2013-03-06

Communication Enough

Have you felt awe? Have you ever felt a fulsome beauty that stopped you dead in your tracks? Have you felt grandeur in the world, the planet, or the space in which it floats – and have you felt a deep humility in the face of that grandeur? Have you ever felt a oneness with another being – perhaps watching a hawk soaring across the sky felt that you, too, were soaring there – that the boundaries of your self expanded, or dropped away entirely? Have you ever felt mystery and wonder?

Certainly there are tragedies and atrocities: the holocaust, genocide in Darfur, needless starvation and malnutrition. Have you ever felt that the entirety, the whole enchilada, the full catastrophe – the stuff we judge good and the stuff we judge bad – all of it together -- the laughter, the tears, and heartache, all added up -- all fit together somehow into a whole that, even with its tragedy and pain, is good and beautiful and true?

If your answer to all those questions is “no,” then if you want to identify yourself as an atheist, I don't think anyone will quibble. If your answer to even one of those questions is “yes,” then if you still want to self-identify as an atheist, a quibble or two may be in order. To wit:
Why not call that feeling a feeling of God?
You might rejoin:
“Why not? Because that’s not what the word means. If I say ‘God,’ people will assume that I mean a superhuman person up in the sky with a big beard who gets angry and punishes us for our evil ways by sending the AIDS epidemic.”
Whoah. We don’t have to let those who do believe in that define the word for the rest of us.
“No, but we want to communicate when we use words. If I say ‘mayonnaise’ I need to mean that white stuff that goes on sandwiches and in dressings because that’s what people will think I mean. If I don’t mean that, then I’m misleading people by saying that.”
But look. We all have different associations with words. No two people have exactly the same sets of associations with the word “cat.” No two people will finish reading this blog entry and get quite the same message from it. The question is: is the shared meaning enough to make the word worth invoking?

Maybe one person defines God as simply the universe – the universe with nothing in it except what scientists describe. Meanwhile another person defines God as a superpowered person with desires and feelings. Two such people can have a conversation about God. For all their differences, they’re both invoking what is of ultimate concern, what is awe-inspiring, what is the source of life – that toward which an attitude of reverence is appropriate.

Isn’t that enough overlap of understanding so that communication occurs?

Sure, if what you meant was “universe,” you could just say “universe.” But if you want to convey your own feeling of standing in relationship to that all-encompassing reality with a sense of awe, humility, abundance, mystery, or of affirmation even in the face of tragedy, then “universe” doesn’t quite cut it. “God” comes closer.

Moreover, in the last century a large number of scholars have written a great number of books and papers laying out meanings of 'God' very different from traditional theism.

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This is part 2 of 6 of "God the Verb"
Next: Part 3: "God is a Verb"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Ambiguity of Ponytails and God"