The Paradox of Knowing

This was my thought: “Is God sad over us – for our selfishness, our disconnection, our paving a path to the extinction of life on a planetary scale – which includes ourselves?” So I reached out in my limited ways to those whose culture, religion, education, and experience were quite different from my own, asking about their understanding. The feelers went in four directions, each quite different and confronting.

First, I was directed to a video doing the rounds (discussed in detail below), featuring Stephen Fry calling God a monster and a tyrant, for, among other things, giving children cancer. My initial entry came in a reaction piece to the video, in which Giles Fraser claims that God knows suffering and sadness all too well, because He has walked among us as a human. While Fraser has a few insightful tidbits to share, his blind spot is clear. Like many Muslims (and others), I can accept the story of Jesus as a prophet, but I cannot be convinced that this was a one-off experiment in what it means to be human. We’ve evolved as a species over a long time – and I believe that either God is human in the form of all of us (e.g. we each carry a spark of Divinity; It has always been with us and is today) or none of us (with or without Divinity, we are on our own). Maybe I’m wrong, but the lack of critical questioning of the idea of God as human (I honestly don’t know the answer: Are there Christians who only see Jesus as a prophet? As an actual, imperfect human with flaws and messed up choices?) seems to lock popular Christian theology into a box that is difficult to escape.

Next in my search, I was reminded at several turns that God is not human, and that this difference is important: “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind…” (Numbers 23:19). Anthropomorphising animals is risky business, because, well, they’re clearly not human, so why dare do it with God? And if I do it, and say that God is sad, why ignore other emotions like jealousy, or anger? Yet many religious traditions speak to the notion that man is created in God’s image. In a universe as vast as ours, it is both irresponsible and simplistic to believe that this is related to the outer form. Instead, it may be that our inner lives reflect that of the Divine.

One universal aspect of our inner lives is the ability to reflect. The well-articulated viewpoint that Stephen Fry speaks to has gone viral primarily because it hits home for a lot of people who have reflected on the idea of meaningless suffering. The idea that there is an all-seeing, all-knowing, hands-on being is out of touch with the ways that many faithful today view their relationship with the Divine. Yet it speaks perfectly to religion’s inability to effectively communicate or otherwise share in the long-standing mysteries. Even in the interview, the pictures that are drawn out – revolving around an after-death conflict with God – are entirely from limited human imagination. This is not a special arrogance of religion, per se, but it is especially strong with religious leaders and communicators. We think we know, or we think that we must offer some explanation, when things like silence and shrugging would be the appropriate response. It’s perfectly reasonable – and very human – to question things like suffering and injustice, but there is no need to defend them, or pretend that it is all part of some unknown plan.

Which leads me to the final idea: while all institutions seem to be failing and flailing, none are falling faster than religion. Arguments about the role of religion in war are old hat, and while Mark Karlin astutely includes other factors in his analysis (including the view that for some, profit is a religion), I found something quite basic in the rhetoric around war. For example, while he mentions areas such as economics and education, he fails to make deeper connections about how those areas are intrinsically linked. Specifically, when we speak about cold leaders and blind followers, whom are we talking about? Do people who fight with religious dogma on their tongues do it because of faith, or because they lack education, opportunity, and understanding? This is no different in the U.S. than in any other part of the world. In this context, where are the truly faithful? Where are the knowing? Who speaks for the faithful who are afraid to give voice? This is yet another example of religion earning, but not yet owning, a pointed criticism. If we know a God of love, as Fraser and so many others claim, where is the evidence that we are a part of that love? This evidence is manifested by stepping into the chasm of war, of climate change, of institutional violence, of poverty and inequality, and doing! Above all, we must step up for a peace that demands action, accountability, responsibility, and an honest attempt to explain aspects of a God we can never understand.

So who dares to say “I know God, and I do not?” I will. My God is worth bended knee and pointed finger.(S)He is not worth killing for, but I would lay down my life for saying so. No form of faith is beyond reproach; no God is so big that an infinite number of questions can’t still be asked. Ours is a universe of paradoxes – of limitless “both-ands.” If you think you understand, you’re wrong. If you feel that you’re right, you’re off. But if you know, and you know not, then that is a path worth exploring.

And in the end, the truth is, I am sad about the messes we are in (including everything that Mr Fry points to) – I don’t know how God feels about it, or if They even know. So now what do I – we – do?

Image Source: Oniicha (via Deviant Art)

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3 thoughts on “The Paradox of Knowing

  1. I admire how you expressed your thoughts with regards to the ironies brought about by knowing all about religion. All of the sayings and beliefs that are affirmed by each religion are very straightforward to follow, but because of the innumerable temptations around us, even the simplest act of kindness seems impossible to accomplish. I second that question- Now what? Take a look at the interesting thoughts of the 93-year old Simone Klugman on the religion hubbub here:

  2. As a Christian Unitarian Universalist I wholeheartedly agree with you and can honestly say that I view Jesus as a human prophet with a divine spark just like us all. Was he more in-tuned with his spark? Very likely. Did he know how to set an example with it and teach us about our own ability to be like him? Definitely. Did he channel the Divine in his speaking to his contemporaries. It is my belief, yes.

    The grace of human suffering exists in the the gift of free will. We suffer because we have chosen to. God is not likely judging us for being on a continuum of progress. And we are progressing. The value of human life has expanded exponentially over the past three thousand years, almost exclusively because of the teachings of our prophets. We have cancers because of the things we choose to put in our environment, atmosphere, and bodies. Abuse continues in cycles that we can choose to end. These are choices that we continue to observe and correct over time, there is grace in that, too. The God I believe in celebrates our successes and holds our hands while we suffer and figure it out for ourselves.

    Religion is down, but spirituality is up. According to a 2012 Pew study, the vast majority of those who have no religious affiliation still have a belief in God (68%), a deep connection to nature and the earth (58%), or consider themselves “spiritual, not religious” (37%) [, accessed March 2015]. Why might this be? In my view, religion is still operating according to the old rules while the world has changed around it. New religious leaders like Pope Francis show early signs that organized religion may yet have time to recalibrate to the times and shift their focus back to the principles of compassion and forgiveness that Jesus and Mohammad (peace be upon them), among others, have taught us.

    Education and empowerment are the keys to our successful recalibration of human spiritual expression. People must be taught to take up the mantle of self-worth in order to manifest a shift toward the evangelism of DOING rather than merely speaking.

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