THE GOD WHO WASN’T THERE
Talk presented at Unitarian Universalist Meeting of South County
Housatonic MA by Rich Hayes
"We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. And where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world."- Jos. Campbell
Some years ago a film came out called “The God Who Wasn’t There”. The film looks at the story of Jesus and points out that all the elements of the Jesus story have occurred before in other stories and cultures, going back as far as 2500 years before Jesus. It strongly suggests he never really existed and that He was a composite of these others and his story was a myth.
As I’m sure you can imagine, the movie stirred up controversy when it came out.
Well, even though I had moved away from organized religion and its teachings by that time, the idea that Jesus might never have existed troubled me….. a lot. You see I like Jesus. My problems weren’t with him, only with what religion had made of him.As an example, Jesus never said “worship me”…he said “Follow me” … as in do these things and you will see for yourself….
Anyway, confronting this notion of his never existing felt uncomfortable to me. Because, although I’d dismissed many of the things that had been told me by the church, I’d never ever stopped to consider whether Jesus might not have been a “real” person. To consider this actually felt a bit “unsettling” – almost dangerous to me!
But thanks to my struggles around this film, I came to realize something I’d not realized before: that there’s a big difference between “knowing” something and believing something!!! And I started to look at some of the other things I thought I knew. Some certainties started to fall apart on me. And that was not a good feeling! Why? Because I love certainty!!! And “knowing” seems to go hand in hand with it! Right? Yet, here I was, realizing that what I thought I knew was really just a belief.
After a number of days of being in this uncomfortable place – and not rushing to relieve the dis-ease it created in me thru diversion (surfing the web, reading Yahoo new feeds, shopping) something finally broke thru to me. It came in the form of a question: What if the “ God who wasn’t there” has obscured the ONE THAT is?
Let’s imagine, as this film does, the possibility that it is a Myth. Then what? If Joseph Campbell were here with us, he’d probably remind us that just because something is a myth doesn’t mean it’s not true: Not literally, but metaphorically. He’d tell us that’s why the myth is there in the first place-to teach us, and to help us navigate our own journey through this life. Myths can bring us to the Greater truths underlying our human story. They tell us about our selves.
In Buddhism and Taoism much of what is told about the Buddha and Lao Tzu are clearly mythological, as is the Hindu Story of Arjuna and Krishna in the The Bhagavad Gita. Yet each of these religions or spiritual practices have helped millions of people to navigate life, to become better people, to strive for higher good through the teachings and practices contained in their texts. And clearly this is also true for millions of Christians.
But in the East there is an understanding that spiritual truth is often wrapped in metaphor, concealed in plain sight to be discovered by the seeker. And this takes practice and effort over time. There is a saying in Buddhism: The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. In other words, don’t mistake one for the other.
Unfortunately in the West religion became more often about certainty and answers rather than questions… and to many followers the “finger became the moon”. Returning to Joe Campbell- he said that here in the west, we read the bible and got stuck in the metaphor taking it as literal.
So, Has the God who wasn’t there –-the one that many religions taught about- has this obscured the One that is?
I have met many people who have said something like, “ I hope there’s something more after this, I just don’t know what…I doubt its an old man with a beard on a throne surrounded by angels” It’s amazing how some form of that image has survived…and maybe that’s a part of the problem!
A few years back I heard a Rabbi, Rami Shapiro, say: “When we think of God as “A” being- we miss the whole point! Take that “A” away and there it is: God is not “a being” but rather “Being” itself! BEING-NESS itself! Everything we see is an expression of THAT BEING-NESS….. through us, in us and even as us….and everything else as well.
But how do you paint something like that? How do you describe it to a human being who wants to see some sort of representation to relate to?
The story of Jesus is about a person born to humble beginnings, a normal human being subject to life as it is and can be-unfair, painful, frightening, as well as beautiful and precious. He is a person who, at first, doesn’t wish to do what is put before him-what he is called to do.
But he had a message, and is compelled to deliver it: love one another, forgive one another-treat all people with love-no conditions attached; He brought messages of compassion and unity with the Divine through a change of heart which leads to a change in consciousness (heart first, head follows). What he teaches rocks the boat-it angers the status quo –both religious and political leaders see him as dangerous, and a threat and this leads to his death.It’s the classic Hero’s journey-giving one’s life over to something Greater than one’s self.
It is through this act of giving one’s self over to something Greater than one’s self that we transcend our small “s” self- our ego self, and by transcending it, we discover the True Self. And that True self is the point of the whole journey.
AND let me point out that Love is one of the most effective ways to go beyond the small "s" self which I also call the "story of me"- that's my self-centered, ego driven agenda. And I'm not talking about what our culture often sells us love, which is often sugar coated and transactional. I'm talking about something like the love a parent feels for their newborn child or their deepest love for another.
So, even if many of the events never happened, or even if none of them did, does that mean that the message it delivers is not true? And is it possible that, what many consider an old fashioned remnant of theology mixed with ancient superstition, has blinded us to what IS here? A Power Greater than we are…some sort of Higher Power?
And what exactly is this True Self ? As the name implies, it is “Who” you really are….BUT it is beyond who you believe you are- which is the story you’ve told yourself (story of me) or what others have told you. Some call it the Soul or ground of being. But again a name might lead us away from what it REALLY is….returning to my Rabbi friend and this “Being-ness” he talks about, I think we’re in the same territory here.
“God” is also a name humans came up with and along with the name humans assigned qualities and attributes- our human qualities and attributes. In the Bible when Moses encounters the burning bush and asks, "Who are you- what is your name?" The answer is, "I am that I am.
So clearly names are our thing but not "God's" thing. So consider - What if the God who wasn’t there has caused us to miss-the ONE THAT is right here, right now? Not only sitting in these seats and breathing and living thru you, but in everything that surrounds you too- right down to the very atomic structure holding atoms together?
Considering our place in the universe, Richard Rohr has this to say:
"We naturally participate in the universe. We have the reptilian brain, we have the mammalian brain, we have the neocortex. We have the sensate connection with the plant world and the animal world. We’re just involved at every level with this entire universe around us. I’m told that the atoms and molecules that existed at the Big Bang are the same atoms and molecules here right now, and all they’ve done for 13.8 billion years is change form, that nothing dies.
Nothing dies; it just keeps changing form*(emphasis is mine). So, we have a natural foundation for what we call resurrection that isn’t a unique belief of Christianity—it is in the very shape of the cosmos. What this leads us to is a whole new partnership with what we used to negatively dismiss as “mere science.” Sadly, we split the universe when we did that. We said that our form of knowledge was the only true form and all those other knowers were ignorant unbelievers. We can’t do that anymore. We now know that truth is one, and we’re all seeing it from different angles and at different levels. Just because one group uses the vocabulary at one level, and those in our group use the vocabulary at a different level, what right do we have to say our vocabulary is the only true description of the universe?**
Let me suggest another name for this: “Infinite Organizing Intelligence”…. Because this is what I see over and over again as I look at life in all its varying forms- the way cells know how to do what they do. The way plants know how to turn sunlight into food and how they communicate with each another….. even how to protect each other- trees do this all the time! The way nature knows how to balance itself when not interfered with. That's intelligence.
Life always seems to lead to more life- evolving to fit what it needs to fit itself to. Our science is more and more discovering these amazing things. And this Intelligence is evident in the stars and planets. Where does this INTELLIGENCE come from?
In Taoism it is said the Tao that can be spoken (named) is not the true Tao. In other words it is beyond words or names. Because when we name something we limit it….With a name to something we’ve defined it in someway- if not consciously then unconsciously -which might even be worse!!! Because then maybe some of the vestiges from the “God who wasn’t there ”- continues to exist in us, holding us hostage and keeping us from seeing Something so much MORE!
Having said that I will tell you I do use the word “God” at times but it is most definitely NOT the one I was told about or taught about in Catholic school. That one is WAY too small for me.
This idea of Who OR What God is or Who We Are in relation to This is a personal journey we are each called to make. As Campbell would say, that’s why the myths or stories are there- to help us navigate our own journey through this life.
I also use other names or ways to describe THIS GREAT MYSTERY- with the understanding that whatever word, name or term I come up with is probably insufficient. But more and more INFINITE ORGANIZING INTELLIGENCE works well for me:
Infinite( no limits)
Organizing(systematic, orderly, cooperative)
Intelligence (Conscious and consciousness itself)
And part of the foundation of what you really “are” is also Consciousness - otherwise you wouldn’t be aware right here & right now! And (in my opinion) to believe that consciousness is created by the brain is like listening to Beethoven on the radio and believing that the music is being created by that radio. But that’s a whole other talk for another time.
Back to the True Self. The poet Rumi in describing it wrote: “We run from room to room frantically searching for the necklace already around our neck”And then there is the story of the little wave. Let me tell it to you:
The little wave was rolling along happily out in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. Day after day he’d roll along, enjoying the blue sky above and the warmth of the sun. One day, off in the distance he saw something he’d never seen before. As he rolled closer to this thing, to his horror up ahead he saw other waves crashing into rocks and beach. He then realized he was rolling in the same direction and just like those waves, he too was going to crash into that shore! So he began to cry. Behind him there was a larger wave who heard the little wave crying so he asked, “Little wave, why are you crying?” and the little wave said, “Look up ahead- there are rocks and beach and other waves are crashing into it and the same is going to happen to me and I’ll be killed!” The larger wave heard the little waves terror and gently said, “Oh little wave don’t be scared- you’re not a wave, you’re the ocean.”
So let me conclude with 3 questions for you:
What is the most “real” part of you?
Can it be seen or measured?
Are there observable effects created by this?
Again, we’re back to fingers pointing.
** Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation, "Letting Go of Churchiness" 09/04/23