In particular, a beautifully phrased response by 'Sinthetic Aesthetic,' put me on, once again, to the metaphor of the 'work of art' in discussing the spiritual experience of 'God'. He writes:
To search for truth, though, one need only learn to develop ideas on their own with as little influence from tradition as possible. In my opinion this will eventually allow someone to be able to even approach the question “How do you define ‘God’?” For this question has no actual answer that can be given in terms of language, so to ask it in that form, to actually ask of it that it be defined so is, as Ali mentions, the wrong question to be asking. It would be as if I were to ask you what a musical piece says when there are no words to describe things. Perhaps the song is beyond words and can only be expressed by experience of the song itself. To try and explain them directly in terms of a few sentences would then destroy that which the song itself intends to create in the person. So it is with the “Divine.”
I completely agree that, as with a song, poem or any other work of art, the attempt to reduce an explanation of the Divine into a few prosaic, precise sentences will always fall short of its goal. I have often heard writers, myself included, say that, if they could have said everything they'd meant in prose, they wouldn't have bothered writing the poem. The fact of it being a poem is an essential part of the work's meaning. Likewise, I think, the experiential quality of the Divine is an essential part of the meaning of 'God', and the function of aesthetic 'framing' in the creation of a work of art is a useful metaphor for the process and purpose of 'belief' in the spiritual life.
'Belief' as Beginning: A New Way of Attending
Indeed, I think it is a mistake to talk about 'belief in God' as if belief were the goal of the spiritual life, the end result of religiousness. Rather, belief in the possibility of the existence of 'God' is really the belief that the human beings have the real potential for spiritual experience, that such experiences are not illusions or bio-psychological misunderstandings to be explained away. This belief is the beginning of the spiritual life, which makes the experiential relationship with the Divine possible. Belief is the frame--the edge of the canvas--which presents a particular idea or image as distinct from the casual, familiar everyday. It calls our attention to the 'work of art' and says, "This. Pay attention to this. This is special. This is set-apart, consecrated, made sacred." Here, within a framework of belief, the ordinary is made holy, the particular elevated to become a bridge to the universal. Religious belief says: in this man or deity, the image of humanity is made godly, whether in creation or in sacrifice; in this garden, the fecundity of nature is made paradisiacal, then painful and obscene; in this fall, the imperfections and limitations of living beings are made mythic and essential.
The most simplistic of 'believers' begin here, attending to just these stories and images. Through these particular beliefs, they allow for the possibility of spiritual experience of the 'mundane,' material, present world.
Breaking Down 'Belief': The Dark Night
But the mystics and seers, those who have begun the journey into experiential relationship with the Divine that belief initially makes possible, eventually abandon the framework of belief. The spiritual growth of the journey towards 'God' demands it, for in the end any name, word, image or idea falls short of the whole. For some, this step away from belief is painful; it presents itself as a crisis of faith, the long dark night of the soul. The mystic Sufi poet, Rumi, writes, "You cannot know your self and God’s Self; either die before God, or God will die before you, so that duality will not remain." In The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes, "God is dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?" The straw-man belief in a simplistic, anthropomorphic 'God' cannot withstand the reasoning mind; but more than this, neither can it withstand the honest search for experience of the spiritual.
Even for an atheist or a materialist, the inadequacy of a simple belief in 'God' to satisfy the spiritual and intellectual needs of the self-aware creature can be cause for anger, and even grief. This secret anger, I think, is behind demands such as Carroll's for 'believers' to explain themselves, to justify their seemingly easy faith. These educated thinkers and scientists must certainly have noticed all manner of ignorance rampant in the world, and yet it is this supposed religious ignorance that galls them, that provokes attack. C.S. Lewis said of his atheistic youth that he lived "in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with him for creating a world. Why should creatures have the burden of existence forced on them without their consent?" It is this contradiction--that self-aware creatures seem to possess an inherent need for a 'meaningful' existence, and yet mere belief in meaning, mere belief in a 'God' which might bestow meaning, quickly ceases to satisfy--that incites the loss of faith, the loss of that simplistic belief.
Beyond 'Belief': The Persistence of Spiritual Experience
But that same self-awareness, the sense of longing and dissatisfaction itself, can also become the vehicle by which the mystic, the spiritual seeker, emerges from this dark night. One begins to realize that spiritual experiences--experiences of loss, longing and grief regarding the meaningful nonmaterial--persist even in the face of lost faith, even when we no longer have confidence in or use for the words and images we once used to describe and provoke such experiences. The mystic has abandoned 'belief,' and yet the life of the spirit continues. The frame has broken, and the workings of art spill over, off the canvas and into everything, everywhere. The line between observer and observed is erased. The Divine is no longer something 'out there' to be carefully packed away into definitions of 'belief' and carried around like a small worry-stone in the pocket of the faithful.
To the mystic, all things are consecrated, everything is holy--divinity no longer means duality, separating out the sacred from the profane; it means union, the encompassing of all creation and creativity, all potential and activity, within the Divine. To speak of 'God' as the 'ground of being' and the 'ultimate reality' is to speak of spirituality beyond the framework of belief itself. Rumi, who knows that the risk of self-conscious belief is the death of 'God', continues, "But as for God’s dying, that is both impossible and inconceivable, for God is the Living, the Immortal. So gracious is He that if it were at all possible He would die for your sake. Since that is not possible, then you must die so that God can reveal Itself to you." For we are not merely aware of the self, we believe in it. We see others and ourselves as defined creatures, defined by bodies and ideas, emotions and memories--we see "the burden of existence" as something thrust upon us, as if we were something else besides, and our first, simplistic 'belief in God' is our clumsy attempt at absolving us of the burden. This belief, too, must be broken open, so that the Divine that is existence, including our own, might be made manifest and experienced fully.
'Belief' and Non-belief: The Difference
Perhaps, then, the most honest response to the question posed by Carroll and others like him is that there is no difference between a universe full of 'God' and a universe empty of it. Though Buddhists conceive of 'enlightenment' as an escape from samsara, the cycle of life, death and rebirth in the world, the Buddha is recorded as saying that, upon reaching nirvana, the enlightened one recognizes it not only as the here-now, fully present within this world, but as having always been present, even within the suffering of samsara. This paradox is akin to the paradox of 'sophisticated belief' for which Carroll demands explanation. For in the end, any description of complex spiritual life that extends beyond the straw-man belief is not simply a new and better definition of 'belief', but a description of spiritual process itself. When we talk about 'the meaning of God,' what we are really talking about is the relationship between ourselves, as self-aware, creative beings, and the world, as both the work of art we create with our awareness, and the work of art of anOther, in which the Other is manifest and made present and which inspires in us new ways of being.
The difference between the mystic's perspective and the materialist's perspective is the difference between object qua work of art, and object qua incidental machine--but this is not a description of the external reality. It is a description of our attitude towards reality. The world itself simply is as it is. It is not belief in 'God' that makes a difference to the world, but the world that makes a difference to us. The 'belief' of a complex understanding of the Divine is, more accurately, a suspension of disbelief and cynicism, a release of conviction that the universe "has to be" only one thing or another. The same kind of suspension allows the experience of beauty to move a man to tears; allows the fretting and strutting of actors upon the stage to coalesce into meaningful drama, while still being only the movements of actors; allows, in short, the work of art to become the work of art, to reveal itself as such in response to the perception and experience of the self-aware viewer.
A New Purpose for 'Belief': Story-Telling as Sacred Activity
Yet to say that 'belief in God' is, in some ways, irrelevant to the spiritual experience is not to reduce all mystics to atheists and, by some strange extension, materialists. Firstly, not all atheists are materialists (Buddhists, here, being a case in point). Secondly, after all atheism is, like 'God' itself, "just another story that we tell." It is in choosing those stories that we actively participate in the nature of our spiritual experiences.
What is the purpose of 'belief' to the religious mystic? As an artist might consciously choose the composition of the still life, the light and shadows of the portrait, so the mystic recognizes the particulars of 'belief' as functional, ways in which this truth of the Divine is highlighted, or that experience of 'God' is inspired and invoked. The artist sees the world and says, "I will show this to others, and even though it is in some ways only a copy, it will also become something in itself, something else within the world to which I am a witness." The mystic sees the world and says, "I will show this to others, I will teach them to see the Divine within the very world itself, but I must begin somewhere, so I will begin here, with this metaphor, with this story, with this belief. I will give others a taste of what it means to feel 'God' and only trust that they will take up the search on their own from there."
For some, the defining experience of the spiritual life is that of loss and longing, the dark night, and so these atheistic mystics turn to stories, images and ideas that break open and destroy the 'belief in God,' in order to instigate a greater awareness and engagement with the present world. This is the insight offered by Nietzsche when he declares that "God is dead," for he continues (in the Prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra):
What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under. [...] I love him who does not hold back one drop of spirit for himself, but wants to be entirely the spirit of his virtue: thus he strides over the bridge of spirit. I love him who makes his virtue his addiction and his catastrophe: for his virtue's sake he wants to live on and to live no longer. [...] I love him whose soul is deep, even in being wounded, and who can perish of a small experience: thus he goes gladly over the bridge. I love him whose soul is overfull so that he forgets himself, and all things are in him: thus all things spell his going under. I love him who has a free spirit and a free heart: thus his head is only the entrails of his heart, but his heart drives him to go under.
Yet for others, the dark night is flimsy inspiration compared to the glory and joy of the experiential union with--and the creative love of--the Divine. And so we have Rumi, who writes:
Look how desire has changed in you,
how light and colorless it is,
with the world growing new marvels
because of your changing. Your soul
has become an invisible bee. We
don't see it working, but there's
the full honeycomb!
And Mechtild of Magdeburg sings:
Love flows from God into man,
Like a bird
Who rivers the air
Without moving her wings.
Thus we move in His world,
One in body and soul,
Though outwardly separate in form.
As the Source strikes the note,
The Holy Spirit is our harpist,
And all strings
Which are touched in Love
'Belief' & Art: Th Full Circle
It is no wonder that the mystics, whatever the religious tradition, seem to inevitably resort to the language of poetry, expressing the 'meaning' of the Divine not in prosaic logic, but with the artistic techniques of metaphor, striking imagery and musicality. Here again we see how the aesthetic experience can be a model for and evocation of the spiritual experience, and the creation of a work of art--whether poetry, music, dance, sculpture, drama, etc.--is akin to the spiritual experience of participating in union with the Divine in the becoming of the world, and the becoming of oneself and of 'God' in the world.
Now, dear reader, you might find that we have come full circle again. But before anyone begins throwing despaired accusations of vacuous 'circular logic,' perhaps we would do well to remember that in cultures all across the world, the circle has always been a symbol of the completed, the Whole, the One, the perfected.