What AM I?

One of my best buddies, Greg McKinzie, once said that the way I like to talk about religion is akin to something like systematic theology. I think he's right about this. I can talk about what Jesus Christ means to me, and it's mostly an emotive response. It's chiefly about social responsibility, healing broken relationships, learning to forgive myself and walk by grace. I treat religion, however, as a different animal.

Where with Jesus I feel like being careful not to tarnish his image or put words in his mouth, with religion I'm ready to drop 2000+ years of doctrine like a plate on the kitchen floor so that it breaks into a thousand pieces which I then play with like Lego blocks. This post is about religion, not Jesus.

"What do you mean by saying that God is the universe?" Greg asks. Greg has a Masters of Divinity, so when he asks this question, it's a gentle prod to nuance this better, to be prepared to defend such a statement. The problem is that the way I think about religion is also the way I think about a poem, or a piece of music. I say, write, or play things that feel or sound right to me. The Logos of my assertions comes later, when I'm forced to defend them like I'm playing a game of chess. Greg, Nick, whoever else is reading this; will you play with me? I'm moving out my first pawn. The dialogue below is from an imaginary Socratic questioning partner. I'm not trying to put words in anybody's mouth.

God is the I AM. He is the fount of existence. Anything that exists is Him. The blade of grass bent low by the sole of my shoe is God. The sole of my shoe is God. My foot, my leg, my out-of-shape body, the brain floating around in my head like a booger in a bowl of mucus is God.
Like Buddhism?
Yes. A lot like Buddhism. But different.
How so?
Buddhism is a great system to look at for helping to imagine what I have in mind in terms of things being "one." In Buddhism, however, the goal seems to be the emptying of the self and the attainment of a transcendent state of being; to break the cycle of suffering and rebirth. This goal appears to be achieved mostly through refraining. Refraining from asserting yourself as an individual. Refraining from perceiving reality as real. Refraining from behavior destructive to yourself or others. Refraining, I think, is only half of the equation. If God is the universe, and we are His agents, what happens when God refrains? I realize that I'm a Westerner, and evolution is a virtue to me, but what about all the beaten women, the starving children, the broken relationships? Refraining doesn't solve these problems. When we are all one, when we are fragments of the evolving consciousness of God, a beaten woman is at once God and ourselves. We have an urgent responsibility to act.

If we are fragments of the evolving consciousness of God, then the total emptying of self is counterproductive. Our goal is somewhat Nietzschean; we are to reach as high as possible, to be the most we can be as human beings suffused with love, beauty, and intelligence. We are to become Ubermensch, not so that we can be above all laws, but that so we can butt up against our cultural milieu like a fish against its net, pulling ourselves and everyone caught in the same net toward something higher.
Are you saying that God evolves?
Yeah. I think so. This opens up worm-cans and causes huge problems. Maybe you can help iterate some of these?
So, er, what about sin?
Sin is that which destroys: relationships, living things, beauty, consciousness.
The afterlife?
Your actions resonate down throughout all of human history; good or bad. And who knows? Energy cannot be created or destroyed...
So, if collectively speaking the universe is God, how does God intervene in the universe?
Have you ever had inner conflict? Have you ever spoken with yourself? Cognitive dissonance, etc?
I just don't understand what this buys you.
Well, for one, it makes for a pretty awesome theodicy. It also has huge implications for things like free will, tolerance, social action, and makes for a neat eschatological trajectory.
This sounds embarrassingly naive.
Be more specific. Maybe you can educate me.


-Steve said...

This is one of the positions I'm drawn to (which is not surprising for a Whitman scholar).

If you accept this position, though, then there's a few other things to think about:

1.) So is God ONLY the universe, or is there some God left over to hang around and be anthropomorphic and judge behavior?

2.) Likewise, is there a thought or intention of God separate from the universe, or is the universe happening the way God thinks?

3.) If we're going to use the panpsychist metaphor (that the universe is the thought of God)--is it all intentional? We're capable of being out of control, or even of dreaming. Maybe God isn't entirely in control either. (This way to dreaming Brahma.)

4.) If the world is the thought of God (or the process of God's thought) then can parts of the universe be God's lack of self-knowledge, his doubt, his fear of commitment, his conflicted sense of values? If not, then why is the world not much simpler?

5.) What does the personal language get us? (God, Him, etc.) Is there another option?

Nick said...

"I'm ready to drop 2000+ years of doctrine like a plate on the kitchen floor so that it breaks into a thousand pieces which I then play with like Lego blocks."

*Gasp!* copyright infringement!

Bryan Tarpley said...


re: 1) in this construct, i don't think there's any God leftover outside the universe.

re: 2-4) i don't think we're God's thoughts. i think we're more like God's "body." i think things like the Holocaust are like cancer or disease.

re: 5) i like the personal language. in this system, it acts as a manifestation of the difference between a group of individuals and the universe as a whole.

Sara said...

Technically, a Buddhist would say that refraining helps the abused by offering the abused and the abuser a way out of a cycle that harms both of them.

I've never been able to buy the idea that detachment is the answer to escaping from suffering. It seems like a dodge.

But like you, I tend towards a monistic view of the world - though I am far more panentheistic (the Divine as transcendent and immanent) ultimately.

I also have the thought that given the size and breadth of reality that some of what we perceive as contradictions in the nature of the Divine are a matter of our lack of ability to see the big picture. What is a paradox from one perspective can be a perfectly logical coexistence from another point of view.

but I'm also a believer in polyvalent truth. Your mileage may vary.

Like you, the thinking on my beliefs tends to come after I have felt my way through it. I try to mitigate this by studying up after I have found that I feel something to be true.

Bryan Tarpley said...

sara, i have always rested comfortably in knowing that God is infinitely beyond my ability to know, and that in the end, paradoxes and mysteries are symptoms of me being a small, subjective little man :)

Greg McKinzie said...

I'm sure this conversation will be dwindling by the time I get to it, but I will eventually. Bryan knows that appealing to my vanity by dropping my name is an unavoidable hook. =) We are still dealing with the Peruvian notion of customer service regarding home internet, so I'm internetly crippled for the moment.

Bryan Tarpley said...

@greg: looking forward to a good game of chess :)

Greg McKinzie said...

I've never beaten you in chess before.

So, to be clearer I should have said, "What does it mean to say that God is the universe from a Christian perspective," not as a backhanded way of saying such a statement is unchristian but of saying that I suppose it can be said by a Christian, though it must mean something different than what, say, a Buddhist means. Since pantheism is a pretty well-defined belief system in the study of religion, and its characteristics are not usually associated with Christianity, I'm intrigued by the phrasing. Also, the vein of Christianity you are coming from is part of the broad stream that qualifies what it says by the biblical text, so I'm looking for a bit of interface with the story.

I am also intrigued by your view because, while I know you haven't been exposed to Process Theology, your conclusions lean toward a pantheistic (rather than the usual panentheistic) version of Process thought, without all of the Whiteheadian metaphysics of course. I am always interested in similar conclusion drawn by separate observers, as they tend to triangulate reality, so to speak.

From my perspective, the basic problem with the description you have begun to lay out is that the God of the Christian story was always an individuated subject. A basic tenet of Christian monotheism is that Creator and creation are differentiated entities. What surprises me is that you would opt for pantheism, a patently impersonal system. The biblical notion of relationship is rooted in the differentiation, and while I might talk to myself about my inner conflict, that cannot be mistaken for a real relationship. Likewise, my relationship to a group is not to be confused with a personal relationship.

That's a start, I guess.