According to a Gallup poll, the number of Americans who believe in God has
dropped to an all-time low of 81%. But what slips through the net of general questions like that are all the nuances that make religion interesting. Like what do you mean by God?
When we try to answer that question we find ourselves stumbling through the ruins of an ancient city whose long dead architects are unavailable to explain their designs, facades, and monuments. We mouth theological hearsay, second-hand creeds, and threadbare apologetics until we don’t even hear the sound of our own voices anymore.
In his own journey from altar boy to preeminent scholar of religion and mythology, Joseph Campbell brought lived experience and intellectual honesty to the journey so many of us are on—who, what, and where is God?
Campbell argued that all of our God-concepts are masks that we hang on the indefinable mystery beyond conceptual thought. Some cultures personify the mystery as a conscious entity with specific qualities and characteristics, including gender. Other cultures conceive of the mystery as a pantheon of thousands of gods and goddesses. Still others prefer to leave the mystery as it is—ineffable, beyond all names and forms, and impersonal, like Brahman, Dao, or the Force.
What matters most is not which of those conceptual masks is correct but realizing that we are the ones who make these masks of eternity. So powerful is our longing to reconnect with the divine source from which and we and all things come that our indefatigable creativity builds a bridge across a chasm our minds cannot cross--a bridge made of myths, images, and poetic narratives.
Three factors determine the shape of our masks of eternity: our environment, our sociology, and our needs. The gods of Pacific Islanders are sea turtles and dolphins. The gods of the Navajo and Hopi of the American Southwest are coyotes, ravens, and spiders. We model our masks after the familiar things in our immediate environment.
In addition, we shape our God concepts around models of power we find in our own societies. In patriarchal cultures gods tend to be male. In matriarchal societies the Great Goddess prevails. We project our limited and local sense of power onto the heavens.
And finally, our masks of eternity are born from our unmet needs. Constantly under siege from warring enemies? You need a warrior god. Wounded and suffering? You need a healing god. Struggling to find sustenance? You need a god of abundance and prosperity. The mystery behind the masks eludes our conceptual grasp, but we never tire of creating out of the womb of our environment, sociology, and needs an infinite variety of God-concepts to protect, serve, and preserve us.
In the end, the masks become the final obstacle to be overcome. If you really want to know God, you have to forget everything you know about God. As Meister Eckhart put it, "God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction." Maybe it's best not to think about God as a separate entity at all, but the space within which we move. The apostle Paul said it best: "All can seek the Deity, feeling their way toward God and succeeding in finding God. For God is not far from any of us, since it is in God that we live and move and have our being." (Act 17:27-28)
[This piece was first published in my "A to Zen" column in the November/December edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]