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God – an idol?

5 March, 2007

Karen Armstrong, in her biography of Buddha, has this wonderful summary of how our superficial, popular, Western ideas of a God who is somehow a ‘person’ contrast with Buddhist understandings:

“The Buddha believed that a selfless life would introduce men and women to Nibbana. Monotheists would say that it would bring them into the presence of God. But the Buddha found the notion of a personalized deity too limiting, because it suggested that the supreme Truth was only another being. Nibbana was neither a personality nor a place like Heaven. The Buddha always denied the existence of any absolute prin­ciple or Supreme Being, since this could be another thing to cling to, another fetter and impediment to enlightenment.

“Like the doctrine of the Self, the notion of God can also be used to prop up and inflate the ego. The most sensitive monotheists in Judaism, Christianity and Islam would all be aware of this danger and would speak of God in ways that are reminiscent of the Buddha’s reticence about Nibbana. They would also in­sist that God was not another being, that our notion of “exis­tence” was so limited that it was more accurate to say that God did not exist and that “he” was Nothing.

“But on a more popu­lar level, it is certainly true that “God” is often reduced to an idol created in the image and likeness of “his” worshippers. If we imagine God to be a being like ourselves writ large, with likes and dislikes similar to our own, it is all too easy to make “him” endorse some of our most uncharitable, selfish and even lethal hopes, fears and prejudices. This limited God has thus contributed to some of the worst religious atrocities in history.

“The Buddha would have described belief in a deity who gives a seal of sacred approval to our own selves as “un­skillful”: it could only embed the believer in the damaging and dangerous egotism that he or she was supposed to transcend. Enlightenment demands that we reject any such false prop. It seems that a “direct” yogic understanding of anatta was one of the chief ways in which the early Buddhists experienced Nibbana. And, indeed, the Axial Age faiths all insist in one way or another that we will only fulfil ourselves if we practice total self-abandonment. To go into religion to “get” some­thing, such as a comfortable retirement in the afterlife, is to miss the point.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. poppies permalink
    5 March, 2007 8:06 pm

    I understand the point this summary is making, but I’ve never understood the logic of this particular point. How is it limiting, or idolizing, to understand the “being” of God as omnipotent, omnipresent, etc.? The classical conception of God seems miles removed from anything that could “endorse some of our most uncharitable, selfish and even lethal hopes, fears and prejudices”. To the contrary, such a being seems wildly out of our control and fatal to our egos.

  2. 8 March, 2007 11:29 pm

    I think it’s this: that if we imagine God to be a being, of any kind, no matter how powerful or knowledgeable, we are still trying to squeeze him/her/it into our own very limited understanding. And we know that our powers of understanding and our powers of imagination and of language are so very limited. So why try to limit ‘God’ by using our crude words and concepts?

    Once we try to describe, we limit; we (each of us) inevitably create a ‘God’ that is in our own image to some extent. The ‘God’ we create turns out to be an extension of (rather than fatal to) our own egos.

    Think of how many US citizens believe that God is on the side of the USA …. How likely is that to be true? But millions sincerely believe it, because they’ve bought a simplistic idea of God as somehow like a human person. Presumably Martians think God is like a Martian. They can’t both be right.

    Hence, as I understand it, the Buddhist position that it’s far better to try to directly experience ‘God’ (although they would not use that word) without going through the filter of thoughts and ideas.

  3. poppies permalink
    9 March, 2007 6:32 am

    If it’s true that our words and concepts are limited (which I think generally everyone agrees with), why would our capacity to directly “experience” “God” be any less limited? Why would it arbitrarily be superior?

    Secondarily, if I describe a spoon, I’m not trying to make it in my image, because it has a real existence outside of myself which I would be silly or narcissistic to deny; therefore, why would it be different with God? Why is it inevitable that I make God in my image if I describe Him?

  4. 9 March, 2007 11:52 pm

    1 Good question. I just seem to be prepared to work on the assumption that there is way more around us than we are capable of experiencing with our limited senses or understanding with our limited brainpower. It just seems intuitively right.

    2 But when you describe a spoon, there is some reasonable chance that I can look at the same spoon and check if your description fits my reality. With ideas about God, it’s much easier for you to define him/her in terms that fit your particular worldview knowing that no-one can really disprove the description; which means that the concept of God is open to manipulation, whether conscious or not, by the people who use that concept. I think.

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