One God at Most, or Two Gods at Least?

If I am to speak of God at all, even metaphorically, I find I must speak of two gods. This may be the reason I tend not to speak of God. Both gods speak to me as metaphors, but I have difficulty calling them by the same name.

It is not the world that my theology splits in two, nor is it truth. The world is what it is, and cares nothing for our distinctions. It is often paradoxical, but it is not dual.

Rather, I find that any theology centrally concerned with values must split the world in two, though theologians typically go to great lengths to deny that any split has taken place. This is what they call the “problem of evil.”

First–and needing to be named first–is the god of creation, of Genesis, of the Book of Job, of the all-creating and all-destroying cosmic dance of Shiva. This god, hereafter referred to as God1, can rightly be described as creative, powerful, generous, and also horrifying, indifferent at best and brutal at worst. Out of God1 emerged life, which can only continue as long as it devours itself, literally. Violence, death, disease and suffering are not occasional flukes when life gets out of balance, but central aspects of the way life works, particularly in its most highly evolved forms.

God1, the first god to be portrayed in the Bible, is a personification of the way the world presents itself to us, in all its fierceness and glory. It is not nice; in fact I would not go so far as to say it is good, though it it might be said to contain niceness and goodness. As Job learned, it is not wise to conceive of God1 as just; it has bigger fish to fry. Job’s story is not a morality tale, but a wisdom tale, in which the hero (Job, not God) learns to willingly accept the world as it is, and not as his human sense of justice tells him it should be. Justice is real and important, even moreso are love and compassion, but none are qualities of concern to God1.

God1 serves magnificently as a metaphor for the natural world and our incessant but ultimately insufficient efforts to understand it. As a model for how to treat one another, however, it falls seriously short. To treat my fellow creatures as God1 treats me would not be living up to the light within me. That light–call it Christ, Buddha, love, compassion, the living presence–is not God1. Enter God2.

Confusing these two gods is not just a harmless theological technicality, but a serious and fundamental error in most theology, providing justifications for great cruelty and insensitivity to suffering in the world and in religious practice.

In the liberal Christian tradition we are taught that God is love, that God is good, that God is the ground of all being. The logical conclusion is that everything is good. This is false. We are also taught that there is sin, which is the result of human error, and is the cause of our suffering. This is also false as a blanket statement, though it contains some element of truth. A person dying of cancer, or afflicted with a severe disability, or starving because they were born in famine, suffers at the hand of God1, and if we seek to relieve this suffering, it will have to be in the name of God2, not God1. Which is to say, it will be the best of our flawed human selves. That of God2 must seek to overcome that of God1, even though the irresistible power of God1 means we will often, and ultimately, fail.

In a sense, I must admit, all of this is false. God2 exists within God1, cannot exist outside of it. There is a grand and complete unity at the deepest level of existence, but that unity is not consonant with goodness. When we fail to distinguish between truth (that which is the case) and goodness (hard to define, but a good start would be, active compassion for all living creatures), we cannot rightly discern either.

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More discussion ot this subject HERE.

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9 Responses to One God at Most, or Two Gods at Least?

  1. Liz Opp July 15, 2006 at 1:45 pm #

    James, you write:

    As a model for how to treat one another, however, [God-1] falls seriously short. To treat my fellow creatures as God¹ treats me would not be living up to the light within me.

    I don’t think you and I are very far apart about asking the Real God to stand up. But where you seem to reject God, I reject the image of God that I grew up with.

    The good Jewish girl that I was, I bought into what I was taught, that God was all-powerful and all-knowing. Come to think of it, I don’t think I was ever taught that God was all-loving, all-compassionate.

    But when I was old enough–in my 20s–to have my own direct relationship with God, away from Shabbat services, Sunday school, and orthodox Jewish grandparents, I came to know that God is in fact NOT all-powerful and NOT all-knowing.

    I was furious that I hadn’t been told the truth by my Sunday school teachers. But I was joyous that I had found a way to access Something that reflected my own vision of how to be in the world: that God is all-compassionate and weeps when any of us fail to live up to our measure of Light.

    Granted, I have read you in other places, and I know that you yourself cannot use the word “God” to describe certain experiences in your life and still be in integrity with yourself. I think you experience Mystery in a way similar to how I sometimes experience what I call God or Spirit or even the Living Presence.

    But I have drifted from my point, which is mostly one of curious observation:

    Some of us insist that there is no God because our experience differs so greatly from our understanding of what God was supposed to be. (I question if my older brother is like this.) Others of us insist that there IS God because we threw out what we were told God was supposed to be–and then came to know God in an unencumbered way and without any expectations. God and I have come to know one another on our own terms. And that is part of the Mystery, I suppose…

    Blessings,
    Liz, The Good Raised Up

  2. David Barry Lawrence July 15, 2006 at 3:26 pm #

    Dear James,

    This kind of touches on my feelings about what gods are. For the most part, the gods that you describe and a host of others that could be described are all of human creation and could not possibly describe the-God-that-I-don’t-believe-in. I think that classical theological systems all tend to converge on the idea that any god that could be described cannot be the true/real god ie that god could not be comprehended by or bounded by human imagination and is wholly beyond our understanding.

    The next question to arise is whether we merely imagine that there is a god in order to account for our lack of understanding of the world/cosmos that we live in, the god of the gaps that is essentially made out of our lack of understanding and insecurity about our situation. I would advocate athiesm, ie not responding to this situation by constructing a false explanation of it but living with our anxiety about the unknown. This prevents us from making mistaken actions upon false premises offered by over-elaborated ideologies ( I have in mind both political and religious ideologies, and probably political and philosophical ones aswell, maybe even scientific ones ).

    This does not however mean that something that some might lable god does not exist in a way that we do not understand and yet possibly might understand at some future date. I like to lable it the “Nomos” ie “Law” because I think that it is possible that given time and opportunity we might discover how the cosmos works, and we can certainly learn more. It offers the possibility of religion positively seeking after more future revelations instead of resting upon some past one erected as sanctified holy writ. If god really exists then She/He/It is a reality that can be discovered if not comprehended all at once, and be described bit by bit as a continent can be mapped by report.

    I have a problem with non-theism in that it seems to ignore quakerism’s potential for going out there -or rather in there- and discovering unmapped spirituality – nontheists seem to approach spirituality from a theoretical point of view that compares with early geographers who having begrudgingly conceded that the world is round insisted that it must be a perfect sphere and possess a counterweight continent in the pacific ocean to balance the others…ok maybe that’s a bit hard, but I am a quaker on the basis of its experimental nature. If my thesis that there is no god is challenged by the evidence I have to consider revising it or rejecting it. To the best of my knowledge quakerism is the only religion advocating this approach, and so for me the only religion that I can practice.

    As a possible thesis, I still relate in a way to the-god-that-I-don’t-believe-in as a possible explanation of the cosmos and even address remarks to She/He/It occasionally in moments of frustration but then I try to get on with dealing with what things I know and figuring out the things that I don’t know in order to order my life better. The-god-that-I-don’t believe-in naturally has to be made up of the things that I don’t believe in, the unknown god is simply unknown and speculation about a god beyond our knowing can only be carried out in terms that are derived from what we know – defeating the excercise.

    We have no evidence for the existence of gods yet we still need to do religion anyway and so must cope with the anxiety of not knowing enough to be able to certainly cope with our lives. What I have learned from other religions is that gods are simply intellectual devices for ordering systems of thought, governing meta-ideas that lead to misleading conclusions : to avoid this we have to learn to do without gods whilst retaining the established values of religion that the gods were personifications of.

    If there is an outstanding point in the story of Jesus that makes me strongly identify with him – more than any other character portrayed in any other religion that I know something about – it is his decision not to escape from the garden of Gethsemane. Taking the story at face value, Jesus fully knows the likely consequences of staying and his confidence in a living god seems to desert him leaving him with nothing but his fragile beliefs : yet he chooses to live out his life in accordance with the beliefs that he has committed himself to, with the ideology that has become indivisable from his sense of self. I am not saying that this inspires me to share his beliefs, but his example is challenging regardless of the consequences that followed from it. A lot of people in a lot of religions have constructed ideologies around differing ideas of gods that have had the same compelling effect upon their actions, often for the general wellbeing of society….sometimes not. I see this construction of ideology, individually and collectively, to be the real business of religion – and these ideologies that we construct do not need to have gods at their centres as controlling ideas, they do not even need to have centres.

    David B. Lawrence, Cardiff p.m., South Wales m.m., Britain y.m.

  3. James Riemermann July 16, 2006 at 6:19 pm #

    Dear Liz,

    You wrote:

    Some of us insist that there is no God because our experience differs so greatly from our understanding of what God was supposed to be. (I question if my older brother is like this.) Others of us insist that there IS God because we threw out what we were told God was supposed to be–and then came to know God in an unencumbered way and without any expectations. God and I have come to know one another on our own terms. And that is part of the Mystery, I suppose…

    Basically, both gods I refer to I see as purely metaphorical, shorthand for aspects of human experience in what I see as a purely natural world. Mysterious, yes, but entirely natural, and without any ultimate purpose. The fact that the world is mysterious, is far beyond my comprehension, does not suggest to me that there is some vast intelligence or consciousness behind it all.

    My splitting God into two is a metaphorical means for showing how the most common understanding of God has a fault line running down its center.

    The notion of God as a creator, I see as a personification of the vast, awesome, frightening, but incredibly creative world in which we live. That world exists, but the personification is merely a metaphor — a very good, deep, rich, useful metaphor, but still a metaphor. This metaphorical God is not consonant with love, and it is not what I seek to follow in my dealings with my fellow creatures.

    The notion of God as love, as that which guides us, individually and communally, I also see as a metaphor, for something just as mysterious and just as natural as the first metaphorical god. This second metaphorical God, however, I see as entirely dependent on the existence of conscious and self-aware beings in relationship with each other and the world around us. It emerges not entirely from within us, nor does it come entirely from outside of us. Rather, it emerges out of the relationship between a self-aware being, and the world in which that self moves. It cannot manifest itself without that self, nor can it manifest itself without the external world with which that self is in relationship.

    When a group of self-aware beings come together in worship, for the express purpose of beholding and honoring the web of relationship that connects us all, something extraordinary can happen. We become intensely and viscerally aware of just how deep and pervasive that web is, and the illusory notion of the self — crucial to everyday life, and not to be abandoned — falls away. We are one with each other and with everything that exists. Not a supernatural notion, but a natural fact that we rarely catch sight of.

    I do think there are some strong similarities in our views, but I suspect — could be wrong — that we might genuinely differ as to the origins of the event I describe above. I believe that, for all its wonder and mystery, it is as natural and ordinary as earth, wind, fire, water. I could be wrong, but I have found no reason to believe that all this magnificence has any ultimate purpose beyond the purposes imaginatively attached to it by conscious beings. I suspect we do not agree on this point. But that (possible) disagreement seems to me no barrier to our being in religious, covenantal community.

    Moreover, I think conversations like these, where real and significant differences emerge (as well as real and significant likenesses) are essential to that community. The more we know each other, the deeper we can go.

    P.S. I need to add, I don’t wish to reject either of these gods in their metaphorical sense. They both serve purposes in trying to describe how the world seems to us. But when we speak of them as one and the same, conversation gets muddled. We come to the absurd conclusion that everything that happens, or at least everything that happens outside of human sin, is good.

  4. ryan July 28, 2006 at 9:59 pm #

    The two God aproach even as metaphor seems to relate closely to Gnostic belief. In gnosticism original creation took place at the hands of a flawed God. This is the answer for sin after all a perfectly created being would not sin, much the way a perfectly created computer program would not create generate errors. The gnostics believed that original sin, did nopt occour in Eden, but in the flawed being who created it. THe snake in this story is not the devil, but the hero of the story. Eating from the tree of knowledge revealed the failings of God and indicated the need to surpass the comands of man kinds creator to find true liberation.

  5. James Riemermann July 28, 2006 at 10:47 pm #

    Interesting thought, Ryan.

    I really haven’t read much about gnosticism, and what I’ve read I have not understood very well.

    I would agree that the pain and suffering in the world is not of human origin, but built right into life. The fundamental dynamic of life is that it must devour itself to continue. This is not nice, perfect, a formula for peace, love and unity. It does seem to be a formula for diversity, for change, which is something I value. It is a blessing and a curse, like pretty much everything is at the deepest levels.

    If the gnostic view is that human beings can overcome this fundamental dynamic of life, through knowledge or any other means, I’d have to disagree, very strongly. We can find better ways to adapt to our reality, to gracefully accept reality, and to comfort each other. But the world is what it is.

  6. Zach August 13, 2006 at 5:36 pm #

    Liz, you write:

    “I don’t think you and I are very far apart about asking the Real God to stand up. But where you seem to reject God, I reject the image of God that I grew up with.

    The good Jewish girl that I was, I bought into what I was taught, that God was all-powerful and all-knowing. Come to think of it, I don’t think I was ever taught that God was all-loving, all-compassionate.

    But when I was old enough–in my 20s–to have my own direct relationship with God, away from Shabbat services, Sunday school, and orthodox Jewish grandparents, I came to know that God is in fact NOT all-powerful and NOT all-knowing.

    I was furious that I hadn’t been told the truth by my Sunday school teachers. But I was joyous that I had found a way to access Something that reflected my own vision of how to be in the world: that God is all-compassionate and weeps when any of us fail to live up to our measure of Light.” (underlining mine)

    Liz, what you’re saying (and I don’t mean to single you out; I’ve heard others saying basically the same thing) strikes me as a little presumptious. If I’m reading you correctly, you (1) were brought up to believe in something called God. (2) You were taught that this thing called God was all-powerful and all-knowing. (3) You decided you didn’t believe in “the God I grew up with” – that you don’t believe in a God that is all-powerful and all-knowing. (4) You decided you did believe in “Something” that is all-loving and all-compassionate. (5) Finally you decided that you would call this loving Something by the name “God.”

    The last step seems unjustified. I mean, imagine an analogy. (1) You were brought up to be a supporter of a group called the Klu Klux Klan. (2) You were taught that their aims were to preserve the power of the white race in the USA. (3) You decide you don’t believe in this group’s aims, and that you’re therefore going to leave. (4) You later encounter a group of people who are doing acts of charity in your neighborhood — cleaning up litter, running errands for the elderly, etc., and decide you do believe in what they’re about, and so are going to join them. (5) You decide to refer to them as “the Klu Klux Klan”, maybe because they happen to wear white clothes. And so as you see it, you haven’t rejected the KKK – just the KKK that you grew up with.

    Again, I think step (5) is the mistake. Why decide that this group of people dressed in white should be called the KKK, considering that this is not the meaning the name “KKK” has for almost the entire community of speakers? Why decide this Something you believe in should be called “God”, considering that for virtually everyone else, “God” means an all-powerful, all-knowing being – precisely the being you don’t believe in?

    It sounds like a recipe for confusion, and perhaps even unplain speech. And I wonder what the motivation behind it is; are you afraid of facing the social and intellectual consequences of your choice in step (3), to stop believing the God that you and most every other theist was taught to believe in? Your calling your Something by the name “God” allows you to be accepted by the God-believing majority, disguising your very real disagreement with them? Does it disguise your sharp break from Quaker tradition – most Friends have believed in “the God of your childhood,” even such liberal saints as John Woolman – and allow you to forget how much your Something is indeed “reflects my own vision” is different from the omnipotent God of most all of Quaker tradition (even many modern liberal Friends, apparently)?

    As I said to a Young Adult Friend at NEYM last weekend, “I think we’re trying to appropriate [steal?] a word for our own purposes that we can’t really appropriate.”

  7. Zach August 13, 2006 at 5:55 pm #

    Please excuse the poor proofreading in the second to last paragraph…

  8. Liz Opp August 31, 2006 at 10:50 am #

    Zach,

    What comes to mind for me is that we cannot know the personal experience that another person has had, including experiences that convince a person that there is (or isn’t) a Living Presence. Given my experience, I most frequently feel clear to name that Presence “God.” I don’t expect you to understand the visceral, nonverbal, nonrational way I came to understand God. It’s clear to me, though, that naming that Presence as “God” works for me; I hear it doesn’t work for you.

    Also, the thing I “decided” on my own about the Judaism I grew up with was to reject what I had been taught about the nature of God. Beyond that, I intentionally use the phrase “came to know” rather than “decided” because what followed was not a conscious, intellectual act on my part.

    I am concerned that you seem to oversimplify my own experience in order that it might fit better into your own understanding and belief.

    Blessings,
    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  9. Zach September 14, 2006 at 12:17 pm #

    Liz, I agree that we cannot know the experience another person has had, which can be so radically different from our own.

    But I think it is for the best to find a balance between challenging people to defend their understanding of their experiences (sometimes people need/deserve it) and being respectful of the same (sometimes it is deeply inappropriate to challenge someone).

    I apologize if I went to far in the one direction. But I think you might be being a little too quick to judge. I did start out with “if I understand you correctly,” indicating I was open to hearing you explain things differently, as you have.

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