28 October 2006


...or Belief and the Nature of the Divine.

I'm staring at this blank white screen knowing that whatever words I type will create a form that is smaller than I imagine God to be. My idea of God, in turn, is just a small part of what God actually is.

Maybe I should quit while I'm ahead and delete this post.

I don't believe in God. I don't believe in God the same way I don't believe in rain or cinnamon toast or integrated circuits. I also don't believe in God the same way I don't believe in numbers, or geometric points, or the calculus.

My training is in mathematics. It was fortunate for me that I wasn't asked to believe in the concept of number, or the existence of points and lines and circles, or the reality of the mystical zero, or all of that dancing around with deltas and epsilons. At the heart of every mathematical system, there are a few concepts that are accepted without proof. The proof, such as it is, rests in the beauty and utility of the resulting system of mathematics.

God is like that for me. I don't believe in God. I posit God and then test the beauty and utility of the resulting system of religion. I accept that God, rather than being a sort of anthropomorphic entity that sits in the clouds, is an abstract idea that sits in the human mind. Once we posit God, however, we have access to a tremendous realm of human thought and spiritual practice.

When I'm doing math, it looks exactly as though I believe in the concepts I've posited. In casual conversation, it might sound as though I believe in the concrete existence of the mighty Zero. Likewise, when I'm doing religion (praying or sitting in silent worship or trying to discern God's will for my life), it looks exactly as though I believe in God.

And I do believe in God, in the same way that I believe in Beauty or Truth or Justice. I believe in whatever underlying truth that the human concept of "God" represents. I accept that there are many different notions about God, and that those notions more or less accurately describe whatever it is that actually exists in the Universe.

I have to face facts, though: when human beings talk about God, we're talking about something we don't know very much about. I imagine us throwing sand at an invisible object and trying to describe the object by the patterns in the sand. Sometimes we mistake the patterns in the sand for the object we're trying to describe.

One of the truest things in Quakerism is the rejection of outer forms. It dovetails nicely with Godel's Incompleteness Theorem and the idea that the map is not the territory. When I read Fox, I hear a warning against taking any human system of thought too seriously. A true Quaker (or a true scientist) delves deeper. When the map doesn't match the territory, the wise human changes the map, not the terrain beneath her feet.

In the case of God and me, the terrain is my life and my inner guide. When an idea about God resonates with my own experience, I toss it in my God-box and incorporate it into my map of God. When an idea about God contradicts my experience (or offends my sensibilities), I set it aside. With humility, I hope, as my own human understanding of the Divine is limited.

Polytheistic systems delight me, as they seem to give God more prancing room. Humans have a richer picture of God when God includes such varied faces as Isis and Horus and Osiris and Nut. The ancient Hawaiians (who have a pretty impressive stable of Gods of their own) had an idea that there were not only many Gods, but an infinite number of Gods, an uncountably infinite number of Gods. It tickles my mathematical mind to think that the set of Gods has the same cardinality as the set of real numbers. It gives me some idea of how big and varied God actually is.

I was shocked and disappointed when I first read the whole Bible at age 11, and disappointed again when I read the holy books of various other faiths. The box that each holy book created for God seemed far too small for the reality of God that I experienced and imagined. I wanted something bigger, less parochial, less human. I wanted an idea of God big enough and generous enough and loving enough to cover, not just all of humanity, but all other life that shares this sphere with us, and everything else in the universe.

There is a Pagan notion that God cannot be worshipped in any structure made by human hands. I try to keep that notion in mind when I sit in the box of the Meetinghouse with my community of Friends. We can worship in that box, but we can't put God in a box. God is bigger than any structure made by human hands. God is bigger than we can imagine.


Chris M. said...


Thanks, this is helpful. I was never any good with deltas and epsilons. As a physics undergrad, I learned way more math in my physics classes than I did in my mathematics courses. I took the "applied math" class instead of diffy Q's and came out feeling stumped! Just something about how my brain works, I guess.

As for God, I love the way you've described God as almost an axiom, which results in a system that we can test.

I've just read Karen Armstrong's A History of God and the takeaway line for me was something along the lines of: "Imagination is the religious faculty." We'll never be able to scientifically prove God's existence, we simply choose to live with the concept, knowing the concept is not equal to whatever it is the concept is pointing to.

-- Chris M.

kwattles said...

Heather, you write how you were shocked and disappointed when you first read the Bible, and again when you read the holy books of other faiths. "The box that each holy book created for God seemed far too small for the reality of God that I experienced and imagined."

In reading the bible, I've had an occasional shock of recognition that others saw the same point you're making, and they wanted to be sure to share it. This doesn't excuse the box-building that is also found there, but it does subvert it in a helpful way.

The same for early Quakers, unlike the impression that many readers seem to take away with them. For instance, the passage that I quoted today in the SCS blog. (I'm visiting here as a result of your comment there.) And interestingly enough, when early Quakers cite the bible, they're often picking up on passages and pointing out just what we're talking about here. I've learned a lot by taking them seriously, and by not trying to put them into preconceived boxes.

Liz Opp said...


It's nice to find my way back to your blog! I really appreciate and enjoy this post. It reminds me of things I have read or heard from a few nontheist Friends, despite the fact that you come out with a different understanding of/relationship with God then some do.

And I love the line, "When the map doesn't match the territory, the wise human changes the map, not the terrain beneath her feet."

Now off i go to look at other posts of yours that I've missed!

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up