Our Common Thread
Over the last couple of decades, I’ve had the opportunity to travel widely throughout the world. Those trips, especially over the last decade, have taken me to all manner of temples, shrines, and churches representing multiple religious traditions. In particular, I’ve been struck by the commonality of symbols, traditions, stories and interpretations of our human experiences across the millennia. It’s become clear to me that the diversity among these common threads is the end result of the many cultural overlays which have been laid down as God’s children have grown and developed.
These common threads also serve as the foundation for the various religious and belief systems that underlie our cultures and societies throughout the world. Furthermore, the common threads are an extension of the ancient Egyptian, Persian, Chinese, Indian, Greek and Turkish cultures which have contributed to the evolution of the dominant faiths, beliefs and practices of Christianity and Islam. The interwoven threads among the stories that compose the patchwork of these quilted religious beliefs reflect the human story of the times. In addition, our understanding of the universe around us at the time these stories evolved is also part of the underlying fabric. At one point the earth was the center of the universe with the sun, the moon and stars serving as the dominate sources of theistic signs of Gods presence. We also have other stories like “the flood” which is repeated in many forms across many cultures. Love is a common attribute. And, the list goes on…
Among all these common stories and deities; however, there’s one character — among a diverse set of characters — that stands out from the crowd. The character is not just a common thread, nor even our common thread but, the common thread of the whole theological tableau of religions throughout the centuries. It’s a character we think we know a lot about but, in fact, one where we know very, very little. It’s a character described with much adulation but also with considerable generality. It’s a character that is perhaps the most important in defining our character. And, the character is defined by a common question: “Who is God?” It’s a question that has vexed mankind for millennia.
Maybe, it’s because I’m getting older and reaching that next phase of life where we all get a bit more anxious about what’s next? In fact, the essence of our own existence starts to hit home. We truly begin to ponder: What’s Next? The answer to that question in most cases is pre-defined by the answer we adopt to the looming question: Who is God? Furthermore, how we answer the question is most frequently derived from the foundation for our core beliefs generated at an earlier age as Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or “pick-your-favorite-belief”. Think about that for a moment…
It’s been my experience that we don’t really think much about What’s Next? until we begin to realize that what’s out there is a lot closer than what’s back there. At a certain point, we develop a sense of urgency in answering the question. It tends to begin when we reach that point in our life where we start to give serious thought about our presence here on Earth, what our life has been and the impact we’ve had on those around us. We begin to see the finality of what has been, what we have known, the physicality of our existence…
The question of What’s Next? also precipitates many other questions that may not appear at first blush in visiting a temple or memorial. For example, when I visited the pyramids, my thoughts were not so much on whichever Rameses the monument was intended to remember but rather on who it was that built and died constructing the monument. What were their struggles? Were they forced into slavery? What were their aspirations? In their last breadth did they have a sense of contribution? Or, was their sole perspective about simply surviving? We really don’t know. Rather, we see the icons and marvel at the underlying efforts which etched into stone by these symbols.
In other words — the question of who and what we are to others, to our family, to our friends and even to society — all begins to make us pause. So, it is within this context that over the last several years, I’ve tried to nudge myself down the road toward a better understanding of Who is God?
Probably one of the first things we think of is that God gave us the “rules” to live by. Whether it’s the dictates of the Sun God Ra or the voice on the mountain top in the Sinai Peninsula, the rules are often the first element that comes to mind. In fact, the articulation of rules seems to be the foundation for almost all theologies which are then interpreted by the disciples, elders and spiritual leaders who adorn these rules with various religious meanings.
Beyond the dictates of the rules like the Ten Commandments there are the many, many lessons of compassion and love embodied by Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and others which are essential elements as well. Another example is the Torah which teaches a set of attitudes, paths and behaviors that constitute an essential part of our eternal covenant with God. Or, the Bhagavad Gita teaches us about the wholeness of life. And, these are but a few of the traditions among the many which we could cite as evidence for God’s presence in our lives.
But, God is more than rules, guideposts, pathways and interpretations! In fact, God is far more than any religion. I came to that way of thinking “a number” of years ago when I enrolled in the Introduction to Philosophy class as an undergraduate at my university. On the first day of class, the professor — a Catholic prieset — went around the classroom asking for introductions and an answer to the question of why we had enrolled in his class? I remember my response. I wanted to know: Who is God? At the end of class, he walked up to me and immediately gave me an assignment to read a book by Charles Hartshorne — an important religious philosopher of the 20th century. His central theological contribution was in addressing the very question I had put forward in class: Who is God?
What I learned through those early readings is that Hartshorne did not argue for the existence of God. He considered that a given. Rather, he was focused on the actuality of God or, how God exists. Rather than a Supreme Being, Hartshorne argued that God was a Supreme Becoming that continues forever. He actually went further and said that we humans “become” to a degree versus God who is “always becoming” — forever and ever.
So, ever since I spoke up in class, I’ve continued to ask myself: Who is God? But, it’s also one of those questions I’ve never really talked about or discussed with anyone outside of my philosophy course essay — not my best friends, not my pastors, not even my college theology professor to any great degree. I simply wrote detached, theoretical essays in an effort to answer the question. But, learning from lengthy discussions and debates were never a part of my portfolio of experiences in coming to grips with Who is God? Rather, I have pondered the question which continues to loom large in the back of my mind. And, it comes up every Sunday when I walk into the sanctuary of my church, sit down, look up at a very large picture of Jesus Christ above the alter and ask the question: Who is God?
Let me explain. The debate about God (monotheism) and gods (polytheism) has been around for millennia. The Egyptians, Persians, Indians, Chinese, Greeks, and Turks to say nothing about the Incas, Mayans, Polynesians and other native tribes have all provided a diverse array of perspectives over the millennia on Who is God? The attributes of God that emanated from these cultures were derived from their experiences and the knowledge they held about the world which surrounded them. In many cases, the sun took on particular importance. In other cases, the seasons were dominant. And, in still others special leaders, disciples or emissaries of God brought forward the word and the disciplines of a God-like life.
Then, in the early 17th century, two great philosophers arrived on the scene who through their writings had a profound impact on our thinking about Who is God? These thought leaders were particularly important — in my estimation — because they were the forerunners of thinking on God in the new, evolving “scientific” era of life on earth. Rene Descartes grappled with the mind-body dualism question — a central consideration in our knowledge of God. In his book, Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes attempted to demonstrate the existence of God and the distinction between the human soul and the body. His summary perspective was that “the mere fact that I exist and have within me an idea of a most perfect being, that is, God, provides a very clear proof that God indeed exists.” He went even further by surmising that our understanding of God could be gained through reason.
The second major player was a somewhat younger contemporary of Descartes, a mathematician-philosopher named Blaise Pascal who applied probability theory to the notion of God. Pascal believed that reason reached its limits when it came to proving the existence of God. He argued instead that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. His wager was that if God does not actually exist we will only experience the finite loss of pleasures, luxury, or other items in our physical life versus if God does exist we will experience infinite gains in the life to come. Pascal’s summary assessment was: “We know the truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart.”
These two luminaries not only addressed the Who question but also wrote various treatises on How? And, Where? And, What? And, even When God exists? I must admit that after a lot of internal debate on the Who is God? question, I lean toward Pascal with the added dimension that in my mind there is no Why! I start from that perspective because the shear complexity of the universe demands that there must be a God. So, I have “faith” in God not simply as a detached concept but as a deep embrace which I hold in my heart and my mind. Stop and consider: what position do you take?
The positions of Descartes and Pascal provide a pathway for understanding the differences or similarities and the common thread for all religions. Whether you adhere to the teachings of the Christian Bible, the Muslim Koran, the Hindu Bhagavad Ghita, the Buddhists teachings or any of the other great religions — what you find is that the quest for finding Who is God? is part and parcel to all of them. Regardless of the specific subdivision you might find appealing as it relates to theological thinking offered up by the likes of Luther to Calvin or, Ramakrishna to Guru Ravidas or, Ali ibn Abi Talib (Shia) to Abu Bakr (Sunni) or, pick your favorite flavor of religion — the end point is really an attempt to address the central question Who is God?
As we consider God in our new era of science and technology; however, we need to step back from the theology for a moment to consider the era’s impact on the question. Our appreciation of the world we live in has inexorably changed in recent centuries and even more so in recent decades. We now know that the universe is complex and continuously expanding. It is so large that it reaches beyond the outer edges of our ability to even see it all. But, our technology is getting better. We are now seeing multiple solar systems we didn’t even know existed even a couple of years ago. In fact, there are some scientists who argue that our universe may be one of many such entities or, part of the so-called “multiverse”. Our evolving understanding of the universe actually extends beyond all human understanding and, within that context it seems to me God must exist! But, that still leaves the question Who is God? hanging. At the same time, a consideration of the science can help us to understand “Who” God is. Let me explain.
Most of us live someplace where we know one another in our community or at least a few other people in the neighborhood. At the same time, we know that the world is bigger than our wonderful local living situation and the people we know. While we can converse with our neighbors and friends, we hear or read about the “other places” in the world. Increasingly, we can even experience them on a virtual basis. The essence of our life is the stability of our knowledge. The knowable becomes comfortable.
In the latter part of the 19th Century, during the Industrial Revolution, our lives were disrupted by technologies that completed our jobs better, faster, quicker! Suddenly, all of the comfort of our local situation was disrupted and the Luddites rioted in the streets. Then, we settled down — for a while. In fact, we’ve seen the disruptions of local comfort multiple times over the last several centuries and the frequency of these disruptions seems to be accelerating. In fact, these disruptions are at the heart of the current animosities between various perspectives that seem prevalent across the world at the moment. But, that’s another topic for another day.
The changes and disruptions are accelerating. For example, we now know — or, at least most of us — that the world is not flat. In fact, the world we live in is a mid-range planet among the many planets in the universe. That discovery has made the our local situation or even the confines of planet Earth part of something far bigger than we’ve considered in the past. So, to understand our place in the universe, we started to explore what’s out there! Through our discovery, we have learned about the vast variety and complexity of the home we call Earth and the many other planets of the universe.
But, it was all hypothetical until the reality hit home. This past year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. I — like virtually everyone over the age of the mid-50s — remember exactly where I was when Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon and said, “That’s one small step for man. That’s one giant leap for mankind.” I know for myself that I still tingle a bit when I hear those words. Suddenly, our world had changed. Our known world suddenly took a step beyond the world we had come to accept — the confines of Mother Earth. We were now able to touch, feel and embrace a place next door but far away, called the Moon. We were no longer captive to the elements of the life that we knew. We suddenly realized there was more out there to explore that extended far beyond our local communities or the oceans or the continents. We could now cross boundaries to places outside the confines of our home planet.
Now, we are being told that there may be evidence of early stage life on Mars — a planet that many of us had been taught was inhospitable to life as we know it. There was even the recent announcement on the discovery of an exoplanet very similar to Earth that’s a mere 12 light years away! Before we know it, we humans will be making plans to visit the closest solar system — Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy — just 70,000 light years away! And a new announcement just came through in October 2019 about a galaxy next door to the Milky Way where the light that is reaching us dates back to the Big Bang.
To make a complex situation even more complex, astronomers in Denmark have discovered an additional 300,000 solar systems beyond the estimated 100 billion we have already discovered as part of the “knowable” universe. Where did those additional 300,000 come from? The obvious answer is: they were there all the time. We just couldn’t see them because our telescopes were not strong enough. Just like a century ago — they were there all the time — beyond our recognition because the information and knowledge about their existence was beyond the grasp of human capability.
What does this mean for us mere humans? And, for the task at hand, what does it mean for answering the question: Who is God? Historically, we humans have been at the epicenter and served as the pinnacle of God’s creation. But, to put it all in perspective, scientists posit that the knowable universe consists of at least 40 billion — yes, BILLION!! — planets about the same size as Mother Earth with about one-fourth of them in orbits around suns like our own or, approximately 10 billion planets like Earth that could possibly support life. Let’s assume that only 1% of them actually do support life of some sort. If the conservative estimate were to hold true, we would have about 100 million planets able to support some form of life. At least one of them must be supporting some type of life form similar or at least as intelligent as we humans. The likelihood of even more intelligent life than we humans is also a distinct possibility. Think about that for a moment…
The question that percolates to the top of all this information is whether or not God created more smart — or, even smarter — creatures like or even beyond human capability? The odds would clearly seem to be in favor of diversity. In other words, we’re most likely not the only ones thinking about God! In fact, I suspect that we may not be the smartest bulbs in the universe! And, as our understanding of the knowable universe continues to expand with telescopes and other devices which are strengthened by a factor of 10 or 100 in another decade or so — the universe which seems endless may be part of a multiverse. It is beyond comprehension. And, so is God! That is the whole point…
So, why is all of this so important? The essence of my argument is that the complexity, diversity and sheer magnitude of the universe creates a compelling argument for answering the critical question: Who is God? It sets the stage for the fact that humans are no longer the central part of the equation when it comes to God. In fact, the speed of change and complexity of the universe we are discovering requires a reconsideration of the critical question Who is God? It’s clear the anthropomorphism of God is dishonest, disingenuous and deceitful at best. God is far more than some white bearded, elder male sitting off in the clouds handing out entries to heaven. The mythical god is not a real God. Our traditions are being challenged across all religions resulting in a continuous decline of involvement among younger generations who see the disconnect of religion from science. Is it any wonder that for many religions throughout the world the predominant participants are the aging of members of the local church, synagogue, mosque or other comparable gathering place?
While our continuously expanding knowledge of the universe is challenging all presuppositions about Who is God? — our knowledge of God does not exceed Descartes’ method of doubt test which he describes in his First Meditation. Descartes argued that we need to put aside all beliefs that create any doubt. Again, his summary perspective was that “the mere fact that I exist and have within me an idea of a most perfect being, that is, God, provides a very clear proof that God indeed exists.” Our technology is at the point where it’s not simply a matter of seeing the light of distant galaxies. It is also extending our whole notion of universe. The information we traditionally gather through the senses — while part of our equation — are no longer sufficient for defining the whole construct of the concept we refer to as universe. God is clearly beyond our comprehension or, that than which nothing greater can be conceived.