Writing About "Writing About God"
Paul O. Ingram
I love to write because, as my friend, Jack Cady used to say, “You don’t know a thing until you write it down.” Jack was one of the best contemporary American novelists I have read, although he never got that much attention beyond the Seattle literary scene, at least as far as I know. Writing forces us to put into words that can never fully capture our experiences of the world, of reality, of God—however you name it—and yet somehow brings these realities into partial conscious awareness. We don’t know what a thing is until we label it with words while, if we are wise, knowing that the words we use for labeling are always symbolic. Symbols are pointers not to be confused with the thing or event to which they point. Cling to a pointer you only have the pointer; clinging to a pointer covers that to which it points with a verbal shroud of unknowing.
This is particularly true with God-talk, but I also suspect it is equally true with scientific talk as well, including mathematical language. It seems that whenever we write or speak, we eventually crash headlong into the “language of unsaying,” as Michael Sells phrased it when he described the paradoxes of mystical theology. All I know after writing seventeen books and seventy or so essays is that I have never been able to completely say what I wanted to say. We swim in a “cloud of unknowing,” and maybe that’s the point of entry into the way things really are. The mystics of all religious Ways must be on to something. But I’m still trying to get beyond dog paddling.
I have just finished reading “The Eternal Present: Slow Knowledge and the Renewal of Time,” by Douglas E. Christie, and I must say that it was a good contemplative read. Christie’s argument is that prayer is ultimately an unfolding, palpable sense of divine presence that originates in the realization of what we already know, of what is already within us. This conclusion is consistent with the testimony of male and female recluses that dot the early history of Christianity. It is also a major point of Thomas Merton’s views of contemplative prayer. But we must give it time if we really want prayer. We must slow down the tempo of our lives and create time to listen, which great writers actually do. As we develop skill in simply listening—to the sounds of nature, water breaking on a beach, the voices of human beings engaged in conversation, the sounds and movements of a liturgy—we gradually discover that we have never been separated from God, the human beings in our lives, the creatures of the Earth, indeed even the universe itself, which the Prologue to the Gospel of John describes as incarnate within God. So, I spend time writing as a contemplative method for figuring out what the hell it all means.
But I must confess that I’ve never come close to this realization even as I would like to. But once on a beach in front of my son-in-law’s family cabin on Fox Spit on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, I think I experienced something of knowing that nothing is ever separated from God as I listened to the waves pushed by the wind into high tide on the beach. My waking sense of separateness from everything gradually melted away (but not completely) and there was only the sound of waves blowing over everything, the sounds of waves lapping on the beach, and moon glow painting everything silver. Prayer, like meditation in Buddhism, is simply focused attention on our experiences, but without the illusion that we own what we experience—a kind of letting go that allows whatever God is or is not to rush into consciousness. And the wonderful thing—we discover that God’s presence, or the Buddha Nature if one is Buddhist, has always been part of who we are. Prayer doesn’t get us what we think we do not have; it allows what we already have to reveal itself to us and perhaps to others in often profoundly unexpected ways.
One of these “unexpected ways” led to the writing of my book. Living Without a Why. The title was borrowed with gratitude from Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls  For writing and circulating this book she was burned at the stake in Paris in 1310. Her crime was “heresy,” which in her case meant criticizing the male-dominated system of Medieval sacramental and ecclesiastical theology. “Living without a why” was her way of describing the meaning of grace as a movement initiated by God to live without care or concern about achieving anything through prayer, the sacraments, confession, or monastic disciplines—all of which she regulated to “Holy Church the Little” that transformed Christians of her day into “merchants.” According to her way of looking at things, faith is something like Christian “actionless action” (wu-wei in Daoist tradition). Of course, she was burned at the stake by “churchmen” for “heresy,” but I think more so because she wrote a book and taught her ideas to anyone who would listen—roles her society reserved for men. Meister Eckhart taught fairly similar ideas, but they were merely “condemned.” He was not burned at the stake. “Living without a why” is also fairly similar to what Luther meant by grace, but not identical. I suspect some of Marguerite’s “living without a why” got into Luther’s head via Meister Eckhart, whom he encountered during his years as an Augustinian friar. Anyway, her book has become an object of meditation for me
The upshot of “living without a why” is that being mindful, meaning totally focused on the present without mental or emotional distractions is incredibly difficult to write about. Particularly when one is surrounded by blaring television noise turned up to nine located on both sides of my study. “Entering the silence,” as Thomas Merton described contemplative prayer, is difficult beyond measure. At least for me. Even when I am engulfed in solitude, the emotional and mental clutter in my mind kicks me back into the distractions of the day: obligations, taking my wife, Gena, to the store, and supervising my grandson David, both of whom I love beyond measure—and the conventional list of duties goes on. The problem is me. The sages of all the world’s religious Ways teach that “Silence”—one of the “ninety-nine beautiful names of God” in the Qur’an—is incarnated in the midst of the noise of our lives, gracefully creating out of the mess humans make of this world a harmony that is greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes I faintly hear the Silence within the noise of my life, mostly when I stop and pause to reflect how lucky I am to be connected with the persons I love, for whom I perform whatever obligations may interrupt my feeble attempts to be still and attentive, and faintly experience what the Cloud of Unknowing refers to as “prayer without ceasing.” But maybe paying attention to obligations is a form of mindfulness, a form of prayer.
Silence has taught me that “Reality”—the way things really are as opposed to the way we wish or hope things are—is more than anyone can write about. Reality transcends us, and we do well to be ever mindful of this fact even as we marvel at its richness. Each of us at best has a reach that exceeds our grasp; a partial vision only. This seems to be the case at every level of verbal description: in scientific truth, in prose, in poetry, in scripture, and in theological reflection. While alive we can only see through a glass darkly and hope with St. Paul that in some future time, we will be able to see “face to face.” Many religious people think otherwise because they suppose religious truth, as they know it from doctrinal formulations they have learned, is exempt from the inherently limited nature of human language. But it helps to recognize that while reality always transcends our apprehending of it, our apprehending also transcends our ability to express it in words.
This is clearly the conclusion of Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement. She is one of John B. Cobb’s students, as am I, and a process-feminist theologian who describes apophatic mystical theology—negative theology of unsaying—as a process theology of entanglement within the Unknown. Read through the lenses of Whiteheadian process philosophy, the anonymous English author of the Cloud literally “deconstructs” all affirmative kataphatic labels for God and all apophatic declarations of unsaying that deconstruct kataphatic labels. The only thing left is that theological ideas, models, statements, symbols, icons—are metaphors that say more about human relationships and our relationships with the entirety of nature than about God.
Which is not to say that theological metaphors are useless or do not sometimes disclose how we are entangled with every thing and event in the world and with God—according to Whitehead’s ontological principle as well as contemporary quantum physics—but never in the same way from moment to moment of space-time. To the degree we do not cling to theological constructions, to that degree we experience interdependence with all things past and present as we anticipate the future. All metaphors point to that which must sooner or later be left unsaid. This is why theological reflection is a process that can never be completed. There are no finished theological systems, not even systems of fundamentalist certainties to which so many religious persons in all religious Ways cling.
But still, I’ve been thinking a lot about God of late. This is what theologians are supposed to do, but how can one think and write about a reality transcendent to all the limits and boundaries of thought and yet immanent, deeply immanent, within all boundaries, distinctions, and limitations, apart from which there are no boundaries, distinctions, and limitations. John Cobb did me no favors—or perhaps the best favor I have received from any teacher—when he declared some years ago, “Paul, you’re a theologian.” And of course, he left it to me to figure out what the hell he meant. I was trained as a historian of religions who never imagined becoming a theologian, the meaning of which I am still trying to figure out. I mean here’s the problem: to put it oversimply, historians of religions write objectively (àla René Descartes) about religious matters of fact—what human beings have believed and practiced in different times and cultural contexts apart from concern about the truth of what religious human beings have believed or practiced. But theology is a normative discipline or collection of disciplines about issues of truth in all areas of human concern rooted in the experience of a Sacred Reality named differently in humanity’s religious Ways.
So now that I am a theologian, the only thing I know is that I have, as the Zen phrase has it, “a beginner’s mind.” Maybe that’s it! All writing requires a beginner’s mind, a mind kept fresh by what one does not know but wants disparately to know. And the more I think about it, the mystics seem close to the truth: God is hidden in a cloudy transcendence that continuously unfolds itself in the interdependent relational processes at play everywhere in the universe and most clearly in human interdependent relationships. We apprehend God in the dance of these ever-changing relationships: in the intimacy of lovers, the love of parents and children, the struggle for just communities, in our relationship with nature, in sickness and health, for richer or poorer, in death that does not part us from relationships with the persons we love or with God. Writing about this is the most difficult thing anyone can dare do. Certainly, no historian of religions could apart from John Cobb’s saying those magic words, “Paul, you’re a theologian.”
 See Jack Cady, The Jonah Watch (New York: Arbor House, 1981); The Man Who Could Make Things Vanish (New York: Arbor House, 1983; and Inagehi (Seattle: Broken Moon Press, 1994).
Michael Sells, Mystical Language of Unsaying (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).
 Douglas E. Christie, Buddhist-Christian Studies 33 (2013), 13-21.
 Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls, translated by Ellen L. Babinsky (New York: Paulist Press: 1993).
 Thomas Merton, Entering the Silence (San Francisco: Harper-San Francisco, 1995).
 Catherine Keller, Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).