"God of all things"
By Andrew Stephens, April 9, 2006
FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, the German philosopher, proclaimed in 1882 that God was dead. If that bold claim were true, we must have missed the funeral, because God has been very busy: the century-plus since Nietzsche has been drenched with war and calamity, yet graced with extraordinary developments in our understanding of the universe. Not to mention epic scientific, technological and social change.
It's all God's doing — if, of course, you believe in an omniscient, interfering creator with a grand plan and a specific interest in our little Earth.
Out here on the edge of the 400-billion-star Milky Way — just one of an estimated 100-billion-plus galaxies in our 14-billion-year-old universe — a God's special concern for the individual can seem preposterous.
Yet the idea of God remains imperative to many people seeking meaning in their lives.
Despite a fractious history, science and theology now have a closer alignment: some highly respected physicists and cosmologists, such as Australia's Paul Davies, have proposed in recent years that the universe is rigorously lawful, to the degree that it seems purpose-built to produce life.
Davies suggests in an article on his website that the universe is not the plaything of a capricious deity, but "a coherent, rational, elegant and harmonious expression of a deep and purposeful meaning".
While entirely different to "intelligent design" (derided by many as dressed-up creationism), work such as Davies' is asking precisely the same questions as theology: why are we here and why is the universe the way it is?
The "theory of everything" that scientists are working towards to explain the laws of the universe is basically a type of God concept — and much bigger than the childish image of a punishing old man with a flowing white beard firing lightning bolts from "His" fingers. Satan, too, remains a going concern as God's counterpoint — but mainly in being co-opted by world leaders to represent the less-than-human Enemy.
In the last census, about 13 million Australians described themselves as Christian. (A 2001 National Church Life survey found, however, that only 9 per cent of the population attend a Catholic, Anglican or Protestant church in a typical week.) Almost 3 million in the census said they had no religion. Most of the rest, in rounded figures, were either Buddhist (358,000), Muslim (282,000), Hindu (95,000) or Jewish (84,000).
The unanswerable mystery of God has always been a vexed topic, as has the idea of Satan. Nothing (except football and politics) is more divisive and likely to incite passionate opinions — or suspicion — than the subject of God. Indeed, Nietzsche's point about God being "dead" was simply that Western culture is no longer a religious culture, but one speeding along the secular superhighway. Yet secularism — the separation of church and state — has not stopped religion being politicised.
While there's been flagging church engagement in developed nations in the past century, there have also been dramatic examples of religious militancy by marginal elements worldwide — as if the "true" God were a World Cup to be fought from the other team's clutches. There's only one God, they say, and ours is the right one. This has muddied what in fact are the deep similarities and shared values between the three major monotheistic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
While the faithful are being taught their very similar versions of the "one" God, with a hint of the devil thrown in, it is the intrusion of politics — inter-religious and international — that keeps them from harnessing the spiritual power of their united heritage and ethics. It seems unsurprising, then, that Buddhism, the philosophy-based path that has no god but many deities, is one of the fastest growing faiths in the West; and Hinduism, with its pantheon of beautifully coloured gods, no prophet, no founder and no creed, remains the third-biggest religion in the world.
Neil Ormerod is used to the big questions. He's a professor of theology at the Australian Catholic University and a practising Catholic, and the day we speak he has just taken his mother to hospital for some minor surgery; yet in life's daily difficulties, he has the firm convictions of his faith. "It's the total commitment of my life," he says. "It's everything I do, it's the way I live my life, it's the way I raise my family. It's primarily a relationship with the one who creates me, the one who loves me and is working to bring about my salvation."
Professor Ormerod deals with the intricate theological discourse that filters down from the Vatican to govern the Catholic Church, and today at the hospital with his mother he has been reading Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century saint whose esoteric meditations can sometimes be beyond him. And yet he is very concise about what God is to a Catholic: the trinity of God the father, Jesus the son (God incarnate), and the holy spirit. In essence, love and compassion with a human element.
In all three major monotheistic religions, describing the image of God is resisted, he says, because God must, in the end, remain a mystery. "There is a knowledge that God exists, that God creates us, that God loves us but there is a real reticence to put any image on that because any image misleads and it can capture us and distort our understanding of God," he says.
Dr Muhammad Kamal, a lecturer at Melbourne University's Asia Institute, says Muslims, like Jews and Christians, believe in a single God and advocate the idea of creation ex nihilo. "The mainstream of Muslims also believe that God is personal and transcendent," he says. "Personal in the sense that God is a self-conscious being and transcendent in the sense of being beyond material existence and space and time."
All kinds of pictorial images of God and prophet Muhammad are forbidden. At the centre of the Islamic world in Mecca is the Ka'ba, an extraordinary cube-like temple shrouded in black drapery. Before Muhammad converted the Meccans to Islam, the Ka'ba — believed to have been built much earlier by Abraham and his son Ishmael — contained 360 idols worshipped by nomadic tribes in Arabia.
These were destroyed by prophet Muhammad in 630 and the Ka'ba became Islam's holiest site; this was taken as a sign there should be no idols or images of God.
Judaism also rejects putting a face to God. Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant, president of the Rabbinical Council of Victoria, says that even though in a biblical sense humanity was created in God's image, Judaism does not try to "imagine" God. If humans knew all the details of God's essence, he says, God would not be God: we would. As for God being dead, he says he is reminded of graffiti found on a New York subway that said "God is dead. Nietzsche." Underneath was scribbled: "Nietzsche is dead. God."
The world's preoccupation with God interests Paul Monk, from the consultancy group Austhink, who was raised a Catholic. A young fundamentalist once asked him if he believed in God, to which he responded by asking whether "God" might have completely different meanings to them both.
"I said 'I'm inclined to think that the right question to ask is not an epistemological one — 'does God exist?' — but rather a cultural or psychological one, which is 'is it credible?' and my view on the whole is 'no, it's not'. He was shocked and said I must be possessed by the devil." He chuckles wickedly, telling me how childish it is to think there's "some Big Daddy out there who interferes and cares for each of us like he would a sparrow".
Monk told the fundamentalist Christian that the Bible is a story, not a literal truth — and Monk is very serious about the importance of stories. Stories, he says, shape our lives and help form our cultures, but whether you treat them literally as "true" or as metaphorical, revealing deeper truths, is the key. He cites Lord of the Rings: many of us have read it but no one actually believes (one hopes) that Gandalf rose from the dead to save Middle Earth. "If anyone went about saying that on a street corner you'd say they were a complete lunatic. Why not, in the same way that we derive emotional gratification or even moral relation from that story, do it with the Bible?"
But those who make God the bedrock of their lives are not consequently confined to dogma and literal interpretations. Anglican theologian Charles Sherlock, of the Melbourne College of Divinity and a canon at St Paul's Cathedral, encourages preaching that takes the scriptures seriously and sometimes goes against the grain to some degree. One of his wife's favourite sayings is "Don't leave your brains at the church door".
He says that an Easter sermon that is just trying to prove what happened to Jesus' bones does not help, but a sermon that takes some of the passages of scripture and really struggles with what it is saying about the transformation of personal and community life today can be very meaningful.
Sherlock's idea of God is simple: "Imaginatively I conceive of God as a parent figure enveloping me in the divine arms — so that Paul's phrase in Acts (actually quoting from a pagan poet): 'in you, we move and live and have our being' — means a lot to me. I conceive God in very Christ-centred terms."
Sometimes, answers are found in the most unexpected places. Cambridge University cosmologist and mathematician John Barrow, recently awarded the $1.6 million Templeton Prize to research whether God is behind the Theory of Everything about the universe, proposes that religion and theology, like astronomy, need to be open to evolving.
"Our scientific picture of the universe," he wrote in London's Telegraph, "has revealed how blinkered and conservative our outlook (in the past) has often been, how self-serving our interim picture, how mundane our expectations, and how parochial our attempts to find or deny the links between scientific and religious approaches to the nature of the universe."
The Dalai Lama, quoted in Sogyal Rinpoche's bestseller The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, is a little more blunt about looking beyond a personal God concept: "Buddhism believes in universal causation, that everything is subject to change, and to causes and conditions. So there is no place given to a divine creator, nor to beings who are self-created."
US President George Bush, by contrast, frequently invokes a divine creator: "God bless America". But he also uses language to align his enemies with the Other, most memorably after September 11, 2001, with his "axis of evil" lasso around Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
Curiously, Bush's phraseology was used earlier by his nemesis, Osama bin Laden: a year before 1998's al-Qaeda attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania he said the US embodied "forces of evil".
The good/evil binary has been indelibly encapsulated in the self-contradicting phrase "war on terror". Author Mark Juergensmeyer writes in his comprehensive book Terror in the Mind of God that this language plays directly into the hands of religious militants (whatever their denomination), who foster an image of the world at war between secular and religious forces.
But what do the big religions say about Satan and evil? Not surprisingly, they conceive evil in almost identical ways, each tracing the source to Satan, the fallen angel common to each of the holy traditions. But there is no sense of God and Satan playing good cop/bad cop: Satan is no match for God.
Rabbi Kluwgant says Judaism does not go in for "lurid pictures of a devil or hell". "There is a concept of spiritual emissaries in creation, namely angels, of which Satan (which some might want to translate as the "devil") is one. The concept of "hell" (called Gehinnom), is not a place of eternal retributive punishment, but a place of cleansing for limited periods of time, where sin is removed from the soul. Hence The Evil One (Satan) obediently fulfils the task assigned to him by his Creator: to entice people into sin."
In a similar vein, Islam sees Satan as the symbol and source of all evil, says Muhammad Kamal. "Not a fictitious character but a real power in the world that causes evil. But in no way equivalent to God."
Neil Ormerod says Catholics these days don't hear a lot about Satan, but there is no way the devil is equal and opposite to God. "The classic position on Satan is as a fallen angel, a spiritual being who chooses … well, who falls, out of pride. You know the (poet) Milton thing: 'Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven'. However, we conceive that character, that devil, Satan, it's still always as a creature of God. God's will is ultimately sovereign. There's no contest in that sense."
Catholics, he says, experience Satan through temptation but no one is seen as fully evil. "There's no such thing as a completely evil human being: that's like saying they're beyond redemption. God's love extends to everyone, God wants everyone to be saved, and it's quite difficult not to be saved, which is a turnaround from the hellfire and brimstone days."
With such common ground on God and evil among the major monotheistic religions, surely the tolerant co-existence that exists to a large extent can be furthered, with the same open-minded and searching quality evident in the scientific community, who are also trying to understand our existence?
Christianity, Islam and Judaism — whatever their deep and complex distinctions — each propound one unique God who made the universe. Each believes that the faithful should do God's will and live by certain rules, that a holy way of life should include acts of loving kindness, prayer, study of their holy text, and certain rituals. And each proposes some idea of heaven or an afterlife.
Contemporary life is difficult. In less developed nations it is the basic struggle to survive that makes life hard. In developed countries it is the struggle to find and practise basic values under the welter of rampant consumerism, galloping technological change and the incessant pressure of material concerns: acquiring money, possessions, status, beauty. Yet we crave meaning and spiritual happiness. In the West, writes Buddhist Sogyal Rinpoche, it is important not to get caught in a "shopping mentality" with religion, but to follow one tradition with all your heart yet remain open and respectful to all the other religions.
Austhink's Paul Monk looks at the spiritual need in contemporary life refreshingly. He suggests that we need to treat religion much like language: some languages are major and impressive, others small and curious. There is no "true" language — or "true" religion.
By incorporating a mandatory study of religions into the state education system, he says, an understanding could be fostered that they are fruitful, dignified and give meaning to people's lives — but always open to question.
The dearth of spiritual values we can attribute to our political leaders — honesty, justice, compassion, acceptance — is glaring. Author Mark Juergensmeyer says that when governments start to embrace moral values associated with religion, then a level of mutual interfaith trust and respect is possible between religions.
Looking beyond dogma to the shared spiritual goals that are the touchstones of religion is something Melbourne theologian and ethicist Rufus Black endorses. He says that one of the main ways of encouraging mutual tolerance is to move from an age of conversion to an age of conversation.
"The shift that we have to make in our world is to end this attempt to convert each other and to begin much more profoundly with conversations of much deeper mutual understanding. For that to happen we need to address the underlying social, political and economic circumstances that make fundamentalism attractive both in the Islamic and non-Islamic world."
This also involves getting those in the three big religions with a more tolerant vision to speak much more strongly, and for the media to stop "grossly simplifying" the world of religion. "The more subtle, complex ways of talking about God don't get much of an airing."
People such as Constant Mews, director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Theology at Monash University, are working towards interfaith understanding. His own path in Christianity has been influenced by his exposure to Hinduism and Buddhism and today he is running a seminar on how those two faiths inform each other on ideas about the human mind and emotions.
More broadly, he says the three big one-God faiths need to go beyond their own narrow focus, beyond "mere toleration", and start understanding what each has to say about the oneness of God and their common goals.
Indeed, Muhammad Kamal is keen to stress that, for much of history, the three big religions have co-operated harmoniously. "But when you think of religion as a political institution and reduce the kingdom of God into that political institution, then the differences arise.
Today, when some people — mainly in the media — focus on the differences rather than similarities, things become difficult. Arabs and Jews lived in Palestine or Israel for a long time peacefully. Politics created divisions and differences. The Middle East has been the centre of three major monotheistic religions and the followers of these religions lived for centuries together. In small neighbourhoods, Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together, their children played together."
He pauses thoughtfully.
"People talk about the clash of civilisations but don't realise that we are deeply connected. Those who try to reduce God into a political institution reduce God from the absolute position into a human position. For me, this is the end of God."
A WORLD OF BELIEVERS
■ Christianity 2.1 billion
■ Islam 1.3 billion
■ Atheist/Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic 1.1 billion
■ Hinduism 900 million
■ Buddhism 708 million
■ Chinese traditional religion 394 million
■ Primal-indigenous 300 million
■ African Traditional & Diasporic 100 million
■ Sikhism 23 million
■ Juche: 19 million
■ Spiritism: 15 million
■ Judaism: 14 million
■ Mormonism: 12 million
■ Baha'i: 7 million
■ Jehovah's Witnesses: 6.7 million
■ Jainism: 4.2 million
■ Shinto: 4 million
■ Cao Dai: 4 million
■ Zoroastrianism: 2.6 million
■ Tenrikyo: 2 million
■ Neo-Paganism: 1 million
■ Unitarian-Universalism: 800,000
■ Rastafarianism: 600,000
* Related Article: The Tower of Myths