Atheist Spirituality — Thought for the Day, number 4
This article is the latest in a series, a conversation between Isak Dinesen and myself on the themes of religion, spirituality, the nature of God, and atheism. She has replied to my thought number 2 , beginning by quoting me: “If any being with such personality traits exists, then he could only be a god, a deity, a lesser figure, not the ultimate GOD”.
She then asks: “Further on and further into our discussion of the nature of God, am I correct in understanding that your ‘Unknowable, Unnamable Ultimate’ is mutually exclusive to an anthropomorphic God; a forgiving/ condemnatory Judge, Son of the most High, He who crumbles walls, parts the sea, commands locusts, returns sight, stays bleeding and raises the dead? One may appear to the limited mind uninvolved at an individual level, but might still engage cosmically in some inexplicable, imperceptible way. The other is a source of help and a powerful vector of change and grace for the better, or perhaps the worse for your enemies”.
Here you are raising very complex questions. I prefer the term ‘personal’ to ‘anthropomorphic’, if by that we mean ‘with personality’. ‘Anthropomorphic’ suggests that humans have created the gods and goddesses in their own image, which I don’t believe. (That’s a rather Freudian idea. I think Genesis is closer to the truth when it says that we are created in theirs.)
My simple answer to your first question is that the Unnamable Ultimate and an anthropomorphic/ personal god are not mutually exclusive; they can both ‘exist’, but at different levels of reality, and they are not the same being. In my understanding the Ultimate Oneness is the source of absolutely everything that exists. I believe that individual entities of various kinds exist in the spiritual realms, ‘below’ the Ultimate Oneness. Examples of these would be the gods and goddesses of Greek, Egyptian, Norse, and other mythologies, the angels of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and the Devas of Hinduism. These are not equivalent, however, and do not seem to have the same role. For example the angels are often seen as messengers, whereas the Devas are said to be the creators and sustainers of the lower realms. I believe that it is more accurate to say that entities of these types are emanations from the Ultimate Oneness, and therefore exist at a lower level, although others might say that it creates them.
The rest of your question is concerned with the ‘Gods’ of the Old and New Testaments, and conflates many different aspects of them. (That is not intended as a criticism, for that is the understanding that Christianity is forced to adopt, if it remains Bible-based.) This is a problem of monotheism, which tends to attribute anything ‘supernatural’ to the Ultimate God, if it denies the existence of all the intermediaries, e.g. gods, spirit guides, guardian angels, Higher Self etc.
On your specific points:
- “A forgiving/condemnatory Judge”. Various religions and traditions believe that we are souls on a spiritual journey, learning, performing various tasks. At the end of each life, there is some kind of assessment in the afterlife, to put it in simple terms, a review of how well we have done (prior to reincarnation). (It’s interesting to note on that point that many people who have had a Near Death Experience report that at some point their whole life flashes before them. That would seem to be in anticipation of such a review. Fortunately for them, and us, some of them recover and return to tell the tale.) Again this is a problem with monotheism. I believe this ‘review’ to be true, but not that it is conducted by the Most High, or Jesus, or any other being from such a level. It would be hubris to believe that at our level of development we are worthy of such a judge; we have spirit guides assigned to our existences.
- “ Son of the most High”. This is a metaphysical concept, and obviously refers to a very high level of Being, having very little to do with the earthly activities you mention. Whether Jesus is that Son is, of course, a very controversial question, much debated in the early days of the Church, but not so much by Christians nowadays.
- “ Returns sight”. This would be the achievement of a spiritual healer. The Jesus of the gospels is an outstanding example of such a person. There are modern authenticated examples (as well as the charlatans); no need for divinity to get involved.
- “Raises the dead”. We could be talking about Jesus or Lazarus here. I’ll start with Lazarus. Some modern commentators have suggested that this incident should be interpreted allegorically, and seen as an initiation into a spiritual tradition. In that context, to bring someone back from the dead means to awaken them spiritually. (In a recent article I discussed Jung’s book The Seven Sermons to the Dead, and pointed out that the ‘dead’ referred to in the title is ambiguous, and could be interpreted as those people we normally think of as living, but who have become ‘dead’ through not having experienced spiritual awakening. As R. D. Laing is reputed to have said: “Is there life before death?”)
For an in-depth investigation of Jesus’s ‘death and resurrection’, please see this earlier article of mine.
Your other points refer to the Exodus story. There appears to be no mention of this in the Egyptian records, and archaeologists have found no evidence of it. This might obviously lead us to conclude that no ‘God’ parted the Red Sea, sent plagues of locusts etc. But, as in the example of Lazarus, are we meant to take the story literally? According to the Jewish Kabbalist Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi, whom I have been quoting in recent articles (Thoughts 2 and 3): “The history of the Exodus (is) an analogue of an individual’s escape from the physical bondage of the body, represented by Egypt, and his soul’s struggle with psychological slavery in the desert as he strives to reach the Promised Land of the Spirit. (In the accounts)… are revealed the inner stages of initiation, trial and rebellion that led up to the realization that the secret of Existence is that it is a mirror in which man reflects the Image of the Divine so that God may behold God”¹.
So a Jew, albeit one from an esoteric tradition, clearly recognises that the Exodus is not a story that is intended to be taken literally, for those who have ears to hear, but is actually the story of humanity’s spiritual search to reunite with the Divine. (In this interpretation, we do not need even to begin to contemplate a God who intervenes in human affairs.) This is the same story that is told in all branches of the Perennial Philosophy: Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, Gnosticism, esoteric Christianity, and so on. (I understand that the expression ‘in slavery in Egypt’ was actually used by the Egyptians themselves to describe the human situation of being a soul trapped in matter.)
If we interpret the story symbolically or allegorically, therefore treat it as a myth, we no longer have to be concerned whether ‘God’ literally parted the Red Sea. In the language of myth, even in Genesis chapter 1, the ‘waters’ represent the psychological realms between the ‘heavens’ (the spiritual realms), and the ‘dry land’ (the material world). In line with Halevi’s interpretation, I would suggest that the parting of the Red Sea represents allegorically a dramatic moment when the searching soul has broken through the psychological realm, and has emerged into the spiritual realm beyond. (Does anyone remember that great song by the Doors, highly relevant here, Break on Through to the Other Side?)
Modern rational, sceptical minds, will obviously find the Exodus story ridiculous, if interpreted literally, and may therefore conclude that we should reject all notions of the type of God found there. (I assume that was the point of Ms. Dinesen’s question above, and that this is what she thinks. I agree with her.) If we interpret it allegorically, however, this story reinforces what is believed to be the spiritual truth of all ages, the Ancient Wisdom of the Perennial Philosophy.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, Christianity, psychology, science, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
- Kabbalah and Exodus, Gateway Books, 1988, Preface