In the Bible God is constantly imagined as a superhuman person in conversation with us. “How do you know you’re naked?” is God’s question to Adam. “Will you really destroy a great city where one righteous man dwells,” complains Abraham to the Deity. “I will deliver Israel with my strong, outstretched arm,” proclaims God to Moses. And when Isaiah sees God surrounded by Seraphim and smoke in a temple, he volunteers to be God’s prophet. “Here I am. Send me,” says Isaiah.
So, we imagine God in anthropomorphic terms. But God cannot be a person since God is the structured creative power that transcends any person or any subject-object relationship. We commit the sin of idolatry, not only when we imagine God to actually be a statue, but whenever we think of God as a real subject or object within our world. Of course, there’s a difference between God literally being reduced to a part of the world and God being symbolically represented in the world. If a crucifix is thought to have magical powers when it’s prayed to, that’s idolatry. If the crucifix reminds us of the God “above” the symbol of the crucifix, that’s worship.
There are, of course, mystical experiences. In those moments of ecstasy, we sense the interconnectedness of the things (and people) in our world, but even valid mystical experiences are an illusion in so far as we temporarily forget the individuality of the world’s objects. Individuality is also a reality, not merely a mistaken perception. The best we can do, according to Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be (if I have read Tillich correctly), is to conceive of God as an Absolute simultaneously holding all objects individually together with their interconnectedness. There is no symbolism in such a cognitive holding, but it is an abstraction of thought that may not have the emotional content of religious/spiritual symbolism.
Nevertheless, all thought has an emotional content as modern neuroscience has proven. If we are aware of the emotional content of intuiting Absolute Individuality-Connectedness, we may have a feeling for the Absolute (i.e., God) that produces a profound thought experience. And, as Tillich says, that experience may give us “the courage to be…rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”
We may then have reached a state of mind where the theism of religious symbolism is merged with the non-theism of philosophic atheism. We may have found the epistemological “bridge” between the theists and non-theists in our liberal Quaker meetings. And we Christocentric Friends may have reinforced our humility in accepting non-theists as brothers and sisters in our Quaker faith.
~ Richard Russell
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