Theology For Atheists

DawkinsAccording to Richard Dawkins, “The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything. What makes anyone think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?”

But Oliver Burkeman, a blogger at the UK paper The Guardian, has a different opinion. He recently published a piece entitled The One Theology Book All Atheists Really Should Read. It concerns a book called The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart.

Burkeman says in his blog that, “If a committed creationist wrote a book called The Evolution Delusion, but only attacked the general public’s understanding of evolution, we’d naturally dismiss them as disingenuous. We’d demand, instead, that they seek out what the best and most acclaimed minds in the field had concluded about evolution, then try dismantling that.”

We saw exactly this happen in the news a few days ago. A teacher in Louisiana reportedly told a sixth grade student who was a Buddhist that his religion was stupid. The school board backed up the teacher and recommended the student transfer to a school district where there are more Asians. This teacher also taught that evolution was wrong because, “if evolution was real, it would still be happening: Apes would be turning into humans today.”*

This understanding of evolution is, of course, stupid, to use the teacher’s own terminology. It is a view that is willfully ignorant of the actual mechanics of evolution held by someone who obviously never studied the subject. We can safely assume, I think, that this teacher is ignorant of evolution for much the same reasons Richard Dawkins is ignorant of theology. She doesn’t feel there is any need to study it because she has already decided it has no value.

However, if one really wants to seriously challenge the theory of evolution, one needs to know precisely what the theory of evolution actually says. Similarly, if one wants to seriously challenge the belief in God, one really needs to know just what people mean when they talk about God.

Burkeman’s article talks about two ideas of God. One he calls the “superhero God.” About this concept of God he says, “The superhero God can do anything he likes to the universe, including creating it to begin with. Demolishing this God is pretty straightforward: all you need to do is point to the lack of scientific evidence for his existence, and the fact that we don’t need to postulate him in order to explain how the universe works.”

But David Bentley Hart’s book talks about a much more sophisticated concept of God. Burkeman quotes Damon Linker of The Week summarizing Hart’s position thus, “According to the classical metaphysical traditions of both the East and West, God is the unconditioned cause of reality — of absolutely everything that is — from the beginning to the end of time. Understood in this way, one can’t even say that God ‘exists’ in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist. God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.”

This is pretty much the same idea of God that I wrote about in my latest book There Is No God And He Is Always With You. As in Burkeman’s blog, I admit in my book that there really are people who actually believe in what he calls the “superhero God.” To a limited extent it’s useful to criticize that view. But to attack and/or dismiss all belief in God based on those who fear and worship a giant white man up in the sky who can make one team beat another in the Super Bowl is… well… stupid.

I tend to agree with most of the things atheists say. I think evolution is real. I don’t believe in miracles. I don’t believe in Noah’s Ark or Krishna’s love-making prowess. I don’t think Buddha could fly and make fire come out of his head. I don’t think Jesus rose from the dead – though I do believe he existed. I think religious fanaticism based on the belief in a superhero God is a dangerous thing, a kind of pervasive social disease that should be eradicated for the good of everyone.

But I have been and remain deeply disappointed in most of the output of the neo-atheist movement. I bought Dawkins’ book The God Delusion thinking that it might be an interesting critique of the more sophisticated view of God. Since he was a scientist, I thought perhaps Dawkins would talk about how our delusions about God developed over time and what sort of function they may have provided early in human evolution. Instead, it was a long rant against a version of God that was so easy to demolish I don’t know why he needed so many pages to do it.

I have practiced zazen for many years for a great number of reasons. But one of those was to see if I could discover anything about God as “the unconditioned cause of reality.” Because if God is the unconditioned cause of reality then God is also the unconditioned cause of me. And perhaps if I learned to be very, very quiet I might just be able to hear the voice of God. Not like the voice of Charlton Heston drenched in reverb commanding me to go forth and hump the president’s dog, but the “still, small voice” spoken about in the Bible (Kings 19:12).

Many of us who do this practice have heard that still, small voice. A few of us have even been able to learn not just to hear it but to listen to it. That takes a lot more work and I am still making my efforts to really listen more often. But even just to hear that still, small voice at all, one has to first become extremely quiet. There is nothing I know of that can bring about the necessary quiet except consistent meditation practice.

Theology can tell us a lot about what humans have thought about God and God’s place in our lives. It’s not my personal favorite subject, to be honest. But to dismiss it as unworthy of study at all is a huge mistake. It you want to criticize the belief in God effectively, you have to know what your opposition is actually talking about.

So get with the program, neo-atheists! I would definitely read that book if anyone ever wrote it!


* Whitney says, “Why would apes be evolving into humans? Maybe they’re OK as they are, school teacher!”

*   *   *

Whether you’re an atheist or not you can still believe I need your donations to keep going. So donate here! Every donation is sacred! Thank you!

– February 18-23 I’ll be hosting a retreat with Kazuaki Tanahashi  at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico

You can see the documentary about me,  Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, at the following locations (I’ll be at all screenings):

– March 11, 2014 Ithaca, NY

– March 14, 2014 Brooklyn, NY

– April 20, 2014 San Francisco, CA

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70 Responses

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  1. mjkawa
    mjkawa January 28, 2014 at 8:15 am |

    Brad, Theology, the study of the Theos.

    How can we study the thing/concept, that you imagined?
    He imagined, she imagined, we, y’all, and they imagined.

    It is still that same pesky cat in the basement.

  2. captainhardshell
    captainhardshell January 28, 2014 at 8:35 am |

    Hi Brad!

    “If you want to criticize the belief in God effectively, you have to know what your opposition is actually talking about.” As much as I dislike Dawkins’ polemic, I–sadly–think that he does have a handle on how a great many believers conceive of God. In my own personal, limited experience, I would even argue that most believers are referring to the Superhero God.

    I’m sure you’ve seen the 2010 Pew Research poll (you may have even referenced it already on this blog) that reveals that 48% of U.S. Christians believe Christ is coming back in the next 40 years, with an additional 28% believing that it “probably” won’t happen. That’s over 115 million Americans (nearly the entire population of the country of Japan) with a professed belief in a literal, coming-down-from-the-clouds-in-a-chariot-of-fire God, with an additional 67 million who only deem it “unlikely” to happen instead of dismissing it outright.

    Growing up in Michigan, I was once at a baptist revival church where speaking in tongues was practiced; one of the participants was the county prosecutor. I had a girlfriend from Chicago–now a buyer at a hedge fund–who believed her cousin was saved by divine intervention from a tornado during her childhood, despite the fact that, if true, God happily slaughtered 3 other children who died in that same building. And during the year of the infamous Harold Camping rapture, my San Jose neighbor had his truck plastered with stickers and propaganda that urged people to repent or else. After he moved out–and after the apocalypse came and went–I found out that he was a truancy officer with the police department.

    The recent Catholic Pope, who presides over 1 billion believers worldwide, who has been lauded in the media for being a 21st century, humanist, scientifically-literate Pope, who was awarded Time magazine’s person of the year, has declared that gay couples adopting children is the direct work of the Adversary himself, the fallen angel Satan.

    Despite the fact that many modern Catholics in the U.S. seem to sample their favorite beliefs and quietly mix them with modern morals, the third world is currently a bastion for Iron Age superstition, such as the Christian-led anti-homosexual bill in Uganda that criminalizes gay sex. Initially the bill called for the death penalty, but has now settled merely for life imprisonment.

    And as far as the dangers of radical Islam go, I’ll side with those who say that the vast majority of Muslims reject that kind of insanity, but what’s horrifying is the watered-down theology that remains not only accepted, but enshrined in the laws of many countries. Sharia law is practiced to some extent in over 50 countries, and even in places where women aren’t honor-killed by their family members for being raped, or have their clitorises violently cut off before they’re school-age, there are still Koran-based applications in law, such as in Algeria, where the testimony of two women is required in a trial to equal one from a man.

    I’m definitely an optimist as far as religion in the 21st century goes, and I’d even go so far as to say that, provided we don’t blow ourselves back to the stone age, leaving behind the Superhero God is inevitable. But for now, when Richard Dawkins criticizes those beliefs, I would argue it’s appropriate to do so because that God is the very thing most people believe in: not the unconditioned cause for reality, but the God of war and thunder, an individual being who exists outside of creation, is responsible for everything in it, and has very specific interests in geopolitical affairs.

  3. Mumon
    Mumon January 28, 2014 at 9:18 am |

    I personally have multiple issues with this post:

    1. The New Atheists are indeed correct in that many theist apologists use your “second definition” of god as a decoy to give the Superhero believers a pass.

    2. On the other hand Kierkegaard was right, and this is why the philosophical theists give the Superhero believers a pass: “[T]he unconditioned cause of reality — of absolutely everything that is — from the beginning to the end of time” isn’t the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Or Allah.

    And because of 1 & 2, the New Atheists have a point when they rail against the dominant montheisms.

    3. Have you ever heard of Hinduism?

    4. “[T]he unconditioned cause of reality — of absolutely everything that is — from the beginning to the end of time” isn’t hardly the Dharmakaya, Buddha Nature, etc.

    I ought to write a long response to this; I share much common ground with you, but the New Atheists’ theological critique is pretty strong, though their limitations and faults aren’t absent.

  4. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon January 28, 2014 at 10:01 am |

    “The biggest objection to the argument is that it suffers from special pleading. While everything in the universe is assumed to have a cause, God is free from this requirement.”

    From a Buddhist perspective, the First Cause Argument violates the fundamental tenet that EVERY thing is the result of causes and conditions.
    Why assume that there is only one ultimate source or ground for all things? What is “the source” of fire? Is it just an ignition source? Just fuel? Just oxygen?
    Trying to answer any question with something that is unknown, or even worse “unknowable,” doesn’t explain anything.

  5. Ken
    Ken January 28, 2014 at 10:38 am |

    My brother, a good man and Orthodox Christian, sent me The Orthodox Way which I enjoyed as long as it talked about God as a complete mystery to us. As soon as it started using that mystery to explain specifics – which I can’t remember, but might be things like why only men could be priests – it lost me.

    Brad – you might check out Spinoza. Of course, a lot of people consider Spinoza an atheist although he spent a lot of words explaining his approach to God, and I am deeply impressed with how much Buddhism and Spinoza agree.

  6. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer January 28, 2014 at 10:41 am |

    On the subject of time there is a new book out by Lee Smolin dealing with the scientific concept of time.

    Dr. Smolin argues that the concept of time used in physics needs to be re-evalauted to help physics solve some of it’s current problems.

    I read half of the book until it became difficult for me to follow. None the less, I find it interesting that Dr. Smolin thinks that time is a concept that needs to be approached differently.


  7. Mumbles
    Mumbles January 28, 2014 at 11:21 am |

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of
    its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live
    under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The
    robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at
    some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good
    will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of
    their own conscience.”
    — C.S. Lewis

  8. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon January 28, 2014 at 12:28 pm |

    As for the alleged historicity of “Jesus”…

  9. boubi
    boubi January 28, 2014 at 12:39 pm |

    There are a few issues here:

    – No sutra ever talked about any god neither “god” nor God, so from the dharma point of view ????

    – Theology seems to me to have been written by people with no “mystical” experience, rather by people with casuistic lawyer’s kind of mentality.
    The Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross and others were writing other kind things, correct me in case.

    – That “little voice” could be your own sense of morality, your guardian angel, some deceased person – why “God”* should be talking to “you”?

    – As said before by others this god seems a lot as the “first motor/first cause” of Aristoteles and it seems outside the world/universe

    BTW what is your teacher’s Nijishima take on this theistic thing of yours?

    OK, writing about “god” in this times of return to darker ages, of denial of evolution, of less security in society could be a good seller.

    * God is the unconditioned cause of reality — of absolutely everything that is… God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all.’

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot January 28, 2014 at 4:49 pm |

      — No sutra ever talked about any god neither “god” nor God, so from the dharma point of view ????

      Say not so, dear boubi, say not so! Many Suttas speak of various kinds of devas.
      Sutras, too – who can forget the Goddess that lived in the house of Vimalakirti?

  10. bkudria
    bkudria January 28, 2014 at 3:30 pm |

    You may be interested in “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”:, written in 1976 by Julian Jaynes. There’s a summary with a link to a fuller review here:

  11. CatsareInfinite
    CatsareInfinite January 28, 2014 at 4:51 pm |

    Brad, I am going to be civil in this post. I don’t want to come off as pointing fingers, put you down, or anything like that. I simply want us both to discuss this:

    “There is nothing I know of that can bring about the necessary quiet except consistent meditation practice.”

    Listen, you’ve done this on numerous occasions. It’s fine and dandy to value Zazen as a tool, but when you herald one expedient means (i.e., Zazen in this case), exclusively from other methods, as being aligned with the Buddha hood, you have problems. Many things can bring about the necessary quiet such as deep poetry reading in solitude while in natural scenery, koan practice, sincere prayer, Dervish swirling, profound experiences while walking alone, connecting to a love one in a non-sensual way, or etc. I simply do not understand why you act accepting of other approaches one moment, and then you switch back to arguing consistent Zazen is the only way to successfully yield a quiescent mind. Chan was not unified in the beginning and different patriarchs had different (no-_methods in cultivating awareness in their students; it’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Heck, even J. Krishnamurti’s (no-)methods (choiceless awareness) can work better than consistent Zazen. It all depends on the individual and other factors.

    I would argue Zazen, when treated as holy, can be counterproductive. Kodo Sodowaki explains how Zazen is completely useless. If you keep telling people to do it consistently everyday, they may treat it as a chore or something to just do; in this sense, infrequent and sporadic Zazen may be better than Zazen practice in a daily, regimented kind of way. It is not something “accumulated” or gradually changed (e.g., refining character or whatnot).

    Zazen ruined my knees. It helped me with nothing. Rather, permaculture, sustainable living, gardening, and solitude in natural scenery [while reading deep poetry] all aided me more. There are different approaches for everyone. I especially do not like Soto Zen’s unneeded emphasis on Japanese rituals, and I can understand why Toni Packer broke off from it. Treating Zazen as the best tool or “one that is aligned with Buddha nature, making it one and the same, an actualizing process” is even more dogmatic than people who obsessively fixate on the cross, viewing it as a symbol that has priority over other creative forms of experiences.

  12. RandomStu
    RandomStu January 28, 2014 at 5:37 pm |

    If someone says they believe in God, my key question wouldn’t be the meaning they attach to “God.” The fundamental issue is: in what way does this belief affect how you act in everyday life? If someone holds an idea about God that they use only for spinning ideas inside their heads, for getting some nice warm fuzzy temporary feelings, or for having philosophical talks with no practical application… then I don’t find it so interesting, regardless of the details of their belief.

    It’s like ideas that people hold about “existence.” What’s it got to do with our lives in this moment? I don’t care if you can speak volumes making philosophical assertions about whether a car really exists or not. I just care if I can drive it where I’m going. Similarly, if someone believes “God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality”… MAYBE that connects somehow to real-life, but it’s not at all obvious how. And if it doesn’t connect to daily life, then who cares?

    (It’s true, by the way, that people can also hold ideas/beliefs about evolution that they’ll argue passionately… even though the question of exactly how human beings appeared on the planet ages ago has zero influence on anything they actually do in the present.)

    Re the still small voice… I assert my right to be highly suspicious of people who pay much heed to voices in their head. Sure, we can use some type of practice to perceive these voices (aka “thinking”) clearly, and see how they influence us. But why not use that perception to AVOID slavishly following inner voices, rather than elevating them to being a voice of “God.”

    A short look at history and current events demonstrates that people who strongly believe in the voices in their heads (loud or soft), don’t have a flawless track record.


  13. Fred
    Fred January 28, 2014 at 6:26 pm |

    If it is unsupported, it doesn’t have legs, it is not dependent upon conditioning,
    it does not have the name God.

    The thought God shapes the unformed into a slot to be known by the conditioned
    mind. Zazen sits zazen without conceptual thought.

  14. Mumbles
    Mumbles January 28, 2014 at 6:33 pm |

    Very nice, Fred!

  15. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 28, 2014 at 11:02 pm |

    I’ve been warned, but I’m proceeding anyway! Shiny red motorcar!

    I like the responses on this thread. Speaking for myself, my practice has been all about taking my time with the lotus, as Kobun told us all to do way back when. If I can sit forty minutes without pain and numbness once a day, I know what it means to me after forty years, I don’t care whether I can’t do the same thing for 14 50-minute sittings a day 43 days running (or whatever they did at Antaiji when Kodo Sawaki died).

    And I don’t really care who reads my contribution to “An Article Concerning “D. T. Suzuki and the Nazis” by Brian Victoria, here, but thanks Andy for mentioning the article. And thanks Adam, for making it possible.

    1. Mumbles
      Mumbles January 29, 2014 at 4:56 am |

      Thanks for that link, Mark, I think it may be the clearest representation of what you have been saying over here for quite awhile, I would urge others to take a look.

      Or maybe it is because I had my own strange alteration of perception recently after spending a day recording music at a small (as in claustrophobic, and I am -sometimes the body is just too constrictive!) studio, I left to pick up one of my kids and in the car, as usual, I began to drive and daydream. But very soon I realized that the immediate memories of the daydreams could not be discerned to be different from concrete memories of the afternoon, they blended together and mixed with the present perception of driving. All perception folded in on itself, over and over and I yearned for a sense of unity, a stabilization. This went on in a diluted form all evening and I went to bed early. The next day was more normal, I spoke with a friend who described having nearly the same symptoms prior to my describing them sans the blending of perceptions (dizziness, headache, general disorientation) about the same time of day. I chalked it up to a dramatic change in atmospheric pressure -the temp dropped about 30 degrees in a v. brief time frame as a cold front came in. Maybe.

  16. boubi
    boubi January 29, 2014 at 1:24 am |

    To minkfoot

    “— No sutra ever talked about any god neither “god” nor God, so from the dharma point of view ????

    Say not so, dear boubi, say not so! Many Suttas speak of various kinds of devas.
    Sutras, too – who can forget the Goddess that lived in the house of Vimalakirti?”

    Sorry devas are not the “god” that Brad is talking about, devas dwell in some higher world and are subject too to death, reincarnation etc

    1. boubi
      boubi January 29, 2014 at 1:30 am |

      Deva (Buddhism)
      From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

      A deva (देव Sanskrit and Pāli) in Buddhism is one of many different types of non-human beings who share the characteristics of being more powerful, longer-lived, and, in general, living more contentedly than the average human being.

  17. Andy
    Andy January 29, 2014 at 7:26 am |

    If it is unsupported, it doesn’t have legs, it is not dependent upon
    it does not have the name God.

    The thought God shapes the unformed into a slot to be known by
    the conditioned
    mind. Zazen sits zazen without conceptual thought.

    (I thought I’d use the above of Fred’s as a starting point for some wider thoughts)

    Yes, a nice formulation. But does such really add or take away anything of value to the discussion here and elsewhere about the use of the word ‘god’ in this context?

    ‘It’, for example, can also be called ‘a slot to be known by the conditioned mind’, as well as words such as ‘the unconditioned’, ‘the void’ etc. All such words, being words, can be run through the ‘Zazen sits zazen without conceptual thought’ filter. I’m sure many a zen teacher would use such words as ‘unconditioned’ without it impeding their zazen, their insights or the effectiveness of their teaching. So in terms of ‘god’ being used as an alternative reference, this type of reasoning doesn’t have much to say.

    I think the more relevant issue, which many draw on in their critiques of the use of ‘god,’ is the extra cultural baggage.

    The use of ‘slot’, while a neat metaphor having consonance with ‘conceptual thought’, is perhaps instructive. To my mind it implies a necessarily reductive (but not necessarily wrong-headed) view of language which shaves off some important aspects when thinking about the use and impact of words.

    Words aren’t merely conceptual boxes linked together in a conceptual train or system – even if this can be a useful or informative way of talking about it, at times. They are the means by which we express ourselves to others and to ourselves, and the act and context of expression determines much about their impact and effects – which are ultimately immeasurable. Even raising an eyebrow can break a heart or change a life.

    I believe that it is the very cultural baggage of the word God which is it’s strength, even if some contrasting statements hold water too. I don’t see it as a word to replace others, but one amongst many to draw on in certain circumstances and contexts.

    Apart from the wider religious usage, it is well suited for conveying and enacting intimacy: One can ‘listen’ to the unconditioned; or one can ‘listen’ to god. The former implies a more impersonal activity than the latter. And while I’m not saying that such isn’t impersonal, I take that impersonality as intimate and all embracing of myriad expressions of ‘personality’ or aspects of such. Also a language hoard that mostly uses impersonal words can lead to a very cold and impersonal way of relating to the living breath of a teaching.

    One might disagree with this not-just-impersonal view, or other more insightful formulations, but then that’s a matter of understanding or philosophy: If X (the void, the uncondtioned etc) is only a lifeless, impersonal thing, then ‘God’ might be a wholly inappropriate word to use.

    On the wider cultural baggage, the use of ‘god’ from contexts outside the mainstream could lead to confusion, misunderstanding, misappropriation or just put some folk off an otherwise sound view. But we could say that about other words; others, perhaps less hot potatoes, might nevertheless entail other more quietly insinuating effects. I believe that the use of ‘god’ in the appropriate context can help to find common ground between people and groups and also help people to re-evaluate their assumptions.

    And as so many people use ‘god’ to mean so many different things which are often unexamined or discussed, such a fresh usage can help to induce people to look again and to refresh their own assumptions through debate and discussion, even if they end up concluding that the usage is wrong.

    Perhaps also it might help to bubble-up the sort of cultural baggage weighing upon many who have been brought up in a religious context who have since taken an opposing view to such things and for whom the word ‘god’ acts as an almighty red button.

    I’ve experienced many people from Christian backgrounds who seem to use their past baggage as an oppositional touchstone to inform their views and feelings, and it can be a painful thing to suddenly feel that that old devil ‘god’ might be attempting to hijack an intellectual sphere or practice they thought of as god-free.

    But I wonder how much the straw man super-hero god was already there as a constant contrast, limiting that view or practice, by being overly dependent on it. In talking about ‘god’ in terms of, say, Buddhism or even Atheism, perhaps for some the usage might help to bring the god-contrast elements of their beliefs to the surface and help them to see aspects that have more to do with personal aversion, pain and anger, rather than expressions of wisdom, truth or compassion.

    They might also become even more entrenched – but for me that calls for sensitivity not censorship.

  18. shade
    shade January 29, 2014 at 8:36 am |

    Okay, I have a question for Brad or anyone else who feels qualified and inclined to answer (or to be ignored, whatever)

    By what standard would a Zen Buddhist deem certain claims of various religious traditions (including it’s own) as beyond consideration? Like: the burning bush, parting of the Red Sea, the fall of Jericho for Judaism; or the virgin birth, the resurrection, the vision of St. Paul on the road to Tarsus or the Pentecost for Christians. Obviously there are examples for Hindus and Muslims as well, but I’m not as well versed on those things. But what I’m getting at, in a word, is the miraculous. Which, from what I can parse out, Zen Buddhism basically considers synonymous with the impossible. So I guess what I’m asking is how a Zen Buddhist would categorize a given phenomena as impossible.

    Is it just a matter of precedent? This is more or less the way scientific materialism works. But it seems to me that unprecedented things happen in the universe every day. It might be argued that it’s the basis of evolution – established species literally giving birth to new, previously unknown species. To my mind the advent of every living creature in the universe is unprecedented. Even two individuals that are genetically identical won’t follow exactly the same path through life from cradle to grave (or petri dish to garbage disposal as the case may be.)

    Or is the miraculous/impossible that which lies beyond natural explanation? But what exactly is meant by “natural”? Let’s look a something like the notion of the virgin birth. There are numerous creatures on our planet which reproduce asexually, and no one is the least bit awed by this. There are even creatures which produce offspring that are different from themselves regarding both genetic composition and gender without benefit of copulation or fertilization (i.e. bees and certain other insects). Obviously this is not the way human beings typically gestate, but why couldn’t it happen once? Simply because it never happened before and probably never again?

    Is it the “unique” that which is impossible, then? This to me seems as illogical as dismissing the unprecedented. If a person has their left arm amputated, that’s also an experience which is both unprecedented and unrepeatable (unless the arm were to miraculously regenerate). That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. In fact, the absence of the limb in question would testify to the reality of that person’s experience to the end of their days.

    My point is not compel anyone to believe anything in particular. I’m by no means convinced of the story of the virgin birth or the burning bush or the resurrection either. But to doubt something is not to reject it out of hand, and it seems to me that the Zen Buddhist understanding of the “way things work” does just that. Given the fact that it is not a materialistic philosophy I don’t understand why. Why is walking on water considered beneath regard, but gravity given a pass? Simply because we have evidence of the actuality of gravity on an everyday basis? Does that mean the only things that truly “exist” are those which are confirmed by our own experience or conception, or the experiences and conceptions of those who’s opinion we trust? To me that seems kind of narcissistic.

    Since I was a little kid, I’ve always found that notion of the impossible – “never happened and never will” – kind of ridiculous. Why should anything be too remarkable to be true? (Of course there’s a dark side to that. Remarkable doesn’t necessarily mean beautiful or cool. There are plenty of things in the world I find remarkably hideous.)

  19. Harlan
    Harlan January 29, 2014 at 8:39 am |

    More and more apes are turning into humans in Louisiana and Kansas everyday. That is a fact! But concerning this unrelenting god talk of yours.. I just don’t get it. What is the need? Why do we need the g-word? It is the word that causes all the trouble. It has the power to drive men crazy. It seems pretty obvious that more people misunderstand it than understand it. We might be better off without it imho.

  20. summapax
    summapax January 29, 2014 at 9:19 am |

    like maybe
    I created god
    in my own image

  21. summapax
    summapax January 29, 2014 at 9:27 am |

    like maybe mira – look !
    looking around
    all things could be miraculous
    then again maybe not..
    and maybe like mirror mira too…

    what is seen?

    the mind as belief narrative maybe makes some explanative sense
    the free heart maybe sometimes just knows ?

  22. senorchupacabra
    senorchupacabra January 29, 2014 at 9:37 am |


    “Zazen sits zazen without conceptual thought.”

    That’s a concept right there, though. I get what you’re saying, but the whole point of talking about what is beyond words is futile if you continue to take everything literally. It’s the old “finger pointing at the moon.” The finger is still useful, but only as you realize that it’s only a finger, not a moon. To make true sense of your own statement, I have to realize it’s a “finger” pointing at something. I find it useful if you approach how Brad is using the word “God” in the same way. There is no “God” but we have to point at “It” somehow.

    The problem whenever this discussion comes up is that people are unaware of their own attachments to various words. Almost invariably, a word a person is aggressively attached to is an “abstract” word. Something like “love” or “freedom” or “democracy” or, obviously, “God.” Now, whether one has positive or negative attachments, they are attachments, nonetheless, and people respond “irrationally” due to those attachments.

    “God” in particular is a very loaded word. And it’s difficult for Brad, or for people who hold positions similar to Brad, to talk about what he’s talking about because people get bent out of shape about that word. That person has their own immovable definition of that word and anybody who tries to define the word differently is any of a number of synonyms for the word idiot.

    This state of affairs comes about from a lack of understanding about how language works and what it’s useful for. Language is actually very useful when we remain in the realm of the “concrete.” If you and I speak some iteration of the same language, you and I should, in theory, be able to do specific things together. I can tell you to “get me a hammer” and you and I should have a general archetype of what a “hammer” is in our head. If I say, “get me a hammer, some nails and that piece of wood over there” that’s a very concrete statement, and, because of that, we can now begin to build a house. If I say, “Feed the cat” you and I should have a pretty similar idea of what a “cat” is and what “feeding” is. And now we can prevent the cat from going hungry.

    At the beginning of language, language was almost certainly purely concrete. They were used for warnings, “Big fucking lion behind the bush” or for cooperation “warm cave over there” or to hunt “herd of deer behind hill.” And so on.

    However, language soon developed the capacity to include abstract “ideas.” This is where language becomes less useful, however. The problem with abstract concepts is there’s nothing to point at to agree a definition upon. You and I can point at a cat and agree it’s a cat. Can we do the same for “freedom”? How about “independence”? How about “God”?

    The answer is “not really.” Many of us have different ideas of what “God” or “Love” or “Justice” is. And that’s part of the reason this country is so divided at the moment–precisely because everyone is adhering to their own specific definitions of abstract words, and no one’s willing to budge. But they are, ultimately, just THAT: words. Sounds we make to help us construct meaning of our experience. Those sounds are very helpful in the concrete. They are less so in the abstract–but only if one doesn’t realize that abstract terms are just fingers pointing to something else. “Do not mistake the map for the territory.” If you realize that abstract terms are just “maps” then you’re generally on the right track.

    Be wary, my friends, of any person, whether you are sympathetic to their views or not, who believes they know the true definition of any abstract term.

  23. Hungry Ghost
    Hungry Ghost January 29, 2014 at 1:20 pm |

    I find myself in solidarity with Senorchupacabra’s point (provided I actually got it). As someone who finds himself running away from the concept of god I was raised with, I find Brad’s appropriation of the term usefully challenging. If we’re all working from the point of view that all concepts and descriptions are imperfect ‘fingers pointing’ and not ‘the moon’ itself then the use of the word ‘god’ is irrelevant, what’s relevant is whether or not his use of the word is useful to us as people who pay attention to him.
    As for Dawkins, I found the Selfish Gene to be a good read but his anti-crusade has lost me. I’m basically an atheist, but I find his lack of empathy for the vast majority of the human race a little off-putting, and I think it may be easier for a handsome upper-class genius to be satisfied with strict materialism than for someone raising his/her children under a tarp in a third world garbage dump.

  24. Andy
    Andy January 29, 2014 at 6:21 pm |


    I found your contrast between abstract and concrete interesting, but I think this is only a part of what we can say about language, and what you don’t touch on I think is important when we are talking about words like ‘God’.

    Your focus on the ‘concrete’ points to language as representing and categorizing objective, material things. But there is much about our experience that doesn’t fit as easily as cats or trees, and ‘cats’ and ‘trees’, though they might need feeding or trimmed, blind us to them if they are only ‘cats’ and ‘trees”

    I’m sure that language at the outset grew with the necessities of utility. But those early humans would also have experienced very concrete emotions, feelings and other phenomena that were as real as berries or bison. Think of fear, love, awe etc.

    Or when you watch a baby entranced by something. It might reach out for that bright red ball, and we pass the baby the ball and say ‘ball’ to teach it about the world it lives in. But the baby was expressing more than a simple desire for possession of a red ball, and that kind of expression also informs language, but it is often relegated in our considerations to the more stable, reductive and transactional categories, through which we fashion a kind of collective order.

    Problem is the more we try to fix this order, to find stable, secure, consistent categories, the further we get from our actual experiences. And this desire for collective order creates problems between groups and individuals in those very areas of life that most resist being pinned down.

    ‘God’ can be used to express an abstract, metaphysical concept. But it can also be used to express and manifest something real but elusive. It can also be used performatively to express an attitude or to enact a state of mind. We might joke about an atheist crying out “oh God!” from a particularly gripping ‘gasm, or taking the Lord’s name in vain when teading barefoot on the small red ball – but why those words, on those occasions of powerful overwhelming feelings. Why did Richard Dawkins, in a documentary I recently watched, feel the need to lace his sense of wonder at the how the natural world is revealed by science, with language from The King James bible?

    I agree that we often come unstuck when we try and impose a consistent meaning on such things as ‘freedom’. But the problem, as I see it, is not one of abstract v concrete, but in our attitude towards those things that, as you point out, are really difficult to agree on, because they often involve making them useful through dialogue and investigation – not something in this highly specialised world people can always do, and often delegate to authorities they trust or identify with.

    I’m going on a bit too much again, but I read these two quotes provided in the comments section of Sweeping God, by Ted Biringer, and they may have some resonance:

    The original truth has no name,
    But by name the truth is made manifest.
    When the true dharma is obtained,
    There is neither truth nor falsehood.

    The Transmission Of The Lamp, Sohaku Ogata

    There is originally no word for truth, but the way to it is revealed by words. The way originally has no explanation, but reality is made by explanation.

    Shih-shuang, Zen Teachings, Thomas Cleary .

    1. senorchupacabra
      senorchupacabra January 30, 2014 at 9:36 am |


      I’m not sure what your ultimate point is.

      My thesis is that all language is simply a form of “pointing.” Yes, we have very “real” emotions and feelings (e.g. “wonder” “awe” “Love” “hate” etc.) but all our language is doing is pointing at those emotions. And so the question that is begged is whether language is doing a good job pointing at those things are not.

      My contention is that language is not good at pointing (or “representing” or “delineating”) at certain things. We can agree that the baby you used in your example is using the word “ball” as something possibly more than as a simple declaration of intended possession. But then the next question is whether the baby and the adult are using the word “ball” in the same manner, with the same intent? The answer is only partially, and only so far as both the adult and the child are referring the to the object of their play. When we get to those murky “intentions” or “feelings” or “constructions of reality” the language is going to fail us eventually.

      Feelings and emotions are more real than simple ideas like “freedom” and “justice.” But they’re still less “concrete” (although no less “real”) than a cat or a ball or a building or a pen. But their lack of concreteness is what gives language difficult defining such things. Yes “love” is a real feeling, but are those feelings aroused by the same situations for each people? Again, the answer is no, and so the effectiveness of language once again becomes murky… and–this is really important– we’re entering a realm where our definitions for such words might actually influence our ability to elicit those emotions.

      For example: If part of my definition for “love” is that the person who loves me must buy me lots of shit, then I’m much less likely to feel “love” for people who doesn’t buy me lots of shit. A lot of people’s persistent problems with relationships–romantic and otherwise–stem from the fact that their ideas of what “love” or “respect” is are not necessarily conducive to the kind of love or relationship they probably really want.

      Whether humans felt the need to develop a language to describe our “inner life” early on in the process or later on in the development of language, is neither here nor there. What’s important is whether language as we know it does an effective job of communicating that inner life. Again, my response is I don’t really think so. How can it? What would be the use of poetry and music and art in general if we could express those things directly? There’s not much art around that addresses specific concrete processes. As far as I know all art is an effort to express that which language fails to adequately describe. Feelings, emotions, hopes and dreams.

      Do we just give up on language that expresses “abstract” themes? Of course not. It’s still important to have a finger that points me to the moon, otherwise I might not ever look up at it. And, also, Wittgenstein has shown how we all play various “language games” and when we find someone else who is playing a similar game as ourselves, then we can communicate to each other on such issues, to some extant, even if the number playing our game is small. This is what you’re getting at with your last paragraph about the importance of “investigation and dialogue.” What you’re really saying is that when people learn to use the same definitions for words as certain other people, then they can communicate. That’s true, but who’s determining what the definitive definition for “justice” is? Is it the KKK? Is it the Crips and Bloods? Is it the U.S. government? Depending on your language game (the totality of language and ways of defining the terms of that language) it could be any of the above or none of them. That’s the entire point. PEOPLE WHO CAN AGREE ON A DEFINITION CAN COMMUNICATE (whether that definition is for a ball, a hammer, love, or freedom). NO ONE ELSE CAN. But the more abstract a word becomes, the more difficult it is for large numbers of people to agree on a definition.

      You’re right that “God” can be used in a myriad of ways. Again, that’s the point. It’s not a concrete term with a steadfast definition that we can point at and say, “This is God.” The entire point is that words that can be used in various ways are difficult to actually communicate with BECAUSE they’re used in myriad ways.

      Again, this is most true for “abstract” words. Concrete words like “cat” and “hammer” and “table” are not used in myriad ways. They’re used to describe something with can all point at and agree with. If I point at a “tree” and tell you it’s a “dog.” You can grab a thousand people as they walk by and, unless they’re insane, they’re going to agree with you that the tree is not a dog. Language works in that situation. If I’m working with a victim of domestic violence and I tell her that getting beat up is not “love” and she disagrees with me, there are going to be people who agree with her.

  25. Fred
    Fred January 29, 2014 at 7:03 pm |

    “Is it just a matter of precedent? This is more or less the way scientific materialism works. But it seems to me that unprecedented things happen in the universe every day. It might be argued that it’s the basis of evolution — established species literally giving birth to new, previously unknown species.”

    Do unprecedented things actually happen, or does the intellectual slotting get

    Some activity may take place, and our customary way of describing that
    phenomena is challenged. We experience reality through models and not the
    actual thing itself.

    To observe the thing itself without conceptual blinkers, is that not the point of zen.

  26. Fred
    Fred January 29, 2014 at 7:14 pm |

    “So Zen Buddhist doctrine doesn’t regard anything as inherently impossible? (Or is combining the word “doctrine” with “Zen” simply absurd?)”

    It’s not that it’s possible or impossible but idle speculation with the intellect
    spinning out a never ending myriad line of thoughts.

    The Zen master grabs you by the nose or slaps you over the head, and says
    wake up.

  27. Fred
    Fred January 29, 2014 at 7:24 pm |

    “The Transmission Of The Lamp, Sohaku Ogata

    There is originally no word for truth, but the way to it is revealed by words. The way originally has no explanation, but reality is made by explanation.

    Shih-shuang, Zen Teachings, Thomas Cleary ”

    Truth is experienced without words.

    The truth that Brad saw standing on a bridge.

    The truth that exists when the body-mind falls away.

    1. david s
      david s January 29, 2014 at 9:18 pm |


      What a human can experience is dependent on being alive, embodied. Brad’s experience was not dis-embodied at all. Nothing fell away other than how he experienced it.

      If this living human constructs its sense data to interact with the world it lives in, this same ability can construct anything to surround itself in. This new construct as experienced does not prove its preeminent existence, in fact its easily disrupted disappearance says much more of its transient nature, and what we return to says much of its immanent nature.

      So what Brad experienced is what Brad experienced. How he interprets it is not the ‘truth’ it is a story added to the experience itself.

    2. Andy
      Andy January 30, 2014 at 4:44 am |

      “Truth is experienced without words.”

      1 2 3 4 5

      If I remember correctly, Brad said that it wasn’t an experience.

      I haven’t experienced it apart from some form of active expression, words being one of those forms. Is it a false teaching that the finger and the moon are one?

      1. david s
        david s January 30, 2014 at 8:13 am |

        Brad told his teacher Nishijima About his experience (Hardcore Zen pg 180) and he e-mailed Brad back, “…saying that what I experienced was just a fantasy.”

        In that book Brad speaks of how he was searching for god all along, long before his experience. So he was ready with his interpretation.

        I have had experiences with the senses falling away, the self falling away, thought falling away. One had an immense pleasurable calm with strong reverential feelings. The second time this feeling wasn’t present it was more empty and neutral. This showed me that experience is made up of parts.

        I’m very struck by the mind’s ability to project itself out onto the world, and through this being mistaken again and again in its explanations throughout history. There is a tendency to place humans in the center of everything, even to the point of us being essential to the existence of the world. This seems to me like a grand mistake, a bad dream, a mistaken identity. All created in mind. The world is essential to our existence, not the other way around.

  28. Mumbles
    Mumbles January 29, 2014 at 7:33 pm |

    Duality trying to describe the Non-Dual always fails. (yeah I know these are concepts trying to express the non-conceptual, -Huzza!)

    Here, Catsareinfinite/Andr3w is correct, you might as well read profound passages of poetry or better, sit in nature and be/feel a part of everything.

    Look at all the fucking words spent here trying to argue about “God” ! Wow.

  29. Andy
    Andy January 30, 2014 at 4:11 am |

    Oddly enough, Mumbles, this comments thread has been really well behaved and full of considered expression (if irritatingly lengthy, such as mine). You know, like all those words Mark wrote over at Sweeping Ze* or over here. No personally directed angst or hate under the banner of ‘god’.

    I suppose I could’ve sat in the winter rain and read Wordsworth’s Prelude.

    There’s always a place for authoritarian and elitist rectitude, but what happened to the playful, egalitarian Mumbles?

  30. Mumbles
    Mumbles January 30, 2014 at 4:32 am |

    Aw, don’t worry Andy…

  31. Mumbles
    Mumbles January 30, 2014 at 4:43 am |

    It’s just that I usually enjoy reading (okay ok, I skip through some long long ones sometimes…never yours, Andy! er) everyone’s comments here, but somehow, how or why “god” has enriched, twisted, crippled, puzzled, angered, is or isn’t “zen” etc. (your list here) described in long drawn out debates, confessions/observations/pontifications or whatever, well, frankly, bores me. I know this type of discussion is the oldest, the one that has puzzled “man” since “time” began. But for fuck’s sake, Brad’s an entertainer. I’m here to be entertained.

    1. Andy
      Andy January 30, 2014 at 5:03 am |

      Seems you were entertained – just not the pleasant way!

      Life, friends is boring. We must not say so.
      After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
      we ourselves flash and yearn,
      and moreover, my mother told me as a boy
      (repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
      means you have no

      Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
      inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
      Peoples bore me,
      literature bores me, especially great literature,
      Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
      as bad as achilles,

      who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
      And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
      and somehow a dog
      has taken itself & its tail considerably away
      into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
      behind: me, wag.

      John Berryman, Dream Song 14

  32. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 30, 2014 at 8:57 am |

    “I got words, that jingle-jangle-jingle…”

  33. navybsn
    navybsn January 30, 2014 at 12:58 pm |

    I think you nailed it when you said many of us have heard that tiny voice, but very few have been able to listen to it.

    I hear my wife often, I rarely listen to her.

    I hear my inner monologue often, including the very sage advice I give myself, but I rarely listen to it.

    Maybe more listening is in order.

  34. Fred
    Fred January 30, 2014 at 2:35 pm |

    “So what Brad experienced is what Brad experienced. How he interprets it is not the ‘truth’ it is a story added to the experience itself.”

    Exactly what was said; he didn’t interpret it.

    He said ” I wasn’t there. ” There was no one there to experience what was, other
    than what was, was the truth.

    1. david s
      david s January 30, 2014 at 5:20 pm |

      Brad remembers the experience right? His sense of self may have been not present but the memory is his. How he chooses to see it and speak of it is an interpretation.

      Here is Nishijima’s response to Brad’s experience as he writes in Hardcore Zen, “He (Nishijima) sent me back an e-mail the next day saying that what I experienced was just a fantasy. It would “never come true even in the future.” ”

      This is important as it came from his teacher. He is saying it was an illusion.

  35. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon January 30, 2014 at 3:34 pm |
  36. Shodo
    Shodo January 30, 2014 at 4:23 pm |

    I’m sorry to hear that Gudo Nishijima passed away Brad. 🙁

  37. Mumbles
    Mumbles January 30, 2014 at 6:15 pm |

    Very nice, Mark. I especially enjoyed the Rothko visual, one of my favorite artists. Here’s one with a Chagall, nevermind (or mind, whatever) the X scene… hold on tight for the vocal pyrotechnics that begin off and on at about 2:15…

    R.I.P. Gudo Nishijima

  38. Mumbles
    Mumbles January 30, 2014 at 6:22 pm |

    I know how it feels to lose a long-time teacher, that was the original reason for my appearance on this blog. And I am forever grateful to Brad for having this place for all of us to play, learn, and share. Thanks Brad.

  39. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 30, 2014 at 10:25 pm |

    Beautiful, John, to listen to Tavener and read about Javad Nurbakhsh.

    “The basis of Sufism is consideration of the hearts and feelings of others. If you haven’t the will to gladden someone’s heart, then at least beware lest you hurt someone’s heart, for on our path, no sin exists but this.”

  40. Andy
    Andy January 30, 2014 at 11:58 pm |

    Very sad to hear the news of Gudo Nishijima’s passing.

    A deep bow to his immeasurable contribution to the Dharma and to people’s lives in the past, present and the future.

  41. Andy
    Andy January 31, 2014 at 6:17 am |


    Thanks for posting another stimulating response, much of which I agree with.

    I had written a very lengthy response, but as I’ve already hogged much space, and in the light of the recent passing of Gudo, I think that would be inappropriate here and now.

    I may still post it here when this thread has finished and after Brad has posted another article, and if I do I’ll give you a nod.

    At the very least, its nice to have had the occasion to put my thoughts in order on a subject I find very interesting.


  42. summapax
    summapax January 31, 2014 at 8:28 am |

    footsteps before
    all this snow
    gratefulness at last

  43. Daniel
    Daniel February 2, 2014 at 1:39 pm |

    Brad I think you know better than this in a way but maybe you just can’t put things together rightly.

    The whole thing to try to get Science into the world of your Zen just doesn’t work at all. Simply because thousands or millions of human beings had an experience of “god” or of something else doesn’t prove anything in scientific terms.

    You see it’s the same with out-of-body experiences. Millions had them, still they’re just something your brain is doing in certain conditions. And that’s something science could prove by finding out which regions of the brain need to be stimulated to get exactly that experience.

    What you think or believe to be an experience outside of your skull is an illusion your brain comes up with under certain conditions. Same with the mystical or god experiences. Enough evidence on the side of science here.

    So if you want to come together with science accept than ANY experience you can have, whether it feels like it’s an experience or not an experience and something much more different/profound whatever is something going on in your brain. A good book to start with would be stuff from Thomas Metzinger for example. Everything you experience is somehow virtual and the brain is not capable to get out of that “virtual” tunnel. It’s transparent for you. That’s a good thing, because otherwise you couldn’t function. And just because you had a glimpse of something in scientific terms is just nothing. It’s nothing to do with science at all. And you can’t meet. So please stop trying to pretend it somehow does. Your zen-stuff is like any other religion based on beliefs. Okay, yours come out of an enlightenment-experience (yes I know it wasn’t an experience but anyway) and not out of a book but still it’s the same shit and doesn’t have anything to do with science.

    And for god sake stop using the word god. It’s just confusing you know. Go and google for “God” to get an idea what people think of as god. And it doesn’t matter if that’s a guy on a throne or universal consciousness or that which is behind all experience etc. etc. In other words, don’t use the word god for the same reason you don’t use the word enlightenment. It’s waaaaaaaay too overused since thousands of years already.

  44. summapax
    summapax February 9, 2014 at 9:23 am |

    thank you for this opportunity here and now via this fine blog,
    to collectively dance around said objects or words,
    via a vehicle of “comments” to express ones’ views
    and to listen to others’ perhaps and understandably; differing views…

    and …compassion

    standing in the fire of
    confusion, inconsistencies, difficulties, inabilities, pain, tragedy etc
    who has not felt this way ?


    brilliance of the unconditioned
    kindness of all our kin conditions

    thanks !

  45. robert
    robert February 19, 2014 at 9:09 am |

    Very good Brad. I like that a lot. An example of the kind of theist the tackling of whom would give someone like Dawkins a bit more credibility is — and I merely point this guy out; I don’t agree with everything he says — Edward Feser, here: His blog could be called “Hardcore Catholicism” to your “Hardcore Zen” and, like you, he pisses some people off. But he’s a formidable brawler nevertheless, and it’s worth picking through his (apparently) anti-gay stuff (for example) to get to the heavier theology.

    1. robert
      robert February 19, 2014 at 9:21 am |

      For example, in the context of the Bentley Hart book you mention:

      (Reading it is reminiscent of this scene from The Avengers, with Feser starring as The Hulk: 🙂 )

  46. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer February 20, 2014 at 11:16 am |

    Yes I do wonder at this question, whether discarding religion in it’s totality is a good idea for me. My dislike of religion is for the most part reactionary and that in itself could be a problem.

    Marlon Brando in the wild ones.

    Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

    Johnny: Whadda you got?

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