Facing Into Holy Mystery: A God Beyond God


I have a confession to make. I’m coming out of the closet in saying this publicly: I no longer believe in God. There, I said it. It may seem like a strange and unlikely thing for someone who has been associated with religion all my life —perhaps even an incriminating self-disclosure; a revelation that could make me seem hypocritical and disingenuous. 

In saying I no longer believe in God, it is important to clarify which God I no longer believe in. It is the God which many atheists  also reject: a distinct and separate Supernatural Being beyond the bounds of ordinary space and time, who causes certain things to happen or not happen, sometimes according to how we have obeyed or disobeyed Him (the masculine pronoun has been the most traditional one used and rightly so, since it reflects the hierarchical patriarchy from which such God-images have often developed). This God is a “deus ex machina”—an external driving force beyond the machinery and fabric of nature. This God is the missing jigsaw piece without whom the puzzle of the universe and our personal lives cannot be fully whole and meaningful. I remember defending this kind of God in college bull-sessions, arguing with fierce and untroubled certainty that a world without such a God would be meaningless and without whom the human race would have no ethical moorings. I could not see then what history makes glaringly clear: people can be very ethical without a belief in a God, and, conversely, some of the worst atrocities in history have been perpetrated in the name of religion.

This traditional theistic image of God is a Person who, in many ways, is like a human person–only larger and more powerful. It is this Supernatural Being who can be prayed to and pleased or displeased, who lies at the heart of the three great monotheistic religions. This God determines who lies within or outside the circle of revelation and salvation; who separates the sheep from the goats. Most problematically for our current geopolitical situation, this God has given particular pieces of real estate to God’s “chosen” people, thus setting up centuries-old competition for land-rights which fuel fierce and seemingly unresolvable wars. The sacred sites of the three “children of Abraham” are piled on top of each other; the land-grabbing and acrimony sadly seem endless. All this in the name of a God which each religion believes it represents the most comprehensively, and sometimes exclusively.

I am not saying that the term “God” is meaningless for me or that the Sacred doesn’t resonate in my experience–both personally and communally, but it seems that we sometimes use the word “God” so freely that we lose a sense of mystery. God-talk can become overly-familiar and so second-nature  that we really begin to think we know what we are talking about. The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner saw this problem and suggested using the term “Holy Mystery” when speaking of God. I like that. I am also fond of Paul Tillich’s term “The Ground of Being”. Both these images convey that whatever we mean when we say “God” is much bigger and more mysterious than our overly-familiar language often indicates.

I take comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my questions about God. In fact, I join a long and venerable spiritual tradition which has been called by the fancy Greek name “apophatic”. In a nutshell, it means that we can never fully know or describe God because “God” is a mystery greater than our comprehension. Mystics have called this the “via negativa”—which means we can describe the Divine more by what we cannot know (“negative”) than but by what we can (“positive”). The German mystic Meister Eckhart has some arresting ways of addressing the God-question. He speaks of a “God beyond God”—a sacred reality that our religious language tries to describe but which is greater than our theological concepts. He exclaims, “God deliver me from God!” Judaism and Islam also affirm that the ultimate nature of God cannot be fully fathomed by our human intellects and language. The mystical traditions in all the world religions often share more in common with each other than they do with their own respective religion, because mysticism is grounded in the experience of the sacred, not simply an intellectual proposition. It is a willingness to be open to the Great Mystery of life without seeking to reduce it to easy answers and fixed categories. Many of the mystics of our day lie beyond the parameters of traditional religious creeds and institutional structures. They are poets and scientists. Poets seek to look more deeply into the experience of human existence, sometimes through direct self-reflection, sometimes through reflecting on nature, and sometimes through both. Scientists–especially those exploring Quantum Physics—are delving into the deep mystery of the cosmos—the Big Bang, expanding multiverses, the shifting warp and woof of time and space. Poetry and contemporary science provide us with a wealth of wonder and mystery which I call The Sacred. It is a sacredness rooted not in creedal formulations but in lived experience.

To say that we live in Holy Mystery doesn’t mean we cannot know or believe anything. Although there are many things I am less and less sure of as I grow older, there are  things I that I do know and believe in a way that grows more and more  bone-deep.  I experience both the power of Love and Evil in this world on a daily, tangible  basis. We have only to turn on the news; to see what happens in our local and global communities; to look into the conflicting movements of our own hearts. I also experience the reality of Grace–the surprising and enlivening  encounters that bring wonder, gratitude, healing, and reconciliation. These are the precious miracles that enlighten our often dark world. Above all, I think Holy Mystery is manifest in relationships. We are never isolated individuals, even when we feel so. We are all embedded in a great fabric of community, locally and globally. It is in relationship that we find meaning and the challenging soul-stretching that takes beyond our own egos. Maybe the limitation in our language is that God is not so much personal as transpersonal.

Does all this seem too abstract and ethereal—a personal navel-gazing unrelated to the hard realities and needs of the world? I think not. The way we think and talk about God or other underlying beliefs, has major ramifications for how we act personally and collectively. Fundamentalist understandings of God are at the root of terrorism as well as other expressions of hatred and prejudice. Reflecting on our language for the Sacred is, I think, a question of “evangelism”, which means “to share good news”. How do we articulate our communal beliefs and images of The Sacred so that we honor our traditions while also presenting them in such a way that others may understand them as good new and, perhaps, be drawn to them?

Back to  personal images for God. Perhaps we don’t need to abandon them altogether if we can remember and communicate that they are all partial metaphors that point to a Greater Mystery that is bigger than any one image can hold. If we say God is Father or Mother,  we are saying that the qualities of parents who conceive, nurture and champion their children is part of Holy Mystery. Likewise, images of a God as  Lover, consuming fire, a probing judge, speak to the richness of millennia of human ways of conceiving of The Holy. An image that currently fascinates me is The Web. We are all knit together in the Great Web of Being. The sacred is The Web, the Internet. This is an image we can all identify with in our daily lives. Could it help us imagine a Bigger God?

I offer a few questions for reflection:

–For those of us who use God language, of whatever tradition, are we willing to reflect on how our use of this language may be meaningful or alienating both to others and ourselves?

–Are we willing to struggle with how our lived experience of mystery and meaning does or doesn’t harmonize with the way we proclaim our religious/spiritual identity in our liturgy and conversation?

–When we identify with our particular religious tradition, are we willing to honestly grapple with whether we do or do not believe our own tradition to be superior to others? If we do, it is an act of integrity to defend that unapologetically. But if we do not, then we must repudiate the exclusionary language of our traditions. We can’t have it both ways.

I welcome your thoughts!

2 thoughts on “Facing Into Holy Mystery: A God Beyond God

  1. Phillip,

    I came across the following and it seems related to what you are saying here….

    “Perhaps the supreme discovery of ‘Chaos Theory’ is the recognition that everything, scattered rocks, sumptuous symphonies, smoke curling from the chimney of a child’s crayon drawing, the brush strokes of a Matisse painting, the dreams of a night, and the book of history are all together one response to the the Benefaction which from deep time we have called so many names.”
    (from Hiles, Marv and Nancy; All The Days of My Life)


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