The Nature of Religious Experience

by Ken Orr

Dear Friend, I greatly appreciate your suggestion that we have a dialogue concerning religion. It is said, justifiably, that humanity as a whole is homo religiosus(1), who is "universally and incurably religious." The religious question, in this sense, is everyone's concern, or as Nikos Kazantzakis aptly expressed, "what every heart is shouting, what every head is asking."(2)  I take your suggestion, however, not as an invitation to present a neat systematic discourse on religion in general but rather to tackle our own existential questions so that we might have an opportunity to re-examine our hitherto taken-for-granted views of religion and hopefully re-discover a deeper meaning behind them. In this informal and personal discussion, let us allow ourselves to talk as one friend to another.

You have asked, first of all, what religion is anyway. That is an enormously big question, which cannot be dealt with here at the moment. To define religion is a notoriously difficult task. There are literally hundreds of definitions of religion. You can find in the first part of almost any introductory textbook on religion definitions drawn from various personal and religious view-points.(3)   I am sure, of course, you have not asked about religion only to have more sophisticated definitions of it. Instead of spending time in examining those theoretical and speculative definitions of religion, let us rather take an analogy that might serve as a starting point for our discussions.

Suppose there is a frog at the bottom of a well.(4)   This 'well-frog' has never been out of the well. He believes that the world is just the space he has inside the well, and that the sky is no bigger or smaller than what he sees. Based on this belief, he thinks, acts and speaks. This is, so to speak, his view of life and the world.

A friend from outside of the well drops in and says that the world is not only the well and that the sky is not as small as that seen from the bottom of the well, but the well-frog does not believe it. His friend also advises him that life should not be confined to this tiny space and that the true meaning of life is to be found in a bigger world beyond this limited sensory well, but the well-frog does not understand. He plans his life only in accordance with the circumstances of the well and believes that to try to achieve this plan is the sole purpose and meaning to his life. When everything seems to be going smoothly as planned, he thinks life is worth living. He feels that he could not be happier anywhere else.

For the time being, he believes he is truly happy. However, after a while he begins to feel somehow that life in the well is not always as favorable as he had expected. He now finds not only that the ideal state he has hoped for does not come true as easily as he had planned, but also that that ideal state, once attained with toil and moil, is not the final goal with which he is completely satisfied. He finds himself forced to pursue incessantly something better, something bigger, something more exciting and something more satisfying. He comes to realize that he is not infinitely capable of satisfying his endless desires. Gradually he discovers that he is only a frog miserably destined to eventually die in the well.

He now starts to doubt about life in the well. He feels that there is something missing, something incomplete, and something imperfect. He grows aware that his life as a frog in the well is not a happy one after all. He is now confused as to the meaning and direction of life. Eventually in his deepening frustration, he starts the search for something qualitatively different.

By now, this well-frog is reminded of the remarks of his friend who came from the outside world. He begins to cherish an aspiration that he also might be liberated from this small well-world and see that wonderful free world that has been reported outside of the well. The aspiration grows stronger and stronger. His greatest concern is now about that outside world. He concentrates energy on it and prepares himself in every possible way to see it. Finally, at one point, he takes a huge jump, a jump that is a matter of life and death.

He cannot believe what happens. It is indeed astounding and incredible. Whether the principle of gravity stopped functioning, or whether the well turned upside down for a while he knows not. He somehow achieves what had seemed impossible. He is now here in this outside world. What an eye-opening experience!

He realizes that the world inside the well in which he has lived is not the only world. He now sees a completely new reality--a bedazzling new world with all of its wonders: immense fields, endless oceans, majestic mountains and lofty trees. This experience of a tremendous new reality transforms our well-frog into a completely new frog. He is now a frog endowed with a new way of thinking, a new attitude to life, a new value system and a new frame of reference.

According to my personal observation, almost all the religions of the world I have read about seem to teach that we are in a certain respect like this well-frog.(5)  They say that we are living with a false belief that the only reality is what we perceive with our sense organs or what we conceive of with our intellect. As Jesus says, we think that eating, drinking and marrying are the only realities we can experience in this world. We do not realize what is happening until the flood comes and sweeps all of us away (Matt. 24:38f.). We are running in blinders, as it were. We cannot see the things as they really are, but only the things in a phenomenal world. We mistakenly take the shadows and reflections found in the water as real and have no idea that there is a truly real world. Consequently we become involved in the whirl of happiness and sadness, hope and frustration, fear and anger just regarding the ephemeral things that are happening in this small world of the well.

Is it not to this effect that the great spiritual seers referred when they said, "You look, but do not see; you hear, but do not understand"?  I believe you may remember a parable of Jesus. It tells us that there was a rich farmer, who once had a very good harvest. He thought that if he built larger barns and stored all his grains and goods, he would be able to say to himself, "Man, you have plenty of good things laid by, enough for many years: take life easy, eat, drink, and enjoy yourself." But God thought differently, and He said, "You fool, this very night you must surrender your life." (Luke 12:16-20 NEB). Are we not like this rich man? Are we not misled in thinking that if everything around us in this physical world is going smoothly, we can eat, drink and enjoy ourselves without any concern about anything metaphysical or "after-physical"?  We are blind, and the range of our perception is limited to the things in the well.

It seems that the basic idea referring to such spiritual states as that of the well-frog is described in different religious traditions with different expressions. In Christianity, for example, this state is called the fallen state, the paradise lost, the enslaved state; in Buddhism, the state of ignorance, the state of suffering, the slumbering state yet to be awakened; in Confucianism, the state of the "inferior man." In modern terminology, this state is what is called the state of alienation or estrangement, the state of hopelessness, despair and meaninglessness.(6)

Many of us are not even aware that we are in such a state. We are so busy making a living that we can hardly pay attention to the question as to how to live life.(7)  We are just living a biological life or, as some call it, a vegetable life. But there are some who become dimly and yet surely aware that life is somewhat incomplete, distorted, derailed, and empty. They feel that life is like a crank machine creaking along without proper lubrication. Moreover, they find that things in the course of life are not as simple as they had once thought. They understand that life is not one-dimensional and simple to straighten out with human cleverness. They feel that they are inevitably confronted with an existential finitude. In short, they are aware of the human predicament or tragic entanglement, and they ask, "Is this all?"

It seems to me that within this awareness of the imperfection of life and of our own helplessness in coping with it lies the beginning of anything religious. Where there is not such awareness or consciousness, there is nothing religious. This awareness or consciousness, however, is not something that is found in everyone. Most of us, as pointed out earlier, are living with a belief that when the things in front of our physical eyes are going satisfactorily, there is nothing missing or lacking.

To such people, however, John says, "You say, 'How rich I am! And how well I have done! I have everything I want. In fact, though you do not know it, you are the most pitiful wretch, poor, blind, and naked." (Rev. 3:17 NEB). As we all know so well, Jesus also, at the very beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, says that "the poor in spirit" or those who know their need of something more than just the physical and material are blest indeed. (Matt. 5:3).

The teaching of the Four Noble Truths preached in the first sermon of the Buddha begins with the truth that we have to realize the world is suffering, namely, life is imperfect and far from ideal.(8)  Indeed, our realization of the truth that life as it is now is somehow wrong and incomplete is the very foundation of our religious consciousness. According to Kierkegaard, despair is "sickness unto death." We see, however, that it is at the same time through this despair that we can attain to the authentic life. In this sense, despair, or more specifically, "metaphysical despair" might be called the "sickness unto life."

Those who realize that the world inside the well is not the whole world and that the state we are now in is somehow askew solemnly attempt a "leap of faith."(9)  In a mysterious way (this "way" is an important issue, which requires a separate discussion), they come out of the well and see a new world, a world beyond what they had previously known, and a world seen in a larger context. This experience seems to them so fortunate and amazing that they usually believe it has been given by the grace of God or by the merits of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas.(10)  In any case, those who have the experience of seeing the true "reality" are naturally transformed into new beings; new human beings who can truly enjoy genuine liberation and freedom.

Please do not interpret my present somewhat subjective observations regarding religion as being absolutely right and final. What I am saying is that through reading, listening, study and meditation that I have partaken of up to this point, I am led to a personal and provisional working hypothesis, namely, that the most important part of religion is the experience of transformation resulting from our proper relationship to reality.

It may appear to you that I am over-generalizing or taking a position of naive reductionism, but please remember that I am not trying here to give any theoretical all-embracing definition of religion. Rather in response to your questions, I am relating my observation that many religions of the world seem to point emphatically to this transformation experience. As far I can see, their scriptures, their myths and symbols, and their rituals are pointing to this transformation experience from the old state of enslavement to the new state of liberation and freedom as the central theme of their teachings.

Let me give several examples. In Christianity, as you well know, the experience of transformation is expressed as rebirth, and this was emphasized by Jesus as the requirement for entering into the Kingdom of God (John 3:3). Similarly Paul in his letters stressed this experience in terms of "new being," and "new creation," "transformation," and "new self." (I Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:22-24, respectively). In Buddhism, this is described as "awakening," "enlightenment," "attaining the Buddhahood," and "emancipation." In Confucianism, this is depicted as the transformation from "inferior man" to "princely man" or ideally humanized man, and thus finally to a sage. In Hinduism, this experience is usually called moksha: deliverance, release, or liberation.

In addition, the common symbols, myths and rituals related to such themes as "from here to eternity," "from darkness to light," "from caterpillar to butterfly," "from death to life," "from flesh to spirit," "from paradise lost to paradise regained," "from bondage to freedom," and "from blindness to sight," all point to this transformation experience aimed at in the various religious traditions. We can also list other concrete symbols such as the cosmic tree, the staircase, the ladder, the bridge, or the ferry boat, all of which symbolize basically the shift from here to there. Baptism is a symbol of the transition from death to life. The snake which is believed to be born again and again by shedding its old skin is another symbol of transformation.  All of these examples in the final analysis point to the experience of transformation. They all tell us that the indispensable aspect of religion is this metamorphosis from the present small self to the new large Self.

This transformation is a tremendous experience, an experience which shakes our whole being: our total person including not only feeling but also mind, will, body and soul. It is the awareness of, what Rudolf Otto calls, the mysterium tremendum.(11)  Once we have had the experience of the deeper dimension of reality, our life cannot be the same as before. Our view of life and the world, our course, meaning and principle of life, our way of seeing, our way of thinking, and our way of valuing are all altered. In modern terms, we may call this the restoration from inauthentic existence to authentic existence, from gray withered life to green abundant life, or as Carl G. Jung terms it, the completion of the "individuation process."

The experience that Jesus had when he was raised from the water at the time of his baptism in the river Jordan, the experience of Paul on his way to Damascus, and the experiences of so many other people in the Christian tradition such as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Pascal, Martin Luther, John Calvin, St. Theresa, to name only a few; the experience of the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, and the experience of becoming one with Heaven mentioned by Mencius -- all of these and many others which we can find anywhere and anytime in the history of religions are actually the concrete examples of the tremendous experience of ultimate reality.

Throughout the history of religions, some have believed that this kind of experience takes place all of a "sudden," while others have thought that it is a "gradual" process. The question as to whether this experience is sudden or gradual is still unresolved. But one thing we had better keep in mind is that the experience of just one of the many dimensions of ultimate reality should not be taken as "the final." Until we can have the experience of ultimate reality in its deepest or highest possible dimension (when we can have it--I do not know), we should not declare "I have found it, and that's it, that's good enough for me," but rather hold ourselves open to an ever-deeper or higher experience of it.

Since you have been raised with a Christian background, you might find this kind of approach to religious questions rather strange. It is true that when we talk about religion, we usually tend to discuss such doctrinal questions as God, revelation, Christology, eschatology related to hell, heaven, or the state of life after death, and other related ideas, and then concern ourselves with trying to decide whether a certain religion is religion or not, or whether one religion is different from others or not, and so forth. But Friend, I don't think doctrines and theories in themselves are of primary concern in any religion, even in Christianity. Even though I know you might think that I am emphasizing experience too much, I would like to make it absolutely clear again that I believe, and I hope you do too by now, that religion is primarily not explanation but experience.(12)   As Paul said, "The Kingdom of God is not in words, but in power (dynamis)" (I Cor. 4:20).  Like Paul, let us use words only to say that words, in the ultimate sense, are useless.


(1) Some anthropologists have characterized the human being as 'religious animal' or homo religiosus. Cf. homo sapiens, homo faber, homo symbolicus, homo ludens, and homo dionysiacus as some other differentiating characteristics of humankind.

(2) Nikos Kazantzakis, The Saviours of God, trans. Kimon Friar (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960), p. 128.

(3) One example is found in T. William Hall, ed., Introduction to the Study of Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), pp. 4-19. Here Ronald R. Cavanagh examines various definitions of religion under the title "The Term Religion." A scholarly attempt to define religion is found in Frederick Ferre, A Basic Modern Philosophy of Religion (New York: Scribner's, 1967).

(4) A frog in the well is an analogy used by Chuang Tzu, the third century B.C. Chinese Taoist philosopher.  See Burton Watson, tr., The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), pp. 175, 186 and 187.  See Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu (New York: New Directions, 1965) which is Merton's personal selections from the Chuang Tzu written 'in a pleasing, readable and poetic style.'

(5) A similar analogy is found in Plato's Republic, Book VII. It is mentioned here that we are like prisoners fastened in a cave from our childhood. Our legs and necks are so chained that we can only look straight ahead of us toward the wall in the cave and cannot turn our heads to see outside. We are likewise prevented from seeing real things but only shadows and reflections appearing on the wall, and believe that they are 'in all aspects real.' One thing to note here is that whereas for Plato shadows are unreal and the outside world that he called idea or form is real, in our analogy we are not saying that the well is totally unreal but only that the well is not the only real world. The enlightened frog does not see the well as unreal but as part of reality. He sees it now in a greater context. Consider also an interesting remark made by Albert Einstein: "A human being is a part of the whole, called by us 'Universe' a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest--a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us."

(6) These are the terms often used by modern existentialist philosophers such as S. Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

(7) In Greek there are two kinds of life: bios (biological life) and zoe (qualitative life).

(8) For a succinct and readable exposition of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, see W. Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, revised ed. (New York: Grove Press, 1974).

(9) S. Kierkegaard's idea of the 'three stages of existence': aesthetic, ethical, and religious. Between the second and the third, he said, there is a 'leap of faith.' See his Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (1843).

(10) William James points out that one of the four characteristics of mystical experience is the feeling of 'passivity,' the other three being ineffability, noetic quality and transiency. Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Collier Books, 1961), pp. 299-301.

(11) For a detailed discussion of this concept, see his book, The Idea of the Holy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923), pp. 12-40. For the four chararcteristics of religious experience, see Joachim Wach, The Comparative Study of Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 27ff. Wach says here that they are: 1) "a response to what is experienced as Ultimate Reality," 2) "a total response of the total being to Ultimate Reality," 3) "the most powerful, comprehensive, shattering, and profound experience of which man is capable," and 4) "the most powerful source of motivation and action."

(12) This point is convincingly emphasized in Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York: New Direction, 1968), pp.33-58. One thing that we have to keep in mind is that the "experience" we are talking here should not be identified with some sort of fanatic explosive feelings or emotion. It is rather "a centered act of the whole personality" involving mind, heart and will, as mentioned by Paul Tillich in his book, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), pp. 4 and 39.


Chapter Two


The Nature of Symbols

Dear Friend, your question as to how we should understand the Bible is, I think, a very important one, for our view with regard to the general character of the religious scriptures, especially the Bible, is very much relevant to our idea of religion and our religious life.

Let us go back to the story of our well-frog. The frog is now here in the outside world, seeing, for the first time, immense fields, endless ocean, long rivers winding toward the horizon, sky-reaching trees and magnificent mountains. He is astounded at such a wonderful experience. He is speechless indeed. After a while, however, he comes to himself and says, "Why did I waste my precious time in that dark and small world of the well? Why could I have not known such a beautiful world much earlier? Anyway, how blessed I am!" Tears of joy are running down his face, and strangely enough, he finds himself singing songs, the ones of gratitude and praise that are springing from the bottom of his heart:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found.

Was blind, but now I see.

or others to that effect.

On the other hand, he also thinks of his fellow-frogs who are still living wretchedly in that narrow and dark well without knowing that there is such a wonderful world outside the well. "What a pity! What a tragedy!" Tears of sympathy and compassion are flowing down this time. "I will go and teach them all about this splendid and flabbergasting world. I will help them so that they may also have such an experience." Firmly determined, he jumps back into the well.

The fellow-frogs gather around him. He tries to tell them what he has seen outside of the well: mountains, trees, ocean, and rivers. To his disappointment, however, he finds, first of all, he has no adequate vocabulary at his disposal to express his wonderful experience. He feels his ordinary language is absolutely unsuitable and helpless in this matter. At any rate, he tries his best to communicate what he has seen to his beloved fellow-frogs by employing all the nice words and stretching his imagination.

Again to his dismay, he finds that his fellow-frogs remain dumb and deaf. They do not understand at all what he is talking about. Those frogs inside the well have no idea whatsoever in regard to such things as immense fields, majestic mountains, or lofty trees. For them no matter how wide the fields might be, they cannot be wider than the bottom of the well; no matter how big the mountains might be, they cannot be bigger than the rocks which are found on the wall of the well; and no matter how lofty the trees might be, they cannot be taller than the grasses that are growing on the brim of the well. They cannot think of anything whatsoever that can be wider, bigger, or higher than what they see in the world of the well.

Our enlightened frog comes to the conclusion that to tell them what he has seen leaves him no other choice than to talk symbolically and analogically, using the terms, the modes of expression, the stories, the histories, the myths, the gestures, the songs that are available to him and also familiar and understandable to his fellow-frogs. Thus, as an attempt to explain, for example, the endless ocean, he points to his stomach and says, "The ocean is even three times three times three times three times three bigger than my stomach!" He knows of course that the ocean is millions and billions times bigger than his stomach, but because there is no concept of numbers more than "three" in the mathematics of frogs, he has no other option than to express himself in such a miserably awkward way.

In spite of his acute awareness that there is a kind of profanation in speaking of things inexpressible in such an inadequate fashion, his only hope is that even through such an expression his beloved fellow-frogs might be liberated from the dark world of the well to the bright outside world, and thus enjoy a new life of liberation and freedom. He knows, more than anybody else, that his expression based upon such an unsuitable language is far from the reality itself. Nevertheless, he uses such a language, hoping that it works, as it were, only as a feeble finger to help others to direct their attention toward that reality; or as a stepping-stone to help others to go up toward it; or as a rough map to help others to embark upon their journey toward it. The language in this case is not meant to tell anything about that reality itself but to evoke something about it for the listeners.(1)

The experience of the transformation that is possible through one's proper relationship to ultimate reality, the experience of liberation and freedom which results, namely, the genuine religious experience, is so tremendous that it cannot be expressed in human terms. The world of reality which people with spiritually opened eyes can see is so overwhelmingly different, so supramundane, and so transcendent that it cannot be expressed in ordinary language, which was devised only for the things in our ordinary experience. It is, indeed, inexpressible, ineffable, indescribable, inexplicable, and unspeakable. Ironically, the most eloquent response to this tremendous reality is silence. Ultimate reality, in this sense, is "wholly other."(2)

Nevertheless, one who encounters ultimate reality cannot remain completely silent, because, first of all, this experience is too dynamic and explosive to be buried under cold silence. Moreover, his or her ensuing love and compassion toward those who are still groping in the dark are too intense for him or her to refuse an attempt to communicate what he or she has seen to others, so that they may also walk in the light. For these two major reasons, he or she cannot help expressing this experience. He or she realizes that to express religious experience is as unavoidable as it is impossible.

Subsequently, he or she, reluctantly but inevitably, tries to objectify his or her experience. This objectification process seems to be carried out, I think, largely in three ways: conceptualization, actualization, and sensitization. By conceptualization I mean that religious experience of ultimate reality is expressed in such conceptual or theoretical means as myths, doctrines, theories, and dogmas; "actualization" means that religious experience tends to be acted, re-acted and enacted in religious gestures, rituals, worship and social lives; and by "sensitization" is meant that religious experience expresses itself through the various aesthetic media such as paintings, music, and poetry.(3)

The great seers, through their deep insight and intuition, have seen the world of reality that is hidden to ordinary people. They have recorded what has been revealed to their spiritual eyes. What they have recorded, making use of the various symbols and analogies available to them, are, after all, what we call sacred scriptures, or in the case of Christianity, the Bible.

The modes of expression are naturally different from one another. First, they all differ depending on who is attempting the expression. Supposing you and I saw the same thing, our description of it would vary. Your literary talent in poetry will lead you to write something completely different from my prose styled report. Second, for whom the expression is intended is another source of difference. You talk about the same thing, but when you talk to your ten-year-old brother, you use different terms and concepts from those you would use if you were explaining it to your college-attending friend. Third, the diversity of the expression results also from why it is expressed. Even though you speak about the same thing, you describe it in different ways at different times, depending on your assessment of the situation of your listener. You want your brother to grow as a smart and healthy boy. When he plays too much, you will say to him, "You'd better study," but when he studies too much, you will advise him to go out and play.

The religious experience, likewise, is portrayed in the varieties of expression according to the various historical, cultural and social backgrounds of the particular individual and groups involved. This variety of expressions of religious experience is most natural, and we should accept it. In the same vein, Paul Tillich says: “Revelation is never revelation in general, however universal its claim may be. It is always revelationfor someone and for a group in a definite environment, under unique circumstances. Therefore, he who receives revelation witnesses to it in terms of his individuality and in terms of the social and spiritual conditions in which the revelation has been manifested to him."(4)

It seems clear now that the records of the expression of religious experience, such as the Bible, are somehow relative in the sense that they are conditioned by various internal and external elements. It also becomes evident that these records are not the pure experience of ultimate reality itself.(5)  They are rather inevitably inadequate symbol-systems which the seers use to describe the indescribable. They are basically the symbolical and analogical terms that have been drawn from our ordinary experience.

We see some people who innocently believe that they are the only true believers of the Bible defending it from any sort of "heresy."  Some of them even claim that they are the only people who live faithfully according to the truth of the Bible. We see that they actually become, without their knowing it, the idol-worshippers of the Bible, because they are putting the Bible in the place of God and worshipping it as a god.(6)  Some of them also believe that they are the only people who obey the word of God. But under the cloak of "obedience to the word of God," they are actually obeying the letter of the Bible within a particular tradition of interpretation of the Bible formulated by a distinctive theological position to meet a special need in a special historical context. This is why there are so many denominations and sects who all claim that they are absolutely obedient to the Bible, and yet diametrically opposed to each other.

We must admit that the Bible is holy. We have to understand, however, that it is holy, not because it is intrinsically holy, but because it tells us about the Holy. There should be an unmistakable demarcation between the Holy itself and its expression. If we are confused in this matter, we are in danger of sacralizing, and finally of worshipping what is relative as the Sacred. If the Bible appears as the Holy itself and stands as the object of our worship, it becomes a monster, demanding and attracting our undivided attention, and thus blocking our way to the Holy. This process in which a particular expression of the Sacred is identified with the Sacred itself is what Tillich called "demonization."(7)

The scriptures of the religions, including the Bible, are fundamentally, not for information but for transformation. Their primary concern is not to give us perfectly accurate scientific, historical or archeological knowledge but to bring about a spiritual metamorphosis in us. We should always keep in mind this evocative nature of religious discourse.

This does not mean, of course, that we cannot find any scientific and historical truths in the Bible. But it should be made clear that in the final analysis, the Bible is not a textbook for science or history. It is, therefore, irrelevant from the beginning to argue, for example, for creation or for evolution solely on the basis of the biblical stories concerning the beginning of the world. Those stories were not intended primarily to give an objective picture of the world as it is.

Our faith should not be dependent on whether or not such biblical stories are proved scientifically correct. Faith does not mean the literal acceptance of these stories as objective truths. If we claim that all faithful Christians should believe the creation stories as found in the first chapters of Genesis to be a literal record of scientific and historical facts that happened at a certain point in time, then we are actually making the Bible an out-of-date textbook for something that might had happened only "once upon a time."

Can this be faith? It seems to me that the important thing we have to do in reading the biblical creation stories is to find the religious truth to awaken our dormant soul. By reading these stories, we are to learn that we should be aware, as the ancient people were, for example, that we are created and limited beings and that therefore we should be humble before the unlimited creative power, and know that we are not the lords of our own destinies from the beginning to the end. The Bible is an alarm-clock that is meant to awaken our slumbering spirit. What we have to do first is wake up from our sleep, not analyze the clockís mechanism or the wave-length of its sound.

When little Johnny hears his mother say, "Johnny, the sun is setting now," what should be his proper response to it? Is it to argue with his mother that she is being ignorant in saying that the sun is setting instead of stating scientifically that the earth is rotating? Is it not to remind himself that it is time to have supper and prepare for the exam tomorrow?

Suppose a poet of the sixteenth century, in order to express his love toward God, said, "Oh, my burning heart!" If someone reading this tries to establish a historical fact and says, "Aha, there was a poet in the sixteenth century whose heart was burnt," or a scientific truth saying, "Aha, the human heart is combustible," one would not stop laughing at such a "faithful" reading.

Suppose there is a painting by Picasso in which someone sees a person whose eyes overlap and whose ears are on top of the head, and he or she says, "There must have been such a person in Spain who had a physiological structure like this. I will prove that Picasso cannot tell a lie to his viewers," and tries to dig out dead bodies in cemeteries in Spain. Do you think this way of viewing Picasso painting is the faithful and right way of appreciating it?

So many people, however, are misled into thinking that they have to read and believe the Bible in this way, and when they find that they cannot do this without sacrificing their intellectual integrity, they lose interest in religion completely. This is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This is a pity indeed.

It seems to me that if we read and believe the Bible in this way and claim that we are the most "faithful" believers of the Bible, we are then, ironically enough, distorting the biblical truths and depriving the Bible of its saving power. The Bible is not a source book of cosmology, topology, chronology or biology. It is more than that.(8)

If we insist that the story of Jesus' virgin birth, for instance, should be accepted as a biological truth instead of a religious truth, we are, in fact, denying the Bible as the Bible. How many people have lost their interest in the Bible because of the obstacles caused by such a view of the Bible? We should try to see something else beyond the so-called objective, literal truths found in the stories, legends, histories, and myths in the Bible. Our primary attention should be directed to that which these symbol-systems are pointing to.

Symbols are always pointing beyond themselves to something else.  They are fingers pointing to the moon.(9)   What is important is that we, following the direction to which these fingers are pointing, see the moon and have an experience of being overwhelmed by its beauty. To try to formalize coherent theories, to meticulously count the years, numbers, and events to argue one is more authoritative on these questions is just like examining the length, thickness and color of the fingers and counting the numbers of hairs on them to claim that one is more knowledgeable than anybody else on these matters. The crucial point is seeing the moon. Apart from the function of directing the attention of people, there is no intrinsic importance whatsoever to the fingers themselves.

The Taoist philosopher, Chuang Tzu, says that we are qualified to pursue the truth only if we can ignore the net once we have caught the fish. Let us quote him here:

“The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you've got the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; one you've caught the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?"(10)

The Buddha also tells us that it is wise to leave the raft once we have crossed the river.(11)   If we carry the heavy raft around on our back out of gratitude to it, we are indeed hopeless. There should be a clear distinction between the means and the end. To elevate the means to the level of an end is pointless. The Bible is no more and no less than the means through which we might be brought toward the experience of ultimate reality. Any discussion or study of the Bible that forgets such an ultimate goal is meaningless, futile, and misleading, at least from the spiritual point of view.

We should try not to be trapped in the letter of the Bible but try to find its spirit and to live with it. As Paul said, "[T]he letter kills, but the spirit gives life."(12)  Suppose there is a passage in the Bible saying, "Thou shalt eat much" as advice for those who ate too little when it was written. If someone who is now suffering from obesity believes that he has to be faithful to every iota of the Bible and eats "faithfully" day and night without regarding the context and true meaning of the passage, he will soon be killed by a heart attack.

According to Nãgãrjuna, the great Indian philosopher, any symbol-system is like medicine that will harm the person if it remains in the stomach after it has cured the disease.(13)   The Bible is a medicine. What is important is its curing power. It should not be kept in the stomach as if it were something intrinsically sacred. We should move our attention from the fingers to that to which they point. We should treat the Bible as the Bible, never as an idol. Christianity is a religion that believes "not in the Bible, but in him whom it attests."(14)   Jesus said to the effect that people study the scriptures diligently, supposing that in them they will find eternal life, and yet, although these very scriptures point to him, they refuse to come to him for that life.(15)   We should try to have an experience of discovering Jesus as the Christ and understand its meaning for us, here and now. Then the Bible does not become a demon that ensnares us but rather it will truly be a guide that leads us toward a world of liberation and freedom.

What is revelation? Strictly speaking, it is what is revealed to spiritual eyes, or what is intuited with spiritual insight; it is not something that has been written down. What has been written down is, in fact, one of many expressions of the revelation, not the revelation itself.

What we are saying here is not that Christianity has no true revelation or that the Bible is not a revelation. We are only rejecting the blind assertion that the Christian expression is the one and only true expression, and that all the others are false. We should not be stupid enough to claim that our mother alone is the only true mother and all other mothers are false, only because they are not my mother. What is important is not to spend time and energy to "convert" other children to believe that my mother is the only true mother in the world. Our main concern should be to encourage each other to love our mothers in the true and proper ways, in order that all of us may enjoy a true mother-child relationship. What counts primarily is not the question of which religion is the "true" one. It is rather a matter of having a genuine and vivifying religious experience, which can result from finding the relevant meaning that underlies all these time-tested symbol-systems in each religious expression.(16)

Let us accept the Bible as the living word that truly provides us with meaning and an orientation for life here and now, not as a dead book whose meaning was petrified a few millennia ago. Let us take the Bible seriously, but not literally. If we take it literally, we cannot take it seriously; and if we take it seriously, we cannot take it literally. The Bible is an open-ended book, and, therefore, let us keep ourselves always open so that we may listen to what it says to us at every moment with an ever deeper meaning. No one has a copyright to interpret it. No one can say his or her interpretation is final. The Bible can be a fountainhead of millions of different meanings for us, but for only one ultimate goal: our experince of ultimate transformation through the ever deeping realization of ultimate reality.


(1) For an excellent discussion of the "evocative nature" of the religious discourses, see Kuang-ming Wu, Chuang Tzu: World Philosopher at Play (New York: Crossroad, 1982), pp. 14ff.

(2)In Latin, totaliter aliter, or in German, das ganze Andere.

(3) A similar idea is expounded by the pioneering scholar in the field of scientific study of religions or Religionswissenschaft, Joachim Wach in his monumental book, The Comparative Study of Religions (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 59-143. According to him, religious experience is expressed in three modes: in thought, in action, and in fellowship.

(4) Paul Tillich, Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1955), pp. 3f. Cf. also Arnold Toynbee, Christianity Among the Religions of the World (New York: Scribners, 1957), p. 96, and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Faith and Belief, op.cit., pp. 131ff. To quote one sentence from Smith: "Historical criticism shows that the [expression of] faith... has always been limited by psychological, sociological and other contextual factors, by the knowledge and the temperament and the situation of the man or woman whose it is." (p. 131).

(5) Worshipping the Bible as absolute as God himself is called "Bibliolatry."  See Huston Smith, The Worlds' Religions (San Francisco: HarperSanFransco, 1991), p. 360. Smith says here that absolutizing the relative is idolatry, and he believes that "[t]he chief Protestant idolatry has been Bibliolatry." Protestants are Protestants because they protest against any form of temptation to absolutize the relative by taking the first commandment, "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3) seriously. For the "Protestant Principle," see also Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, op.cit., p. 29. Cf. also "the idols of the Den"presented by the English philosopher, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) as one of the four types of idols discussed in his Novum Organum, the other three being those of the Tribes, the Market Place, and the Theater.

(6) Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, op.cit., p. 140 et passim. See also MacKenzie Brown, Ultimate Concern: Tillich in Dialogue (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 5.

(7) Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, op.cit., p. 32f. "Faith does not affirm or deny what belongs to the prescientific or scientific knowledge of our world.... It is not a matter of faith. The dimension of faith is not the dimension of science, history or psychology."

(8) Ibid., p. 41. Chapter three in this book is one of the best discussions concerning the meaning of religious symbols.

(9) This is a common expression found in the Zen tradition.

(10) Berton Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, op.cit., p. 302.

(11) Majjhima Nikaya (Pali Text Society edition), pp. 134ff. or Middle Length Sayings (PTS ed.), I. p. 173.

(12) II Cor. 3:6

(13) Kâsyapaparivarta, p. 97. Quoted in T. R. V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, op.cit., p. 164.

(14) Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, (London: Collins, 1977), p. 163. Here he warns against the tendency of Christianity to absolutize the relative things like the Bible, tradition and church: "[T]he Christian (the Protestant, too) believes, not in the Bible, but in whom it attests; the Christian (the Orthodox, too) believes, not in tradition, but in him it transmits, the Christian (the Catholic, too) believes, not in the Church, but in him whom the Church proclaims."

(15) John 5:39

(16) The "either mine or yours" type of exclusivism is a phenomenon coming from what Paul F. Knitter calls "classicist consciousness." See his No Other Name? (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985), pp. 31, 183. In one of his unpublished papers he sent to me, he says: "The future will require with ever greater urgency that those of us who choose to live our lives religiously, will have to do so interreligiously. This means that the task of understanding ourselves religiously...will have to be carried out together with persons of other religious traditions."


Chapter Three


The Concept of Ultimate Reality

Dear Friend, you asked what is meant by "God." As you know, there are so many different theories regarding "God": theism, atheism, monotheism, henotheism, polytheism, pantheism, deism, monism, dualism, absolutism, skepticism, agnosticism, and many others which can hardly come under these categories. They come out of the various standpoints of both individuals and religious traditions. I know that you are not very much interested in discussing whether these theoretical concepts of God are logically sound or not. As will be emphasized later, God is anything but the object of theoretical discussion. As Pascal aptly expressed it, "God is not a God of philosophers and theologians but a God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,"(1)   namely, a God of personal experience.

In many cases, however, our wrong ideas of God not only prevent us from going to a God of personal experience but also lead us to a life of bondage and slavery. It seems, therefore, that we need to re-scrutinize our understanding of "God" with utmost sincerity and open-mindedness, and if we find ourselves harbouring misleading ideas of God, we should try to get rid of them.

Suppose there is a Mr. A. He is a worshipper of the moon. Now, as is his usual practice, he puts a bowl of cool and clear water on a table as a token of his deep gratitude to the moon, and bows to the moon praying that it may protect him in his journey to a far city and that it may also help him to be successful in carrying out fair and honest business interactions in that city.  Can we go to such a person and shout, "You fool! What are you doing? What do you think the moon is? Give up right away such a non-sensical, stupid thing'"?

In fact, for Mr. A, his present idea of the moon is the source of confidence and courage with which he can be just and sincere in everything he does. If he is prevented from worshipping the moon, he is, indeed, deprived of the sense of security, the meaning and joy of life. I think we have to be more patient and wait for a little while until Mr. A himself gradually understands that the moon is not such a thing as he believes it to be, and thus finds a new source of meaning in something else.

On the other hand, there is a Mr. B, who has a completely different idea and attitude with regard to the moon. He believes that we mortals should look at the moon only with our left eye; we should dance outside every night when the moon is seen in the sky; when it is not seen, we should abstain from all kinds of activities, such as traveling, working, playing, singing, and even eating particular kinds of foods; when the new moon rises, we should dump some food saved during the days when we could not see the moon; if the moon is covered with some strange clouds, it should be understood as an omen that the moon is wrathful and that the world will soon come to its end, and we have to be prepared for it with fear and trembling. He has many other detailed "thou-shalts" and "thou-shalt-nots" regarding our relationship to the moon, and firmly believes that only if he keeps all of these without fail, can he be prosperous in his business, remain healthy, have successful sons and daughters, and easily obtain revenge upon his enemies. On the other hand, if he should fail in even one of these items, he cannot escape from all kinds of catastrophes and calamities brought about by the wrath of the moon.  It is really a pity to see Mr. B lead such a life. It is not a green and abundant life, but a truly withered and distorted life of bondage and slavery.

Moreover, such a belief has also led Mr. B to conclude that all those other people who do not think and live as he does are all dangerous "heretics" who will sooner or later be eternally condemned by the moon.  So he goes around trying to force others, to their extreme vexation, to accept his way of thinking and living. He is, so to speak, trying to lead others to a life of bondage and slavery under the pretext of "evangelism."

What should we do if we find such a person around us? Out of our deep compassion and sympathy, should we not go quietly to him and say, "Mr. B. we don't know all that the moon really is, but one thing we are sure of is that the moon is not something that can bless or curse us in the way you believe. Look at the moon with your two eyes, and see what happens. Some time ago, some astronauts walked on the moon, looked at it with their two eyes, and found that they were not cursed by it. Take it easy. Throw away  your unexamined ideas about the moon, and live without fear. The direction and meaning of our life has almost nothing to do with the moon as you believe it does. Enjoy the beauty of the moon, and have a nice time from now on."

If we can honestly be sure that God is the source of hope and courage for our life, no one dares come and shout at us to abandon those silly ideas of God. But you said that with the kind of ideas of God you now have, you feel that you are trapped by something and thus your present life seems somewhat twisted. You also said that, to be absolutely frank, God has been a problem to you, and you would like to be an "atheist.''  In fact, this is not only your problem but the problem of many people. Let us examine whether the ideas of "God" we have now are healthy and sound for our life, or whether they are as immature and baseless as those of our Mr. B regarding the moon.(2)

What is meant by "God"? When we talk about God, we usually think of a God who, first of all, created us in his image. If we go a step further, we might think of that God in terms of our own image. In this view of God, God is the one who becomes happy, sad, angry, jealous, and regretful, as we all do from time to time. He is the one who also likes to be offered various sacrifices and praises. In addition, he is one who is capable of doing anything and being anywhere and knowing everything. In short, he is someone who is up there on the throne in heaven watching over his little creatures. In big terms, he is omnipotent, ubiquitous, omniscient, transcendent, and personal.

This type of view of God is generally called "theism," and the position which emphasizes that there is no other gods is termed "monotheism," and the belief that God has basically the same appearance and thought as we do is called "anthropomorphism."(3)  Although there are various types of theism, this kind of supranaturalistic theism is the most common belief rooted among many Christians throughout Western history, and this is the concept of God which early Church fathers and medieval theologians tried to "prove" through their so-called classical arguments for the existence of God.

I do not want to criticize these arguments for God one by one, nor do I want to say that this theistic view of God itself is completely wrong.(4)    We do know that throughout the centuries, there have been innumerable people, just like our Mr. A, who have found courage and consolation in this type of idea of God. But I would like to point out that, to many people who live in this "post-theistic age," this kind of view of God is not very much meaningful any more, and, in some cases, it brings about some undesirable side-effects.(5)

Children value their toys more than anything else, sometimes even more than their parents, and find therein the meaning of life. No one would say to them that they are absolutely wrong and should change their ideas right away.  It is perfectly normal for children to cherish their toys so dearly.  But if some of them, though having fully grown up still cling to those old toys as if they were the most valuable things in the world and neglect all the other new and more meaningful things designed for and enjoyed by grown-ups, isn't it a pity?

It seems, however, that even in this "world come of age"(6)  there are still among us some who cannot give up those old-time toys. If we keep them as mementos of our childhood, there is nothing wrong with that. But if, on the other hand, we, because of our absolute attachment to these toys, cannot give due heed to the things we are supposed to do as adults, or if we are obsessed with fear that we will be punished if we abandon or mistreat these toys, then there is definitely something wrong.  The toys, in this case, are things that put us into the state of bondage and slavery, like the situation of our Mr. B.

Let us think of just two examples of how such a supranaturalistic concept of God might hamper our spiritual growth. First, this idea of God tends to lead us to consider God in terms of some sort of magical power. We think that if we say some magic spells, he will conjure up everything we want. If we ask for food, he will send us something to eat; if we need gold, he will permit us a magical golden-touch. We ask him to provide not only such material needs for our physical survival, but also to arrange that all other selfish ambitions be fulfilled. "Let me prosper in my business so that people may see me and glorify thy great power; let my children be successful in all of their activities; and let thunderbolts strike upon the house of my neighbours who are unfriendly to me so that people may know that anyone who is adverse to thy faithful servants is destined to doom." In such a view of God, there is no room for the idea that we should surrender ourselves to God and follow his will. The only concern is how to fulfill our selfish purposes by appeasing, flattering, and manipulating God. The relationship with God is one of bargaining.  A few times of praising and some amount of offering to God are thought of as the good investments by which we can get in touch with the source of infinite blessings.

Second, another way of seeing God in connection with this type of ill conceived theistic idea is a legalistic view that regards God as a policeman, detective, prosecutor, and judge, all in one. God is someone who watches over us to see whether we are keeping the laws faithfully or not. If we have such a view, we are always anxious and restless, because we are afraid God may punish us if we are detected doing something wrong, consciously or unconsciously. We try our best to keep God's commandments literally and hope that by so doing we can both avoid God's punishment and receive a great reward here on earth and hereafter in heaven. If we have such a legalistic idea of God, we cannot understand that the sinful state is an individual and social reality of "tragic entanglement" caused by "existential estrangement" or by the blind attachment to self, and that the law is primarily the guide which is to direct us from such a finite state to the state of freedom. In such a legalistic view, sin is just a violation of a particular item of legal regulation, and righteousness is nothing but strict observation of every iota of the law.(7)

About a hundred years ago, when F. Nietzsche proclaimed that "God is dead," what he meant by "God" was this kind of "wrong idea" of God. It was not God as such, but a god projected in our limited mind and thus enslaving us. Recently a group of theologians expressed a similar idea with the catch-phrase, "death-of-God" theology. What they basically tried to say was that the idea of God we had inherited from the Western tradition had become so obsolete and troublesome that it had to die and, in fact, was already been dead for many people. As a matter of fact, the trouble is not that such a "god" is dead, but that it is not completely dead yet. This archaic view of God should be wiped away from our mind, for it is only then can we be new beings enjoying an abundant life of freedom.(8)

Those who reject the so-called classical theism are generally classified as "atheists." But in a strict sense, what they reject is not the reality of God as such, but just a particular idea or theory of God which was formed in a specific historical context and which has lost its relevance in a different situation. They are not "atheists," but, as Proudhon aptly pointed out, "antitheists" who refuse only the theistic understanding of God. To be more specific, many of them are actually "a-theorists" who repudiate any kind of fixed theory concerning God. This is in fact a truly religious attitude which aims at rediscovering God by removing all the intrinsically imperfect theoretical veils which have misled our attention away from God himself.

To believe in God, to be religious, or to become a Christian doesn not mean have to mean that we accept a fixed set of ideas about God. If we claim it does, it is entirely because of our ignorance and bigotry which are anachronical, anti-religious, and even non-Christian. God is too great to be defined by our words, theories or ideas. He is eternal and infinite. Our words, theories and ideas were intended to be only a means through which we can direct our attention toward him, and according to the degree of individual and social growth these ideas and theories should be continuously modified into meaningful models.

Paul said: "When I was a child, my speech, my outlook, and my thoughts were all childish. When I grew up, I had finished with childish things."(9)   Let us finish with those toys now. As Bonhoeffer said, we are "man come of age," and our speech and thoughts should be those of grown-ups. I believe it is time now for you and me to wake up from theological slumber. Toys are necessary for those who have not grown up spiritually or those who try to make money by selling them not only to children but to as many grown-up people as possible. But as for us, we must finish with childish things, so that we may continue our spiritual growth.

What is meant by God? We have used the term "ultimate reality." We may use other designations: the Real, the Absolute, the Ultimate, the Sacred, the Divine, the Holy, the Wholly Other, the Unconditioned, the Infinite, and Suchness. Paul Tillich calls this "Being-itself," or "the ground of being;" Karl Jaspers, "the encompassing" (das Umgreifende); and Rudolf Otto, "the numinous." Meister Eckhart, a great mystic of the medieval age, calls this "Godhead" (Deitas) in contrast to "God" (Deus). In Taoism, it is "Tao" or the Way; in Hinduism it is called Brahman, or the "reality of all realities"(satyasya satyam); and in Buddhism it is "the true nature of things" (dharmata), "the world of reality" or "the ground of beings" (dharmadhatu), "things as they really are" or "Suchness," or "emptiness" (sunyata); and in Islam it is "the eternal Truth"(alhaqq).  These names are, of course, all different in their nuance, but I believe they mutually point to the different aspects of ultimate reality as experienced in their particular religious traditions.

If you ask what this ultimate reality looks like, all the great religions proclaim that it is not an object of verbal description but a realm of practice and experience. It is, they say, too transcendent to be confined by verbalization, conceptualization, theorization, categorization, and dogmatization. It is something far beyond the limit of our "pure reason" and, as Otto says, it is mysterium tremendum, and therefore wholly other.

The ultimate reality is so different from the things we experience in our ordinary life that it cannot be named, and it is the Nameless. It cannot be an ordinary "thing," and  therefore, it is "No-thing" or "Nothing." It cannot be an ordinary being, and therefore, it is "Non-being."(10)   It is devoid of anything which can be predicated in human language or terms, and therefore, it is "Void" or "Emptiness."(11)

This does not mean, of course, that it is sheer nothing or emptiness. It is beyond the dichotomical category of existence and non-existence, or fullness and emptiness. It is something that is truly existing and genuinely full in a mysterious and inconceivable way. It is not "a being" among many beings, but it is "being-itself" or "non-being" or "the ground of all being."(12)

Tersteegen says, "A God comprehended is not God."(13)  Thomas Aquinas also says, "This is the final knowledge of God: To know that we do not know God."(14)   Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching starts with the statement: "The Tao that can be told of is not the Eternal Tao." Lao Tzu further states, "Those who know [what the Tao really is] do not speak; those who speak do not know."(15)   As the Bible says, "The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be hushed in his presence."(16)   In Hindu expression, Brahman is "neither this nor that" (neti, neti).

We have mentioned before that although the tremendous experience of the ultimate reality is basically inexpressible, it cannot help being expressed at the same time, and in this case, it is done only through symbols and analogies. We have to understand, therefore, that even the term God is a symbol. Through this symbol, we have to try to direct our attention to the reality which cannot be contained or exhausted by any symbols. "God is the symbol for God," and we have to try to get to "God beyond God" or "God above God."(17)

When we talk about God in terms of his love, mercy, justice, wisdom, omnipotence, omniscience, personality, and life, we have to understand that these are the symbolic expressions analogically derived from the realm of our ordinary experience. Ultimate reality is neither masculine nor feminine nor neutral alone, but symbolically we may call him/her/it "Father" or "Mother" or just "That." It is, of course, none of them exclusively, and, at the same time, all of them. It is perfectly all right to designate it in personal terms such as "Our loving and merciful Father," but only if we know that it is not a psychological report describing what God really is, but a symbolic confession of our religious attitude toward God. As Heinrich Ott points out, we are, in this case, speaking "to God," not "about God."(18)   We can have "God as personal" and a personal relationship with him or her, but this does not mean that God is nothing but "a person."

Let us not attribute absolute value to certain historical ideas or to particular symbolic expressions of God, but to God himself. Many Christians are misled in believing that the followers of other religions are idol worshippers devoted to images engraved in wood and stone. But they are totally unaware that they themselves are in greater danger of worshipping the image of God engraved in the "words and letters" as God himself, not to mention their ignorance of the fact that no sensible followers of other religions worship the image of God as God himself. Joseph Campbell mentions this:

"In Christianity, Islam, and Judaism....the  personality of the divinity is taught to be final--which makes it completely difficult for the members of these communions to understand how one may go beyond the limitations of their own anthropomorphic divinity. The result has been, on the one hand, a general obfuscation of the symbols, and on the other, a god-ridden bigotry such as is unmatched elsewhere in the history of religion."(19)

There might be some who, listening to our talk, try to label it "pantheistic" or "agnostic." We have no time to discuss what is meant by pantheism and agnosticism, and to distinguish them from our understanding of God.  Suffice it to say that if we have any position at all with regard to the question of God, it is that which emphasizes that, concerning God, all the theories, concepts, positions and "isms" should not be absolutized or dogmatized and that we should leave ourselves completely open.

Let me recapitulate the basic points: all the theories and concepts of God are symbols; faith does not mean the acceptance of any particular symbol-system in a literal sense but rather the entering into the proper relationship with the reality which has been pointed to by these symbols; and there should not be confusion between the symbols and the symbolized. The symbolized is eternal, but the symbols for it are conditioned historically and culturally. If we absolutize or sacralize these symbols, they transform themselves into demons and prevent us from seeing the reality itself.

Because of the danger that the theories, views or ideas about the ultimate reality might become demons which will lead us astray, many religious traditions advise us to wipe out completely all the theoretizations, conceptualizations and verbalizations, and to go directly to God himself. Nãgãrjuna, for example,  most strongly stressed that all of our views (drsti) pertaining to the true reality  is, in the last analysis, completely "empty" (sunya), and therefore, they should be perfectly emptied.  It is also said in the Tao Te Ching, "The pursuit of learning is to increase day after day; the pursuit of Tao is to decrease day after day."(20)   This seems to mean that to decrease all our prejudices, biased views and distorted ideas one by one is the way to reality.  By cleansing, emptying, breaking, and forgetting all the theories about God, we can discover the very essence of God which appears to our intuition, insight and wisdom. This experience of God, the experience of being one with God, of being tuned to the will of God, of flowing with the Way, and thus of being set free -- this is what counts most.(21)

Those who concern themselves only with the theories and concepts of God are, as some one said, the bank-tellers who count other peoples money all the time.  They are also people who eat the menu instead of the food in restaurants.

Let us see beyond the theories of God. Let us not cling to particular views of God. They are only maps which are meant to show us the destination; they are not the destination itself. If we find that any strange old maps lead us away from the destination, let us dare to leave them behind and try to find new ones. To get to the destination, this is our primary concern.


(1) A. J. Krailsheimer (ed.), Pascal:Penses (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966), pp. 309-10.  For comments on this see Hans Küng, Does God Exist? (Garden City: Doubleday, 1980), pp. 57f.

(2) Gregory Baum said: "We now wish to examine the doctrine of God in the light of the new focus.  Because Christians have begun to ask many questions about the divine and have new, qualitatively new, difficulties in regard to God.  Christian theologians are paying special attention to the doctrine of God at this time....  Because God has become a problem to vast numbers of people who experience life in a new way, theologians have taken up the doctrine of God and seek to interpret it." Man Becoming: God in Secular Experience (New York: The Seabury Press, 1979), pp. 162f.

(3) This concept was most concretely expressed by Xenophanes of Colophon, the sixth century BCE Greek philosopher, when he said: "If oxen or lion had hands which enabled them to draw and paint pictures as men do, they would portray their gods as having bodies like their own: horses would draw them as horses, and oxen as oxen."  Quoted in Philip Wheelwight, The Presocratics (New York: Odyssey Press, 1966), p. 33.  The nineteenth century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, in the same vein, insisted that the idea of God is the projection of  human wishes and ideals, and thus theology is nothing else than anthropology.  See his The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), p. xxxvi.

(4) A good summary of these arguments and their criticisms are found in F. Ferre, A Basic Modern Philosophy of Religion, op. cit.

(5) For the discussion of this issue, see John A. T. Robinson, Honest to God (London: SCM Press, 1963) and  his later work, Exploration Into God (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967).  See also Anthony Kenny, The God of the Philosophers (London: Clarendon Press, 1979), in which the author argues that the God of traditional natural theology does not exist, mainly because the attributes ascribed to him are not coherent.  For a recent study on the question of God, see Robert P. Scharlemann, The Being of God: Theology and the Experience of Truth (New York: Seabury, 1981),  Goldon D. Kaufman, The Theological Imagination: Constructing the Concept of God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), Frederick Copleston, Religion & One: Philosophies East and West (New York: Crossroad, 1982),  John Macquarrie, In Search of Deity : An Essay in Dialectical Theism (New York: Crossroad, 1985).  For a book on God for general readers, see Karen Armstrong, A History of God (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993).

(6) This is a phrase used by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazi government.  He presented many innovative theological ideas including those about God.  For his life and thought, see Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision, Man of Courage (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).  His own words: "Now that it has come of age, the world is more godless and perhaps it is for that reason nearer to God than ever before."

(7) For other aspects of the "God problem," see Gregory Baum, op.cit., pp. 163-165.

(8) For the discussion of "death of God theology," see T. J. T. Alteizer and W. Hamilton, Radical Theology and the Death of God (Indiannaplis, 1966), and Jackson Lee Ice and John J. Carey, ed., The Death of God Debate (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967).

(9) I Cor. 13:11

(10) The idea of "nothing" or "non-being" is most strongly emphasized in the Taoist philosophy.  See Kuang-ming Wu, Chuang Tzu: World Philosopher at Play (New York: Crossroad, 1982), pp. 61-90.

(11) The idea of "emptiness" is expounded by the Indian Buddhist philosopher, Nãgãrjuna of the third century C.E  For the exposition of his system or the Madyamika, see T. R. V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of Madhyamika System (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960) and Frederic J. Streng, Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967).

(12) See Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), pp. 211ff., esp. p. 215.

(13) Quoted in Rodolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, op.cit., p. 25.  In German, "Ein begrffener Gott ist kein Gott."

(14) From his Summa Theologica.  This type of approach is called theologia negativa.

(15) The Tao Te Ching, chapter 56.

(16) Hab. 2:20

(17) Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, op.cit., p. 46.  He also said, "nothing else can be said about God as God which is not symbolic." Systematic Theology, vol. 1, op. cit., p. 239.

(18) Heinrich Ott, God (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1974).  Here Ott is quoting Martin Buber, who is famous for his emphasis on the relationship of "I and Thou."  "I met our Prime Minister, David ben Gurion, at a reception.  He asked me, 'Professor Buber, why do you really believe in God?' ... If one could speak only about God, then I would not believe either.  But I believe in God because one can speak to him."

(19)The Hero with a Thousand Faces, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 258f.

(20) Chapter 48.

(21) One of the most beautiful expressions on the matter is found in Dionysius the Areopagite or the Pseudo-Dionysius of the sixth century C.E : "Let this be my prayer; but do thou, dear Timothy, in the diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and non-being, that thou maye arise, by unknowing, towards the union, as far as is attainable, with Him Who transcends all being and all knowledge.  For by the unceasing and absolute renunciation of thyself and of all things, thou mayest be borne on high, through pure and entire self-abnegation, into the superessential Radiance of the Divine Darkness."  Quoted in F. C. Happold, Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), p. 212.


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The article below was written by a professor of religious studies who grew up a member of a conservative Christian church.  He has graciously given me permission to post it on my website.