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Thinking About Thinking About God

Paul O. Ingram

I wear two methodological hats: a historian of religions’ hat and a process theologian’s hat. Whenever I speak or write about “God” as a historian of religions specializing in Japanese Buddhism I used the word “the Sacred,” a rather generic word I employ to describe the focus of religious persons and communities other than my own. I did not “invent” this term, but borrowed it from Mircea Eliade and other twentieth century historians of religions. Thanks to Déscartes, I was trained to write “objectively” about “religious phenomena” the way physicists try to describe the physical features at play in the universe. So, I never asked normative questions about the truth or falsehood of the religious traditions I tried to phenomenologically describe. I only tried to describe as accurately as possible, for example, the details of the plurality of Buddhist practices and teachings like the Four Noble without normatively concluding that Buddhist practices and teachings corresponded to reality, “the way things really are as opposed to the way we think or hope things really are.”
But as my students taught me, normative truth questions do not simply disappear because they are ignored. Certainly, every Buddhist I ever met was convinced of the truth of his or her Buddhist teachings and practices. Otherwise they would not be “Buddhist.” This became clear to me as I was inspired by John Cobb’s instruction in the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Then one day about five years ago sitting on Cobb’s living room floor he told me, “Paul, you’re a theologian.” We had been discussing how most historians of religion run from confronting normative issues with their students like deer chased by wolves.
His comment caught me by surprise. “I thought I was a historian of religions.”
“You are indeed,” he replied. “But theology is the pursuit of truth no matter what cultural or religious dress it wears. Your work isn’t merely ‘descriptive’ and your work in interreligious dialogue pursues normative truth issues. This makes you a practicing historian of religion and a theologian.” That was the moment I discovered the theologian’s hat I had been wearing my entire professional career without knowing it, sitting there alongside my historian of religions hat on Cobb’s living room floor.
Theologians are persons who think, speak, and write about God. But the problem is no one can think, speak, and write about God without having first experienced an interior silence. I learned this by wearing my history of religions hat as I studied the mystics of the world’s religious Ways who seem, despite their different world views, united in affirming that we need to “enter the silence,” as Thomas Merton put it. But speaking as a theologian, this isn’t much help. Speaking about God means leaving the silence because thinking about God requires a discourse that is sui generis unlike anything else about which we can speak; God is not a “thing” among other “things” we experience. Which means that even if we have actually entered the silence, words fail to describe the experience fully so that we are thrown back to using metaphors and symbols, which also do not fully explain what one has encountered in the silence, this “what” that Jews, Christians, and Muslims name “God.”
And here’s another hiccup: speaking about God is not reducible to the discourse of any church, synagogue, mosque, religious Way, science, or philosophy. “God” is not the monopoly of any human tradition that always engenders a discourse that assumes some system of “belief.” God language is discourse about symbols that say more about us than God. Symbols, concepts, doctrines—the God-language of theology—are pointers that often point to, but never capture the reality to which they point. Furthermore, speaking about God is pluralist discourse. By this I mean that “God” is not the only symbol to indicate what the word “God” means. One thinks of Brahman in the Hindu Way or Allah in Islam or YHWH in the Jewish Way or Brahman in the Hindu Way or “the Dao” in the Confucian and Daoist Ways or Wakan-tanka (“the Great Mysteriousness”) in the Lakota Way. According to process philosophy and theology, pluralism in inherent in the human condition. We cannot “understand” or “signify” what the word “God” means in terms of a single faith perspective because God language is a discourse that inevitably completes itself by a return to the Silence.
In other words, God is transcendent, as the mystics of all religious Ways affirm. But from a theologian’s standpoint, a God that is completely transcendent—in addition to the fact that it would be contradictory to hope to speak about such a God—would be a superfluous, if not a perverse hypothesis. A completely transcendent God denies divine immanence at the same time it destroys human transcendence. Which means God language points to the multitude of experiences, concepts, and practices in which human beings cross-culturally describe their encounters, both actual and hopeful, with a Sacred Reality that transcends their experiences, hopes, and fears. In other words, speaking about God is primarily discourse about ourselves. The simplest experience of God consists in becoming conscious of that which shatters like glass our isolation at the same time it respects our solitude.
At least this is the opinion of the mystics that populate the world’s religious Ways. They were looking for truth based on at least partial unitive experience of a Sacred Reality that English speaking people name “God.” They were engaged in theological reflection because they knew that religious beliefs can do all sorts of things for us. They can sustain us while we are alive and at the approach of death; they can provide threads of meaning in what would otherwise be a labyrinth of insanity. But they cannot do these things with integrity unless our beliefs are grounded in truth. Which means that theological reflection must be grounded in the humanities—art, literature, philosophy, languages, history, and in our day and time, dialogue with the world’s religious Ways and the natural sciences. It all centers on faith in God however God is named. “Faith” is not “belief.” Faith is “trust.” One finds oneself in a state of faith, one does not “believe oneself” into a state of faith. Beliefs are opinions that may be truthful, ignorant, stupid, or simply false. Beliefs may even at express faith. But “faith” is never reducible to “belief.” Reducing “faith” to “belief in doctrines” transforms theological reflection into the fundamentalist ideologies that inhabit all religious Ways like Chinese hungry ghosts. Fundamentalist rhetoric writes off the humanities and the natural sciences as a lost cause, when in fact the opposite is true: by their very nature the humanities and the natural science belong to the traditions of harmony, spirituality, and hope. The humanities, including theological reflection, were “invented in order to nurture the spiritual ecology of humanity. They were not meant to be yoked to a utilitarian goal like “earning” a saving relationship with God by means of “belief” in doctrine” and obeying what fundamentalist mean by ‘divine laws.” But Christian process theologians live at the crossroads where the spiritual, social, historical, and psychological collide in a transcendent reality named God. For those of us who trust that “God” encountered in the life, death, and resurrection of the historical Jesus confessed to be the Christ of faith two-thousand years ago, human beings and the human species collectively are the key, the intersectional focus where all things and events caught in the field of space-time meet, often gently, often in collision.

Note: This article was originally posted on and is reproduced here with their gracious permission.

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