“I believe all and doubt all.”
Unbelievers are in ignorance of things that are of faith, for neither do they see or know them in themselves, nor do they know them to be credible. The faithful, on the other hand, know them, not as by demonstration, but by the light of faith which makes them see that they ought to believe them.
—Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 1, Art. 5, reply obj. 1)
This quote has been summarized in recent times: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
Let us suppose God to be an infinite bunch of sparks distributed inside every particle of matter—a little flash of God in everything.
Let us now put forth another concept of God and the universe as not particulate, but rather God as one great schmear of cosmic matter-ness and God-ness all at once.
For instance, “Stoic thought also held that a divine spirit was inside every human. Celsus pointed out how the Stoics called their god a spirit, ‘diffused through all things, and containing all things within himself.’ This, Celsus claimed, was just how Christians saw their god.”
These suppositions see God as immanent in cosmos and the plenum as an unimaginably limitless pantheistic singularity. The universe or nature is identical with divinity.
Unlike pantheism, a third concept, both polytheistic and monotheistic, anthropomorphizes supernatural forces. According to Robert Knapp, “a person could know these forces and communicate with them, for the forces operated on the same principles as did humans. That is to say, they thought like humans, they had emotions like humans and they were, in general, in the shape of humans, or at least [in the case of polytheism] collections of human and animal parts rearranged.”1
In monotheism, God is a ‘person,’ a complete, all-perfect singularity, almighty, all-knowing, existing by ‘Himself’ (‘Herself’ if you will this anthropomorphism), sitting out there somewhere separate from the cosmos, but also looking back (hopefully benevolently) upon ‘His’ (‘Her’ if you prefer) creation.
In both polytheistic and monotheistic tradition, one did not have so much a personal relationship with the person(s) of God, as much as a ritualistic obligation. As Knapp describes, “people simply accepted the instability of their relationship to the supernatural and went on believing in their god or gods, giving them appropriate honor and seeking supernatural interventions in their lives.”1
In the progression toward the axial age zeitgeist, the God or gods became more intimate, and there appeared men and women (prophets and diviners they are called) on our little whirling dollop of land and sea. They claimed that the god(s) had communicated with them, that indeed these humans had spoken and written revelations from the supernatural. The product is called inspired Sacred Scriptures or Word.
Sacred Scriptures sit in the context of the great mass of intellectual property produced over the centuries of human culture, which runs from pornography, to science, technology, philosophy, music, lyrics, poetry, novels, operas, to God knows what all. All of this arises from the same bio-psycho-social and brain/sensorium common to all speaking and thinking humans.
A question that I find compelling is: Does the Sacred Word differ markedly in a way that sets it off decidedly from other writings? For simplicity’s sake, let us limit this question to a few topics. Answering my own question, I thought that salvation and transfer of persons from the material realm to some kind of world after death is a topic unique to the Word. Of course the topic of God itself is the first special domain of the prophets.
I then posed the question to Google, and what came up?
World Scripture, which is organized in terms of 164 different themes common to all traditions researched from over 4000 scriptural passages from 268 sacred texts and 55 oral traditions. This text is the result of a five-year project involving the collaboration of an international team of 40 recognized scholars representing all the major religions of the world.
I now have something of an answer; but many of these 164 different themes are forms of human wisdom and may have been covered just as well in secular, humanistic writings. Plato and Aristotle cover a multitude of ethical topics which arise from human intellect. The people of the Word may say, however, that any theme included in the Word is, by virtue of this, more perfect.
The era of the appearances of the Word, the axial age, brought me to another way of identifying unique topics of the Word. Karl Jaspers proposed an axial age, running from 800 to 200 BC, during which similar revolutionary thinking appeared in Persia, India, China, and the Occident. Humans began to see themselves, via their guides and diviners, as beings with conscience, responsibility, guilt, merit and salvation or damnation in the afterlife.
The axial age was “a major breakthrough from pre-axial beliefs that involved their recognition of the great chasm between the transcendental/cosmic order, and ordinary human existence.”
Another Google search brought me to “Key ideas of the Axial Age” (not all adopted everywhere):
- Increasing spiritualization of religion, moving away from emphasis on ritual
- Internalization of right and wrong (development of a moral conscience) as opposed to punishment-reward systems
- Monotheism [in addition to long standing polytheism]
- Divine love
- Political and ethical rationalism
- Natural rationalism – math, science
- Increased emphasis on religion in explaining human existence
- Increased emphasis on the nature of human relationship to the divine
- De-emphasis on the importance of ritual and sacrifice in religious behavior
- Animism and shamanism saw ritual as means to seek favor from gods and spirits
- Axial Age religion moves away from the ‘magic’
Professor Mark W. Muesse covers the entire spectrum of this fascinating Axial age in 24 lectures. View it and it will change your life.
Having reviewed some aspects of the province of the Word, there is the question of how the prophets have claimed proof that the Word is revealed of God to them. Religious authorities step in to bolster the claims often with a dash of piquant “or else” added, if you get my meaning.
Yes there is the threat of charge of heresy for doubters, but ideally the primary assurances to accept the Word rest upon benevolent exhortation to believe and have faith in the mysteries—give in to a willing suspension of disbelief, and the disqualification of disbelief. An example of this was a Baptist minister I once invited to address my class on the history of Christianity at the now closed Christian Brothers College of Santa Fe. He joyfully held up above his head a bible and declared, “The Bible is inerrant,” no questions asked.
Whole institutions arise to set forth the Word. There are the Yeshivas and rabbis who study their Word. There are the Madrasas for study of the Koran. There is Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. There is the Magisterium or teaching authority of the Catholic Church. There is the Book of Mormon and its adherents with their legend. L. Ron Hubbard produced his Scientology: The Fundamentals of Thought. Professor Thomas F. Scanlon, in a production of The History Channel, commented that Homer gave the Greeks their gods and the closest thing they had to a bible. In ancient times, too, there were the oracles and their temples, especially Delphi, where Apollo spoke. But oracles gave advice and told fortunes, though in Egypt an oracle proclaimed Alexander to be divine.
The call to believe the Word is also potentiated by the authorities who direct the people to trust their folk memory and the intuitions, glories and entitlements of their epic sagas and journeys as God’s own people. See for example PBS productions: From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, and The Kingdom of David—the epic story of the Jews and the creation of the world’s first and most profoundly influential monotheistic religion. These documentaries illustrate the power of the meme “We are the people of God,” and we have the Word of our book to show this forth resplendently to all the world.
In addition, the authorities point to signs, wonders and miracles as omens of realms beyond this material world—a metaphysical substrate from which the Word emanates: “My kingdom is not of this world.”
Though the Word (now specifically Judeo-Christian) enjoins the people to be kind to the stranger and to the chosen brethren, the people and their Word often morph into religious monads with inevitable features of ethnocentrism, intolerance, fanaticism, doctrinal disputations, dogmatic hairsplitting—all of which produces both exclusivity, orthodoxy and the witch hunt. Need I say more? These outcomes contradict the gospel/good news teachings of kindness and good will that every scripture purports to contain. But then such is human nature that no matter how good the moral encouragements may be, our noxious instincts, the toxic unconscious and the will to power just seem to be too strong to prevent inquisitions, burnings at the stake, water boarding, the rack and genocides. One group says: “We are the people of God!” Another group answers: “No, no. We are the elect, the chosen!” But, too, there are always the mystics unencumbered by the forms, bureaucracies and shenanigans of doctrines, who are tolerant and charitable to one and all.
Santa Fe artist Amy Stein, having read a draft of this piece, commented:
My feeling is that probably most of us can only believe if we have had a very intense, personal, powerful and emotional spiritual experience that is beyond rational evaluation. Even in these cases of a mystical personal breakthrough, the rational, scientific mind tries to reason, evaluate, and invalidate the experience.
The Ten Commandments mentioned in two books of the old testament. Who actually wrote them?
The first commandment (Book of Exodus) is “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.” It brings people to worship, to praise and to plead with an over-mind that is out there, and able to hear and communicate back out to us in a Voice. Actually it is only a select few who say they hear the Voice. These are called the elect and prophets. Abraham is one such, and Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. They have heard the Voice and eventually the communications were written down by others. The Voice goes silent with the demise of these elect ones. But through the years, mystics and saints come along who say they too have heard the Voice, and it is definitely not just their own voice in their heads.
Ordinary people who follow the Voice (that they have only heard tell of) assemble in churches, temples, sacred spaces, etc. and actually attend, not to the Voice, but to Silence. They sing songs in the silence, pray, and listen to sermons, but there is no sound of the original Voice.
What is not empirically obvious is the big IT, ITSELF—the “I am that I am.” Also not showing up, but reported in Bhagavad Gita: “The Brahman…which is immutable, and independent of any cause but Itself.” Divine puissance is not at all empirically obvious—except to mystics out there somewhere.
What is doubtless obvious to any sentient being are the people in their sacred building—and OK, the people are sacred too.
How to close this little thought experiment? I am not sure. I turn the matter over to Dr. Daniel N. Robinson, according to whom the true philosopher, were she to hear that some word was being put forth as the Word of God, would ponder and then deliver the question, hopefully respectfully, “But, can we be sure?”
Summa Theologica (1265–1274)
It was necessary for our salvation that there be a knowledge revealed by God, besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because the human being is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason. “The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee” (Isaiah 64:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation.
Originally published at: https://santafe.com/blogs/the-word-of-god