A nontheist puts a case for God

by | 2 Mar, 2021

Kerry O’Regan, South Australia and Northern Territory Regional Meeting

In the final year at our Catholic school, we learnt the (was it seven?) Proofs for the Existence of God. I remember the Proof from First Cause. (Everything is caused by something, and if you keep tracking back you’ll have to stop somewhere; must be God.) And there was one, I don’t remember what it was called, that said that the orderly complexity of the universe couldn’t just happen by random chance. (Was that the one about the monkeys and the typewriters?) As for the others …

I must say, that as “proofs”, they weren’t all that convincing. They were also dry as dust and totally lacking the intellect, so you’ll be pleased to know that’s not where I’m going here.

Not for the first time, it was Richard Rohr[1] who led me to an Aha! moment. It was him saying, “The only possible language of religion is metaphor”. This, after years of me struggling with the thought I don’t know what they’re talking about, when the talk was of God (let alone the Trinity), the Will of God, the Love of God, and so on. These were not things I “knew experimentally”. Perhaps I lacked some faculty, like being colour blind or tone deaf or having no sense of direction. Maybe I just didn’t have a capacity to perceive God. But, with Richard Rohr’s help, I finally got it. It’s all metaphor. (And problems can arise, Rohr suggests, when we try to take those metaphors literally.)

Around the same time as the Rohr encounter, I was also reading Bede Griffiths[2]. He too was a Catholic monk, though he had spent most of his life in an ashram in India seeking the common ground between various religious traditions. He said much the same thing. “The essential truth of every religion is the sacred Mystery, the presence in this world of a hidden Wisdom, which cannot be expressed in words … If I try to find words to express that transcendent Reality, I have to use images and metaphors.”

What I had experienced in my own life was a sense of the Holy, of the numinous. I felt awe and reverence, though not directed towards a personal entity. I had no experience of that. I had no sense of a Being with whom I could have an I/Thou relationship, and that was something I could neither fake nor manufacture. My reverence was directed more towards Being, the verb. (And there’s an article by Rabbi Arthur Green in Richard Rohr’s book, saying that “God [YHWH] is a verb”, but perhaps that’s an exploration for another time.)

Richard Rohr’s statement about metaphor made me think of something Baruch Spinoza[3] had written. He was reflecting on the ascribing of human attributes to God, and said, “If a triangle could speak, it would say, in like manner, that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular”. (Though Spinoza did get excommunicated from his Jewish community, so perhaps I’m treading on dangerous ground here.)

Baruch Spinoza

In trying to articulate what we know experimentally, we use language that makes sense to us. We crystallise our experience into metaphors, into myths, and even into doctrines and rituals, that are meaningful for us, culturally and personally. They give us a language, a framework, into which we can fit our spiritual experience. They allow us to communicate that experience to others, using a mutually accepted language, so we are not isolated in the silence of inarticulate muteness. Thomas Keneally[4] said, “The thing about myths is not that they are true, or that they should be true, but there is something about them that is truer than true”. That is the kind of truth that matters here.

So I’ve learned to chill out, to stop interrogating the metaphors. How many generations of children have had any love of poetry destroyed through being made to pull it apart and analyse the metaphors? That’s not what metaphors are for. Better to just let them be. As Judith Wright says in one of her poems, “Some things … ought to inhabit nowhere but the reverence of the heart”[5]. My epiphany came from that insight into the metaphorical nature of religious language. I don’t have to “get” the metaphors. I can just let them be, let them reside within “the reverence of the heart”.

There is, though, something to be gained by reifying “God”, by engaging with the myth and the metaphor. Jean Shinoda Bolen[6] is a Jungian therapist who uses ancient Greek Goddesses as archetypes in her clinical practice. She writes of “activating” these deities using the metaphors of that early religious tradition. She says that “The ancient Greeks knew something we can learn: goddesses can be imagined and then invoked”. One may identify an archetypical goddess with qualities or behaviours lacking within oneself. “It is possible to ‘invoke’ that goddess, by consciously making an effort to see, feel, or sense her presence … and then ask for her particular strength.” Bolen gives examples of possible invocations, including, “Athena, help me to think clearly in this situation”, “Persephene, help me to stay open and receptive”, and “Hestia, honor me with your presence, bring me peace and serenity”.

Well known metaphor

From my own Catholic background, we had a whole assembly of Patron Saints we could call on to assist in every conceivable aspect of our lives. Even today, if I drive to the shops with my sister Ann and any of her sister nuns, they are likely to invoke the aid of: first, St Christopher to keep us safe along the way, St Patrick to provide us with green lights, and St Joseph to find us a parking spot. I’m not totally convinced of the efficacy of calling on saints, but who am I to naysay? There is a danger though with an It’s all in God’s hands approach in that we can let the total responsibility reside there, no action being required of us other than prayer and devotion. Not that my nun friends are guilty of that. I myself rather like Guardian Angels, though, I must say, mine has been caught napping on occasion.

But to return to how we live our lives: if we use the metaphors of our own religious tradition, and are able to draw on a Source of Love and Wisdom that far exceeds our own puny capabilities, that can only be a good thing. Surely.

[1] Richard Rohr, ‘Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation’, Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 2014

[2] Bede Griffiths, ‘Return to the Centre’, Templegate, Illinois, 1977

[3] Baruch Spinoza, Letter to Hugo Boxel, The Hague, 1674 https://www.sacred-texts.com/phi/spinoza/corr/corr58.ht

[4] Thomas Keneally, ? (Sorry. I wrote down this quote a few years ago and I haven’t been able to locate the source. I know he was referring to the ANZAC myth.)

[5] Judith Wright, Lyrebirds, https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/lyrebirds/

[6] Jean Shinoda Bolen, ‘Goddesses in Everywoman: Powerful Archetypes in Women’s Lives”, Harper, 2004

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