I find myself increasingly reluctant to utter the great and ancient name, the capitalized noun that is above all other nouns. The cat's got my theological tongue and won't let me engage in G- talk. I haven't become an atheist or anything like that. I still have a wavering trust in the Whence and Whither of Everything, despite the temptation to despair in the presence of evil (which I refuse to capitalize and give the status of a proper noun).
I confess I am irritated by the spokespersons for G-, the televangelists of Videoland, the caretakers of revelation--Jewish, Christian, or Muslim--with their unquestioning certainties and their smug claims to be in possession of the definitive knowledge of the Almighty. When their chummy god whispers The Truth in their ears, revealing his eschatological plans and moral absolutes, I want to run away.
I know enough of Dionysus to reject the Calvinistic dogma that all things sacred should be done decently and in order. (Which is to say, I am a recovering Presbyterian.) Nevertheless, I still have a high regard for manners and modesty. I am part of the generation that once believed there were certain things gentlemen and ladies did not talk about in public--like sex and religion. We thought it seemly to sequester our sexual and spiritual agonies and ecstasies within the sanctuary of intimacy and not blab about them in public.
But in the course of my pilgrimage in 1969 I backslid. I joined the sexual revolution, migrated to California, was engulfed by New Age spirituality, and became a part of the tell-all generation. We tore down the wall between privacy and publicity, made our sexuality the center of our politics, and turned spirituality into a commodity that could be purchased in seminars or learned from how-to books.
Suddenly, we got our comeuppance. Having gone too far in the right direction, we are suffering from a surfeit of pseudo-candor. We are drowning in details of the president's sex life that would have embarrassed Freud. And conversations with G- appear on The New York Times best-seller list.
I find public revelation of intimate sexual and spiritual experiences increasingly distasteful. I suspect that true saints and great lovers don't advertise their prowess, parade their tenderness, or exhibit their compassion to be seen by all. There is something I admire about the near-obsolete virtues of shyness and modesty. It is not seemly to speak too much about sacred things in public. Words of endearment, like prayer, are best spoken in a whisper.
Theologian Paul Tillich, with whom I studied at Harvard, said that the great words--faith, hope, love, grace, sin, salvation--sometimes became so trivialized and degraded that we needed to cease using them for a generation. When the money changers and propagandists take over the temple of language and use the name of G- for trivial, vain, and malicious ends, it is time to declare a moratorium, a season of theological silence.
Try this. Proclaim a linguistic fast and a feast of imagination. For Lent, give up using the familiar ways in which you speak and think about G-. Allow the old words to be replaced by silence. Force yourself to create new ways of speaking. Thirteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart called G- "the wilderness where nobody is home." In this century, philosopher Charles Hartshorne named G- "the self-transcending transcender of all." Tillich substituted "the Ground of Being" or spoke of the G- beyond G-. Invent new names; use them once and discard them. Stretch language to its breaking point. There are no literal truths in the realm of theology, so get wild and excessive.
For instance, instead of "God," substitute The Quantum Leaper. Being-Becoming-Itself.The Subject that Encompasses All Predicates. The Great Whomever or Whatever that Is Within-Without-Beside-Before-After-and-During. The Verb that Activates All Other Verbs. The Cosmic DNA. The Erotic Whole. The Source from Whom All Longing Flows. The Black Hole Where Love Embraces Death. The Creative Destroyer. The Alpha and Omega Helix. The Eternal Not Yet. The Creating. The Sustaining. The Abiding Etc. Without End.
Notice what happens when your imagination is forced to coin new language? It becomes poetic, makes a raid on the inarticulate, and returns with new metaphors. It must consult raw experience and ask, "What exactly do I mean when I speak about G-? What kind of experience make me want to use this word?"
There is a mystical wisdom that has always been sequestered within the great religious traditions that cautions us against getting comfortable with any of our language about G-. The via negativa
suggests that we remain most faithful to the ultimate mystery when we remember that we know best what G- is not
. After a long dissertation of how we may speak
about G-,Thomas Aquinas is forced to acknowledge that even "by the revelation of grace in this, we do not know of God what He is" and are, therefore, "united to Him as to one unknown."
The task of authentic religion is to keep this world a sacred place, to remind us to wonder, to tread reverently on the humus and be compassionate to all sentient beings. I believe we do this best by remembering "In the beginning was Silence."
The Word is still spoken in sparrow song, wind sigh, and leaf fall. An electron is a single letter; an atom, a complex word; a molecule, a sentence; and an indigo bunting, an entire epistle of the sacred. The ocean whispers its mystery within the chambered seashell. Listen quietly to the longing in your heart for love and justice, and you may hear an echo of the holy word that addresses you. Hush for a while. Be still and know.
Originally published in Spirituality & Health--The Soul/Body Connection (R). Online at http://www.SpiritualityHealth.com. For a free trial issue of the print magazine: http://www.spiritualityhealth.com/about/prmg.html