Whenever anyone asks if you believe in God, it is relatively certain they do not know what the symbol means. Symbols are never self referential or else they would be ordinary speech. A symbol is not like a noun that exists or does not exist. To be a symbol, a word must open us to some reality beyond our ordinary verbs and nouns. Such a word is “God.”
Every religion would be greatly served if it would remember the Second Commandment of Judaism- not to form images of God. A comfortable image of God is an idol wreaking havoc on our own personal lives and dividing us from every other understanding of our common ground. The symbol “God” is a word some of us use to refer to that mysterious something seething underneath all we touch and all we are. It is a poetic intuition of the invisible string that binds all life into one whole. Science is better at identifying the facts of our existence, but religion is better at expressing the wonder and gratitude for existing at all.
Literalist religion is a very dangerous thing. We each see the universe from a different angle. For many people, religion is the consecration of one viewpoint over all others. I believe that true religion is looking at life from an angle that includes us all. Since none of us actually observes reality from that angle, we sometimes introduce a narrator named “God”. “God” symbolizes that angle beyond any of us. “God” is a symbol of that very real unity which holds us and our enemies in one embrace. God is a symbol of a unity so basic we cannot conceive of it. “God” is also a symbol that reminds us that the mystery stands beyond any of us. Religion becomes instantly insane when it forgets that God is a symbol of all we cannot say.
There is a problem when we only think of God as a large invisible person. Inevitably, we each begin to jockey to get that giant person on our side. The symbol “God” is a placeholder to keep us growing toward universality. “God” is a voice beckoning ever from beyond the known. As Tillich would say, we must always remember the “God” beyond “God”. “God” isn’t real as a noun is real, but points to an ultimate reality, the universal mystery out of which we live and move and have our being.
It amazes me when people can only recognize God in the form of their own religion. It is as if a husband could only recognize his wife when wearing certain clothes. He recognizes her in nun’s habit, but not in the yellow robes of Buddhism. He knows her in Islamic veil, but not in a Hindu sari. What kind of love would that be? We might conclude that he didn’t love the woman but her laundry! Humble religion does not pretend to ever understand much less speak for the mystery. Religion is the never ending sense of wonder at the very fact of existence. It is not easy to live in wonder. To do so, we must return periodically to the burning bush to melt down our symbols of God and recast them in ways that will not fool us when the Lover comes to us in new clothes.
(originally published as “undressing your God”)