Breakthrough to God

The Death of God

So, the real problem for classical theism, the thing which, as much as anything else, led to the death of its God, is the problem of evil, not that evil exists, but the problem that the God of Classical Theism not only permits the existence of evil, but that evil itself is inseparable from that model of God. It is fatally flawed. Pain, suffering and evil are so intrinsically part of his plans, his purposes and his methods, so deeply entrenched in his very being, that they find their origin in him. It is not simply that evil has a shadowy, negative existence as that mental image which God set his face against and did not choose in creation, so that in speaking light into existence, that creative word spoken, implied, negatively within it that which was not chosen, that which was not light, and that in creating things he esteemed to be good, he gave a shadow existence to that which he would esteem to be not good, but rather, that his act of creation includes both good and evil. The same God who made Adam, made the serpent and he who called angels into being, also called into being Satan. If we push back against the assertions of Classical Theism, not only the myth, but the theology turns to dust.

If then, we reject classical theism as fatally flawed and with it all religion as but human invention, human construct, human interpretation, if we try to put ourselves in the footprints of our early human ancestors who, before the development of religion with its prescribed rituals, its given dogmas and its priestly caste, stood in awe and wonder as they encountered the great mystery at the heart of the universe, we find that we struggle to try to think and feel as they did. For the world has moved on and even to unthink what has been long accepted means starting with the categories we have been given. Even Atheism, implies the Theism it denies. Where the early humans faced incomprehensible mystery, the numen, we struggle to disinvest it of a bundle of concepts, such things as omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, and moral perfection. Where our Neolithic forebears encountered the transcendent wholly other, we automatically think of it as God, a being, albeit the ultimate being, of it having personality, of it being like us at our best writ large. Yet these are the very things that are incompatible with the modern world, the things which have led the New Atheists to proclaim that God is a delusion.


Classical Theism developed against the background of the Judaeo- Christian tradition (it is, in fact a synthesis of this with the categories of Greek philosophy) which assumes God to be an agent who realises his purposes in history. To use a metaphor, and talk of God is always necessarily by way of metaphor and analogy, humans achieve their purposes (an activity of their mind) through the actions of their bodies and when the numen was anthropomorphised and God made in our image, he was viewed as having a mind like ours, purposing, choosing, determining and, in some way too, he is seen as acting as we do to achieve those purposes through the natural world, albeit often through the manipulation or imperious suspension of its physical laws. This model, simple both to understand and to relate to, rich in liturgical imagery, though fraught with inconsistencies, has served for millennia. For most Christians, God is a spirit and has a spiritual body, but a body nonetheless, which enables him to speak and see and hear and handle, even if analogously. For some believers though, the physical world is, as it were, something akin to the body of God. God acts through the physical world to achieve his end, as we act, using our bodies to achieve ours. This understanding of God has the great advantage of identifying God’s actions with natural, physical processes, but the difficulty with this model, is that, because God’s actions are synonymous with natural processes, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish God’s action from evolution.

Pantheists take this a step further and identify the tangible universe with God’s actual body in a literal sense. The natural world, the universe itself, is divine. Pantheism emphatically affirms God’s immanence but effectively denies God’s transcendence. God is present in, and coextensive with, everything, but is not more than everything. The world we see, the world we experience, is God (which has profound implications for our response to our environment and the ecological crisis). But if everything is God, then nothing is God. If God is identified fully with the universe and acts only through its natural, physical processes, then there is nothing to distinguish God from nature, and “God” becomes a redundant word and an obsolete concept. We may simply say nature and mean no more by it than the physical world. But we need to ask, if God is no more than the physical world we inhabit, would our Neolithic ancestors have even noticed the numenous, let alone be gripped by awe of it?

A Different View of God

There is, however, another possibility. Panentheism affirms both the transcendence of God (God’s otherness, above and beyond us) as well as God’s immanence (God’s presence here with and within us). God is not simply identified with the sum total of things, as with Pantheism, rather, God is more than everything, even as God is present everywhere. God is both all around us and yet within us, and we are within God. God is the environment we and all things inhabit and yet God also permeates all things. It is what John Macquarrie, the Anglican theologian, describes as “dialectical theism”, combining in one, two apparent opposites:

(i) God as “beyond”, the transcendent, inspiring awe and wonder, a sense of our being part of the created world, rather than distinct from it, a deep sense of dependency, even of contingency, and

(ii) God as “here”, flowing through us and through all things, empowering, energising and enabling. God is both present in every part of the universe and yet is more than the universe.

This certainly answers the intellectual problem of classical (supernatural) theism for, if God is not thought of as a being that is separate from the universe, then many of the arguments of the new atheists vanish.

In Hinduism, Brahman is the word used for the ultimate reality, the pervasive, genderless, infinite, eternal, binding unity behind the diversity of all that exists. The Upanishads, describe Brahman as the unchanging, permanent, highest reality. It is discussed in Hindu texts with the concept of Atman (the soul), viewed as being everywhere and in everything, so that there is a connected spiritual oneness in all existence. The many gods of Hinduism, with which we are all familiar, while having distinct and complex personalities and rich mythologies, are generally viewed as aspects of the same Ultimate Reality, Brahman. While this is not identical to the concept of panentheism, it may serve to illustrate the relationship between God in panentheistic thought and the God of popular thought. If what we have traditionally thought of as God, is God, then what panentheists think of as God, is, perhaps, best described as the God beyond God. Perhaps, more correctly, what panentheists mean by God, is the reality behind and beyond what has been traditionally thought of (and worshipped as) God, the latter being a pious accommodation.

But there are other reasons for considering panentheism

1) The language, both of the Bible and the of worship, because of the intimate, personal nature of the relationship with God, naturally personifes God.

This is not a problem unless we literalise it, in which case it becomes an intellectual obstacle. But the Bible also speaks of God as “here” and not merely as “out there.” It speaks of the glory of God (שכ’וה Shekinah, δοξα doxa) that is to say, the radiance of God. Psalm 19:1-6, “The heavens declare the glory of God …” Psalm 29:3-10 describing the glory of God in terms of the roar and crash of breakers out at sea and the violent cacophony of a thunderstorm: “The voice of the LORD is heard on the seas; the glorious God thunders, and his voice echoes over the ocean. The voice of the LORD is heard in all its might and majesty. The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars, even the cedars of Lebanon. He makes the mountains of Lebanon jump like calves and makes Mount Hermon leap like a young bull. The voice of the LORD makes the lightning flash. His voice makes the desert shake; he shakes the desert of Kadesh. The LORD’s voice shakes the oaks and strips the leaves from the trees while everyone in his Temple shouts, ‘Glory to God’! The LORD rules over the deep waters; he rules as king forever.”

In the New Testament, the gospel of John speaks of Jesus as being filled with the glory of God, “And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth”, while Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:6 writes, “For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” This glory, the presence of God, is encountered here, in this world.

But the Bible also speaks of God as a reality all around us. So, Psalm 139: “You have searched me and known me; you know when I sit down and when I rise up…. You go before me and behind me, and lay your hand upon me…. Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” The writer, in his imagination, travels throughout the whole of the (triple decker) universe: the heavens, the earth, and the underworld (שאול Sheol) that was believed in Old Testament times to be the totality of the cosmos, but is driven to acknowledge that there is nowhere in all of that reality that God is not present. God is the environment in which we live. Indeed, in a speech put in the mouth of Paul in Athens, the author of Acts, has the apostle Paul describing this aspect of the reality of God in these words: “In God we live and move and have our being.” Although it is unlikely that Paul actually spoke these words, (historical speeches were generally made up by the historians if the ancient world, to summarise dramatically what an historical figure might have said) nevertheless they encapsulate what the author believed to be Paul’s thought. We are in God: we live and move and have our being in God. God is not simply “up in heaven”, where Jesus was pictured as having ascended to and where, in the vision at his martyrdom, Stephen saw God to be, but also as being right here, right now, the all-encompassing Spirit surrounding us, in whom we are, as fish are in water.

Other biblical texts speak of “knowing” God, not in a Western, purely intellectual, sense, but in a direct, Hebrew sense, like that experienced by lovers. ידע (“To know”), the word for sexual intercourse is the same word used to speak of knowing God. Hosea denounced the people of his day for not knowing God. Clearly, they knew of God for they worshipped him; what they profoundly lacked, however, was intimacy with God. The writer of the gospel of John, that most mystical of gospels, echoes this criticism and stipulated that it is this intimacy with God that is the source of eternal life (“This is eternal life: to know God.”) as an experienced, present reality, rather than simply a future one to be experienced after physical death as in popular Christian thought.

2) The second reason for thinking about God in this way is the experience of the sacred.

If the numinous, if God, can be experienced, in other words, if the testimony of mystics to ecstatic experience has credibility, then God is not somewhere else, but is right here with us. William James, Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade wrote of these experiences of the numinous. Eliade used, “hierophanies” (manifestations of the sacred) and “theophanies” (manifestations of the sacred as God). They are, according to those who have experienced them, instances when reality is experienced as being “more” than the visible, tangible, everyday world of our normal experience. They are mystical or ecstatic (literally “out of the (natural) state of being” – εκ = out, στάσις = state) in which another dimension of reality is encountered and experienced. Importantly, they have what is called a “noetic” quality them. Those who experience them speak of “knowing”, not simply “feeling”. These experiences are not peculiar to Christianity, nor even, to religious experience, and have occurred throughout history (Moses’ burning bush, the enlightenment of the Buddha, the baptism of Jesus, Muhammad’s night journey, the experiences of shamans and of the dreamtime; perhaps, even near-death experiences). But they are not restricted to founders, prophets and ascetics, many ordinary people have these experiences too. I, personally, had such an experience while travelling in the Irish Republic 25 years ago, which remains as vivid and powerful as the day I experienced it.

Mysticism is a form of religion which places an emphasis on the immediate (in the sense of not mediated) awareness and experience of, and relation to God, or the universe or Spirit, or however else we may choose to describe the numinous. We are familiar with the stories of Jacob’s ladder, the visions of the prophets such as first Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, the “still, small voice” of Elijah and Paul’s Damascus road experience. Perhaps too, we may include Augustine’s experience in the apple orchard, Luther’s thunderstorm, Wesley’s strangely warmed heart, Teresa of Avila’s ascent of the soul, and the unspeakable experience of Thomas Aquinas that put an end to his writing. But there are many, many more.

Wordsworth wrote:
” … and I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things…”
(Tintern Abbey)

– The Hindu, Rabindranath Tagore, wrote, “I found the world bathed in a wonderful radiance with waves of beauty and joy swelling on every side, and no person or thing in the world seemed to me trivial or unpleasing.”

– Similarly, the philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal wrote, “In the year of grace 1654, Monday 23rd November, from about half-past ten in the evening till about half an hour after midnight: FIRE. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. Not of the philosophers and the learned. Certitude. Certitude. Emotion. Joy! Joy! Joy! Joy! Tears of Joy! My God…let me not be separated from thee for ever.”

– Theologian, Leslie Weatherhead, too, describes his mystical experience of God in the most mundane of circumstances. “It happened on a murky November Saturday evening in a third-class compartment on a train leaving London: For a few seconds only, I suppose, the whole compartment was filled with light. This is the only way I know in which to describe the moment, for there was nothing to see at all. I felt caught up into some tremendous sense of being within a loving, triumphant and shining purpose. I never felt more humble. I never felt more exalted. A most curious, but overwhelming sense possessed me and filled me with ecstasy. All men were shining and glorious beings who in the end would enter incredible joy. An indescribable joy possessed me. All this happened over fifty years ago but even now I can see myself in the corner of that dingy third-class compartment with the feeble lights of inverted gas mantles overhead and the Vauxhall Station platform outside with milk cans standing there. In a few moments the glory departed—all but one curious, lingering feeling. I loved everybody in that compartment. It sounds silly now, and indeed I blush to write it, but at that moment I think I would have died for any one of the people in that compartment.”

– Then, of course, there is the contemporary experience of Marcus Borg. Borg was on a transatlantic flight when suddenly the light in the plane assumed a golden glow. To Borg, everything—the fabric of the seats, the trays of food, the other passengers—became exquisitely beautiful. “Everything was glorious,” Borg wrote, “filled with glory.” For Borg, such mystical experiences underscored his move away from the supernatural theism of his Lutheran childhood and toward panentheism. This was a move away from the question of whether God “exists” and toward a quest to understand the “is-ness” of the “radiant and glorious more” that suffuses life.

This is why religious experience is the most profound reason for believing in God. It is a powerful experience of something absolutely, undeniably real, utterly certain, profoundly life changing. Yet as a clinical, detached and purely philosophical “argument for the existence of God” to be analysed and dissected, religious experience is as sterile and hollow, and unconvincing as any other. But these experiences suggest that there is more than the mundane reality we experience every day, more than one level of reality and that this alternative dimension may be experienced, yet they do not prove the reality of God. That said, the evidence of religious experience is far more interesting and compelling. These experiences suggest that reality itself may be much more mysterious than we otherwise understand it to be.

The certainty that the mystical experience of God provides us with as to the reality of God, does not come from intellectual argument, or from logic or ontology, not yet by way of unfounded assertions or assumptions, it comes from an immediate experience of being overwhelmed by the presence of God which gives us the certainty of God’s existence. We may not be able to break God’s essence down as the scholastics did, nor make a compelling, rational argument, proving God’s existence, but that which may be shown to exist, explained, measured and quantified is less than the numinous other, is less than God. It is in this mystical experience of the Spirit, the encounter with the mystery at the heart of reality, the life-breath, heartbeat and soul of the universe, the ineffable ground of being, that we find ourselves standing in our Neolithic forebears footprints, gazing out at the awe-inspiring numen.

Thomas Merton wrote, “Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything—in people and in things and in nature and in events.”


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