Jul 272006

The traditional problem of evil in monotheistic religions goes something like this: If a believer in God believes that…

  1. God is infinitely wise and powerful.
  2. God is infinitely good.
  3. Evil exists.

He is inconsistent. If God were infinitely good, he would want to eliminate evil. If God were infinitely wise and powerful, he could eliminate evil. Therefore, if evil exists, either God is not infinitely wise and powerful, or God is not infinitely good, or God doesn’t exist at all. Most of the attempts to explain this problem try to argue that God has a morally good reason for allowing evil.

I’d like to address how the mystical perspective, which is identified more with pantheism or panentheism, approaches this problem differently.

First of all, remember that from the perspective of the “The Two Yous”, God is not only a being sitting overhead inflicting or allowing suffering on innocent bystanders. He is also every single one of the beings who suffer evil. He victimizes no one but himself. God is the hawk and God is the sparrow. The higher Self of every single victim of an earthquake, or tsunami, for example, chose that experience.

Secondly, everything – even things we perceive as “evil” comes from the Source. And everything that comes from the Source is balanced – light and dark, yin and yang, life and death, good and evil. The only way for a finite material world to exist at all is through the division of the absolute Unity of the Source into its component polar opposites. But the original Source is a unity beyond all opposites.

In what sense then, is this Source “good,” if at all? In this sense – the Source is the goal toward which all its finite expressions are returning. When we move toward unity with this Source, that action is “good” – and when we move away, that action is “evil.” Yet even the movement away from the Source is not a final evil. Everything will return to the source eventually. All leaves will eventually fall to the ground, even if they are temporarily blown upwards by a gust of wind. All roads lead back to the Source eventually – simply by different routes.

Returning to the original premises, where would a panentheist disagree? I’d suggest in two places:

God is infinitely good.

The deeper mystic, as we’ve said, would see the Ultimate Source as beyond mere good and evil. “God” is a unity.

Evil exists.

No ultimate evil exists. Any apparent evils are temporary, necessary, and freely chosen by the one who actually endures them – the higher Self.

A few possible objections:

Isn’t it cruel to tell people suffering from moral and natural evils that the higher Self has freely chosen these sufferings?

Probably no explanation of suffering is completely emotionally satisfying to someone going through a tragedy. But if any explanation has a fighting chance of being helpful, it would be to believe that the suffering has a higher meaning that we have, at some level, freely chosen for some purpose. The alternatives are that we are the victims of blind chance which has absolutely no concern for us – or that our sufferings are inflicted or permitted by another being who has the power to save us and chooses not to.

Why worship a God who is not infinitely good?

First of all, remembering the mystical perspective, the higher Self IS God. This is not some external, distant being demanding adoration in a whiny voice. Indeed, “worship” per se isn’t really a consideration of mysticism. Secondly, if you choose to regard the Source as “God” – isn’t a God who is beyond both good and evil and uses them both a more comprehensive and greater being than one who is quite one-sided and constantly being frustrated in his perfect will by the free-will of his own creation?

Jul 262006

Who, exactly, are “you?” In answering this question, you might tell me your name, the personal details of your life, your appearance, your relationships, your job, your preferences. The whole point of your answer would be to identify yourself as someone unique – a distinct person – not to be confused with any other. And that mistake is the basis of all your problems.

You believe you are a little island in the universe – a little “self” inside of bag of skin. Your self ends where your skin does – or so you believe. You are completely separate from other “selves” – other bags of skin. No one else can get inside your head and feel and know exactly what you do. You are alone. What happens to your “self” – this little bag of skin you call “myself” – is crucial. What happens to anyone or anything else, while you may try to be interested and sympathetic, just isn’t as important.

Great mystics and spiritual explorers from all religions – and none at all, have ventured deep into human consciousness and seen a very different picture. In all parts of the world, and usually independently of each other, these travelers have come in contact with “Something” which connects all these separate little pieces of the universe. At the most basic level – these investigators tell us – all reality is one single piece. All things are one, and all things are a part of each other. There is a single “Source” for all existence, and you and everyone else are simply different expressions of that source.

The idea you have of being an independent, separate being is basically an illusion – a trick. The real you – the you that really matters – isn’t a bag of skin. The real you is the unlimited, infinite Source of all being. Does this mean that you are God? That depends on what you mean by “you”

There are two “yous.” There is the limited, finite, bag of skin you generally call “you”. This “lower self” (sometimes called the “ego” in mystical literature) clearly is not “God”. Then there is the “Higher Self” – as it is often referred to by the mystics – which is limitless. This “Higher Self” or simply “Self” is one and the same with the Source all being. You are God – but only if you identify with the Higher Self instead of the lower self.

This may be a shocking thing to read for people raised in monotheistic religions where the greatest sin of all – the sin of the devil himself – is to think that you are God’s equal. And these religions are quite right – because the very worst thing that can happen to you is for your lower self to think it is equal with God. This is exactly what the lower self would really love to do, because being a “lower self” is actually very terrifying.

The lower self feels (because of its connection to the Higher Self) that it ought to be unlimited – immortal, all-powerful and invincible – connected to all things. Instead it finds that it is weak, insecure, cut-off from everything else, and doomed to extinction. The anxiety this creates is terrible. Because the lower self is weak, is seeks after power. Because it is insecure, it seeks after money and possessions and other symbols of security. Because it feels cut-off, it seeks one relationship after another. Because it feels the press of death, it seeks for immortality through fame, through obsession with youth and beauty. To tell the lower self that it is “God” would do nothing but prop up the illusion that the lower self is the “real” self.

For this reason, the mystics of the monotheistic religions often prefer to say that the “Higher Self” is simply a part of God or in the image of God. They are afraid to tempt lower selves into regarding themselves as divine. For our purposes it doesn’t really matter which way you choose to look at it. The important thing to understand is that you have, at the very center of your heart, your true Self, and that it is unlimited and connected to the great Source of all being.

Jul 262006

After watching and participating in innumerable discussions with atheists over the existence of ‘God’, I am coming to feel that the word ‘God’ itself is an almost insurmountable obstacle to communication.

To an atheist, to believe in ‘God’, means:

That you believe a Supreme Being hand-crafted each species of life separately, and then made it look like they descended from each other. That you believe this Being created the universe 6,000 years ago but gave it an apparent age of billions of years. That you believe this Being, while being wise and benevolent, throws tizzy fits, destroys his enemies if they anger him, changes his mind, orders the slaughter of innocents, plays favorites, asks for human sacrifice as a ‘test’ of obedience, requires elaborate rituals, is pleased with animal sacrifices, and engages in all the other odd behaviors a casual reading of the Old Testament would suggest. That you believe this Being, in the New Testament, is willing to accept the awful torture and murder of his own innocent Son as an acceptable substitute to punishing people who are clearly guilty. That you believe that in spite of his omnipotence, this being is unable to communicate his will in written form without apparent contradiction. That you believe that in spite of wanting to save everyone, this omnipotent being is unable to persuade many people of his very existence. That you believe that this being will totally forgive and eternally reward those who approach him with the right formula, but will condemn to everlasting torment those who were unaware of this formula or were unable to correctly pick this formula from the several competing formulas. That you believe the condemned group above will suffer eternal torment in spite of the possibility of their being more moral, sincere, honest, and trying harder to find the truth than the first group that followed the correct formula. That in spite of an infinite love and goodness, this Being will permit such things as for a small child to suffer a horrible, painful death all the while calling out in vain to this Being for help, so long as it serves his purpose. That you believe in a Supreme Being who’s followers don’t show remarkable signs of being more moral or more intelligent than anyone else ? in fact often LESS so. That you believe in a Supreme Being who’s followers invoke his name as a reason for killing other human beings.

The list could be elaborated on a bit. However, taken as it is, and without any mitigation, the atheist’s position seems entirely sensible. Who would believe in such a Being? Even if he DID exist, what sort of moral blindness would make us want to worship such a being? The only thing more despicable than the being described would be a person who could be bribed into worshipping and obeying such a being for the promise of rewards.

Now some of these issues may be straw men to some degree (although you can probably find a believer out there somewhere to argue for any or all of them.) Others may have reasonable explanations. Still others may not be relevant. But the fact is that in order to even get to the point of having a neutral discussion on the existence of God, you often have to first overcome a list like the above, point by point and line by line.

I’m wondering if I’m not doing a disservice to people by trying to persuade them to believe in ‘God’, when, if I’m successful, there’s a danger they might believe in something like the being above. Clearly, to go from atheism to a belief in the being above is a giant leap backwards. I have a friend who over the course of several years and a lot of conversation, has come to believe in something transcendent, but still refuses to call it ‘God’ because of all the ‘baggage’ that comes with the word. Perhaps it would sometimes be better if we should start from scratch ? pick some more neutral word to talk about the transcendent, and then work our way up. Something like ‘Spirit’ for example.

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