Now I’m sure that most of you know the old story about the astronaut who went far out into space and was asked on his return whether he had been to heaven and seen God and he said yes. And so they said to him, “Well, what about God?” And he said “She is black.” And although this is a very well known and well worn story, it is very profound.
Because, I tell you, I knew a monk who started out in life as pretty much of an agnostic or an atheist, and then he began to read Henri Bergson, the French philosopher who proclaimed the vital force, the elan vital, and so on, and the more he read into this kind of philosophy the more he saw that these people were really talking about God. And I’ve read a great deal of theological reasoning about the existence of God and they all start out on this line: If you are intelligent and reasonable, you cannot be the product of a mechanical and meaningless universe. Figs do not grow on thistles, grapes do not grow on thorns. And therefore, you as an expression of the universe, as an aperture through which the universe is observing itself, cannot be a mere fluke.
Because if this world peoples, as a tree brings forth fruit, then the universe itself, the energy which underlies it, what it’s all about, ‘the ground of being’ as Paul Tillich called it, must be intelligent.
Now when you come to that conclusion you must be very careful. Because you may make an unwarranted jump. Namely, the jump to the conclusion that that intelligence, that marvelous designing power which produces all this, is the biblical God. Be careful. Because that god, contrary to his own commandments, is fashioned in the graven image of a paternal authoritarian, beneficent tyrant of the ancient Near East. And it’s very easy to fall into that trap. Because it’s all institutionalized in the Roman Catholic Church, in the synagogue, in the Protestant churches, all there ready for you to accept. And by the pressure of social consensus and so on and so on, it is very natural to assume that when somebody uses the word God it is that father figure which is intended, because even Jesus used the analogy the Father for his experience of God. He had to. There was no other one available to him in his culture.
But nowadays, we are in rebellion against the image of the authoritarian father. Especially this should happen in the United States, where it happens that we are a republic and not a monarchy. And if you, as a loyal citizen of this country, think that a republic is the best form of government, you can hardly believe that the universe is a monarchy. But to reject the paternalistic image of God as an idol is not necessarily to be an atheist. Although, I have advocated something called atheism in the name of God. That is to say, an experience, a contact, a relationship with God, that is to say, with the ground of your being, that does not have to be embodied or expressed in any specific image.
Now, theologians on the whole don’t like that idea, because I find in my discourse with them that they want to be a little bit hard-nosed about the nature of God. They want to say that God has indeed a very specific nature. Ethical monotheism means that the governing power of this universe has some extremely definite opinions and rules to which our minds and acts must be conformed. And if you don’t watch out you will go against the fundamental grain of the universe and be punished in some way. Old fashionedly, you will burn in the fires of hell forever. More modern fashionedly [sic], you will fail to be an authentic person. It’s another way of talking about it.
But there is this feeling, you see, that there is authority behind the world and it’s not you. It’s something else. Like we say about something else, that’s far out. And therefore, this Jewish, Christian, and indeed Muslim approach makes a lot of people feel rather strange-estranged- from the root and ground of being. There are a lot of people who never grow up, and are always in awe of an image of a grandfather. Now, I’m a grandfather. I have five grandchildren and so I’m no longer in all of grandfathers. I know I’m just as stupid as my own grandfathers were, and therefore I’m not about to bow down to an image of God with a long white beard.
Now naturally of course, we intelligent people don’t believe in that kind of a God, not really. I mean, we think that God is Spirit, that God is very undefinable and infinite and all that kind of thing. But nevertheless, the images of God have far more powerful effect upon our emotions than our ideas. And when people read the Bible and sing hymns; “Ancient of Days who sittest throned in glory. Immortal Invisible God, only wise in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,” they still got that fellow there with a beard on its way in the back of the emotions. And so we should think, first of all, in contrary imagery, and the contrary imagery is: she’s black. Imagine instead of God the Father, God the Mother. And imagine that this is not a luminous being, blazing with light but an unfathomable darkness. Such as is portrayed in India mythology by Kali. K A L I, the Great Mother, who is represented in the most terrible imagery. Kali has a tongue hanging out long, drooling with blood. She has fang teeth, she has a scimitar on one hand and a severed head in the other, and she is trampling on the body of her husband who is Shiva. Shiva represents also furthermore the destructive aspect of the deity, wherein all things are dissolved so that they be reborn again, and here is this blood sucking terrible mother as the image of the supreme reality behind this universe. Imagine, it’s the representative of the octopus, the spider, the awful awful, the creepy crawlies at the end of the line which we’re all terrified of.
Now that’s a very important image. Because let us suppose just for the sake of argument that all of you sitting here right now are feeling fairly alright. But I mean you’re not in a hospital. You’re not you don’t have the screaming meemies, you have a sense you probably had dinner and a feeling pretty good. But you know that you feel that you’re fairly good because in the background of your mind’s very far off in the background of your minds you’ve got the sensation of something absolutely ghastly that simply mustn’t happen. And so against that, which is not happening which doesn’t necessarily have to happen but by comparison with that, you feel pretty all right. And that absolutely ghastly thing that must happen at all is Kali.
And therefore, at once we begin to wonder whether the presence of this Kali is not in a way very beneficence. I mean, how would you know the things were good unless there was something that wasn’t good at all. Now this is I’m not putting this forward as a final position and money putting it forward as a variation, as a way of beginning to look at a problem. And getting our minds out of their normal ruts. She’s black. Well she, first of all, feminine, represents what is called philosophically the negative principle. Now of course people who are women in our culture today and believe in women’s lib don’t like to be associated with the negative, because the negative is acquired very bad connotations. We say accentuate the positive, that’s a purely male chauvinist it added to it. How would you know that you were outstanding and less by contrast there was something in-standing. You cannot appreciate the convex without the concave. You cannot appreciate the firm without the yielding. And therefore, the so-called negativity of the feminine principle. Is obviously life giving and very important. But we live in a culture which doesn’t notice it. You see a painting, a drawing, of a bird, and you don’t notice the white paper underneath it. You see people a printed book and you think that what is important is the printing, and the page doesn’t matter. And yet, if you reconsider the whole thing how could there be visible printing without the page underlying it.
What is called substance, that which stands underneath, sub, underneath stands to be substantial is to be underlined. To be the support. To be the foundation of the world. And of course, this is the great function of the feminine. To be the substance. And therefore the feminine is represented by space which is of course black at night. But were it not for black and empty space there would be no possibility whatsoever of seeing the stars. Stars shine out of space and astronomers, very high powered astronomers are beginning to realize that stars are a function of space.
Now that’s difficult for our common sense. Because we think that space is simply inert nothingness. Then we don’t realize. That space. Is completely basic to everything. It’s like your consciousness. Nobody can imagine what consciousness is. It’s the most elusive whatever it is that there is, it all because it’s the background of everything else that we know therefore we don’t really pay much attention to it. We pay attention to the things within the field of consciousness to the outlines to the objects that the so-called things that are in the field of vision the sounds that are in the field of hearing and so forth. But what it is that ever it is that embraces all that. We don’t pay much attention to it, we can’t even think about it, it’s like trying to look at your head. And you know, you try to look at your head and what you find. You don’t even find a black blob in the middle of things you just don’t find anything. And yet that is that out of which you see, just as space is that out of which the stars shine.
So there’s something very queer about all this. That that which you cannot put your finger on, that which always escapes you that which is completely elusive, the blank seems to be absolutely necessary for there to be anything whatsoever Now let’s take this further. Kali also is a principle of death because she carries a scimitars in one hand and a severed head in the other. Death. This is tremendously important to think about. We put it off. Death is swept under the carpet in our culture in the hospital they try to keep you alive as long as possible in utter desperation. They won’t tell you that you’re going to die. When their relatives have to be informed that it’s a hopeless case they say, “Don’t tell this to the patient.” And all the relatives come around with hollow grins and say, “Well, you’ll be all right in about a month, and then we’ll go and have a holiday somewhere and sit by the sea and the birds and whatnot.” And the dying person knows that this is mockery. Well of course we’ve made death how with all kinds of ghouls. We’ve invented dreadful afterlives. I mean, the Christian version of heaven is abominable as the Christian version of hell. I mean, nobody wants to be in church forever. Children are absolutely horrified when they hear these hymns which say “Prostrate before they are thrown to law and gaze and gaze on thee.” They can’t imagine what this imagery means. I mean, in a very subtle theological way, I could wangle that statement around to make it extremely profound. I mean, to be prostrate at once and to gaze on the other hand, see, is a Coincidentia oppositorum, a coincidence of opposites, which is very very deep. But to a child it is a crick in the neck. And that’s a sort of imagery we’re brought up with.
So the idea what might happen after death. Well, you’re going to be faced with your judge. The one who knows all about you, this is Big Papa, who knows you’re a naughty boy and a very naughty girl especially girl from the beginning of things. He’s going to look right through to the core of your inauthentic existence. And what kind of heebie jeebies may come up or you may be believe in reincarnation, and you think that your next life will be the rewards and the punishments for what you’ve done in this life, and you know you got away with murder in this life and of us also all things are going to happen next time around do you look upon death as a catastrophe. Then there are other people who say, well when you’re dead you’re dead. Just done nothing going to happen at all. So what have you got to worry about?
Well we don’t quite like that idea, because it spooks us. You know, what’s to be like to die to go to sleep and never never never wake up. But a lot of things it’s not going to be like. It’s not going to be like being buried alive. It’s not going to be like being in the darkness for other. I tell you what, it’s going to be like as if you never had existed at all, not only you but everything else as well. There was never anything and there’s no one to regret it. And there’s no problem. But I’ll think about it for a while. It’s kind of a weird feeling you get when you really think about that, you really imagine just to stop altogether. You can even call it stop, because you can’t have stopped without start. And there wasn’t any stop. There’s just, no thing. Well then when you come to think of it that’s the way it was before you were born. And if you go back in memory as far as you can go you get to the same place. As you go forward in your anticipation of the future as to what it’s going to be like to be dead. Anyway it is a funny ideas, that this blankness is the necessary counterpart of what we call being. Now we all think we are alive, don’t we? I mean we’re really here, that there is something called existence. You know, the existentialist, dasein, thrown-ness, you know, here we are.
But how could you bring it experiencing that as a reality unless you would once been dead? What gives us any ghost of a notion that we are here except by contrast with the fact that we once weren’t? And later on we won’t be, but this thing is a cycle. Like positive and negative poles and electricity. So this then is the value of the symbolism of she is black. She, the womb principle. The receptive. The in-standing. The void. And the dark. And so that is to come into the presence of the God who has no image. Behind the father image, behind the mother image, behind the image of Light inaccessible and behind the image of profound and abysmal darkness. The something else, which we can’t conceive it all. Dionysus the Areopagite called it the luminous darkness. Nagarjuna called it shunyata, the void. Shankara called it Brahman. That which nothing at all can be said, neti neti. Beyond all conception whatsoever. And you see that is not atheism in the formal sense of the word. This is a profoundly religious attitude. Because what it corresponds to practically is an attitude to life of total trust. Of letting go. When we form images of God. They’re all really exhibitions of our lack of faith. Something to hold on to, something to grasp. How firm a foundation, what lies underneath us, the Rock of Ages or whatever. Ein feste Burg.
But when we don’t grasp we have the attitude to face. If you let go of all the idols you will of course discover that what this unknown is which is the foundation of the universe is precisely you. It’s not the you you think you are. Now it’s not your opinion of yourself, it’s not your idea or image of yourself, it’s not the chronic sense of muscular strain which we usually call I. You can’t grasp it of course not. Why would you need to suppose you could what would you do with it. And who would do what with it. You could never get it it is others that profound central mystery and the attitude of faith is to stop chasing it. Stop grabbing it, because if that happens the most amazing things follow. But all these ideas of the spiritual, the godly, as this attitude of must. And we have been laid down the laws which we are bound to follow, all this jazz, is not the only way of being religious and of relating to the ineffable mystery that underlies ourselves in the world.