‘Humans certainly experience transcendence, but we go wrong when we try to label it.’

Thought for the week: Phil Gaskell says it is what it is

‘In stillness there is fullness, in fullness there is nothingness, in nothingness there are all things.’ | Photo: nito100 / iStock.com.

Some months ago a Friend said in Meeting that: ‘I am praying to a God I’m not sure I believe in.’ Nobody developed this at the time but for me this period of confinement has thrown some light on it.

According to some surveys in the US, a significant number of people there are praying again. Many also think that the coronavirus has been sent as a warning or punishment from God. Just last week an elderly Italian lady interviewed on the TV news was insisting that God had sent the virus as a punishment for our wickedness. What are we to make of this?

Even if many now realise that it should mean something deeper, prayer in this context means asking: please God, don’t let this happen to me; please God, let me get that new job. A number of footballers now cross themselves or point to the sky when they score, as if God had been enlisted in their efforts to defeat the other team. Unfortunately, God is also the God of the opposing side, but is a degree of partisanship allowed on Saturday afternoons? At a deeper level, is God a being that will take away scourges when we ask or bribe him (I say ‘him’, because that sort of God is the male God of old)? Will he give us presents or favours when we do what he approves of? Is that the nature of God, in fact?

For myself, I can say that the god I believe in is not a god. In fact, I’m not even sure that ‘believe’ is the right word to use. We often get ourselves confused about the reality we try to grasp because we use words loosely, while imagining that they are definitive, clear and can be grasped by everyone else. Humans certainly experience transcendence, divinity, and that is a real experience, but we go wrong when we try to label it. Great theologians of the Middle Ages – Christian, Jewish and Muslim – said that God is best described as ‘nothing’, because it is impossible for us to make any meaningful comparison or description. We should point to the experience rather than try to capture it in words. The experience awes us and carries us beyond words; it surrounds us but cannot be grasped.

The images that arise in my mind are from Exodus. Moses, by the burning bush, realises that he is in the divine presence. When he asks ‘Who are you?’, the answer is ‘I am that I am’ – nothing more, nothing less. When he later climbs Mount Sinai he is instructed to take the law to the people of Israel waiting below. But when he arrives at the foot of the mountain he finds the people worshipping a golden calf. Perhaps this is the god that people are praying to today. But is it the Presence, the ground of our existence? Is it the ‘I am’ that is shrouded in mystery?

There is some Quaker ministry from the seventeenth century that I am so very fond of. It describes the only theology that I know by experience, in the process of centring down in our silent Meetings: ‘In stillness there is fullness, in fullness there is nothingness, in nothingness there are all things.’ Can we say more than that?

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