What is the one, single, ultimate truth, of which you can be absolutely sure, before anything else? It is your experience in this moment. This experience may not represent external reality completely or at all (à la The Matrix), but this experience is, without a doubt, happening, because you are experiencing it. Note that at its root, this truth is not a logical statement; we cannot say this experience is something other than itself, or that this experience is doing anything other than existing, which is redundant. The one truth, then, and your starting point for any search for answers, is simply this.
Father Michael Himes, a Catholic priest and author of the insightful Doing the Truth in Love, writes:
“And so we need to recognize that the word ‘God’ is not a proper name. It is not the name of some great big person somewhere ‘out there.’ The word ‘God’ functions like x in algebra. It is the stand-in for the mystery, just as, when someone works out an algebraic equation, all the attention focuses on x which designates that which is unknown. So, too, the word ‘God’ functions as a handy bit of shorthand for the absolute mystery which grounds and supports all that exists. Now, I grant you that it becomes awkward to talk about ‘the absolute mystery that grounds and supports all that exists,’ so we just say ‘God.’ One could just as well call it ‘Charlie’ or ‘Mary Ann,’ but traditionally we have used ‘God.’ The word is a stand-in for absolute mystery.”
If you don’t believe in some supernatural being that controls the universe, then what you do not believe in is not God. It may be an idea that many people unfortunately confuse with God, but God it is not. Do you believe in an absolute mystery that grounds and supports all that exists? Maybe so and maybe not, but belief is actually irrelevant here. There is an experience occurring in this moment, whose nature is a mystery. You can’t say anything about external events, or about other things existing, but you do know that an experience is happening and you don’t know why or how. Well? That “why” and “how” is what the major religions refer to as God. To believe in God is only to understand this.
Nietzsche’s madman cries:
“Whither is God? I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?”
Father Himes is familiar with this story, and I see his explanation of God as a response to the madman. We can’t kill absolute mystery, but we can stop looking for it. We can stop making it a part of our culture. The madman’s God used to be a big deal in the West – even if people had their misconceptions and invalid explanations for the mystery, they still understood it to be all-important, both individually and as a community. They still had shared ideas, which may have been unskillfully founded, but were still attempts to make sense of the mystery underlying all things. Look around now, and see how much the mystery of existence plays a role in our society. We can no longer take the old religions seriously, and we stray through an infinite nothing. We value personal achievement and reward both our successes and failures with pleasures. Our work hopefully gratifies our ego and certainly provides us with comfort. Above all, we prize satisfaction.
In the wake of the Newtown, CT school shooting, Mike Huckabee opines: “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?” If Huckabee is calling for a return of the old religions – if he wants the old God back – it’s too late for that, and unhelpful. But what if he’s talking about God the way Hines describes? What if he’s saying that a culture bereft of a spiritual path is lost? (How about we interpret it that way, regardless?)
In the breath of this empty space, most light their own lanterns of personal challenges and pleasures, old religions, reasonable ideas – substitutes. For a few, though, lanterns either are not enough to hide the reality of darkness, or they go out. Lost in this dark, we may sense the presence of a sun to look for; otherwise we succumb to despair.
The CDC estimates that 1 in 10 adults in the United States suffers from depression. Is our answer to the massacre in Newtown to give more effort to mental health outreach? To get at least 10% of our population in treatment? No. Our culture itself is mentally ill. Changing gun control laws (one way or the other) and strengthening mental health systems are like prescribing aspirin for a malignant cancer. We ask, how can we get involved? How can we work to stop this? We need to work to change ourselves and our culture. We need to extinguish our lanterns and search for the sun, together.
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