How many of you call yourselves “atheists”? How many don’t know, the “agnostics”? The Pew Foundation reported last year that atheists, agnostics and “the unaffiliated” comprise 20% of the American population and is growing. I confess I often find myself more at home with them than many “believers”.
Today I share some of my ideas about “Who, What, Where and How?” is an entity called “God”. Such ideas can help us experience a more constant growing happiness and peace amid an often overwhelming and seemingly crazy world. Thus these ideas may help answer the question as to the “why?” this may be important.
I think of god as an idea. God is not a literal person in the sky or just among a favored people. God is a concept, symbol or idea of what one might consider his or her “higher power” as termed in recovery movements. The idea or image might have been learned from parents or early childhood religious teachings. The idea could mean love, joy, peace, or ideas with both love and hate, joy and sorrow, peace and anger as popular in most churches. Some ideas might mostly convey guilt, fear, and wrath with the strong “Fear God!” emphasis. But whatever one’s ideas of ultimate values or meanings are in life, these can be seen as what a god or a “Higher Power” means. The ideas become one’s standard or “core values” for living here on earth.
Most historical believers in a “Higher Power” or God actually don’t consider such to be corporeal or physical such as our bodies. It is considered spirit, or non-local. The Idea exists everywhere beyond the confines of time and space. It is in no certain place but “just is”, everywhere. Reason reminds us physical bodies and physical parts of the universe are mortal and time bound; some exist a very short time while others exist millions or billions of years or light-year spans.
In the ancient scriptures of most peoples, we find this idea of god as “Spirit”. In Christian scriptures, God is described as “….Spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth.” (John 1:24) Or God is the one “…who only has immortality, dwelling in the light which no one can approach, whom no one has ever seen nor can see….” (1 Timothy 6:16) The Bible often refers to the idea of god as non-definable, as being “I am what I am.” It just is. It is a no-thing, or what I like to think of as being “nothing.”
Last summer I spoke to the Secular Humanist Society of Albany and when asked about my belief in God, I said, “God is a ‘no-thing’ and thus I believe literally in No-thing.” When I returned home I was sent me a summary of my talk which was published in Albany saying, “Presbyterian minister calls himself an atheist who believes in nothing!”
Muslim Scriptures such as the Koran also describe the idea of god as Eternal and beyond all others. “He is God, the One! God the eternal besought by all. He neither begets nor was begotten. And there is none comparable to Him.” (Quran 112)
Eastern scriptures teach similar ideas. In one of my favorite books, the Bhagavad-Gita, it reads;
“Our bodies are known to end, but the embodied self is enduring, indestructible, and immeasurable. ….Weapons do not cut it, fire does not burn it, waters do no wet it, and wind does not wither it. It cannot be cut or burned; it cannot be wet or withered; it is enduring, all-pervasive, fixed, immovable, and timeless. It is un-manifest, inconceivable, and immutable.”
I once heard a story of an American seeking happiness and peace. He wanted to understand how God could be described before pledging belief in such an idea. Upon advice from respected friends, he took most of his savings and boarded a ship bound for India. After weeks on treacherous seas, he arrived at Bombay. Gathering up his pack he began his journey, stopping various people asking, “Where can I find peace?” Several told him about a very wise and helpful guru but he must travel north into the Himalayan Mountains to a certain village to meet him. So he headed north along dusty roads with hot temperatures, eating a few vegetables and fruits along the way. When he reached the town, he asked where the guru lived and was told he must climb a nearby mountain where the guru would be found in a cave. After gathering more water, off he went, making the arduous climb to finally reach the cave near the top. An older guru appeared who appeared to be very wise and asked what he wanted. The young man said, “I want to know what God is really like so I can have peace!” The guru became silent and sat for several minutes in meditation before finally looking up at the man and said, “God is like a wonderful, beautiful, bubbling fountain of fresh water!” And then he returned to silence. Well, the young man soon exploded in shock and disappointment; “You mean I traveled all these miles, using up all my life’s savings, trekking over dirty dusty roads and ascending this difficult mountain, only to be told God is like some bubbling water fountain!” The guru remained for some time reflecting and then again facing the young man said, “Well maybe not!”
Nobody knows God except as an idea! One of my favorite teachers used to say, “If you have a ‘God’, make sure your idea of him or her is among the very best among us. Refrain from the idea many church teachers have used for centuries; God is to be feared as a wrathful, punishing Entity, making Him worse than an Adolf Hitler!” (Tony De Mello in an 1986 conference, Lemoyne College.)
A helpful book for me has been “A Course in Miracles”, a source I have studied 25 years. It portrays God as a loving, forgiving, eternal Being Who as Spirit, created us exactly as Himself, totally loving and kind. The book also answers the question of where this Spirit Idea is and how we can experience It. God as Spirit is everywhere and abides as the Center of our very being. Our bodies are part of a dream we have created of form and mortality. They can become classrooms in this world in which we seem to exist. Although the body is mortal, our inner Self, or the Thinker, is immortal, like our Creator. The Immortal Self remains indestructible and through awakening we can learn to be free to forgive ourselves from all our ignorance and attachments made to other bodies, things, and mortality. We thus experience freedom and peace in giving up attachments to mortality, moving through life remembering we have no enemies except ourselves, our own ideas and thinking. Following my journey to India in 1987, this book became a fitting step for me as I saw so many Eastern ideas of this “within-ness in it.
How we experience our God ideas thus becomes how we think and live them. We respond to ideas within to the outside world around us, including our bodies. If we see an Ultimate Being Idea as unforgiving, wrathful, vengeful, angry, and guilt producing, then these feelings become our experience, and we share them. If we see the Idea as forever kind, eternally good, perfect, patient and forgiving, beyond all matter and mortality, our chances of becoming more peaceful, kind, and joyful increase. It is contingent upon our seeing ourselves first as one with these positive Ideas before we look out and move among the world. We can find such teachings in the Bible itself as Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within.” And we can learn to accept “forgiveness of our sins so we are able to forgive them in others.” (My paraphrase of part of the “Lord’s Prayer.”)
So whatever ideas you have of a Higher Being and where It resides become critical to the state of happiness and joy experienced in the here and now of time/space. If you are happy, free, and kind to yourself, those around you, and all sentient beings, don’t change a thing! But if and when you feel guilty, fearful, angry, depressed, or hopeless, I suggest you patiently work on modifying your ideas of What it is you use as for your Guide and Standard. Good luck, and may the world experience a little more kindness and compassion from all our efforts.