Karen Armstrong begins her recent, excellent book, The Case for God, by suggesting that we talk too much and too easily about God. I agree. People of all three of the great monotheistic religions of our world acknowledge that God is utterly transcendent – the (W)Holy Other – but then quickly slide into assuming that we know exactly what “he” thinks, feels, and desires of us. We forget that the reality that is God lies beyond all human concepts, language and words. And because of this, our talk of God becomes alarmingly facile and vacuous. God-talk quickly degenerates into idle (or idol) talk, regardless of how sublime and religious it may sound.
We forget that, when applied to God, words are simply crude pointers that are intended to draw our attention toward an ineffable reality that thoughts and words can never contain or adequately represent. In his characteristic way, Anthony De Mello makes this point by means of a short – actually, a very short – story.
The master frequently encouraged his disciples to contemplate the moon by pointing his finger toward it, but invariably the disciples would look at his finger instead of the moon.
How easily we confuse our thoughts and words about the ineffable with the Ultimate Mystery to which they point. How easily we settle for reading the label on the bottle of fine wine rather than actually tasting the wine – or better, rather than actually drinking it!
Hafiz, the much loved fourteenth century Sufi mystical poet, says that our talk of God is often actually quite laughable. But let me allow him to speak for himself.
Someone Should Start Laughing
I have a thousand brilliant lies for the question: How are you?
I have a thousand brilliant lies for the question: What is God?
If you think that the Truth can be known from words
If you think that the Sun and the Ocean can pass through that tiny opening
Called the mouth,
O someone should start laughing!
Someone should start wildly laughing – Now!
Poems and stories use words in ways that allow them to carry much richer freight than that which can ever be carried by prose. This is why poems and stories are often so powerful a means of pointing toward the transcendent. This is also why I expect future offerings in this blog to contain much more of both.