, when they were enfolded in love. But what matters is not the peak experiences but that we take this awareness of the subtle, intangible sense of presence into our daily lives. The divine means compassion and love. Is this manifest in our lives? We know too that “the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do”.
We can be encouraged to step into the Light we know that is there. Is this overwhelming and all-enveloping Light God?
As we get beyond God the person, we enter the great welcoming silence. Out of the silence, we have felt a presence in the room. Whatever we may call God, we have felt the Spirit was truly here.
O how may I express that secret word?
O how can I say God is not like this, and God is like that?
If I say that God is within me, the universe is ashamed:
If I say that God is without me, it is falsehood.
God makes the inner and the outer worlds indivisibly one;
The conscious and the unconscious, both are God’s footstools.
God is neither manifest nor hidden, neither revealed nor unrevealed:
There are no words to say that which God is.
(Kabir, c. 1500)
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