The Style of God

Frederick Turner, Ph.D.

i. The Real Presence

Consider the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist. For centuries the theological insistence that it really is the body and blood of Christ was a scandal to enlightened philosophical Westerners–an even greater scandal than it was to other world religions. How could bread and wine be body and blood? Voltaire, for instance, is scathing; attributing his own scorn to the Protestants, he says:

They are quite unrestrained about this belief, which they call monstrous. They do not even think that a single sensible man could embrace it seriously after reflection. It is, they say, so absurd, so opposed to all the laws of physics, so self-contradictory that not even god could perform this operation, because it is in effect to annihilate god to suppose that he does contradictory things. Not only a god in bread, but a god in place of bread; a hundred thousand crumbs become in a flash as many gods, this innumerable crowd of gods forming only one god; whiteness without a white body; roundness without a round body; wine changed into blood which has the taste of wine; bread changed into flesh and fibre which have the taste of bread: all this inspires so much horror and contempt in the enemies of the catholic, apostolic and Roman religion that this excess of horror and contempt sometimes becomes rage.

(“Transsubstantiation” in the Philosophical Dictionary)

But in the light of contemporary chemistry and physics the joke may well be on Voltaire. The atoms that made up Jesus’ body would quickly have become distributed, by the carbon, nitrogen, and water cycles, throughout the Earth’s biosphere, and would certainly have done so by the time the Church gave its final Tridentine definition of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Roughly five tons of matter would have cycled through Jesus’ metabolism during his lifetime, made of precisely the elements of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc that are least likely to be sequestered in the soil, and join most actively in the volatile circulation of the ecosystem. Indeed, every wafer of communion bread does indeed contain several million atoms that were once part of Christ’s body. The disciples at the Last Supper would have actually have been consuming live skin cells sloughed off Christ’s hands. On a more fundamental level of physics, if matter is made of energy, and energy is a field distortion of space-time, and all fields in the universe are in harmonic resonance with one another–and are thus partly constitutive of one another, as contemporary physics maintains–then every subatomic particle of the communion wafer is partly constituted of the body of Christ. The Eucharist is, in fact, not a mystery at all in the strict factual sense.

It remains, however, a mystery in another sense, which offers us a piercing glimpse into the rhetoric, the way of making meaning, the style or metaphorical strategy of the divine in all religions. If the bread and wine are in an everyday physical sense the body and blood of Christ, the real mystery is what difference the words of the consecration make when the priest pronounces them over the altar. What religion maintains is that how we take the everyday miracle of our conscious life in the universe is as much a fact as anything else. Thus, although the bread and wine are equally, in a factual sense, the body and blood of Nero, Shakespeare, Lady Murasaki and Attila the Hun, our performative act of stipulation makes it the body and blood of Jesus in particular. For the purposes of the performative community it is indeed exclusively Christ’s body. Speech acts, as J. L. Austin has shown, can very handily perform certain kinds of realities into being, as when a couple create their marriage with the words “I do,” the dealer in poker makes red threes wild by simply saying they are, a scientist names a new element, and Congress and President sign a bill into law. The only limits to this activity is whether the existing laws of physics, chemistry, etc–which themselves were performed into being at certain moments in the evolution of the Big Bang–resist the speech act, or if it can survive in the context of other human performative communities that have different conditions for legitimate stipulation. We cannot by a speech act prevent ourselves from falling if we step off the edge of the twentieth floor, nor compel a group of Muslims to share our own speech act that makes the bread flesh for us. But as we have seen, nature’s laws do not resist the description of the bread as Christ’s flesh; and other performative communities are simply not interested in whether the bread is flesh–they do not inhabit the same piece of mental phase space. The Real Presence of Christ is definitively and exclusively true for Catholics in all the senses they claim for it. But it is so in a somewhat mysterious way, that illuminates in a flash the odd metaphorical nature of religious truth.

Voltaire’s mistake is instructive. It is not that as a man of the Enlightenment he was applying the faculty of reason to religious matters where it did not belong. For he was not the one who started that game: the Tridentine Church had already entered the arena of logical definition and standardized axiom, and issued its challenge. It was not Voltaire’s fault that the terminology of substance and accidents and so on, that underpinned the doctrine of transubstantiation, was becoming increasingly threadbare as empirical science progressed. Given the obsolete philosophical language and definitions of the then official Church doctrine, Voltaire was probably right in poking fun at it. Nor can the mistake be blamed entirely on the Council of Trent and the rationalizing polemic of the Catholic counter-reformation. The Church was trying in its own century to express its deposit of faith in the terms of its time, as it is forever charged to do. Those terms were a mixture of medieval scholastic logic and renaissance literalism, but they were alive and imaginatively vital at the time. Perhaps the mistake was to throw, in the stress of contestation with the Protestants, the full authority of the Church behind those axioms and definitions, and thus to freeze its own mind into the shape that a live and volatile debate had taken at a particular moment of history.

ii. The Poetic Idiom of the Divine

Both Voltaire and the theologians were missing the point about the nature of true religious language. One can tell fairly easily whether a piece of religious language is genuine or not: if it continues to apply with piercing insight to people across a wide variety of cultures and a long succession of historical periods. The parables of Jesus apply everywhere; the Last Supper has as much meaning in Japan or the headwaters of the Amazon as it does in Europe or Palestine. Likewise the Bhagavadgita, Buddha’s Fire Sermon, and the Tao Te Ching.

Let us be clear: this is no polemic against “organized religion”. There is no harm if institutional interpreters seek to expound the inner meanings of genuine religious language and practice in their own local ephemeral terms, or even if for the sake of bureaucratic organization rough rules of thumb are generated to guide conduct and keep people on the same page. After all, churches and temples are good things, and they need to be built, paid for, staffed, and maintained; rituals need to be devised, rehearsed, and mounted; and specialists need to be trained, contractually engaged, deployed, organized, and supported. There is no harm either if a voluntary group decides to submit itself to arbitrary and absolute disciplines of law or asceticism, like Orthodox Jews or Indian Saddhus, when that discipline is a glorious gift to the divine whose arbitrariness and explicit non-applicability to others are a warrant of its free voluntariness and a training of the spirit.

As for the general moral law that applies to all, it does not differ much from nation to nation (though it goes through gradual evolution, bringing about, for instance, the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, and the emergence of democratic rule) and thus perhaps does not need much official religious definition. Much of it is in our nature and requires only honest self examination to perceive; the sociobiogists are showing that we do have a biological conscience. That conscience might not tell us not to have slaves, but it does at least tell us to treat our slaves well. The world community is presently engaged in creating a universal bill of human rights, and is having remarkable little trouble in doing so. The difficulty was always in applying what we know to be right when we don’t want to: that is when we start complicating the law and adverting to cultural relativism in order to muddy the moral waters and thus conceal our intention to cheat. A complex code of moral conduct, when applied by an official religious body to all persons in its communion, is usually a fruitless attempt to anticipate and head off this human tendency to find loopholes. And the really big problems come when the religious authorities decide that it is the presence of other codes that is corrupting their faithful, and try to persuade the secular authorities to take them out. An analogy is our own fantastically complex tax code, originally devised to corral the errant human conscience, which is gradually pushing us into imperialistic interventions in other countries so as to eliminate offshore tax havens and thus maintain discipline at home. Totally needless, and unbelievably bloody, conflicts result from such Big-endian/Small-endian disagreements. The sacrifices of millions of seventeenth-century Germans during the Thirty Years’ War between the Catholics and Lutherans were recently–and rightly–shown to be in vain, by a somewhat shamefaced agreement between the two communions that the grace of faith was, as the Lutherans had always maintained, and as the Catholics had never denied, prior to the merit earned by good works. No true poet would have given such rich and beautiful words as grace, faith, merit, and so on the simpleminded, unambiguous and denotative definitions that got us into the trouble in the first place.

Genuine religious language avoids these morasses. This is not to say that it cannot include elaborate codes of conduct, though these are dangerous temptations to those who think they can buy God’s favor, and to those who, with a temperamental talent for extreme self-discipline, want to use that talent to oppress others. As long as we take those codes as either a metaphorical description to the many of what voluntary devotion might look like, or as a gift suggestion for the few about what kind of sacrifice to God might be acceptable, the codes are beautiful and appropriate parts of sacred scripture. But we should not blur their difference from the mandatory commands of natural conscience, enshrined in the decalogues of many nations, nor use them to freeze the continuing mind of God. All our great religious leaders have repeatedly warned us against taking the words and actions of religion in a literalistic way, mistaking the husk for the seed–and astonishingly, many of their most zealous adherents persist in doing exactly that. Thus both in the nature of genuine religious language, and in how we should take it, there are crucial understandings that have yet to be arrived at. If we do not arrive at them, we will find ourselves either among the inquisitors or, with Voltaire, the scoffers.

How, then, can we tell genuine religious language when we do not have huge time-scales and vast regions of cultural dissemination to warrant it?–and how should we take it when we find it? The two questions merge into one. It is not enough to say, with Paul, that the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. The rejoinder of Nietzsche and the existentialists, that the spirit killeth but the letter giveth life, is overwhelmingly apt. Not that Paul is wrong: both feel right. How can this be? As the physicist Neils Bohr put it, the opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth. Perhaps a religious truth is of this kind. One type of trope which resembles this description is the metaphor, which asserts in a fictional way an identity between two things that are demonstrably different. Religious language is deeply metaphorical. It is also richly allusive, dense, and often ambiguous, packing centuries or millennia of implication and etymological development into its diction. I am told that the Arabic of the Koran is exemplary in this respect.

Much religious language is in verse. The old Hebrew word for “prophet” also meant poet. Let us seize the bull by the horns and make what may at this stage seem to be a rather obvious point: genuine religious language is poetic. But this is also a deeply controversial point. Is all poetry religious? Is all good poetry religious? How do we tell true religious poetry from ordinary poetry? It may be that this is a more important line of investigation than any strictly theological one. We have seen how Voltaire, a highly intelligent and informed man of his times, stumbled over language that was not poetic, and how the theologians to whom he was responding had stumbled themselves by trying to make a logical paraphrase of the poetry they had inherited. The scriptures they disputed remain untouched, as relevant now as they were then. Only the poetry survives. And if we look at it, if any poetry is good enough to survive for long enough, it becomes religious scripture. Over three millennia the Mahabharata, an explicitly artificial epic of magic and war, became sacred scripture. So also the erotic poetry of King Solomon. The Iliad, the archaic Greek equivalent to a very good violent action movie of the twentieth century, took only about four hundred years to become a religious text, much to the scandal of Plato. An anthropologist from Mars visiting England would probably dismiss the artificiality of our art/religion distinction and describe Shakespeare as a major deity with a strong religious cult.

But many religious people would be rightly suspicious of an attempt to “reduce” religion to poetry and metaphors. In a sense, the fundamentalist Baptists, who insist on the literal truth of the Bible, are with Nietzsche and the existentialists on this one: if religious language is a set of pretty stories and metaphors to sugar-coat the pill of a chilly and abstract deism, it is probably not worth having. Indigenous tribal religious leaders are famous for telling well-meaning anthropologists that their myths and rituals are not just symbols but realities. How can we reassure them?

The issue is whether religious metaphors and symbols are “merely” metaphors and symbols. The Catholic Church has a rather neat definition of a sacrament–“the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” The implication is that there are signs–metaphors, symbols–that are also realities: the “metaphor/reality” distinction simply does not work. Current sociological research on the language of the sciences shows that real effective scientific knowledge is metaphorical and analogical “all the way down”–there is no “pure” scientific scientific knowledge. Even mathematics is one more set of metaphors, though less obvious because of its reductiveness than the vitalistic or intentionalistic metaphors that give such offence. This sociological research usually has an agenda that is, in my view, false: that scientists disguise their own socially-constructed prejudices in the mantle of scientific objectivity. This, I think, is for the most part a libel. But the results of the sociological research stand; and they do so, I believe, not because of the metaphorical bent of scientists but because the scientists are right without knowing it: the nature of reality is itself metaphorical and symbolic, and thus any language that accurately describes it must be too. If the universe is made of information, as I would argue, then it could scarcely be other than metaphorical and symbolic by nature, since metaphors and symbols are the way in which information is connected, and the universe is by definition connected. So let us correct our statement for Nietzsche, the Baptists, the existentialists and the tribal spirit doctors, to the effect that by saying religion is metaphorical we do not mean that it is not real. If we accept metaphor as a real constituent of the universe then perhaps we can be trusted.

Among the Ndembu people with whom I spent part of my boyhood, the term for a fundamental religious symbol (what Catholics would call a sacrament) was “chinjikijilu”. This word was itself a metaphor: in its literal sense it means a blaze, the mark one would cut on a tree in order to find one’s way back from unknown territory. One of the most dangerous aspects of living in a hunting/horticulture society like the Ndembu is getting lost when one is exploring or hunting. So a chinjikijilu is a real thing, a physical mark on a tree; it reveals real territory, previously unknown; but it also changes the landscape, adding an area–whatever is within eyeshot of the blaze–to the known territory of the village. One cuts it at the exact boundary between the known and the unknown–in linguistic terms, between the expected terminological formula and the babble of gibberish. It is poetic language; but it is eminently useful, and a real feature of the world once it is made. Shakespeare makes much the same point in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

Shakespeare and the Ndembu thus solve the pretty paradoxes of Ludwig Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent;” and “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”. (Paradoxes, because in speaking of that whereof one cannot speak, he is not remaining silent; and to speak of limits implies that one has already been in some sense on the other side of them, to make sure they really are the limits.) The deepest religious and poetic language is a blaze that conducts us between the known and the unknown, the not-yet-articulable and the sayable, the past and the future. It is in a sense constitutive of the present moment, to the extent that the present moment is that which mediates between the past and future. Before human beings came along to use words and visual symbols and music and pretence and masks and sacraments to do it, biology was doing it through that unique moment of sexual reproduction when the two different gametes come together (in a “symbolon”–that which is “thrown together”) to make a new unique individual. On rare occasions that “symbolon” can be the great grand poem of a new species. And physics was already doing it when it cooked up a new element in the collapsing core of an old star. Poetry is fast evolution: evolution is slow poetry.

Poetic language is not only metaphorical, dense, allusive, and so on, but performative in its essential nature. It makes come into being whatever can do so given the existing stipulations of nature and given a performative community that can assent to its legitimacy. (With poetry I here include all the arts–painting, drama, even music which is the purest of all performatives, directly stipulating an emotional state and making it be through the neurophysiology of audition.) A metaphor itself is a sort of speech act or performative stipulation, since it enacts by its statement, within a community of assent to its provisional authority, a contextual frame for the subject of the metaphor, creating a lexical link in the structure of the language. And all language, with the possible exception of some syntactical fragments, is made of more or less fossilized metaphors. Poetic religious language is metaphor in its pre-fossilized state, vital, growing, the brilliant live coral that crusts and protects and depends upon the dead coral of the reef; the molten words that burst out of the dead structure of stony doctrine. The structure of doctrine may be as necessary as the dead heartwood is to a tree; but it should always recognize its subservience to the life of the tree. That life is in the act of interpretation–both the giving act of the poet speaking out of the collective mind and the receiving act of the hearer embodying the text in her own life. A metaphor is a synaptic firing in the brain of God. It is one of the strange sad ironies of religion that the very tradition of religious protest, that most boldly proclaimed the need for individuals to read and interpret the Bible, produced eventually the Biblical literalists who today make the authority of the Vatican look squishy by comparison.

But why should interpretation be so necessary? Why should religious language be so dark, so thick, so ambiguous, so thoroughly odd and scandalous to ordinary reason? In Huckleberry Finn, Huck informs Jim that in France people speak French. Jim is rightly puzzled by their perversity, the silliness of this elaborate piece of European etiquette, the unnecessary trouble they must go through whenever they have a thought to express. “Why do they speak in French? Why don’t they just say it?” he wonders. Why doesn’t God just say it? Why must religious language be poetic, and demand a poetic interpretation, rather than straightforward and definite? There are several answers to this question, some of which are already implicit in the need for it to be “all things to all men,” as Paul has it. The divine must speak to many nations, periods of history, understandings of science. How might one describe the first ten billion years of the universe, of the infancy of God, to Mesopotamians of the third millennium B.C. or Hebrews of the second? Perhaps in terms of a sequence of creative events, over some kind of divine week and weekend in illo tempore. When Carl Sagan tried to explain the evolution of the universe in his TV series Cosmos, he did much the same thing, imagining the whole history of the universe compressed into a single year, whose last fraction of a second was given to the emergence of humankind. It would be unkind to accuse him of a falsehood in assigning a mere year to the process, and silly to take him literally. When biologists try to explain natural selection to laypeople, they usually resort to metaphorical examples that are not unlike Jesus’ parable of the sower. And if physics and biology need metaphors to explain themselves, a fortiori so does theology. Like the music of Mozart, the divine tongue must transcend local codes and go directly to all people’s hearts. It must therefore necessarily have the packed allusiveness and flexibility to adapt itself to different cultural frames of reference. Christianity’s own huge success, the stamp of divine approval, is due largely to its repeated and gigantic acts of interpretative genius: to see the history of its rejecting parent as a pattern of prophecy foretelling its own coming; to see the brilliant achievements of the Greeks and Romans as types and expository allegories of the Christian story; to see the pagan philosophers as unconscious transmitters of the Christian message; to see the poetry of Virgil as an augury of the Incarnation. It was only when Christianity ceased to plunge into such dangerous and ambiguous adventures of poetic exegesis that it began to lose its universality. The oddity of religious language comes partly from its need to wire up and connect all realities, cultural as well as natural.

But there are other answers to Jim’s question, why don’t they just say it? One is that if the divine is as we have speculated it to be, its nature is analogous to the self-organization that emerges out of iterative nonlinear causality and thus breaks free of one-way cause. No merely linear language could therefore capture it. This is not to say that we must abandon reason in speaking of it, but that we must select the instruments of reason carefully, and not try to measure something complex by yardsticks that are simple, or take a sharp-edged photograph of a subtly melded scene. Again like Mozart, our language must do this through some mysterious kind of inner richness, a fractal iterativeness in which every detail is different but recognizably connected and akin. The spirit is best addressed by a connectivity of context that no one element of that context can fix or hold.

Other even more fundamental constraints compel those who speak for the divine to do so in poetry. One is that if the trans-temporal connectivity of all moments in the universe is, as scientists like David Bohm have speculated, mediated by quantum harmonic coherence, it is subject to the same maddening ambiguity that bedevils programmers when they try to use the formidable powers of the quantum computer to do actual calculations. The problem is that quantum information comes as a superposition of contradictory states, and thus that any communication between different times will tend to be as ambiguous as the Delphic Oracle. If one sent anything definite, it would ipso facto be part of the collapsed-information state of the matter world, would no longer have the superluminal properties of quantum information, and would not get through. The trick would have to be to send messages backwards in time that would be appropriately ambiguous, but which when combined with the definite context of an actual historical situation would produce a meaningful intervention–rather as the decoding keys of the Enigma cypher machine in the Second World War could turn apparently random sequences of letters into a meaningful transmission. Thus Jesus’ parables were not a mere eccentricity of style, but both an enactment of his incarnation and a hint about the essential metaphoricity of that enactment. But to understand such messages requires a willingness to engage in a terrifying interpretative process: “He that has ears to hear, let him hear”. We need rather special ears to hear with. The absurd and charming story of Krishna and his Gopis, the milkmaids whose clothes he stole while they were bathing, when laid with poetic insight over our experience as mortals in the business of life, forms a mysterious moiré pattern that makes us shiver with the divine presence. But with such a message one would always be on the edge of losing one’s footing and getting it quite wrong; there would be no assurances except the astonishing promise of faith, that if we go on allowing the story or metaphor to unfold itself in our lives, it will correct itself.

Even more challenging, such a message would have to compete or cooperate with other messages from other spiritual domains. The message would have to have such a form as to exclude and deny messages from evil realms, but to include and affirm messages from good ones (and to identify each kind as such). And it would have to do all this in the conditions of local misinterpretation and the ancient human tribal tendency toward xenophobia. Tragic conflicts, such as those between Christians and Jews, Jews and Muslims, Muslims and Hindus, Hindus and Christians, and so on would be almost inevitable as different future self-conceptions of the divine wrestled each other in the arenas of time.

There are many moral reasons for the oddity of religious language. Religion should convince not through past proofs, threats or promises, but in its immediate practice; it is not that the world contains arcane proofs of God, but that the world to the religious-minded person of impeccable rationality–that is someone who gives merely adequate recognition to the astonishing wonder of life–is the very body and drama of God. But this needs the poetic sensibility to see it. Religious language is both a training of that sensibility–a kind of indicating, as when someone shows us the significant detail in an Old Master or points out the subtle pattern in the carpet that is obvious once we see it–and at the same time an utterance that is quite comprehensible to that sensibility.

Finally, such messages must be poetic and superficially inscrutable for another reason: if the divine itself is to some infinitesimal degree the result of the actions we take upon hearing its message, that message must be such as to leave open the divine’s own free power to continue the active and creative process of intending. God defines herself or himself by those very sendings. If there is an identifiable theme in all such messages, it is that of a more abundant life, that is, an opening of potential rather than a closing of it down. When we cooperate with the message, and allow its exegesis to flow naturally in ourselves, we join as a companion in God’s own free intending. Interpretation, metaphorizing, and poetry are not just comments upon the nature of universe-creation; they are universe-creation.

iii. An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles: the Divine Language of Nature

What, some of you might ask, are those people to do who do not have the poetic sensibility? I believe that this question implies too narrow a definition of “poetic.” We have scarcely scratched the surface of the multitudinous richness of the modes of the divine/natural poetry.

I believe it was the great British biologist J.B.S. Haldane who, on being asked what, after a lifetime studying God’s living creations, he could tell us about God, replied that He seemed to have an inordinate fondness for beetles. This delightful response could be taken as irreverent or satirical; but if we do take the notion of God the creator seriously, its truth could scarcely be denied. There are perhaps hundreds of thousands of beetle species, a significant fraction of the world’s total biodiversity; Haldane’s reply conjures up a God somewhat like a bright little boy who obsessively wants to collect and build every variation of some treasured model or toy. I can remember as a child going again and again to the illustrations in the encyclopedia of the varieties of tropical fish, military medals, tree leaves, postage stamps, hybrid roses, technical equipment, butterflies, insignia, and indeed beetles, picking out my favorites (I loved the great stag beetle best of all), and building model aircraft and plastic ships with their neat nuggety complicated particularity. Haldane makes us see God putting his head down sideways close to his latest beetle, to enjoy its fine lines, jointed antennae, elegant patches of iridescence, and the new mark VI wing-casing design, and stroking it gently as he adds it to his enormous collection. The dorky hobbyist is in this perspective quite as much in tune with the divine (even if quite unaware of it) as the most lachrymose and sighing aesthete.

Gerard Manley Hopkins has a perception of God’s intricate, fascinated and absorbed craftsmanship that is not unlike Haldane’s:

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things–

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;

And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

If we look at the second to the last line we can see with splendid clarity why poetic language is so deeply necessary when it comes to religion. Nature is God’s great ejaculation of seeds into the womb of nature itself, each one somehow expressing both its own uniqueness and the hereditary stamp of its father; both the unity and the multiplicity of God’s own nature. His beauty is past change: at first glance, an orthodox statement of the Platonic Catholic theology of Hopkins’ own time and chosen submission. God is changeless, beyond change. But this idea is at once interrogated by the diverse and protean changeableness of the world that bears its father’s likeness. “Past change” could also mean “all the changes that took place in the past”: God’s beauty is precisely the whole history of change and growth and unfolding. The phrase has one more possible interpretation: to be past something could indeed mean to be no longer within the realm of that thing, according with orthodox theological definition of eternity; but it could also mean to be even more that thing than that thing was, as when we speak of something going past the speed of sound or light: it is not less fast, but more so. God is even more the essence of change than nature is. All three interpretations are in the poem: any one of them would collapse the wave-function of its meaning into something that would falsify the nature of God. Just as there are three meanings of “past change” there are three rhymes, and three triplets of lines with a concluding statement that ties them together; the trinity is here not a dogma but a live signpost, a blaze pointing us deeper into the forest and still showing us the way back home.

There is, then, a weird surreal poetry in God’s conversation with the humans that are the neurons of God–Gopis, weeping statues, African ithyphallic fetishes and all. The divine language is amateurish, indirect, wayward, “fickle, freckled (who knows how?)”. God speaks in the echiura, that sea slug whose male lives as a parasite in the female’s kidney; in the grotesque geometry of black holes and subatomic strings; in the animated parachute of a polyp jellyfish, pulsing angelically along; in the rippling animated pelt of the jaguar. Praise Him.

iv. The Queen of Heaven

Or, perhaps, Praise Her.

If the divine is both the attractor, the final cause of the process of natural evolution, and at the same time the process itself–if the inner life of the universe is the biography of God–then we should expect God’s character and style to be discernible in the lineaments of nature, as the history of a person comes to be written upon her face. Nature is full of conjunctions or marriages between paired, complementary, and equal opposites–left-handed spin and right-handed spin, positive and negative electromagnetic charge, the two directions of time, yin and yang. In the realm of biology that doubleness is most saliently represented by sex. The word “nature” is cognate with “natal,” “generate,” “kind” (and indeed “cognate”!): nature is reproduction, or rather “new-production-through-reproduction.” The great invention of biological reproduction–sex–is a sort of reprise of the way that natural physics managed to split nothingness into positive and negative somethingness. If nature is both male and female, the divine is both also. Thus it would be as accurate to say “She mothers-forth whose beauty is past change” as “He fathers-forth.” It would not be as accurate to say “It neuters-forth;” there is no neuter personal pronoun in English, nor, I believe, should there be. Neuter animals and plants can only clone themselves, and there is thus less “forth-ness” in their production, less originality. Individuality, sexuality, and original creativity are strongly linked in biological reproduction, and must correspond to some doubleness in the divine nature.

Ixchel was the classical Mayan goddess of love and of the moon. The island of Cozumel, then as now, was a holiday resort: Mayan women would sail across from the Yucatan, take the white limestone road through the cornfields, and come at evening under the growing moonlight to the goddess’s small swallow-haunted shrines to pray for fertility. They would buy the island’s luxury products, salt and honey, which were themselves emblematic of the goddess. The swallow, in Mayan cazumil, from which the island gets its name, was Ixchel’s bird. My own prayer to Ixchel uses a meter (/–/), the “missed-heartbeat” meter employed by the Greeks in addressing Aphrodite, who was herself born of the sea-foam; the prayer reminds the goddess of the the fertility of her ocean and asks for renewed vitality. 

The Lady of Cozumel

Ixchel the goddess,

honey and salt,

sits in the moon, shines on the moonroad built through the corn;

shines through the arch of the gate of her city.

Women, mujeres,

always accepting,

always receiving,

come to her shrine:

pilgrims and vestals, over the blue, over the turquoise

wave-iterating and generous sea,

always the giving, death-and-forgetfulness, salt metamorphosis, singular sea.

Tiny wave-patterns

basso relievo printed in sand.

Giant seed-cases lie on the shore

ever-progenitive, hungrily-seeking, blindly desirous, endlessly bountiful blind DNA.

Lady of swallows, sweet Cozumel,

old Cazumil:

soften to flowering,

swell to a seeding, feed his engendering,

heal this sick dragon, wounded and festering,

heal with your honey your moonlight your saltness

heal the old snake that has come to your door.


We have many splendid images of the maleness of God; in recent centuries, at least in the West, fewer images of her femaleness. Some of the mainline Christian churches have, with a little jolt of surprise, been awoken to this omission in the last few years. There are plenty of female spirits, angels and saints–not to speak of goddesses–in popular worship, animist, polytheist, and monotheist alike. But the more intellectual religious traditions are not by any means lacking in the seeds of such imagining. Consider Kuanyin, Kannon, the female Bodhisattvas, the Jewish Shekinah, the Virgin Mary, Urania, Hagia Sophia. Any account of the style of God is incomplete without a deep imagining of Her femininity, the more difficult today when we can no longer associate the female with stereotypical social and cultural attributes such as passivity, emotionality, dependency, or an exclusive role in nurturance. The female brings to reproduction at least as much genetic material–the active principle of organic development–as the male, and in those societies in which progress in technology and economics have permitted it, her achievements in traditionally male activities are at least as impressive. Nevertheless, the flavor of female love, of female ingenuity, acceptance, subtlety, depth, generosity, wit, and passion must be combined with the male versions of those characteristics if we would get a fully rounded picture of the divine. Looking at the divine in the female light we see suddenly the astonishing creativity inherent in acceptance; the glory of the moral quality of virginity, of intactness, of immaculateness; the sweetness and delicacy of the divine; her capacity to be wounded by the pain of those she loves; her motherliness; her witchlike, Aphroditic powers of transformation; her familiarity with the dark world of death; her gentle but ruthless sense of humor; her strangely judging nonjudgmentality (if you see what I mean!); even her seductiveness, her own dream of self-enjoyment. Men may have versions of all these qualities, but they are often obscured by other more obvious characteristics. Deszö Kosztolányi’s poem “Dawn Drunkenness” catches something of this:

But up there, my friend, up there is the lightening sky,

a clarity, a glittering majesty,

trembling, crystallizing into constancy.

A heavenly dome

the blue of my mother’s eiderdown back home

so long ago; the waterblot of monochrome

that smudged my paper-pad with an azure foam,

and the stars’ souls

breathe and glitter quietly in their shoals

into a Fall night’s

lukewarm mildness–which precedes the colds and whites–;

they watched the files of Hannibal, today

look down at one who, having fallen from the rest,

am standing at a window in Budapest.

And then I don’t quite know what happened to me,

but a great wing seemed to swoop over me; the past,

all I had buried, bent down to me its breast:

childhood, infancy.


There so long stood I

to watch the vaulted miracles of the sky

that in the east it reddened, and the wind

set all the stars to quivering; sparks, thinned

by the distance, they’d appear and disappear;

a vast thoroughfare

of light flared up, a heavenly castle door

opened in that fire;

something fluttered then,

and a crowd of guests took places to begin

deep in twilight shades of dawn

the measures of the last pavane.

Outside the foyer swam in streams of light, and there

the lord of the dance bade farewell on the stair,

a great nobleman, the titan of the sky,

the glory of the dancing-floor; by and by

there is a movement, startled, jingling,

a soft womanly whispering

miraculous; the ball is over; pages

ready at the entrance call for carriages.

Under a lace veil

streamed a mantle, fairy-tale,

from the frail

deeps of twilight, diamond-pale,

blued with such a blue

as the morning dew,

which a lovely lady dons for her surtout,

and a gem, whose hue

dusts with its light the pure peace of the air,

the otherworldly raiment she would wear;

or an angel pins, with virgin grace,

a brilliant diadem into her hair,

and a fine light chaise

rocks to a soft halt and she glides in,

quieter than a dream,

and, its wheels agleam,

on it rolls again,

a flirting smile glimpsed on the face of the queen,

and then the stallions of the Milky Way,

with glittering horseshoes gallop through the spray

of carnival confetti, each flake a star

of bright gold, where hundreds of glass coaches are.

Standing in a trance,

with joy I cried and cried out, there’s a dance

in heaven, every night there is a dance;

for now a great old secret dawned on me,

that all the heavenly hosts of faerie

go home each morning on the glittery

and spacious boulevards of infinity.

That flirtatious smile on the face of the Queen of Heaven is a master-stroke of truth-telling. It is something we must work to understand in our imagination. Let us try to come at it in a logical way. Many of the great religions assert that the closest we can get to the divine is the miracle of another person. If we want to know what God looks like, they say, we must look in the eyes of our neighbor: their innerness is what God is most like. Accordingly, the contact we have with God, or should have if we are not estranged, is imaged in terms of the closest human relationships. God is most often called our father; but the Heavenly Mother is nearly as frequent. Jesus and Krishna are imaged as our brother. In Christianity, and perhaps in Buddhism, the divine is represented as a beloved and holy infant: the gorgeous poetry, the carols, the green and red and gold of the Nativity, clearly convey a large moiety of the joy of religious experience. In my own theological fantasy, the divine is literally our descendant, our Child; Jesus is the Son of Man. The Egyptian Horus, too, is seen as the beloved son, and in the Mesoamerican religions it is often the sacrificed son who is the most perfect image of divinity. A Christian nun becomes the bride of Christ, Psyche is wooed and won by the god of love, Krishna is the divine lover of Radha, and throughout the mysticism and poetry of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity the human soul is described as the girl who becomes a woman through the masterful desire of the divine lover–St. John of the Cross and and Yeats and John Donne spring at once to mind. Donne will never be chaste, “except Thou ravish me”. The Shekinah, the spirit of the Jewish people and the spirit also of the Sabbath and the holy Torah, is the bride of Adonai. The relationship of friendship is also called upon as a way of speaking about the comfort and support of our divine companion; and the loyalty of the faithful follower to the generous and heroic leader is implicit in the almost universal term, Lord. God can be our teacher, our tutor, our mentor; even, in the institutions of sacrifice and divine service, a respected trading partner. We have sometimes seen God as a guiding sister, as Odysseus does Athena, and as Milton perhaps saw Urania, the wisdom of God.

But the one relationship we have seemed increasingly to shy away from or repress is the relationship of the human male lover to his divine female beloved. The ancient institutions of the vestal virgin or temple prostitute recognize that relationship: indeed Enkidu dies in Gilgamesh because he and Gilgamesh fail to give proper honor to the love-goddess. Adonis is dismembered when he rejects Venus, and Pentheus suffers a similar fate when he profanes the rituals of the Bacchantes. Perhaps we should reconsider the relevance to our our own worship of the circum-Mediterranean and middle eastern cults of the love-goddess: Ishtar, Astarte, Astoreth, Innanna, Isis. In the Middle Ages the cult of the blessed virgin Mary came strangely close, as C. S. Lewis remarked in The Allegory of Love, to the idolatry of the Minnesingers and Goliards for their profane mistresses; but the incestuous barrier between holy mother and earthly mistress, and the doctrinal one between between divine latria and human dulia, was never fully breached. Dante’s Beatrice is not quite God. Yet if it makes sense for us to call God “master”, as we often do, then surely it also makes sense to call God “mistress”. In Genesis God creates us in his image, and also male and female: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, like many other religions, have at their root an admission that the divine is quite as much female as male. Thus any term of respect and love which applies to God in its masculine form must also apply with equal force in its feminine one. If God is a master, then God must also be a mistress. If our lord, then also our lady. If a husband, then also a wife.

What follows from this thought is that if we are to fully round out our imagination of our relationship with the divine, perhaps we must school our fancy to include the passion and submission of a lover before his mistress, of a husband before his wife–when it is the lover, the husband, who is the human partner, and the mistress, the wife, who is the divine one. Mary the Magdalen, the first Apostle to discover the resurrection, may be as valuable an image of God as an image of God’s beloved, as Peter the first holy father is both the disciple and the vicar of Christ in traditional Catholic theology. The gentle mastery and tender care and protectiveness and service and honour that a man gives to a wife are not inappropriate for a human being to give God. And, if we are to see sexuality as a metaphor for spiritual relationships, the very hiddenness of female sexual response, the need for tact, patience, humility in the face of the inexplicable moods and desires of a woman that a good lover must learn, the interpretive subtlety and respect he must attain if he would penetrate without violation the intricacy of female emotion, must all be present somewhere in the human love of God. Perhaps we could even say that there is a measure of truth in the idea that nature is the virgin god, that we impregnate nature with the idea of the mother god, and that the mother god is born out of nature’s womb. Those of us who are men do not need to abandon our own maleness to love and worship God, any more than those of us who are women need to experience God only as the ardent male and not also as the sister female. God is not just the one who must be accepted, but also the one whose own divine acceptance, whose “disponibilité”, as the French say, constitutes the unbounded creative principle that we call goodness.

Thus the idea of God as the mother of heaven and the implication that religion is essentially poetic, metaphorical, interpretative, are deeply and mysteriously linked. God’s femaleness is also God’s exegetical bottomlessness; the iterative and generative process of interpretation that we must enter when we engage with God’s metabolism is God’s femaleness. The “taking” of how we take a statement, a work of art, a story, is also the “taking” of rapture, the fertile “taking” of virginity.

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