We all seem to walk around with a supreme underlying fantasy controlling our lives. It’s the idea that we know what just what the hell we’re talking about. Nowhere else is this more apparent than in the discussion of God.
For starters, let us begin with a few other words that share similar confusion. Popular culture uses the word ‘myth’ in a variety of ways but perhaps it is most prominently called “a false story”. However, noted scholar and professor of mythology and religion Mircea Eliade termed it “a true story”. How can the majority of the public and a renowned scholar of mythology have such a conflicting definition of the word? Moreover, who’s definition is correct, the scholar or the layman?
This directs us to the next object of enquiry. Just what are the definitions of the words ‘false’ and ‘true’? These two terms are tied intimately together, for if something isn’t one, then, logically speaking, it must be the other. However, the real issue appears to be in the mix up of the word ‘true’ with ‘fact’. The latter having the original definition as something close to “action, or something that has actually happened” and the former possessing characteristics of “faith, and trust”. So when we say that “a myth is a false story” are we saying that it is a story that didn’t physically happen or are we saying that it is a story that we don’t have any faith in?
Okay, so what does the word ‘faith’ mean? It seems to have much to do with something along the lines of “a belief in something for which there is no or little proof of”. So, then we could ask, what does the word ‘belief’ mean? Moreover, another definition of the word ‘myth’ is “a sacred story” and we can follow ‘sacred’ to a definition akin to “something holy” and then we can go into the meaning of ‘holy’ and so on and so on…
Well, we can see where this is going and before we get too far into resembling a dog chasing its own tale lets get back to the word at hand: God. A great deal of our discussions on the topic, at least, in this modern American culture, seems to be founded on our inheritance of the Christian idea of God. Not only that, but modern Christianity is divided into at least a dozen different sects. Each version of this religion will no doubt have slight variations on the idea. Moreover, generally speaking of course, when you ask someone what the definition of ‘God’ is, in this society, it will no doubt be based on a Christian version. When atheists, in this country, talk about their dis-belief in God what they are frequently refereeing to is the Christian God and no other.
However, far too often, we in America are not so keenly aware of the beliefs of other cultures. Our inherited tradition hasn’t been very accepting of alternative points of view either (see history of the British Empire, Manifest Destiny, and so called civilizing of native peoples frequently at the option of death). If we were more open to different cultural belief systems we would be quick to discover that our version of God is only one of many.
In some cultures for instance, unlike our own, God has a more feminine form and function. In other traditions we have both the God(s) and Goddess(es). Moreover, while monotheistic religions, such as Christianity, are outwardly professing a singular deity there is often an underlying pantheon. Such can be seen with God being accompanied by Jesus, Mother Mary, the Devil, a variety of angels, and whole host of saints. In pluralistic religions there is likewise outwardly known to be a large cannon of Gods, with there being an understanding, that these are all informed by a singular underlying mono-power.
One popular description that our culture is running off of is that God is: a) is all knowing, b) is all loving, c) is all powerful. Atheists often site the appearance of pain, suffering and evil as evidence that God isn’t real. For God must know that they exist, and being all loving and all powerful, should do something about it and since they continue to exist, God must not. However, this supposes that we know: a) what God is, b) how he/she feels, c) what those problems of the universe actually are, and d) that we know better. Why should God have any of the aforementioned characteristics after all? Why cant God be limited?
We also use the pronoun ‘He’ when we talk about God. Why on Earth should this be so? This would seem to imply that the masculine is divine and the feminine is negated or even denigrated. This could be explained simply by a short sight on part of the founders of our language. However, it’s hard for this author to understand how something as important as God didn’t deserve special attention to create a non-sexual pronoun by which to identify him/her, other than the word ‘It’ of course. Laziness is another explanation one could suppose. Regardless of the reasoning behind the use of ‘He’ when we refer to God, what can not be overlooked is that even if it isn’t meant to imply a masculine deity, never the less, it implicitly does characterize God as having nothing to do with woman or of femininity. Since, biologically speaking, at least, for the present moment anyways (cuz we never know what the future of medical science holds instore), women tend to give birth to new life and it would seem that God, a creator of the universe and all of us, should no doubt have at least some feminine qualities inherent in the words used to identify him/her.
For a moment, let us just sit with this idea: ‘God’ is a word; a word for something which transcends words, something that is wholly beyond the bounds of language to accurately describe, something that is far more abstract than our ability to quantify and understand. However, God is something, that just might be, within the bounds of our ability to experience. The problem is that after having experienced it we simply can’t help but try and talk about it, try to talk about this thing that can’t be talked about. Perhaps this is why we seem to have such diversity, and divorcement, of and from the idea of God.
When talking about these concepts professor Joseph Campbell often enjoyed quoting and expounding upon the ideas of his friend, Heinrich Zimmer:
“The best things cannot be told, the second best are misunderstood. After that comes civilized conversation; after that, mass indoctrination; after that, intercultural exchange. And so, proceeding, we come to the problem of communication: the opening, that is to say, of one’s own truth and depth to the depth and truth of another in such a way as to establish an authentic community of existence.” (The Masks of God: Creative Mythology)
This essay is by no means intended to be a argument for or against the existence of God, or the worship thereof. Simply put, this is an attempt to bring to light that much of us are pitifully unaware of the words that we commonly throw around. Myth, legend, folktale, and fairytale for instance are seemingly interchangeable in popular culture. God is another word for which we seem to lack a sufficient definition. However, the problems of the dis-coherence among our language, as laid out here, should not stop nor prevent us from our discussions about such topics. On the contrary, it should prove to provoke & amplify such conversations. For if we are ever to live in “an authentic community of existence” than we will have to spend a great deal of time, not only to understanding the beliefs of others, but just as importantly, the beliefs of ourselves.