The Theosophical Society in America

From the Editor's Desk

 Printed in the Fall 2015 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: SmoleyRichard. "From the Editor’s Desk" Quest 103.4 (Fall 2015): pg. 122.

Richard SmoleyAsk an atheist what God is, and he is apt to reply, “Nothing.”

Ask a learned and pious Jew what God is, and he too is likely to answer, “Nothing.”

And in fact the Kabbalistic name for the deepest level of the Godhead is Ain, “nothing.” Clearly not all nothings are the same.

This is the kind of paradox one confronts when trying to fathom the nature of the divine. Recently my sons, who are five and six years old, asked me out of the blue what God is. I answered, “God is the source of everything. God is where everything comes from.” Since then, I haven’t been able to come up with another definition that’s any better.

In Theosophy, which involves a profound and sometimes tense dynamic between Eastern and Western perspectives, one issue has to do with whether God is ultimately personal.

The Western view tends to say that God is indeed personal. When Christian mystics look at the experience of their Asian counterparts, they are likely to say that the latters’ experience of the impersonal Brahman is merely a stepping-stone to an encounter with the living, personal God.

A Hindu, looking at Christians’ experience, may say the exact opposite. He may say that they have merely encountered Ishwara, the personal God, who is only a way station to the ultimate Brahman.

As usual, much has to do with context. Mystical experience is universal, but it is interpreted in vastly different ways depending on the mindset of the seeker.

In any event, here is my point of view. Ultimately God cannot be personal. Is God a Republican or a Democrat? Does God like ice cream? These are the sorts of things that are inextricably bound to personality as we know it.

Today it’s much harder to accept the personal God that Western religions have offered. We realize the unfathomability of the being that is indeed where everything came from — both the physical universe, vast as it is, and the universes beyond that, some of which we may glimpse but many of which we know and can know nothing.

In a way this new view is comforting. It frees us from the idea of God as a petty despot who is looking over our shoulders and nagging us about our tiniest faults. In another way it is not at all comforting. If the divine is indeed that vast, why should it bother about us at all? It would be like some fish that spawns countless offspring to whom it is indifferent and whom it barely recognizes. This God is pretty close to the blind, faceless forces of the scientists.

Thus I think it’s important to add a rider to the notion of the ultimately impersonal God: because we are persons, the Reality that made us as persons should also be able to relate to us as persons.

This may be quite different for other types of beings, but we are not galaxies or cockroaches. We are humans. We will inevitably experience the universe in a human fashion, and we have to be faithful to that experience.

Does this require us to commit the theological sin of anthropomorphizing — viewing God in a human form? Yes, of course it does. In the sixth century BC the philosopher Xenophanes observed, “If cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the works that men can do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves.”

But there is no real way around this problem. Although our point of view is merely relative, we are bound to it by virtue of our humanity. We will inevitably think of the universe in human terms. Protagoras, another Greek philosopher, said, “Man is the measure of all things.” Of course — because man is the one doing the measuring.

So in the end we hang between two poles. One, which is unquestionably true, reminds us that we are very small in the scheme of things and that our view of it cannot be final or absolute. The other, which is equally unquestionable, is that we exist as humans, we have some purpose in having the experience of human life, and we must be as faithful to that experience as we can be.

Accepting this dichotomy can foster a flexibility of mind that is willing to think things through but is also able to accept that other minds might come to very different conclusions. From thence we are, or should be, led toward theological humility.

To take this attitude one step further, we may even have to acknowledge that the perspective of humanity as a whole is only one small fragment of a much larger and broader series of perspectives. This perspective may cause us, as Xenophanes said, to portray God with human characteristics. But we are not going to change that anytime soon. I sometimes wonder what God looks like to a galaxy or a cockroach.

Richard Smoley