I take my title from our contributor, St. Joseph, who asked this (only to make a rhetorical point) when the subject of angels was being discussed. I am tempted to answer: yes and no.
We have never been afraid to go deep on this Blog, but I doubt if we will get much deeper than the subject I am now addressing.
My authority here is Moses Maimonides, the great twelfth century Jewish philosopher, who wrote the book The Guide for the Perplexed. He was so distinguished that it was said of him “From Moses to Moses, none arose as Moses.”
We can start in a relatively uncontroversial area. When the Bible speaks of God creating the earth in six days, we must remember that this is an accommodation. We actually have no idea of the process of change from nothingness to somethingness – it is outside our experience. So, quite simply, the description in the Bible is just a way of conveying a truth to our limited understanding of creation. Naturally the form this explanation took was suited to the knowledge of those for whom it was originally written. Argument about Genesis giving a literal description versus some modern scientific version are simply beside the point. Neither is remotely adequate to describe creation. Either is sufficient to tell us that it happened.
Similarly, what is written about God – for example, his greatness or other aspects of his reality – are equally accommodations. They give us no more than shadows of a reality we do not have the power to understand.
Maimonides deals directly with the angels. We might see them as marvellous beings, dressed in floaty white garments, and occasionally picking up a lyre to make heavenly music. Just an accomodation. The angels are spirits, they have no corporeal form. They exist as “intelligences” created by God. We are told that the angels have wings and that they fly. But these are just similes, pointing to aspects of their nature. When we read of Gabriel and the Annunciation, we actually know no more than that Mary became aware, I presume though Gabriel’s agency, that she was to be the mother of God, and that she assented to it. Did a figure appear? Was it an intellectual vision? We just don’t know. All we do know is that the Gospel story was given to teach our restricted understanding of the mystery of the Incarnation, and mankind’s acceptance of this through the choice of Mary.
God exists outside space and time. And that’s a problem because all human knowledge is framed within the concepts of space and time. We use the words “outside space and time” without any corresponding picture in our minds. We talk about eternity, we talk about a short or long stay in Purgatory, and the like. But these words about periods of time or places like heaven or purgatory do not have any meaning which corresponds to their reality.
We find ourselves describing God’s attributes. He is omniscient, we say – or omnipotent. Not so. God does not have attributes, he simply is. When Jesus most clearly describes his divine nature, he uses just two words: “I am”. Maimonides teaches that every time we deny an attribute to God, we get that bit nearer to his reality. Omniscience, for example, refers in our minds to human knowledge, extended infinitely. But that derogates from God’s knowledge which is not something he has, but something he infinitely is. We would do better, if we can’t escape such attributes, suggests Maimonides, to say that there is nothing God does not know, or that there is nothing that God cannot do. At least such negative statements are correct, even if they escape our minds as soon as we say them. We cannot even say that God is infinitely good – as if good were an attribute which he has. It is something which he is. It is of his essence. Even the word infinitely is a negative definition.
Maimonides is not telling us that we should avoid speaking of God and his works in very human ways. After all, this is how he communicates to us, how we communicate with others. And he accepts that many believers will never get beyond these simple descriptions. The ‘perplexed’ to whom he refers are those who, while using the simple explanations, realise their limited nature, and attempt to look beyond them, and so perhaps approach a little nearer to the wonder of God. It is in their perplexity, and in their acceptance that God is beyond their understanding, that they make progress.
I like to think of the users of this blog as the ‘perplexed’. That means that, although we needs must talk of God using our stunted human concepts, we know the whole time that his wonder infinitely exceeds our human attempts to describe him.
And that may be why the mystics tell us that the purest form of prayer is simply to open ourselves to God. It is through this emptiness that we make room for him.
This approach – defining God negatively – is known as apophatic. It is present in the Christian as well as the Jewish tradition. Its opposite – defining God by his positive characteristics – is called cataphatic.
Those who have not considered the apophatic approach may of course reject it. I can only speak for myself when I say that I am strongly attracted by it. The more thought I give to it the more true I perceive it to be. And the more questions I find that it answers. Nevertheless I am happy that I believe in the Incarnation (a belief not open to Maimonides) because Christ came to give us a way of approaching God which is immediately suited to our human nature.
So is God a myth? You must decide. My (Oxford Concise) dictionary tells me that a myth involves the imaginary or allegorical. But it describes metaphor as the application of a name to an object or an action to which it is imaginatively but not literally applicable. I’ll settle for that.