I do not describe myself as a man of faith. I am a man of doubt: perhaps doubting even my doubts. When I wander blithely – as we all assuredly do – into the suspect terrain of certitude, hubris and the defense of cherished beliefs – I immediately suspect my intentions and motives. Likewise, I doubt the certitude of others whether they are men of faith or atheists (and are the latter not also men of faith, for whence comes their dogmatic disavowal of the Divine?). It is for this reason I place fundamentalist christians and atheists like Richard Dawkins on the same bottom rung of the ladder: evangels of tawdry dogmatism. It would shock many, I think, who might make too-hasty assumptions about my own beliefs, to learn of the intensity of my own (agonistic) misotheist meditations¹. Whatever I reject or have discovered, belief remains an area of tension. To question meaningfully is to question ourselves.
“Certainty is so often overrated … If we don’t accept both the commonality and importance of doubt, we don’t allow for the possibility of mistakes or misjudgments. While certainty frequently calcifies into rigidity, intolerance and self-righteousness, doubt can deepen, clarify and explain. This is, of course, a subject far broader than belief in God.The philosopher Bertrand Russell put it best. The whole problem with the world, he wrote, is that “the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
– Julia Baird, The New York Times
“Don’t tell me you believe in God,” says a work colleague in the advertising agency where I am freelancing as a graphic designer. “Not all that baby Jesus crap!”, he says incredulously. He’s ragging me of course, as if he would abandon all hope and respect for me if I answered in the affirmative. The words of bishop John Shelby Spong suddenly come to mind: “God (is) the source of life and the source of love and the ground of being.”
I try to explain that the word God is the problem, with it’s innumerable connotations. To one person, “God” is an intolerant cosmic bully. To another: a benign – if remote – vaguely fatherly figure. Yet another will find the word “God” an offense, at best a sinister fiction, about as believable as santa claus. So how is it that God could also represent “the source of life, the ground of being”? This multivalence of the word is no doubt why in an ancient world with many gods, the Jews pledged allegiance to the very specific YHWH rather than to some generic “god”.
I went on to share an insight with my colleague, about how words are signifiers, symbols, that they are not the thing in itself, but an attempt to label the signified. An example: a young man who was cruelly beaten and abused by his father, may experience the word father as an intolerable and offensive term. He might have come to hate the very word (the signifier) father and even have a distorted and distressing view of what fatherhood (the signified) means. On the other hand, a young woman who thrived under her father’s kindness and nurturing love, would probably have a very different response to the word father. The word might evoke feelings of affection, and a response of trust and respect, and she would likely have a positive view of fatherhood. For both the young man and the young woman the word, the signifier, “father”, is identical, but the signified couldn’t be more different. Of course this is semantic theory at it’s most basic; arguably the word stone or tree would be less likely to have multiple referents. Where an abstract signifier is in play the signified will be multiple, nuanced and complex. Another example: take the expression “I love you”. How do we explain the unseen signified implied in this question? In the case of the word “love”, the signifier requires some sort of context, for one may love ice cream and love one’s lover, so we need clarification about the word “love”. Likewise, a woman who has been wounded in love may scorn the very word love. The word God is also a signifier requiring context and further explanation. But what is so fascinating about all this is that the exploration of this signifier – which to one person may represent a petty tyrant and to another the source of life – is the beginning of a journey of discovery if one can just move beyond the limitations of the signifier and our own presuppositions about what is signified. It is exciting, like beginning to see for the first time, or emerging from a dimly lit cave full of shadows into the daylight.
I need to make an important note here, by way of a quote:
“Heidegger asserts that a phenomena can be grasped in and for themselves in immediate perception. The function of language (logos) is to reveal what phenomena show. However language has a different Being from the phenomena it describes, so the danger is that language will only a ‘appear’ to tell us what the phenomena is. In other words, the inherent danger of describing phenomena in language is that the Being of language (because it is different from the Being of phenomena) can effectively cover up the being of phenomena. Therefore, in order to sort out the covering up of language from the truth of language, we need a method of interrogating language which is both systematic and reflexive enough to hopefully alert us to any potential covering ups. This method is what Heidegger calls, “hermeneutics,” or the business of interpretation. As Heidegger asserts – our investigation will show that the meaning of phenomenological description, as a method, lies in interpretation. It is therefore through hermeneutics, as a systematising approach to interpreting, that the authentic meaning of Being can be articulated.”(3)
Hermeneutics enables us to strip away our presuppositions, but we need to be willing to interrogate our own presuppositions.
I didn’t go into quite so much detail with my colleague, advertising deadlines being what they are – and more accurately – I have no answers. I have as many questions about my own beliefs as he has, for I do not regard faith as a sort of defined, isolated point of reference but as a continuum of enquiry between faith and doubt. It is as often about not knowing as about knowing; about openness and receptiveness, for both the believer and the unbeliever can settle into an ossified bigotry which limits discovery and flux. I don’t know that I even understand my art director colleague’s question. What does it even mean to “believe”? We are lost together, struggling to find our way.
All the books written by the respected ex-evangelical Bart Ehrman with his attack on everything christians hold sacred fails to answer such a question, just as ardent dogmas and creeds create for me layer upon layer of difficulty. All I can hope to do is to remain open instead of narrowing down the space of potential discovery. And at day’s end, are we not all fellow travellers, camped for a brief while beside a mountain pass under the stars, sharing our stories, doubts and hopes about what lies beyond some distant mountain range, or tales about things we have discovered or rejected on our journeys to this place of encounter? Soon enough we pull up our tents and move on.
In my friend’s question there was, albeit latent, the potential for discord. If my “signified” differed from his, could we still hope to travel together? Yet I really wanted to join him, the two of us like cosmic explorers, moving beyond the confines of the arcane “God-word”, to step as it were through a doorway – or, to use a 21st century analogy, to step through a sci-fi stargate -into the uncharted unknown. What an adventure, what possibilities! A new and creative ad campaign is a mere trinket compared to the jewels we intuit beyond words, beyond the limits of our thoughts and dreams, beyond what we can even imagine.
Where words fail, music remains a welcome, intuitive form of signification. In an article about the music/ soundscapes of South African jazz musician Carlo Mombelli, “Journeying into strangeness with Mombelli”, Kimon de Greef – writing for Cue – says “Mombelli makes mad, magical music; his storytellers are like nothing you’ve heard before. Find them, even if it requires journeying to strange places, and listen.”
It is not so much Carlo’s lyrics in the piece “So many names” (“Jesus Jehovah Krishna Mohammed Buddha…”) that take us on a journey beyond the signifier than it is the mysterious music itself. I don’t think he’s attempting some amalgam of deities, some sort of divine equivalence. The refrain, So many names, takes us beyond names, beyond the need of names and words, a perspective that liberal Christians might embrace and conservative Christians consider blasphemy. This brings me back to the beginning of this post: names (which are of course words) are signifiers, and there are many signifiers of the ineffable. The Jews will not speak the Divine tetragrammaton, YHWH. The San Bushmen of Southern Africa will not speak the holy name “n|om”.
In “The Bushman Way of Tracking God: The Original Spirituality of the Bushman People” by B. Keeney, PhD, the writer tells of the remarkable “texture” of San spirituality. He writes about how the Bushmen elders – which are often women – speak: “There is a river, and it is everywhere. There is a wind, and it is everywhere. They are the same except when they are different. There is a god in the sky and a god on the earth that keeps changing. They are the same except when they are different… there is a spiritual river, and we don’t have to walk anywhere to find it. We step into it by allowing our hearts and souls to be in charge rather than our minds. We allow our feelings to be stirred and awakened. When this happens, we are in the river, in the wind, in the n|om.
“you never can say what n|om is. No definition can capture it. You can’t even say the word “n|om” when it is moving within you … “n|om” might get too strong.”
Is the Bushman respect for the sacred, this ineffable something, not strikingly similar to the Jews’ approach to the Hebrew theonym יהוה, the “YHWH” in the Tanakh?
“N|om is a ‘respect name’… When you feel a holy presence nearby, you respect its power and do not allow a word to set up an illusory (and potentially arrogant) knowing of something that goes past the limit of our mind’s ability to understand. You use another word to distance yourself from the mirage of knowing…”²
What uncanny parallels between the spirituality of this 60 000 year old African people and the spirituality of the medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart of Gotha! He thought of God as fecund, an overabundance of love, ebullience; boiling over” of the One that cannot hold back its abundance of Being”. And here again we rely on inadequate words to articulate an intuited reality.
There is a whole branch of theology – apophatic theology – which explores the signified in terms of what it is not. Here we are in the company of Meister Eckhart or the Russian existentialist theologian, Nikolai Berdyaev.
One makes a journey on a ship at night in order to appreciate the stars.
In writing of the inadequacy of the signifier I am not wanting to diminish the need of a signifier. In fact signifier and signified are like two sides of a single sheet of paper. Christian theology talks about Christ as λόγος (Logos), the Word, (understood by the ancient Greeks as “the soul of the universe, and ῥῆμα,(rhema), “utterance”).
If I could make a journey beyond the advertising agency where I will be working for just a little while more, I would leave behind the limited and petty signifiers of our past, of my own inadequate words, and travel with the San Bushmen of the Kalahari or Meister Eckhart, into the Mystery that cannot be named.
I leave off with two quotes, the first by Carlo Ginsberg questions our obsession with certainty:
“Montage corresponds to what I consider to be the constructive element in historical studies: it makes it clear that our knowledge is fragmentary and that it derives from an open process. It has always been my ambition that the uncertainty of the research process should come through in what I write.”
And finally, from the author of The Path:
“I weary even of my own words, which have their own abrasive edge. More and more, I long for silence, most especially my own. I’m tired of my own voice, nattering on. That’s simple, you say – just shut up. Close the laptop and put it away. Easier said than done. Thought and words are inseparable. Thoughts cry out for expression. All the philosophers tell us: Language defines our humanity. Seal your lips and you cease to be human.”
by Chet Raymo, author of The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe.
Notes and further reading:
(2)”The Bushman Way of Tracking God: The Original Spirituality of the Bushman People” BY BRADFORD KEENEY PHD