I don’t like “God”

The etymology of God comes from the proto-germanic word for “that which is invoked”.

Which is not a bad term to use for a supreme being; so why don’t I like it?

Perhaps it is the sound: too short, too round, too hard. It should rhyme with cod, sod, mod, rod, but doesn’t; the vowel-sound is lengthened unlike any word I can find (in Australian English, mind you).

It stands alone, doesn’t fit, which could be fitting for the subject.

But the word of our ancestor’s faith is Deus. Deus from the same root as Zeus, both from a root that means to gleam or shine, God being the shining thing.

Familiarity breeds contempt. Perhaps “God” is an invocation now so worn from over and mis-use it no longer shines?

In via negativa fashion we don’t have to give it a name. “The name which can be named is not the eternal name”. And when denoting an ineffable transcendent reality, a name is only as good as its power to invoke the thing named, or as a reminder of what it is and what it isn’t.

It’s hard to go beyond “I am He who is”.

We are supposed to go beyond concepts, let alone beyond names. So there’s no problem in not liking “God”, when what we really don’t like is centuries of accretion, familiarity, worldly meaning and false piety.  The more important thing is to know what we’re naming, whether and however we name it or not.

 

 

Reversion in Buddhism?

My PhD reading on Wang Bi the third century AD Neo-Daoist philosopher revealed the scholarly view that in his elevation of wu or “emptiness/non-being” as metaphysically and spiritually preeminent, Wang Bi prepared the way for the eventual popularity of Mahayana Buddhism in China.

In other words, Wang Bi’s metaphysical interpretation of wu gave Chinese thinkers an entry-point for the Buddhist concept of Sunyata or “emptiness”.

Reversion

So I am surprised to find in a description of Sunyata allusions to something that in a Daoist context is called ‘reversion’:

Calmness and extinction are the opposite of rising and falling. They are another way to express that there is no rising and falling. Rising and falling are the common characteristics of worldly existence. All phenomena are always in the cycle of rising and falling. However, most people concentrate on living (rising). They think that the universe and life are the reality of a continuous existence.

Buddhism on the other hand, promotes the value of a continuous cessation (falling). This cessation does not imply that it ceases to exist altogether. Instead, it is just a state in the continuous process of phenomena. In this material world, or what we may call this “state of existence”, everything eventually ceases to exist. Cessation is definitely the home of all existences. Since cessation is the calm state of existence and the eventual refuge of all phenomena, it is also the foundation for all activities and functions.

The Amitabha Buddha who was, and is, revered and praised by Buddhists around the world, radiates indefinite light and life from this “state of cessation”. This state is a continuous process of calmness. It will be the eventual refuge for us all. If we think carefully about the definitions of calmness and extinction, then we can deduce that they are the true natural end-points of rising and falling. The true nature of the cycle of rising and falling is calmness and extinction. Because of this nature, all chaos and conflicts in the state of rising and falling will eventually cease. This is attainable by the realisation of prajna.

I have often seen references to impermanence in the context of Sunyata, and of course if Sunyata underlies the rising and falling of existences, then Sunyata is metaphysically prior. But I have never before seen rising and falling depicted as a cycle with human values attributed to either end of the cycle. Yet as we see above, the text describes our (incorrect) tendency to focus on the ‘rising’ part of the cycle when in fact ‘falling’ is identified as the ‘home’ and ‘foundation’ of existences, activities, and functions, such that Amitabha is depicted as radiating light and life from the “state of cessation”.

This sounds strikingly similar to the Daoist principle of reversion that Edward Slingerland has elucidated so well in his discussion of wu-wei in the Laozi (Daodejing), and which I quoted previously in my Easter Vigil Notes:

Throughout the text we are presented with dyads of metaphorically “lower” and “higher” terms: soft/hard; weak/strong; empty/full. As Benjamin Schwartz notes, the “lower” (by conventional standards) term inevitably enjoys a higher true status in Laozi’s scheme than the ostensibly “higher” term; water, as he puts it, is “in a profounder sense stronger than stone” (Schwartz 1986: 203). Such is the Way the world works: that which is conventionally “high”(e.g., strong) inevitably reverts to the low (weakness), and thus true strength thus lies in holding to “weakness.” One is able to endure by holding fast to the “roots” (to “Nothing” and the negative qualities associated with it) and not getting dragged “up” into the realm of doing and regarding.

[…]

The Way itself is thus described in terms of “lower” qualities that actually encompass their opposites (“empty yet full”), and the best advice is to emulate the Way and hold fast to the conventionally lower element of the dyad. Once one is able to accomplish this, both sides of the dyad will be obtained.

It would be intriguing and encouraging indeed if the Buddhist interpretation quoted earlier is representative of Mahayana more generally. I’ve not come across it before, though most of what I have read has been far more preoccupied with maintaining the peculiar integrity of the Buddhist concept of Sunyata, and advancing ’emptiness’ against the more compelling evidence of our senses.

Indeed, absent the ‘necessary/contingent’ distinction presented in Christian-Hellenic philosophy, I’m not sure I could ever have grasped ’emptiness’ appropriately either. Buddhism has the handicap of having originated in opposition to a religious metaphysics that had – as far as I understand it – overplayed the idea of a divine, imperishable substratum of being. So we end up with quite challenging attempts to explain ’emptiness’ as things kinda sorta both existing and not existing, which I find very unsatisfying.

Much better, in my admittedly eccentric opinion, to explain Buddhism as the realisation of the contingency of all creation, without the corresponding necessity of a creator. And yet I think the creator is there, in the very modest positive depictions of Sunyata. Buddhism is like an apophatic theology written by someone deeply traumatised by an excessive cataphatic upbringing.  Imagine someone raised in the context of an overly superficial evangelical protestantism where God is essentially depicted as an immortal superhero, subsequently having an experience of “divine darkness” a la Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in, of course, an entirely pre-Christian and non-Judaic context:

The divine darkness is the inaccessible light in which God is said to dwell. And since He is invisible by reason of the abundant outpouring of supernatural light, it follows that whosoever is counted worthy to know and see God, by the very fact that he neither sees nor knows Him, attains to that which is above sight and knowledge, and at the same time perceives that God is beyond all things both sensible and intelligible, saying with the Prophet, “Thy knowledge is become wonderful to me; it is high, and I cannot reach to it.” In like manner, St Paul, we are told, knew God, when he knew Him to be above all knowledge and understanding; wherefore he says that His ways are unsearchable and His judgments inscrutable, His gifts unspeakable, and His peace passing all understanding; as one who had found Him who is above all things, and whom he had perceived to be above knowledge, and separate from all things, being the Creator of all.

Good Friday notes

One of the aspects of Chinese philosophy that appeals to me is the apparent intuitive grasp of theological themes made explicit centuries later in the events that form the heart of the Christian faith.  The Good Friday reading from Isaiah is likewise presented as a presaging of the messiah’s death and resurrection. This aspect of Chinese philosophy has not been well explored, though it appears in at least one book: Christ the Eternal Tao, written by a Russian Orthodox monk who was into Buddhism and Daoism before his conversion.

Personally, I appreciate being able to read these early Chinese texts as an intuitive attempt to depict the way of heaven, the Logos, without the more human, biographical aspects of biblical narrative and anthropomorphic interpretations of the divine.  Perhaps as an apophatic (negative) expression of theology, emphasising the darkness and mystery of God:

It is the law of heaven to make fullness empty and to make full what is modest; when the sun is at its zenith, it must, according to the law of heaven, turn toward its setting, and at its nadir it rises toward a new dawn. In obedience to the same law, the moon when it is full begins to wane, and when empty of light it waxes again. This heavenly law works itself out in the fates of men also. It is the law of earth to alter the full and to contribute to the modest. High mountains are worn down by the waters, and the valleys are filled up. It is the law of fate to undermine what is full and to prosper the modest. And men also hate fullness and love the modest.

– Yi Jing 15

The Yi Jing is an ancient book of wisdom and divination, dating anywhere from the 10th to the 4th centuries BC with commentaries added within the following few centuries.

The same theme emerges prominently in various passages of the Dao De Jing, a Daoist text dating to at least the 4th century BC:

Nothing under heaven is softer or more yielding than water; but when it attacks things hard and resistant there is not one of them that can prevail. For they can find no way of altering it.

That the yielding conquers the resistant and the soft conquers the hard is a fact known by all men, yet utilized by none.

Yet it is in reference to this that the Sage said “Only he who has accepted the dirt of the country can be lord of its soil shrines; only he who takes upon himself the evils of the country can become a king among those what dwell under heaven.” Straight words seem crooked.

– Dao De Jing 78

 

Finally, the first reading on Good Friday came from the Book of Isaiah, the 8th century BC Hebrew Prophet:

See, my servant will prosper, he shall be lifted up, exalted, rise to great heights.

As the crowd were appalled on seeing him – so disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human – so will the crowds be astonished at him, and kings stand speechless before him; for they shall see something never told and witness something never heard before…

Without beauty, without majesty (we saw him), no looks to attract our eyes; a thing despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering, a man to make people screen their faces; he was despised and we took no account of him…

…we thought of him as someone punished, struck by God, and brought low. Yet he was pierced through for our faults, crushed for our sins. On him lies a punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds we are healed…

The Lord has been pleased to crush him with suffering. If he offers his life in atonement, he shall see his heirs, he shall have a long life and through him what the Lord wishes will be done.

– Isaiah 52-53