Chapter 4 of God(s) and Consciousness:
Is God real?
We’ve been exploring the lenses through which people look at what is ultimately most real or ultimately most important in life. We’ve looked at various perspectives and levels of maturity. We’ve created maps of these points of view.
It’s time we cut to the chase and ask, “Is God Real? Doug, what do you believe? Does God exist or not?”
Unitarian Universalist that I am, I want to hedge by asking, “What do you mean by ‘God’?” And I’ll do a lot of hedging in a moment. But first I owe you a simple, straight answer. Taking it as a serious question, using my own deepest understanding I would say, “Yes, God is real.”
I arrive at this answer in two ways. One is to say God is “phenomenologically real.” This a good Unitarian Universalist answer. It’s convincing but not very satisfying. Two is to say God is “absolutely real.” This isn’t so convincing but ultimately more satisfying.
In each case, the answer is “yes.” And each way of arriving at the answer has value. So let’s unpack it each way – hopefully without hedging too much.
To say God is phenomenologically real means there are real phenomena that people experience and these phenomena have measureable effects.
To explore this, let’s go back to our map of the lenses through which we view God. Here’s a version that includes most of what we’ve explored so far:
There are three basic perspectives on God or three places where people look for God. The first person perspective looks inside. It emphasizes practices like meditation and contemplation. The second person perspective looks at how we relate to one another or to life in general. It emphasizes devotion and surrender and practices like prayer and chanting. The third person perspective looks for God objectively in the external world. It emphasizes rationality, inquiry, scientific methodology and observation.
Reality includes all three perspectives. So all three are legitimate. We may personally prefer one to another. That’s fine. Yet each is completely valid. Therefore our map includes all three along its horizontal dimension.
The vertical dimension is maturity. As we engage with any perspective, it unfolds developmentally. Some views are appropriate for a child or novice. Others are appropriate for an adult or spiritual master. In the first two sermons we looked at three points in this developmental spectrum: separation, connection and merging or oneness.
In the third sermon, we broke down this developmental spectrum into six smaller steps: tribal/magic, self-centric/ mythic, group-centric/literal, world-centric/rational, pluralistic/postmodern and integral.
These six stages outline the most familiar areas in the developmental spectrum. To be more complete, we could add an archaic stage before tribal and several stages beyond integral: “transpersonal,” “illumination” and “overmind.”
It’s hard to describe these higher stages because so few people achieve them that we don’t have much data about them. And the data we have can be fully understood only by those who’ve gotten there.
But for our purposes, it’s enough to note that there are stages beyond integral. These include the experience of self dissolving, merging with God and oneness with the universe.
This gives us three perspectives and ten developmental stages or thirty different lenses through which to view God, Spirit, ultimate reality or what’s ultimately most important in life. The philosopher Ken Wilber refers to these as cosmic addresses. They can be fun to play with.
For example, consider the God who walked in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. This is a relational perspective and a mythic consciousness. Its address is 2nd person, level 3. Or simply a 2-3 god.
In Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, I AM has sent me to you.” What kind of God is described as “I am that I am”? … It sounds 1st person transpersonal level 8. Its cosmic address on our map might be 1-8.
Or maybe we see nature as what’s ultimately most real. Walking in the wilderness we feel connected with the forests and mountains. Maybe this isn’t exactly a feeling of Oneness but is a personal emotional bond to nature as Gaia. This is a 3rd person perspective with a pluralistic consciousness or a 3-6 view of Spirit.
As long as we are considering traditional images of God, we might look at less traditional. Let’s say a person views money as what’s ultimately most important in her life – the primary organizing factor. It’s her functional equivalent of God. This is an objective view (money is an external object) and it’s rather young: a magical or mythical object. So the Golden Calf’s address might be 3-2.5.
To be sure we have these addresses correct, we’d have to listen carefully to the way a person describes God or Spirit or reality.
The point is that we can look at any place on the map and find people – probably large groups of people – for whom a God at that address is phenomenologically real. They believe in a God in that vicinity. They feel it in their guts or in their hearts. It affects how they treat other people and how they organize their lives. It has tangible impacts. It’s phenomenologically real.
Someone might object to this line of reasoning saying, “My God is real because I experience a still small voice within. His God is unreal because it’s anthropomorphic – an infinitely perfect Santa Claus. Mine is authentic. His is ridiculous.”
To this we could say, “Well, the white haired, loving gentleman in the clouds may be a young image of God – a 2nd person mythic or a 2-3 god. But it has some truth even if it’s a little silly. Your still small voice is more sophisticated – 1st person pluralistic or a 1-6 image. But there are views on God more mature than yours. From those higher stages, yours looks naïve. So why should we accept yours but not his? They’re each real to one of you.”
Rather than get into my-God-is-better-than-your-God fights, we can acknowledge that each represents genuine experience that has meaningful impacts.
As Unitarian Universalists seeped in pluralistic, post-modern values, we affirm and support everyone’s search for truth and meaning and the legitimacy of many views of ultimate reality. The banners around this sanctuary convey this broad embrace.
Even if this line of thought is compelling, it’s not satisfying. Just because somebody fervently believes something doesn’t mean it’s really true. President Bush convinced Congress and most Americans that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That belief cost thousands of lives, over a trillions dollars, damaged our international standing and helped wreck the economy – it had very real effects. It was phenomenologically real. But Hussein had no weapons. It wasn’t true ultimately.
Just because someone feels a personal Biblical version of God in their heart doesn’t mean they interpret their experience accurately. Just because we fervently believe that the voice of intuition arising in our hearts has a divine source, that doesn’t prove we aren’t quietly hallucinating.
This brings us to the second way of asking the question: “Is God ultimately real? Is God really for real?”
I think it is safe to assume that all the lower developmental addresses of God aren’t ultimately real. They may be relatively real. They may contain some truth. But they’re not completely real. The Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy may excite wonder in a child without being completely real.
But what about these upper level Gods? Are they real? And who is even in a position to answer?
The only people who can answer about the higher levels are those who have mastered those stages of consciousness – saints, meditation masters, yogis, evolved scientists and people in ordinary lives who exhibit complex thinking and intuition at the highest levels we can detect.
Researchers have developed ways to identify those few people who may have achieved these higher stages. When asked, “Is God real?” they say “Yes.” At least most do – over 90% answer affirmatively.
What it Means in 1st Person
To understand their answers, we have to look beyond a simple “yes” or “no” and ask them to elaborate on what they mean. This can be tricky.
For example, if we ask most highly trained Buddhists, “Is God real?” they’ll say “No” at first. For them the word “God” implies a supernatural being or force outside the world who is pulling strings, influencing evolution, controlling events or giving advice. Buddhists see ultimate reality as interdependent: everything depends on everything else. They see no divine being or force “outside,” just natural laws within the interdependent web.
So initially they say, “No.”
But if we asked them to elaborate on what they experience, their answer is not as simple as “yes” or “no.”
As the mind-heart becomes deeply relaxed, it becomes peaceful and serene. It’s empty of thought. It’s void of concepts. But the emptiness isn’t like walking into a gigantic deep freeze with the lights turned out. The void is not a cold, dark nothingness. Quite the opposite.
Without the swirl of thoughts, the mind is clear, insightful, wise and intelligent. The wise person is not lost in a jungle of thinking. She can calmly see to the heart of a situation. She can see through us.
Without that swirl of thoughts, the heart is filled with love. After all, judgments are thoughts. The quiet heart is more discerning and less judgmental.
It feels weird at first. We think wisdom means being smart about something. But higher wisdom is a way of seeing, not something that is seen. We think of love as attached to a beloved person or object. But this is love without an object – just love as a natural state.
The state feels warm and luminous, not cold and dark. A sense of self becomes irrelevant. It dissolves into clarity, kindness and compassion.
If we ask someone deeply familiar with these higher stages, “Does God exist?” what are they going to say?
Two and a half millennia ago when the Buddha was asked, he refused to answer. Saying “yes” would have been misleading, implying a supernatural being or force apart from everything else. And saying “no” would have also been misleading, implying the absence of these divine qualities that permeate the mind-heart when it resists nothing.
So the Buddha remained silent.
Today, when researchers ask people highly developed in first person practices like meditation, “Is God real?” they might say “No,” meaning they see nothing supernatural. Or they might say, “Yes,” meaning “Existence is inherently alive, joyful, clear, intelligent, wise and luminous.”
Statistically, most say “yes.” But the Spirit they refer to is very different from the traditional, separate God. Very different. But very real.
What it Means in 3rd Person
Now, let’s step back and come at the question, “Is God real?” from a different perspective – the third person perspective. This emphasizes objectivity, inquiry, scientific methodology and clear-headedness.
When we look at the universe this way, it’s clear that it’s creative. The universe moves toward greater and greater complexity. Think about it.
Thirteen billion years ago (give or take a billion) the universe was vastly simpler – a “singularity” in which all matter and energy were crushed down to a small, incredibly dense sameness.
Then it exploded – the “big bang.” One instant there was absolute sameness. The next, the universe was expanding and populated by gazillions of sub-atomic particles – simple but not quite as simple as a moment before.
As it expanded and cooled, subatomic particles stuck together creating atomic particles – protons, electrons, neutrons.
As it expanded and cooled more, atomic particles clumped together into hydrogen atoms. The universe was still simple, but not quite so simple.
After a while the clouds of hydrogen compacted into stars. In these infernos, the hydrogen atoms were driven together forming more complex elements: helium, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and heavier elements like uranium and plutonium.
The stars exploded and scattered these complex elements around the universe. This stuff eventually formed planets.
Our planet was formed some four and a half billion years ago, give or take. The stuff of our planet mixed and mingled, mingled and mixed creating different compounds with different properties. Eventually there were compounds that could replicate themselves – nucleic and amino acids perhaps. These first hints of life were incredibly simple by today’s standards.
You know how the story goes: they evolved into single cell organisms, multi-celled organisms, organisms made of tissues and organs. Eventually neural networks evolved. Recently these neural networks became complex enough to be self-aware.
We humans are massive, complex, partially self-aware organisms with more intricacy than we can fathom. And if we think we are the end of the line – the highest of the highest – that is just narcissistic indulgence. All the signs indicate that the universe is just getting started: humans are less than a whistle stop in evolving complexity.
This plot line shows our universe isn’t dead matter and energy running down hill. It moves creatively toward greater complexity. This is what we see objectively.
At the same time, another movement runs in the opposite direction – a movement toward simplicity. Rot, decay, death and destruction move from complexity toward simplicity. Everything dies. Everything put together sooner or later falls apart. Nothing last. Entropy happens. Everything tends to break down into simpler states.
There’s also a third quality called “inertia.” At least in the short run, things tend to stay the same. If I place a pencil on this pulpit, it stays where I left it unless some outside force acts upon it.
These are three fundamental trends: complexity, simplicity and inertia. Creativity, destruction and steadfastness.
In Hinduism these are called Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is the creative. Vishnu is the sustaining. Shiva is the destructive.
In monotheism we have “God the father, creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.” We have God the sustainer, “who makes me lie down in green pastures [and] leads me beside still waters … Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23-2,4) And we have Jehovah the wrathful destroyer who wiped out the whole world and sends people to burn in hell.
But from the objective perspective, these are not supernatural forces. They’re just properties of the natural universe. They’re like gravity. I have no idea why gravity works – why objects attract each other. But I don’t need to imagine supernatural beings holding us to the earth. Gravity is a property of the universe. So is movement toward complexity. So is inertia. So is entropy.
These and other forces mix and mingle to create ladybugs, spider webs, asteroids, blue herons, quasars and everything else.
Meanwhile the human mind is complex enough to just scratch the surface of what’s going on around us all the time. Just consider your pinky: all the tissues, cells, compounds, atoms and processes involved. It’s mind-boggling.
To see more, we need to bring more to bear than clear intellect. We must approach it with all we have: mind and heart, intuitions, feeling, subtle sensing, clear thought – all of it. Not feeling to the exclusion of thought or one faculty to the exclusion of others but all of them highly functioning and integrated in a healthy way.
This is integrated or integral consciousness. It may still only scratch the surface, but it scratches deeper than rational intellect alone or intuition alone.
This integrated consciousness sees, feels, senses and observes how we are an interaction of complexity, inertia and dying. It fights these forces less and less. When flashes of creativity and inspiration arise, we flow with them. When disease and death arise, we flow with them. When we need to rest, we just rest.
In this way we stop resisting life and become more at one with life as it is.
The quality that brings this harmony is kindness. Kindness is being with things as they are rather than fighting or controlling.
This consciousness is imbued with the wonder of life. Why is there gravity? Why is there complexity? Why is there death? Why is there sustenance?
We can see these. We can measure them to a degree. But our minds and hearts have no way to answer why there is gravity, electromagnetism, butterflies, babies, mountain streams or sunsets.
Why was there a Big Bang? If the universe is 13 to 14 billion years old and we could go back 15 billion years, what would we find? What about 50 billion years ago? 500 billion? Other universes? Did they have the same natural laws?
Why is there anything? What is awareness? Who or what is asking these questions? We don’t know.
But we still live and love and play within these fields of complexity, inertia and death … in things as they are.
The integrated consciousness that opens to these questions has all those qualities we described before: open, receptive, quietly joyful, curious, relaxed, inquisitive, courageous, luminous, kind, loving – all those qualities ascribed to a traditional loving God. But just as a part of all that is, not separate out there, but integrated right here.
When asked if God is real, this highly evolved objective consciousness tends to say “Yes,” not because it sees supernatural powers at play but because the natural world is fascinating, joyful, awesome and luminous.
I’ll leave it here. Life is still evolving. To try to resolve and bring things to closure would be out of sync with what is.
The highest consciousness is not closure, control, stillness or a metaphysical deep-freeze without light.
The highest consciousness is alive, in flux, relaxed, engaged, kind, wise, clear and luminous.
The highest reality is God or Spirit.
1. Ken Wilber, The One Two Three of God, op. cit.
2. For example Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, David Bohm’s theories, Teihard de Chardin, Aurobindo, Ken Wilber’s spectrum of consciousness.
3. Ken Wilber op. cit.
4. Ken Wilber, The One Two Three of God interview op. cit.
Copyright 2012, Doug Kraft