The Other I

August 20, 2011

A rose by any other name would still…

I know the point Shakespeare was trying to make when he gave Romeo these words of love to say to Juliet.  He was trying to say that the names of their warring family were unimportant, that a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.

But the words we choose do matter.  They have meanings that march on with layers of meaning given to them through centuries of use.  In the process, many of the most important of these words not only have an intellectual meaning but become clothed with nuances and values that cannot simply be defined away.

I can’t simply say, for instance, “Happy Birthday, dear lout;  I hope you have a lousy year,” and then say that when I use the word “lout” I mean “love.”  Or when I say “lousy” from now on I want you to understand that I mean “lovely.”   It might survive as a joke, but should I call that person “Lout” for the ensuing weeks and months, I doubt it would remain funny.  Because I simply cannot change the meaning of the word “lout” all by myself.  “Lout” means something to the whole English-speaking community and I can’t change it to suit my private definitions.

I am now discovering just how true this is for the word “God.”  It seems to me that, although I share this problem with many others, there are a surprising number who can radically change what they hear when the word “God” is used with little disturbance.

But I can’t do it.  I realized this on reading Tony Equale’s recent post on the need to humanize Christian doctrine.  He totally dismisses the existence of a supernatural world somehow existing apart and above our natural world.  There is, however, a presence in the natural world.  He describes something which scientists and mystics alike have sensed – that there is some ultimate unity in nature, some transcending energy that permeates the entire universe, or even universes if that is the case, perhaps something like light.  Yes, I said to myself, I can allow that.  There seems to be a great abiding mystery at the core of things – perhaps a bit like dark energy.  We can’t describe it, we don’t know what it is, but it seems that it must be there. Although we cannot say we comprehend it in any fullness,  it is, whatever else a natural, not a supernatural, presence.

But then the word “God” came into the picture.  Arrrgh!  NO! I practically shouted out loud.  NOT GOD!

I have been trying to understand this response.  And I think it’s the name.  I learned a lot of theology in my youth, and I believed it.  God was supernatural, he was all-powerful, an incomprehensible male.  He was loving and willing to forgive under certain conditions, but if you pushed him too far, God’s revenge would last for eternity.  He was someone who could be persuaded by the excruciating death of his only son to forgive  our sins,  an apparent vicious paradox I admit I did not understand but somehow convinced myself made sense.  Just as I accepted the curse of original sin visited on every child born on this planet despite the sacrifice of his son which supposedly had earned humanity God’s forgiveness.

Some people don’t seem to carry the weight of all this when they hear the word “God,” and can use it to describe a completely different concept from the one still being defended by most by the leaders of Christianity, and especially by the leaders in Rome.

But I can’t.  For the first time, I have had some sympathy with Richard Dawkins whose anger, if not his ideas, have always alienated me.  Dawkins has said quite clearly what concept of God he so vehemently rejects, but he seemed so angry and I often wondered if his real problem was with his own father.

But I take it back.  I had a deep love and delight in my own father and had a hugely enriching relationship with him.  My problem with “God” is not my problem with my father.  Or with men in general.

No, it’s really the traditional concept of God that I find so revolting.  So unloving.  So arrogant.

And it just doesn’t help to say that isn’t what God is.  No of course it isn’t.  But I can’t use the word God and I can’t hear anyone else use it without that gut reaction of revulsion.

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4 Comments »

  1. I tried to click the “like” button, but WP wouldn’t accept my name and password. Anyway, I liked the post.

    I have clearly declared many times … in print and on my blog … that we are better off not using the word “God” anymore because it conjures up the anthropomorphic imagery that has been associated with it for three thousand years. And there I go, using the “G” word when I said we shouldn’t, and I cause a gastronomical crisis on the other side of the pond. Of course such inconsistency is inexcusable, so I will neither beg to be excused nor offer excuses. The fact that I put that word in quotes and insist that it is only a metaphor will not exonerate me. The only thing I can do is apologize. Terry, I’m sorry I made you sick. I understand. Be patient, it will pass.

    Why do I do it? What is this strange addiction I seem to have where I do the very thing I do not want to do? Since I have begun revealing the sordid depths of my human bondage in this regard I might as well go all the way. The “G” word is not the only instance of this; I am guilty of more. I confess; there is something I do only when I am alone. (whisper) I use the “P” word … may “G” forgive me! This, I admit, is potentially even more nauseating and I flaggelate myself mercilessly for this filthy habit. One of the things I have been pilloried for by my traditionalist siblings is the fact that in public I VEHEMENTLY CONDEMN the use of the “P” word when talking about what we used to call “G.” The very anthropomorphic HUMANOID qualities that I categorically deny of that “in which we live and move and have our being” (for want of a better word) are usually attributed to “P”-hood. And yet I am in a love relationship with the sea of existence in which I am immersed like a sponge. Love? Because I love being here and being me … and I love the things around me being here at the same time and being what they are. Love? It’s the only word for it. Wretch that I am, I cain’t he’p it. That’s addiction. There is a relationship … INTIMATE … between what I am and what makes me me. What makes me me is simultaneously what makes everything else what it is. What makes me me is not only me … and I don’t own it even while I am it (dammit) … so it’s in some way “other” (… but not really). My addiction is that I am stuck … I am stuck with “being-here” and I must admit I LOVE IT.

    It is (for me) IMPOSSIBLE to avoid surrendering to this INTIMATE LOVE RELATIONSHIP that is simultaneously to myself and everything else. It reminds me of the days when I used to use the “G” word and its “P” modifier with abandon and without guilt. But I also realize that in those days I used those words naïvely, like a child. Now I feel I have “grown up.” If I may be permitted a “homey” example: when I was 7 years old, I had a “relationship” to my mother that 60 years later I looked back on as “puerile.” The simple adoration and dependency of childhood had been transformed. When she died at 95, I still called her “mom,” but the relationship had totally changed. I would have characterized it as a mature relationship between adults, so different from what existed at age 7 that the only thing they had in common was the name. If love remained it was only because I had learned how to forgive.

    Learning that the real reality behind the “G” word is simultaneously myself and everything else (and maybe even more) entirely changes the nature of the relationship … even while the word “relationship” itself still accurately characterizes how we are connected. Virtually everything else has changed: even the word “love” means something different in the context of the new understanding. If I allow myself to use the “G” word, like my use of the word “mom” when I was 67, it is a simple recognition of an undeniable continuity that remained true even though it had metamorphosed beyond recognition … a continuity that I can forgive. It would have been a mark of immaturity if I refused to call her “mom” at that moment because I had never learned how to forgive. And only a child would think that because I called her “mom” on her deathbed, that I meant what I did at 7.

    Tony Equale

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    Comment by Tony Equale — August 21, 2011 @ 1:27 pm | Reply

  2. I’m not sure I get your point about the word “God.” I thought I was finished with the word until I started reading TE. I guess it doesn’t bother me that he addresses the meaning of the word. All he ever says about it is that it is wrong. He never calls the new “thing” God.
    What I hear him saying is this:
    1. God as we have understood the concept does not exist.
    2. There is something profoundly awesome in/about the universe/matter that we participate in.
    3. This something is “matter’s energy” (existential energy) that is constantly evolving and creating.
    4. Matter’s energy (not God) is worthy of awareness, affirmation and relationship.
    I don’t see this new thinking as analogous to redefining “lout” to “love” where you simply substitute another one word for another and say you change the meaning. I see here a framework evolving—a new appreciation of the universe, having nothing to do with the deity of our infancy.
    I also think it is might worth the effort to offer people who used to believe in God (or who still believe or who are struggling with their belief) something they can transition to while readjusting their thinking. If you want people to “see the light” they probably won’t listen if you “hit them over the head” with the truth.

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    Comment by margschu — August 21, 2011 @ 3:34 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for posting this comment, Marge. I agree. As I said in my comment to Tony, what I was trying to do in my post was to explore the source of my own increasingly strong feelings of revulsion when people use the term “God.” Just as I appreciate that there are many who believe in God but with a sense that something somewhere is array, so too there are those of us on the other side of the divide, as it were, who cannot listen to alternatives to God if it is called “God,” or associated with “God,” or even presented as a substitute for God. I think Equale understands, but that, as you suggest, he was addressing his post to people who are not so allergic as I to even the word “God.”

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      Comment by theotheri — August 21, 2011 @ 4:16 pm | Reply

  3. Tony, Thank you for such an in-depth comment to my post. I am glad you liked it though why the LIKE button wouldn’t let you say so is a mystery too far for me to venture.

    I knew from your earlier writings that you believe that the “G” word simply cannot be extricated from its history and shouldn’t be used to describe what you have called “matter’s energy.” That was one reason why I posted this response on my blog rather than yours. I didn’t – and don’t – feel it was fundamentally relevant to what you were trying to communicate.

    I have found that the ferocity of my distaste for the word “God” has increased as I have grown older, and one of the things I was trying to do in my post is to try to understand why that is so. I think it is a result of my re-acquainting myself with the historical meaning of the term. Your writings have played no small part in this re-acquaintance.

    But another reason for putting the response on my blog rather than yours is that I have thought recently that you are amazingly “bi-lingual.” You have the energy and capacity to try to reach out across a great divide to suggest to others that there is another concept of God that they can believe it. That the only alternative to abandoning the concept which seems so central for so many to all their values and beliefs and meaning in life is not sheer unadulterated materialist nihilism and the self-centered emptiness that arises from that approach.

    As I say in my post, there are people who can use the word “God” without necessarily all the meaning I attach to it. I have a brother who was talking to me about “God,” and I said I couldn’t bring myself to say I believe in God however you define it. He understood immediately. You yourself give an example of being able to use the word “mom” in a dramatically different way at the age of 67 than you used it at 6. Of course I understand that you should still have been calling her Mom. (I even sort of envy you. My own mother died when I was 18, and I never got the chance to develop a relationship appropriate for two adults. I was still a child in so many ways.)

    And so I did not think it inappropriate for you, in that context, to use the term “God.” If I had, you know perfectly well that I would have said so quite explicitly.

    And I too LOVE being here. I love being me. I love everyone else and everything else being what they are. With all the grief and pain and suffering and fury and cruelty and inexplicable events that cascade around us – I still love it.

    What more is there to say but thank you?

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    Comment by theotheri — August 21, 2011 @ 3:50 pm | Reply


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