Monday, November 16, 2009

Metaphors for God

Aldous Huxley said, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Music can communicate the most unspeakable emotions, but instead of using words, it speaks with rhythm, melody, and harmony. Or rather: music does not speak; it moves.

Not all music is exactly the same. Music sounds differently in every culture, felt and expressed in remarkably diverse ways, all emanating the character and passion of that culture. But even though the style of sounds may be different, it is still music. A Sikh friend once told me that music is one of the five mysteries that break into the borders of this world from the divine outside. Music is somehow transcendent, somehow wholly other, while also being immanent, a transforming presence, whether in gentle ripples or in undulating waves. Music can be haunting, a lingering in the heart, soul, and mind that remains present even in its absence. Music domesticates the chaos of noise to create rhythm and harmony. But music can also be jarring and dissonant, allowing room for some of the chaos to remain. Discordant notes can communicate the unspeakable emotions just as well as the harmonious.

I can’t quite put my finger on the way music moves me, but I know when it does. Music cannot be grasped, but in some way it does the holding.

In many of the world’s religions (including the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions) ritual baths of pure water cleanse the body of impurity, giving new life. Water revives and water refreshes. We cannot live without water because water is living. Usually, where water is, there life will be growing also. Food can be ignored for days, but water is essential to our survival, especially as we wander in the desert places.

Water flows in many forms. Rivers move and change the land around them, following a way even as they make new paths. Rain leaves the heavens to wash and cultivate the earth. Oceans are vast and broad and deep. Water is within us, but also something that we can move within, ungraspable as it slips through our fingers.

But the water sometimes dries up, and all we are left with are stagnant pools and small ponds, sometimes with nothing at all and we can die from our devastating thirst. Sometimes the water we are offered is undrinkable. Like an ancient mariner, we may often find that though we are on a sea, there is not a “drop to drink.” But we set out swimming toward that distant unreachable shore, even though our arms and legs soon tire and leave us “as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.” Sometimes we have to struggle in that space between swimming and drowning. Sometimes the only thing to do is float.

In Greek, Hebrew, and, to a certain extent, Latin, spirit and wind and breath (nouma, ruach, spiritus) are the same. When people said one, they said all three.

All things breathe and must breathe, because breath is the source of life and the ground of being. In the beginning, God formed a shape from the created dust and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life: and man became a living soul,” (which is a thoroughly non-dualistic understanding of humanity). The soul is what arises when the spirit/wind/breath of God inhales and exhales in and through the dirt. Creation lives because of breath . . . spirit, wind that hovered over the waters.

The one who is like spirit and wind and breath is “over all, in all, and through all,” and the one in whom “we live and move and have our being.” Like music, we cannot hold spirit, wind, and breath, but we are held by it as it moves within us and around us, literally in-spiring us. Our spirit begins with the breath of God that embraces us like the wind.

Sometimes for most of us, most of the time for some of us, it feels like Someone is holding their breath and we suffocate in its absence. The barren and desolate places that we enter, or that we make, are where the wind stops blowing and the spirit feels dead and we gasp at the shortness of breath. But breath is present, even if it is only our own, whispering like a small wind, a barely perceptible spirit.
Maybe the only way to touch spirit/wind/breath is by touching those stirred by it and filled with it. To touch the world.


  1. Michael (aka your brother)November 16, 2009 at 4:53 PM

    Nice. I really like the thoughts, especially about music. Reading it felt like deja vu. Same material for Lost and Found?

  2. Metaphors are the only means of talking about God, and music, water, and wind are certainly apt. Even they cannot contain the full meaning or experience of God – neither can they be contained, as we cannot contain God in the box of our understanding or our desire for God conveniently to be.
    I particularly like spirit/wind/breath. My spiritual teacher, Richard Rohr, tells of something he learned from a Jewish rabbi. When one says the Hebrew name for God - Yahweh - one replicates the act of breathing. When the first syllable is expressed - "yah" - one takes breath/spirit in; when saying the second - "weh" - one breathes spirit out. The first thing a newborn baby does is breathe in; the last act of a person's life is to breathe out. In between with each cycle of breathing one experiences and participates in the Universal Spirit - that "Great Reality deep within us" (Bill Wilson, with an echo of Paul Tillich).
    - Neil Christy

  3. I've heard that from Rohr about the spelling of YHWH as well, and it's fantastic. I agree completely: they fall short, because language, as incredible and 'miraculous' as it is, can do nothing but that, to struggle and wrestle and play with the ambiguity. I'm more drawn to spirit/wind/breath as well. I'm a fan of Tillich, at least in that quote. Marcus Borg draws a lot from Tillich in this area, and has a meaningful way of expressing things about the Ineffable. But John Caputo and Peter Rollins probably speak to me the most deeply . . .

  4. Currently I'm most influenced in my journey toward authentic spirituality/personhood ("I am not a human being having a spiritual experience, rather a spiritual being having a human experience" - Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) by Rohr, Borg, and Bishop John Shelby Spong. I'm not familiar with John Caputo or Peter Rollins . . . enlighten me. I've read a bit of Brian McLaren at the recommendation of your dad and your uncle.
    BTW, are you aware that Rohr and McLaren (along with Diane Butler Bass and Shane Claiborne) are presenting a weekend seminar next April at Rohr's Center for Action and Comtemplation in Albuquerque entitled "Emerging Christianity: HOW We Get There Determines WHERE WE Arrive." I'd love to be there . . . hope I have an income and the money to go. I've been to two of Rohr's weekend retreats, and they're AWESOME!
    Just finished reading Rohr's newest book "The Naked Now" and heard him speak on its topic . . "seeing as the mystics see." Highly recommend.

  5. I'm definitely a fan of Chardin. Perhaps you could shoot me an email ( and we can continue the conversation . . .