CAFE NOIR » Tales of an atheist, anarchist, wannabe filmmaker of sorts, and father of three lovable little beasties

Mysticism and God-talk, and what do I mean when I say I’m an “atheist”? (Part 1)

Short answer: It’s all rather complicated, and quite a dilemma.

As for the long answer? Well, if you’re itching to wade through far too many hundreds of words of me cashing out what I mean by, “it’s all rather complicated, and quite a dilemma,” then it appears you’ve found the right spot.

I’ve said already here on several occasions that I’m persuaded that the infinite omni-max God of traditional monotheism very likely does not exist. In that sense, it’s pretty straight forward for me to call myself an atheist, and most of my discussions regarding “God” relate specifically to this theistic usage of the terms. However the situation even in this fairly narrow linguistic realm is considerably more complicated than just that–more on that in part two of this essay, to follow.

But perhaps there’s a sense in which I can use God-talk with integrity, and in fact I do use it occasionally. I tend to think the Christian doctrine of the Trinity can serve as a beautiful metaphor to offer insight here, so long as it’s understood strictly as a metaphor rather than as a literal ontology of a theistic God. The divine is a reality which in some sense transcends us (Father–or Mother, why not?), which works communally among us (Son–or Daughter), and which resides within each of us (Spirit). We’re most fully alive and whole when all three of these realities intersect. And art, at its very best, weaves together these three concerns–an intensely personal element, a strong social element, and an element of transcendent beauty and mystery.

The personal and the social might be *simpler* to describe and wrap our heads around, so I won’t say as much about these. Despite all the pain and heartache and selfishness and violence that often mark us, it’s an immeasurably precious and beautiful thing to be alive. To be embodied. To love. To make love. To feel, to think, to explore, to wonder, to desire, to share. To grow together in courage, and empathy, and generosity, and integrity. To kiss your baby’s skin and feel her squirm and giggle, and to see her bright little eyes piercing right into your very being.

As for that which in some sense transcends us? Now that’s the harder thing to put into words. Maybe I can try, however clumsily, by sharing a personal experience.

Jessica and I lived in San Francisco for two years, until just after Graham (our oldest) was born. Our apartment was in the Outer Richmond district, in the far northwest corner of the city, on the ocean side of the Golden Gate Bridge, and we were within a very easy walk of China Beach and the Lands End Trail (see the photo below, taken from the trail). One of my good friends lived out there for a while as well, and late one night while Jessica was working an overnight shift at UCSF hospital, he and I wandered to China Beach. The gate was locked for the evening but it was easy to jump, which we did, and we found a large rock to sit on, right at the water’s edge.


Lying underneath the sky, thick blankets of cool fog washing over us, rolling up from the water and over the Cypress trees beyond. Waves crashing into the rocks, swirling and foaming and roiling all around us. Deep, peaceful, almost mournful notes from the foghorn hidden in the distance. And through the mist we could still make out the faint lines of the bridge, and see the dim lights dancing across it, silently coming and going, shadows in the distance…

It was an indescribably intoxicating experience for me. Otherworldly and yet also very this-world-ly. Almost an out of body experience, and yet at the same time a profoundly embodied experience. Intensely personal and yet a distinctly social element to it as well, with my friend next to me, experiencing the night together, and with the real/imagined stories of the people driving across the bridge, perhaps some of them feeling similarly intoxicated by the cool night as well. It involved a profound sense of connectedness, and a heightened clarity of the senses as well as of perspective.

But I don’t think I have a very precise memory of it either, though I’ll never forget it. More of an impressionistic imprint of a profound and overwhelming trauma, if I can use that word without the negative connotations. Sometimes music and film, in particular, trigger similar experiences for me, but nothing quite of that intensity. It’s something I’d desperately like to experience more often and more intensely, but which can’t be forced. I can try to put myself in a position to receive it, but it’s something which can only wash over me in spite of my efforts.

So what is it? I’m not sure there’s any way for me to say enough about it without also saying too much about it. I understand why some people speak of it as God, although I find myself resonating with the words of medieval mystic Meister Eckhart that “I pray that God rid me of God.” I was very much a theist at the time, and perhaps therefore primed to interpret the experience theistically, and yet that’s not at all how I actually did experience it. Perhaps pantheism or panentheism is a better descriptor, although I certainly wouldn’t have used those terms at the time. Or necessarily now, either. Is it something ontologically real? It might be; I’m open to that possibility. Or (and?) it might be a particularly powerful and mysterious feature of our subjective psychology. I’m not sure we humans are very well equipped for such clean analytic dissections, particularly when the experiences involved are so overwhelming.

In this vein, I highly recommend Peter Rollins’ An Invitation to Drift, a five part ambient/audio reflection on his book How (Not) to Speak of God. I’ve borrowed some of my reflection here from his, and I hope you’ll do yourself a favor by taking at least the 11 minutes necessary to catch the first part:

So where does that leave us? I’m not exactly sure. Even if I had experienced this trauma theistically, it seems to me that there are overwhelming reasons to conclude that the theistic God does not exist. But I’m not sure that’s a good reason in itself to abandon God-talk altogether. I reject the intellectual packaging of theism, but the actual cargo of “God” experiences and connectedness that theism is often meant to convey is a powerful reality for me.

So I don’t think it would be disingenuous for me to use God language, and I certainly take no necessary offense when this language is used by others, even if they use it in a theistic manner.

And yet I can’t bring myself to use this language very often. I don’t think theists can claim a legitimate monopoly on this language, but it remains the case (at least from my particular vantage point and with my particular baggage) that this language carries an assumption of theism unless otherwise carefully specified. I strive for clear communication, and it seems to me that were I to use God language regularly, this would tend make clear communication more difficult. There are other ways–albeit rather clumsy ways themselves–of communicating this reality without reaching for God language.

In particular, when God-talk veers into heavy personification and worship, as it almost invariably does in my experience, I don’t personally find it very helpful at all. In the vast majority of circumstances in which God language is used, communication would be far clearer and more effective, I think, were we simply to say such things as, “This is good.” Or, “We ought to strive for that.” Or, “Each of us is an immeasurably precious creature, unique and worthy of love.” Or, “The universe is an unfathomably ancient, beautiful, vast and mysterious place.” When this kind of otherwise fairly clear communication is wrapped in personified God language, even if this language is being used in a not-necessarily-theistic manner, I find myself trying to perform layer upon layer of on-the-fly translation, and I tend to quickly lose track of the actual conceptual cargo I might draw from it.

Again, I don’t mind this language, and I’m most certainly not offended by it. And even as an atheist, if I were a religious leader of some sort, I don’t think it would be at all disingenuous of me to reach for this language. But since I’m not a religious leader, I’ve got–let’s say–the luxury of not being expected to use God language, and so I almost never do. It appears to me that many, many people draw emotional comfort as well as a sense of personal and social identity from the use of God language, even when that language isn’t wrapped necessarily in theism. And that’s fine with me, but it’s simply not a sense I share.

However, am I unnecessarily erecting barriers between myself and many others–in this great spiritual quest and conversation we humans partake in–by refraining from God-talk, even though I believe I could use such language with integrity?

I don’t know that I’ve got good answers to these dilemmas…

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  • Daniel Wilcox 7.26.16 at 1:15 pm

    Shall I refer to Alice in whatever land that is (wonder, delusion, aspiration, nightmare, substance…;-)? Words seem to often be what we say they are…

    So much of God-Talk seems to be in many, maybe most, cases a huge semantic conundrum. I consider myself an intellectually convinced theist (but not in the particular definition of the word theist–your “infinite omni-max God”–of Christian creeds or Islam orthodoxy).

    Yet, recently as well as in the past, Evangelical Christian leaders have claimed I was never a Christian, not even when I was a Baptist youth minister, later elder, Bible teacher, etc.

    In contrast, at the same time some atheists recently claimed to me that I am really an “atheist,”not a theist!

    Oh dear Cosmos, what am I?

    While I don’t do life-choice-decisions based on experience, not even mystical experience, I deeply value the several times they have happened to me. ( And I identify strongly with your aesthetic nature experience on the Bay coast. I had something similar happen to me when I was bringing cattle down out of the Crazy Mountains in Montana one sub-zero day when I worked as a cowhand years ago. Likewise, I had no theological sense, but an overwhelming, yet very real, –feel the bitter cold, see for 50 miles, stop that cow from straying–moment in which my life felt transcended beyond daily work and routine.) A perfect moment.

    Before I state what I think intellectually, here’s one mystical experience, when I did seem to experience transcendent reality beyond even wonderful aesthetic experiences. To keep it short I will share part of a poem I wrote about it. It happened one night when at university I was working at 7-11. It was after I finished stocking the Coors in the cooler, and paused from doing homework on Sister Carey by Theodore Dreiser:

    Outside the Limit

    Working the Thursday graveyard shift
    At 7-11, I stock cold shelves of ‘cours’.
    Then write a college essay on Dreiser…
    While beyond the glass, the parking lot lies
    Vacant, lit by the neon signs and street lights–
    When so unexpected my mind transports,

    I rise outside of self, see far beyondness,
    Perceive myself sitting between the rows,
    Observe the little ego in the skin and skull
    My bodied self sitting with the staid cans and jars.

    But now awash drowned in awe, the Personal
    Luminousness aware beyond words vivid bliss
    Blessed all-encompassing exalting surpassing
    Great parabled One Pearl of Being.

    The experience seemed to have nothing to do with Christianity as a religion which bothered me at the time because I was still a liberal Christian. Yet the awareness was so transcendent, I felt with my entire self that something had happened totally real yet transcendent. I was so aware of the cans on the shelf next to me and the floor and the windows, etc., yet so aware beyond all of that.

    Hope that gives a sense why experientially I am inclined toward theism (in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition sense–
    God–“1 capitalized : the supreme or ultimate reality”)

    Intellectually, I am convinced because I think that reason, logic, mathematics, ‘natural law,’ ethics, etc. aren’t illusions but are inherent in reality.

    Speculatively, I think that some form of process philosophy makes the most sense of existence (though I am not a philosopher, just responding to the views of such thinkers as Alfred Lord Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, etc.)

    I would disagree with your view that using the term “God” may have some value as a metaphor. That seems too much like Karen Armstrong’s book, The Case for God, where in the word means nothing that is real.

    Thanks for posting such a discussion-jump starting article:-)

    • Jeff Kesterson 7.30.16 at 1:05 am

      Thanks so much for sharing Daniel! At a 7-11 of all places–talk about “God” washing over you when and where you (probably) least expected it!

      Yeah, our experiences might well have been somewhat different. I wouldn’t characterize mine as revealing a “luminousness” and “Great parabled One Pearl of Being” (beautiful poetry, by the way), but I’m not sure I’d describe mine as *merely* an aesthetic experience either. That absolutely was a part of it, but it also involved a profound feeling of connectedness, and of clarity (of the senses and also of perspective). And yet at the same time–as I mentioned–it was so overwhelming that my memory of it, at least, is not very precise.

      I didn’t mean to imply that this revelation is necessarily of an ontologically “non-real” metaphor-only “God.” I think we can only describe it in terms of metaphors, but as I said, I’m entirely non-committal about its ontology. But frankly, I’m not sure I really care about its ontology. I can’t honestly see why that should particularly matter.

      In any event, thanks again very much for sharing!

  • […] part one of this essay, I gave it the old college try at explaining that I’m an atheist who […]

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