In his last book, Stephen Hawking addresses the question, “Is there a God?” I would say no- or rather, that’s not a useful question.
My belief and my understanding come from my history: what I have read or been told, what people important to me have believed, what experiences I have had- and that I call some of them “spiritual experiences” is a product of my understanding. After some particularly wonderful spiritual experiences I reformulate what I believe, for myself as well as for you.
I was baptised a member of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and taken to worship weekly throughout childhood. I left home and continued worshipping weekly. When at University I went to St Andrews Cathedral, Aberdeen, and served at the altar, and was also in the Christian Union so exposed to Evangelicalism. I read the whole Bible with commentaries, repeatedly, over a period of about ten years. I said the creed weekly without any sense of being untruthful, though I doubted the virgin birth.
In 2001 I told my Anglican vicar I could no longer bear to worship God disguised as a man, and he was so negative about that I decided to leave his church. I had been introduced to Quakers by two friends, so knew I would be welcomed as a woman in a Quaker meeting; and had found value in the silence of Quaker worship. I continued worshipping just about weekly, with Quakers rather than with Anglicans.
I was aware that there were “non-theist” Quakers, and I rather disapproved. With my then partner, who took the point very seriously, I would have asked “Why should anyone who does not believe in God join a Religious society?” Then a Friend said, “It’s not why we join: it’s why we remain” and I understood, with my heart. From verbally challenging her membership (not directly about her but saying things which implicitly included her) I went to passionately desiring her to remain.
In 2009, I realised that I did not believe in God. It was a long, painful process. It was a change to my identity as Christian, a challenge to my relationship, possibly a breach with my Meeting, (though it included non-theists) which was the place I experienced acceptance as a trans woman rather than toleration. In February 2010 I accepted that I do not believe in God, finally. A day or so later I was touristing along the south coast, and went into a church: and was brought to my knees by a sense of holiness.
Being good at producing clever phrases, I said “I am rationally atheist and emotionally theist. I have a strong personal relationship with the God I do not believe in”. More than thirteen billion years ago there was a big bang, and the universe will not end but in trillions of years particles at absolute zero will drift apart, too far apart to influence each other, in cold blackness forever. We have evolved, over billions of years, over about 55m years as primates. So now my beliefs about God relate to my beliefs about myself as a human. I am an organism that, just as it takes in food, takes in sense-perceptions and ideas and moulds them into an understanding of the world; and I am a social being, incapable of survival without my social group, moulded by them. So I thought, God is Reality: when I worship, I relate to something greater than myself, which is human society, the biosphere, the entire world. And, being a social animal, I conceive of that as a matter of relationship. I am a tricksy soul. I love paradox.
After some rather wonderful spiritual experiences this month, I adjust what I think, returning to Little Gidding:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Shall be to return to where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Because I am a primate, I have a primate understanding of all-that-is, all that I could know or perceive. It is pre-lingual. I access it in the spiritual state called “mindfulness” or “awareness” where my words fall away and I know immediately rather than mediated through words.
And, so that I can communicate with other people, but also so that I can get the kind of grasp of an idea that makes me feel more comfortable, I put these things into words. I am a writer. Words are important to me.
My verbal and non-verbal (which, by a series of accidents, I call “spiritual”) understandings dance around one another, leading each other on. Eliot’s “Where we started” is the non-verbal understanding, always influencing our conscious belief. And, merely because by accident I have read Carl Rogers- “On Becoming a Person” and other books, and books about him and his ideas- I call that verbal understanding of myself my “self-concept” and underlying it my “organismic self” responds to its surroundings like an organism does.
That dancing may be as in “The darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing”.
Occasionally I am inspired to write poetry, by YHWH, Erato, or my unconscious mind, and around 2005 I wrote,
It hurt so much and it’s stopped.
Who I am is who I ought to be.
I kept rejecting who I am. It is my way. And last week that changed from poetry to prose for me. I would say it as a thing I believe, around thirteen years after it was given to me.
With that immediate, direct perception, not mediated by words, an understanding which feels ghostly when I am with my words and True when I am present as a perceiving animal everything seems more real and more alive. When I see clearly without trying to impose words and explanation, everything is more real. It is imbued with- magic? Or, perhaps, God. It’s not “There is a God” but “There is God”. God may be the One that is greater than all things or merely a metaphor.
I shall not cease from exploration, and my words will change; and I shall know fully as I am fully known.