The Mystery of God, The Problem of God

I saw something the other day on Facebook that impressed me. It was a quote by John Shelby Spong, a retired bishop of the Episcopal Church:

God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.”

I wish more “people of faith” had that sort of attitude. It’s refreshing, because the absolute truth is that no religion has a monopoly on truth. What’s more, all the metaphysical elements of religion are pure speculation. A believer in an Abrahamic faith cannot prove the existence of God, any more than I can prove rebirth or karma, assuming I wanted to do that.

I think many of us find it extremely tiresome to hear people tell others how they must think or what they should believe. As a Buddhist, I feel that all I should do is point to what I think is a logical way, a sound view, and say, it works for me. I can’t claim to know what is, or how things ultimately should be. Except in politics, but that’s a different matter. (Small attempt at humor.)

Now, I would be tempted to replace “God” in the above quote with “ultimate reality,” and the Buddhist tradition doesn’t try to define ultimate reality, because it is ineffable and can never be fully known through conceptual thinking, nor can it ever be expressed adequately using conventional language. That is one of the major points of Buddhist philosophy.

I may not know what is, but I must confess that I have rather strong views on what isn’t. I don’t believe in God, for instance. I’m also not a big fan of using the word “God” as a synonym for some kind of universal life-force, or ultimate being-ness. In my opinion, “God” carries just too much baggage with it to be useful. It is hard to divorce the word from the idea of a supreme being.

Still, having said that, I do realize that it’s just my opinion, and everyone is entitled to their own whether I agree with it or not.

There are some Buddhists who like to say that the Buddha neither confirmed nor denied the existence of a supreme being. I’m not sure if that is actually the case, but regardless, one thing is very clear and that is there is no foundation within the Buddha’s teachings to support the idea of reliance on a higher, holier being for enlightenment or salvation.

In Buddhism, we term such reliance “other-power” (tariki), and here is another place where I become rather dogmatic, for as far as I’m concerned, “other-power” is not Buddha-dharma. The Buddha taught “inner-power” (jiriki):

So, Ananda, you must be your own lamps, be your own refuges. Take refuge in nothing outside yourselves. Hold firm to the truth as a lamp and a refuge, and do not look for refuge to anything besides yourselves.”

Mahaparinibbana Sutta, Digha Nikaya 16

As far as the problem of a creator god is concerned, Nagarjuna, often called “the second Buddha,” demonstrated that the existence of such a being, in the words of Hsueh-Li Cheng, “as creator of the world is unintelligible.” [1. Hsueh-Li Cheng, Empty Logic: Madhyamika Buddhism from Chinese Sources, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1991] I’ll save the long and detailed explanation of his logic on this point for another post. But I will say that it would be wrong to think that Nagarjuna was out to prove anything. In the Vigrahavyavartani (“End of Disputes”) he says “If I made any assertion, I would be in error. But I make no assertion, thus I am not in error.”

Returning to my thoughts at the beginning of this post, again, it’s refreshing to encounter a “religionist,” like John Shelby Spong, who doesn’t claim to have all the answers. From what I have read, Spong is “seeking to experience Christianity in a new and vibrant way” (his words) by moving away from theistic belief and traditional doctrines. I’m sure that is not too popular in some Christian quarters.

The universe is too vast and beyond our comprehension for anyone to be absolutely sure about what made or sustains it. As Sam Cooke wrote in his song “A Change is Gonna Come”, “I don’t know what’s out there beyond the sky.” No one does.

No one has all the answers. Except in politics, where believe me, I know what’s what. So, listen, be a smarty and vote for Obama next Tuesday.