page of Realize! centers around a concept of
"God," whether God is actually mentioned or not.
So it might be useful to the reader to know what that word means
First, let me
tell you that you may be disappointed; I'm not going to explain
God to you. At best, I may end up telling you what God isn't.
Attributes and God Without
A handy way
to talk about God is to use some of the categories used in
traditional discussions of God. One of these, a well-known
dichotomy in India, is the idea of God with Attributes and God
without Attributes. The idea is simple. There are
many gods in India, with many attributes: male vs. female,
beautiful vs. hideous, benevolent vs. destructive, and so
on. But it is widely understood that behind this panoply of
gods is a unified something. The sages will not
define this, though they often give it the name Brahman.
As defined by Wikipedia
in China), Brahman is "the signifying name given to the concept of the unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality that is the Divine Ground of all being in this universe."
While sometimes given a form, Brahman is generally described by
the term "Neti, Neti": Not This, Not This. This is
the Via Negativa: Whatever you can say about Brahman,
Brahman is not that. Brahman is beyond any attributes we can
imagine, sometimes described as "That before which words
fail." (By the way, for my money, this is a pretty good
view of God.)
without form is called nirguna Brahman; with form(s), he is
called saguna Brahman.
The idea of nirguna
not unique to India. There are parallel concepts in many
cultures. In China, it's the Tao (Dao). Although it is
much discussed, the Tao's true nature is found in the opening
lines of the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing):
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.
Stephen Mitchell translation [Amazon])
things are particular, elements of this world. If the
Ultimate Universal really is ultimate and universal, it is
not susceptible to being named. Naming limits its scope,
making it less than it truly is. As the Tao says,
anything which can be told can't be "it": Neti,
Neti. Hence the Zen (Chan) Buddhist dictum: "If you
meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." If you settle
on one thing as the fixed, final term -- if you believe
"you've found it" -- your spirituality will stagnate and
lose its vitality. (This is a great danger for "true
believers," a topic for another time.)
Some parts of
Western tradition, too, have attempted to keep an unrestricted
sense of "God." Jewish tradition has done a
particularly good job. There is of course the prohibition
against "graven images," carved idols which can become
more important to the supplicant than the True God. (Islam,
too, has been faithful in this, though we shall soon see that
Christianity abandoned it early on.)
the prohibition against physical representations of God, Judaism
has a deeper, more telling, practice. Pious Jews were not
allowed even to say the name of God. Though there is
a famous four-character name (rendered in the English-speaking
world as YHWH), this was never pronounced. The prohibition
was kept so strictly that the original pronunciation has been
lost, and modern scholars have to guess at it.
four-letter "Tetragrammaton" has an interesting
history of being expressed in English. The four characters
were written "JHVH " in German; with vowels added
this became the familiar English word
"Jehovah." More recent scholarship suggests
the rendering "Yahweh," but this, too, is
uncertain. Biblical Hebrew was written without vowels,
more like a shorthand aid to memory rather than a full
writing system; the Massoretes added
"points"--mostly dots and small strokes--to the
consonantal text. perhaps around the 7th century C.E.
They did not, however, point the letters YHWH, which
were generally pronounced "adonai," meaning
"my lord." This substitution is still made
in formal contexts, but in
casual conversation God is referred to as "Hashem"
meaning "the Name," still giving a place of honor
to the Tetragrammaton.
what does it mean? It is a form of the verb "to
be." When Moses faced the burning bush in Exodus
(Chapter 3), the voice of God in the bush commissioned him
to lead the people. Moses, perhaps never having spoken
with a bush before, asked God: "When I come to the children of Israel and say
to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they
say to me,
'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" and God
"I AM THAT I AM."
And He said, "Thus
shall you say to the children of Israel, 'I AM has sent me
AM is the word rendered YHWH. It is clearly a form of
the verb "to be." Some think of it as a
simple declarative: "I am who I am," kind of like
Popeye. Others see in it a causative: "I cause to
be that which is." In any case, the name is
intrinsically tied to the concept of being, and as
such is a suitable parallel to the Hindu Brahman, the
Chinese Tao, etc.
I can personally attest to
the strength of this tradition. When I was teaching a course
in advanced writing to Orthodox Jewish girls in the summer of
1990, not a girl in the class would write the English word
"God"-- a word frequently used in their writing-- but,
rather, they all represented the sacred name as "G-d."
of the Attributes
Earlier, I mentioned that
Western tradition had attempted to keep God free of fixed
But of course, as souls in
bodies, we can't maintain this for long. (The people were
making a "Golden Calf" even as Moses was receiving the
Ten Commandments!) Belief in God seems to require
discourse about God. (We talk about those we
love.) And to talk about something usually requires us to
name it. The Jews solved this problem--as mentioned
above--by using the words "Adonai" or "Hashem."
Likewise, as very practical people, they as much as anyone have
anthropomorphized God, giving "him" human
attributes. In the Jewish scriptures (the Christians'
"Old Testament"), God is often spoken of as having human
form. Look at Genesis 3:8, where Adam and Eve "heard the voice of the LORD God, walking in the garden in the cool of the day."
Hard to do without a body! And that is just one of hundreds
This Roman statue
of a young man carrying a sheep dates to the 3rd century or
so. It may represent Christ as "The Good
Shepherd." Getty Museum, Malibu (Photo by James)
This anthropomorphizing tendency reached its
climax in the Christian idea that God became a human being and
dwelt on the earth as Jesus the Christ. Here was God in
the flesh, a walking, talking, breathing human being (and, if
you believe Dan Brown, he did a lot of other very human
things besides). After his earthly passing, it was only a
few centuries before his followers began to represent him in
human form. While this is central to the Catholic and
Eastern Orthodox traditions, Protestants, too, commonly
represent Jesus in pictures and, less often, statues.
(By the way, it's interesting to note that, just
as Christians hesitated before representing Jesus in human form,
Buddhists, too, waited a few centuries before making statues of
But the sensual side of human nature cannot be
denied. And so the unnamable, unknowable, ineffable, becomes the
named, known, and effed. The "wholly other"
becomes wholly familiar. God has a face, and it looks
strangely like ours. ("What if God was one of
us?") As Montesquieu wrote nearly 300 years
ago, "If triangles had a god, they would give him three sides."
This is not to say there is no God, that
God is just a figment of our collective imagination. It's
just that, if God cannot be seen, we must give it/her/him
attributes in order to have something to hang our imaginations
comes when we start to imagine that the attributes we have
(somewhat arbitrarily) given to God actually are God.
In Christian terms, while Jesus is God the Son, he is always
pointing toward God the Father-- that side of God which is
(mostly) without attributes. Buddhists would say that, while
the Buddha is a unique teacher, it is the teaching-- the
Dharma-- which leads to Enlightenment, and even this
essential, then, that we keep our hearts on the final term, that
which is beyond all symbols. As Joseph
Campbell put it, all of our symbols must remain
"transparent to transcendence." Tear your eyes
away from this fascinating essay for a moment and take a look
out the window. What you see outside is the point of your
looking; the glass in the window is not. If the window
were to lose its transparency through, say, a coat of paint, it
would become the "end" (in both senses-- the finish
and the purpose) of your seeing. Just so, if a symbol
(which here means anything that points toward "The
Ultimate") becomes in one's mind the Ultimate itself, it no
longer leads to anything beyond itself. Your image of God becomes
God, and any God that can be comprehended by a finite person
must also be finite. "The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao."
that, we must constantly strive to break through our comfortable
preconceptions of what the Ultimate is and try to see what is
beyond, and beyond the beyond. Uncle Joe (Campbell) often
repeated two expressions that embody this idea. One was a
quote from the late Medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart
about "leaving God for God," that is, letting go of our concept
of God in favor of a living experience of God.
Campbell's second image was homier: He said those who mistake the
metaphor for the referent (that is, who think the symbol is the
thing itself) are like people who go to a restaurant and eat the
menu! "The map is not the territory," the menu is
not the meal, and my understanding of God is not God.
All of these are, in the Eastern image, like fingers pointing at
the moon, but must not be confused for the moon itself.
So we can see
that all of the ideas of God with attributes refer to the
final term of God without attributes.
traditional category for the discussion of God, more commonly used
in the West than the East, is the question of whether God is immanent
or transcendent. Immanence is from a Latin word
meaning "to remain in," and means that God is in the
world, with us; transcendence comes from trans- (across; on the other side; beyond)
and skend- (leap or climb), so it means that God has leapt
to the other side-- God is not here, but is in fact Wholly Other,
separate from the world.
So is God
with us or not? This question has been answered, in a way,
in the discussion of God with and without Attributes. Jesus
is immanent, and points to the transcendent Father; the familiar
gods of India point toward the transcendent Brahman. The immanent,
that is, embodies the transcendent. The attributes of God
are in a way like the clothes and bandages worn by The Invisible
Man. They give form and substance to that which is beyond
form and substance. And thus, the immanent is laced with
This is one
of the highest understandings in any religion: That eternity is
not time without end; eternity is a quality of now.
Put another way, "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you."
Buddhist tradition says the same. Samsara is this world of
change and suffering; Nirvana is the absolute, the changeless, the
undifferentiated. And the highest grasp of the Mahayana is
that "Samsara is Nirvana." You are a
Buddha. (The astute reader will notice that there is no
mention of "God" when Buddhism is discussed. So
how can Buddhism and theistic traditions be compared? All
will become-- a little-- clearer in a moment.)
And so God is
both immanent and transcendent, since all that is immanent-- here
and now-- partakes of transcendence. All manifestations of
God with attributes embody God without. In another
essay I play with the idea that such transcendence is not
limited to depictions of God, but that the pen I hold, the paper I
write on, and the table on which they rest are all intimations of
the transcendent. That essay includes this quote from
To see a
World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
and Absolute Truth
about this seemingly muddy thinking that confuses the Buddhist
state of Enlightenment (and Taoist concepts of the Tao) with monotheistic
concepts of God?
where I want you to e-x-p-a-n-d your thinking a little. If your
God is personalized, like Jesus or Krishna, take the first small
step of realizing that Jesus is God the Son, the earthly
manifestation of the full Trinity: "In the beginning was the
Word...and the Word was made flesh..." (John 1:1 and
14). Devotees of Lord Krishna know him as an avatar of Lord
Vishnu (Krishna devotees are Vaishnavas). So both of these
gods, even in traditional terms, point beyond themselves.
There is a
tendency of the personalized god to trend toward total
transcendence. (This is to say nothing of gods like YHWH and
Allah who are already more transcendent than personal.) And
these two poles-- the personal and the transcendent-- are exactly
parallel to what Buddhism calls "The Two Truths."
They say that Truth operates on two levels. The conventional
truth is the one found in this world of Samsara.
Differentiation only occurs by convention:
"I/Me/My/Mine" ends and "You/You/Your/Yours"
begins where we agree they do, by convention. Absolute
Truth, on the other hand, is unconditioned, undivided, and
unchanging. It prevails in the state known as
"Nirvana." Any assertion about Absolute
Truth, like any assertion about God, limits it. Thus the
Absolute in Buddhism, the Tao in Taoism, and God in the theistic
traditions are all incomprehensible, indivisible, and
inexpressible. They are analogous ideas. And so the
Conventional, mundane, and this-worldly are also parallel in the
different ways of thinking.
But there is
a story in the Mahayana tradition that shows perfectly the
relationship between the Absolute and the Conventional.
Imagine you are on this side of the river, and you want to get to
the other side. You find a ferryman, and you go
across. But when you look back from the other side, you
realize there is no other side! There is also no
ferry, no ferryman, and no you, because all is one.
This is the Absolute Truth. We learn that all Conventional
Truth is the Absolute, that the Yin and Yang are the
Tao, and that all of "The World, the Flesh, and (yes, even)
the Devil" are simply aspects of that One we call the
Here. Eternity is Now.
I want to end
with a familiar illustration. Some sunny day, go out and try
to stare directly at the sun. ACTUALLY, DON'T!
It will destroy your eyes. Rather, go out on the night of
the full moon and stare at the moon's serene face. And as
you gaze upward, realize that what you are looking at is actually sunlight.
But how much easier to appreciate the sun's light as reflected
from the surface of the moon, or from the things around us in the
daytime, than to stare directly at the sun! And so the
forbidding power of the Absolute is made more palatable in the
world through which it is reflected. The danger, as Plato
tells us in his Allegory
of the Cave, is in insisting that reflections and shadows
are the substance of the "real ," when they are only evidence
of it. And so this world, with all its beauty and terror,
ecstasy and pain, love and tears-- this world is in fact the
fullest manifestation of the One.
This is far from
my "final word" on God, about whom/which I do a
tremendous amount of thinking. I would rather not have
people say, "Well, James believes this" and quote
this article, because believe me, my ideas about God are evolving
all the time. Years ago, an old (in his 80s) friend at my
church said he "couldn't get me into his computer,"
pointing at his temple. He said one day I seemed like an
agnostic, another day a fundamentalist, and a third day like a
pagan. All I could say was, "Yup! That's
me!" So it is right and a good and joyful thing that
this essay should be published only in the shifting world of
cyberspace, where it can be upgraded or deleted at will. To
commit it to paper would be frightening.
(C) 2006 James Baquet