Consciousness & happiness

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Not talking about God

Feynman described himself as a 'non-believer.' ...When I asked him what he meant, he said, "You describe it; I don't believe in it." Feynman was not saying he didn't believe there was a god; he was saying that any god that you can describe is too limiting for him to believe in.
Colleague of the late Richard Feynman

I don't know how to talk about God(s)/god(s)/G-d. We're dealing, presumably, with the ineffable, that which is incapable of being expressed. I guess I’m like Feynman: you tell me what you mean by God and this isn't God to me. This isn't saying I don't believe in God, just that I haven't a clue what we're talking about.

According to scholar-writer Karen Armstrong, “Some of the most eminent Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians and mystics insisted that God was not an objective fact, was not another being, and was not an unseen reality like the atom, whose existence could be empirically demonstrated. Some went so far as to say that it was better to say that God did not exist, because our notion of existence was too limited to apply to God.”

So am I an atheist? Don't know! I need to know what a theist believes in first. In our Western culture, that’s usually one god, I understand (unless you insist that Christianity is polytheistic—unlike Judaism and Islam—if you grant Jesus’ separate divinity). This is one of those awkward situations where a word is defined by what it’s not, like vacation and chastity and, for that matter, death. In this case, theists set the rules, so to say you’re an atheist is normally to say you don’t believe in a (or the) Christian God. As self-proclaimed atheist Richard Dawkins puts it, “Everybody nowadays is an atheist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.”

Believing in God isn't like believing in fairies, or bigfoot. As it happens, I don't believe in fairies, but I'd know one if I saw one, dancing around a circle in the moonlight, pixiedust in her hair. Bigfoot, same thing, sans pixiedust. But God? How would I know God if God suddenly appeared or spoke to me? Just because a burning bush announces itself as God doesn't make it so. I need to redefine here, open it up a bit.

I resonate with a 2006 Salon interview in which Michael Shermer says, “It doesn't matter to me if you call it God or the cosmos. We're all talking about the same thing, whether it's religious people or New Age spiritual people or Buddhists or scientists. We're all talking about having a sense of awe and wonder at something grander than ourselves.”

I’m not sure we all are, but let’s go along with this and rephrase the God question as, Do I experience awe and wonder? then, You betcha! I suppose the best I can do with the idea of God is to grant it—the concept—shock value: some new, unexpected feeling or awareness or gratitude. So to try to list such experiences is a bit of a paradox (—there went the shock!). But here goes anyway, to give a flavor:

· Louisa and I pause in silence for a few seconds before eating—and often for me it's, “Good grief, here I am still! I’m alive! How did that happen?!”

· Water cradles my body as I float on my back in a mountain lake: just this.

· Consciousness is the experience of experiencing. Oh!

· I put on my glasses and see leaves on a tree 200 feet away. Individual leaves! What would Caesar or Charlemagne have given for corrective lenses?

· The firing of neurons creates awareness—how about that? This experience—-all of it!—-is a physical process.

· And colors aren’t ‘out there’ in the world, just wavelengths. Red isn’t so much a color as a psychological state of my brain.

· I navigate to the Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant naked-eye object by far. Photons self-destructing on my retina began their journey when Lucy walked in Africa.

· My tiny GPS unit hearkens to three or four satellites some 12,000 miles distant. I walk five paces, it knows!

· Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor, start of the final movement. Shivers. Ineffable.

· My best pal and I are talking a mile a minute. We stop, seeing only eyes, forgetting our separate selves.

· Where do words come from? Where do they go?

· Time. Haven’t a clue. Really!

· And what about the “bad” stuff? Unexpected news of cancer? The death of a friend? Part and parcel of the fabric. Can't have one without the other. For me, a work in progress...

OK, then, do I believe in God? Oh yes. Many.

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