Meaning of “God”

What is the meaning of “God”?

The main question about God isn’t whether He exists. A better, and prior question is: what do we mean by “God”?

I think of God this way: the energy of the world which guides me to live with the cosmic awareness of how small I and all humans are in the world.

Call this a pragmatic definition of God, because it defines God in terms of His practical influence on the world, and in particular on me.

Some points about this.

First, this definition of God is entirely compatible with scientific naturalism. There is nothing unnatural about it. Cosmic awareness is a mental state. I struggle with holding on to that mental state. God is the energy that helps me hold on to that state. Nothing here that conflicts with physics, biology or psychology.

Second, this definition is entirely compatible with atheism, understood as the view of a person who doesn’t believe in God. An atheist is someone who either doesn’t care to cultivate cosmic awareness (I doubt this), or someone who doesn’t seek or need any help involving the concept of God for him to cultivate cosmic awarness (which is entirely possible).

Third, this definition is entirely compatible with any religion. It doesn’t say what God’s name has to be, which building he resides in or doesn’t, how one has to pray to be in touch with Him, etc.

Fourth, the above three points are made possible by the essentially self-referential nature of the characterization of God. “Self-referential” as in, with essential reference to the believer who is speaking of God.

Here are some non self-referential statements in this sense:

  • 2 + 2 = 4
  • WWI began in 1914.
  • I am 5’9″.

These statements do not depend for their truth on the speaker’s belief or awareness. They can be true no matter what the speaker believes or doesn’t believe about them. And their truth doesn’t relate to the speaker’s mental situation.

Some self-referential statements in the sense I mean here:

  • My wife is the most beautiful woman in the world
  • I like the Beatles
  • 49ers are the greatest football team of all time.

In these statements, the meaning and so truth of the claim is mainly tracking the speaker’s mental states. If in response to the first statement, someone responded, “No, my wife is the most beautiful,” something has gone wrong. This kind of thing does go wrong often, and leads to mindless fighting.

This is also what debates between theists and atheists, and between people of different religions are like. The self-referential nature of God statements are forgotten, or not noticed, and people argue about God the way they might over what is the best color or the best tasting cereal or the best sports team.

Actually, the reason they debate with such passion isn’t because they forget the nature of the statements. It is because of a historical fact which covers over the nature of such statements.

In early human life, say 5,000 years ago, self-referential statements were first and foremost communal statements. They were self-referential not to an individual I, but to a communal We.

Priests following Vedic rituals 3,000 years ago said things like: “May we, the pious, win much food by prayer, may Agni with fair light pervade each act.”(Rig Veda, from which I randomly chose this sentence.)

A statement like this is self-referential in that it essentially concerns Agni the Fire God orienting the life of community. That is, Agni is the energy which aids the mental states of all the members of the community, which in turn will aid their physical and material needs. Ancient religion was in effect a way for people to align their mind appropriately: align towards their shared well being rather than towards individual, selfish well being.

Transcendence is the experience of cosmic awareness. And before the axial age, transcendence was first and foremost a communal experience. In earliest times it was experienced in group activities such as dancing, chanting and in general getting lost in the euphoria of group consciousness. These activities were not simply fun activities. They were essential for the people to get beyond their own natural selfish instincts and rise up in consciousness to a communal perspective. These communities experienced God or the Divine mainly and essentially as a communal achievement.

This changed with the axial age.

Compared to the hunter gatherer tribes or the rituals of the Vedas, what is striking about Moses, Christ or Arjuna in the Gita is that they don’t need ritual to have transcendent experience of the Divine. They relate to God individually, within themselves.

Why and how did this change occur?

Simple: because socio-economically people of diverse communal religious backgrounds and rituals started to live together. So not all of one’s neighbors were people with whom one could dance or chant together. You couldn’t ignore them nor experience transcendence communally with them.

This left only two options.

The path of war: kill the other groups or atleast subjugate them, so that one’s own rituals are supreme in the civilization.

Or the path of peace: kill not other groups but kill the habits of communal based ritual as essential for experience of transcendence. Kill the hate in one’s own heart, and that is the path to cosmic awareness.

The path of war is essentially contradictory. You cannot fight with people you are socially and economically entwined with so that you can gain transcendence just through your group ritual. The rituals which used to be for transcendence when communities were small became modes of group selfishness when communities started getting into the hundreds of thousands.

Like the move from reading out loud to reading internally, the axial age marked the move from experiencing transcendence as a group phenomenon to it being an individual phenomenon. With this move, being with God involved not mainly outward dance, song or action but, more essentially, inward cleansing of one’s own psyche, and seeking and trusting God’s help during that process.

This essentially inner dimension of the religious life is why now statements about God are self-referential.

We tend to forget it when seek an experience of transcendence through the communal act of having shared beliefs. When we imagine that prior to experiencing transcendence we need to first do the communal ritual of shared, group avowal of same beliefs. Which are either of this or that religion, or religion or atheism.

But the axial age revolution was meant precisely to move beyond such group avowal as a mode of transcendence. In this, Christ and Socrates are alike, as are Arjuna and the Buddha.

For all these figures, metaphysical debates about God’s existence are not as prerequisite to attaining cosmic awareness. Those debates have their place, just as group chanting, dancing and rituals have theirs. But they are not the foundation for experiencing transcendence. Rather, transcendence requires seeing the limits of such debates and doing the inner work of freeing oneself of deep seated and natural communalistic impulses. To do that while one is a creature of this world, with the particular, local bonds one outwardly inevitably has.

Surrendering to the Divine

What does it mean to surrender one’s life to the Divine?

It is to place the Divine between one’s perceptions/emotions/thoughts and one’s actions.

Perceptions/emotions/thoughts normally call out for action. An instinctual response.

For example, I might be getting invisalign to straighten my teeth. Thinking about this makes me feel anxious and self-conscious. There is no seperation between the thought and feeling self-conscious, or feeling bad and defensive and maybe a bit sad.

To surrender this issue to God is to insert God between the thought and the reaction of feeling self-conscious, such that God will guide my reaction to the thought.

To feel self-conscious in reaction to the thought means that I experience the thought as a problem, as something which diminishes me. The thought that I might get invisalign is in itself just a thought – in itself neither good nor bad. But normally I don’t experience the thought that way, so neutrally. I experience it fused with am emotional tremor, as something bad or unpleasant. Ultimately, it is not the thought as such but the emotional tremor which feels indistinguishable from it which has painful, negative consequences, draining me of peace of mind.

Surrendering the thought to God is to ask God to guide my reaction to the troublesome thought. To give over the reaction entirely to God, so that it is no longer my concern what my response to that thought should be. This doesn’t take away necessarily the emotional tremor associated with the thought. Not right away. But it gives it distance from the emotional tremor so that I can start to see that the thought might be conceptually seperable from the emotional tremor which has instinctively been associated with it.

To surrender to the divine is to live beyond brute instinct. To live more reflectively, infusing one’s deepest instincts with a sense of the overall awareness and perspective of life.

Surrendering to God is not passive. It is the opposite of that. It is to embrace living beyond socially cultivated, unreflective instinct.

Trusting God

As I look back on my 40 years of life so far, I see that a lot of the pain I have experienced is due to my wanting and trying to do good and help others.

This is not other people’s fault. Nor my fault.

But it is due to a deep misunderstanding I had about myself and about spirituality.

When I was 16, I had some, what I would now call, spiritual experiences. I experienced a deep sense of oneness, a connection to all living beings and an awareness of what felt like a deeper, truer reality.

But my mind interpreted the fact of these experiences in a very particular way. It reasoned:

– I have a deeper insight into the world.

– If people who are fighting have a sense for this insight, they will stop fighting and live harmony.

– As someone who has a sense for this insight, I should try to help people stop fighting (be it in family or society more generally).

As a result of this line of thinking, I thrust myself into people’s arguments, trying to thereby evoke peace. I did this in my family, in my wife’s family, in academia, with friends and in thinking about politics.

In every instance, the result was the same. I never managed to stop the fighting, in any of the cases. I would get beat up emotionally. And when I would feel hurt and unloved that people don’t care about me enough to listen to me, people would react with puzzlement about why I got so involved in the first place and why I was taking other’s problems (that is, their problems) onto my shoulders.

They were right.

A person who runs into the middle of two people fighting can’t get upset that he is getting punched. Nor that the people might not care enough about him to stop fighting.

People define themselves by their fights. I was asking them to be different than who they were. Even while I wasn’t changing my own instincts and habits.

I now see that spirituality is not about changing the world, or healing it. It might lead some people in that direction. But there is no guarantee that is the case for every person. Spirituality puts one in touch with how the world is, without judgment or narrartive. It is to see the world from a cosmic perspective and to see humans as small parts of that. No more. No less.

It was my own very particular human personality and needs which interpreted the spiritual experiences in terms of helping the world. When the vast world resisted my puny attempts to move it, it led my suffering and incomprehension.

Instead of trying to heal the world, better to bring the spiritual perspective to my own personality and assumptions, and to see how small indeed are my own attempts and power.

God reached out to me when I was 16 and gave me the gift of seeing him. I then tried to take that gift and use it as I deemed fit, assuming that is why God reached out to me. I tried to control divine power and was confused when I couldn’t control it.

I couldn’t control it because it is not controllable by anyone other than God. He presented himself to me just because He wanted to. And as an invitation to surrender myself to Him. Instead, I assumed to control his power, to be one of His generals on Earth. I see now He never told me that when I saw him. I assumed it and was eager to interpret it that way. That was my ego’s way of seeing Him and as such I couldn’t bring healing to any of the fights around me in my family, academia or society.

Better to be aware of this than to, as I was, mindlessly taking on a role God never gave me. Better to focus on simply being with God and not presume to do His work on Earth.

He know all. He controls all. He takes care of all. Trusting Him is the greatest work I can do.

The Sacred and the Profane

The profane forgets the sacred. That is what makes it the profane.

The sacred embraces all, including the profane. That is what makes it the sacred.

The sacred and the profane are not two actualities. Not like table and chair, or pen and paper. Nor like two different places like New York and Paris.

They are like the true and the false. Reality and illusion. There is not a true world – one filled with truths – and a seperate false world – one filled with falsehoods. There is only one world, that which is real. Illusions are illusory mental states which are part of reality. They are not truthful mental states of a world consisting of illusions.

Truth seeks out all, including illusion, and embraces all with a common consciousness. Illusion resists aspects of reality, creating boundaries where there are none, and lives within those boundaries as if it were simply accepting how reality is.

The profane says: “The world is just like this, of divided, limited beings struggling for survival. Not an issue of whether I like it or not. Not about my preferences. It is just a matter of reality, just how things are. We have to make do and live as best as we can in this world of egos clashing. I am an ego, and egos look out for themselves. It is just what we do. This is just reality.”

The sacred says: “The world is just like this: whole, all embracing, without an other.”

The profane affirms itself by justifying limits. The sacred affirms itself by simply being.

The profane views the sacred with apprehension, with distrust. Or even sometimes, with longing and with desire. The profane views the sacred as the other, an illusory or a real other. Through this othering of the sacred, the profane affirms itself.

The sacred views the profane as itself, as not other than itself.

For the profane, there is a distinction between the sacred and the profane. For the sacred, there is no distinction between the sacred and the profane.

The profane is fear. The sacred is fearless.

The profane is profane. The sacred is sacred.