God Is Nothing

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December 20, 2009 by D Stack

For God as a subject makes me into an object which is nothing more than an object. He deprives me of my subjectivity because he is all-powerful and all-knowing. I revolt and try to make him into an object, but the revolt fails and becomes desperate. God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are without freedom and subjectivity. He is equated with the recent tyrants who with the help of terror try to transform everything into a mere object, a thing among things, a cog in the machine they control. He becomes the model of everything against which Existentialism revolted. This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control. This is the deepest root of atheism. It is an atheism which is justified as the reaction against theological theism and its disturbing implications.

– Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

The title of this post is from a concept brought up several times in Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God. I’ve just finished the book and found it to be one of those books which you leave knowing less than you did when you started it. Though it is a good experience, as your eyes have been opened to your own ignorance. The concept itself refers to the difficulty in quantifying God – God is “no thing”. There’s a tendency in most religions today to turn God into a sort of super-“man” – pretty much like us but greater to the infinite degree.

But that definition of God has never worked for me and explains a lot of my dissatisfaction with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, despite my own remaining a Catholic. It seems too often religion is turned into a checklist. Believe this. Don’t believe this. Vote this way. Don’t vote that way. If you don’t some extreme version of Santa Claus is watching you and will punish you for your finite deeds on this Earth with eternal damnation. Or just punish you for all eternity for not accepting Jesus Christ as your savior. Like Paul Tillich, the great mid-20th century German-American theologian I rebel against this God. And I think this rebellion is part of our human nature – how else could John Milton, in Paradise Lost, turn Lucifer into an almost sympathetic figure who declares “It is better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

What Paul Tillich and the thinkers before him, such as Thomas of Aquin, have taught us is illustrate the problems with this concept of God. God is not good, God is goodness its self. God is not a a being, God is being. And this philosophy is one that begins to approach atheism – and Armstrong wrote of how historically many of the greatest religious thinkers had a comfortable dialogue with atheist thinkers. Atheists can point out flaws in our beliefs – which is perfectly in keeping with the term atheism, as atheism often arises in reaction to a specific form of theism.

So my religion is not one of checklists. I still consider myself Christian – I consider Jesus Christ the ideal model for how to live a compassionate life. I’m a big failure in that front – I’ve certainly not sold all my possessions so the money could be given to the poor, as Jesus instructed. But it is a model, something to aspire to. I try to live my life with his life as a model. But when I read of his life I do not see a policy of dictating the intimate levels of people’s lives, strong codes on homosexuality, abortion, and birth control — all things which were present in Jesus’ days. The main intimate issue Jesus discussed was divorce, something he was very much against. But if you read what he said and did, his life was one of service to the poor, of loving his enemies, of helping the ill. Take out the need to believe in his healing miracles — we lose sight of the point that he cared, he loved those people. He took the time to tend to them, to remember them. He warned against the dangers of the appearance of piety. The story of the good Samaritan is one so well known that we forget it. Samaritans were looked down upon. They were followers of a religion parallel to mainstream Judaism. But the Samaritan was good because he showed compassion.

I take that message as an illustration of compassion. If you see someone suffering do what you can to alleviate that suffering. And do not turn your eyes. I’m pretty sure the priest and Levite managed to forget that wounded man minutes after seeing him.

Back to the deeper meaning of God. I’ve begun to accept I will never comprehend the infinite. I will never understand being. But religion doesn’t exist so much as an explanation to the physical characteristics of the world as to the indefinable aspects. How do I show compassion? How can I live while suffering? How can I live well? How can I die well? And I think all the world’s belief systems can provide a path to accomplishing that. But you have to follow those paths. Karen Armstrong indicates that this is not easy, it requires us to do work.

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