The Futility of Arguing About God

It had been the longest time since I had indulged in the bitter-sweet back-and-forth of theological disputation. That is, until yesterday. In a meeting lasting five hours, I and my interlocutor were at least as equally drained as we were initially energized. The exhilarating and at the same time exhausting debate on theological minutiae had quickly turned repetitive, devolved into a match of self-assertion, and ultimately left a lot to be desired in terms of any conciliation or closure. 

There is something seductive about such a stalemate. When a protracted argument hits an impasse, one cannot simply yield or let it go. The fact that it has been so long-drawn only serves to maintain the momentum for another similar stretch of time. After a point it is a self-fulfilling vicious cycle: one cannot now let it go because one has not still let it go, therefore one cannot now let it go… ad nauseum.

The experience rekindled a polemical streak within me that I had long assumed I had overcome. Even the most exalted of pursuits – the quest for truth or of ‘faith seeking understanding’ – can become fuel and fodder for the ego. It is of paramount importance then, to never lose sight of the object of this quest – i.e. God himself – throughout the process of the quest. Only in the awareness of our presence before God/God’s presence amongst us, do we stand the chance of not tripping over the obstructions along the path. Only in conscious awareness of the transcendent can our disputations be tempered with the humility necessary to move across any intellectual stalemate. If our theology does not afford us this much, then it is not God that we are concerned with, but something else entirely. 

“Har aan jo rubaru nahi hai

Wo aur koi hai Tu nahi hai”

“That which does not face us on every turn

That is not You, but something else which has become our concern.”

– Ahmad Javaid

“Wherever you turn there is the Face of God” (Q 2:115)

I can say with reasonable certainty that our faces were not turned towards God in this instance. Or at least my face was not – I do not want to impugn the integrity of my interlocutor’s intentions. For it is entirely possible that what for me was a descent into the darkness of the ego, might have been, at least on some occasions, an enlightening and elevating exercise for him. He may indeed have been facing God the whole time. 

The whole debacle however, left me desiring to move beyond theology. To reason from ‘scripture alone’ (sola scriptura) seemed to be an entirely misguided reading of scripture itself. In Quranic epistemology, the text alone is not the sole source of knowledge. It invites the reader to observe and study the natural world, to ponder over history and the fate of civilizations, to know oneself deeply, and to ask those of learning in other scriptures if you need clarification about a matter unfamiliar to you (fas alu ahla al dhikr inkuntum la ta’lamoon). Any purely textual reading of the Qur’an therefore is an inadequate reading in the Qur’an’s own view. Unless one pursues the above epistemological avenues that the Quran suggests, one cannot come to a proper estimation of the realities that the Quran seeks to describe. This makes complete sense if one takes the Quran to be not merely a self-referential text, but as referring to realities that exist objectively and independently – such as the nature of the cosmos, history, human psychology, morality, the unseen world, and God Himself. 

In strictly Quranic terms therefore, theology and tafsir alone are insufficiently equipped to explicate the Quran. What these disciplines do is only one mode of appreciating only one aspect of the scripture – which itself is a veritable prism bearing multiple dimensions, and which are severally explored by the Sufi, the philosopher, the artist, the scientist, the historian, the psychologist etc. Only such a capacious inter-dimensional and inter-disciplinary approach may come close to grasping some of the infinite mysteries of God. 

“If all the trees on earth were pens and the ocean (were ink), with seven oceans behind it to add to its (supply), yet would not the words of God be exhausted (in the writing): for God is Exalted in Power, full of Wisdom.”  (Q 31:27)

In the face of the intractable mysteries of the cosmos, and the intransigent ignorance of human beings – one cannot harbor any attitude but one of awe and humility before all that one does not and cannot know. Certainly, one can scarcely justify being presumptuous or arrogant in claiming knowledge. The Qur’an therefore counsels a perpetual intellectual humility: 

“Above every knower is another more knowing” (Q 12: 76) 

Let me conclude with one final observation on the discussion that had left me feeling sour. The penchant to couch every argument within purely scriptural references alone is not only unwarranted based on the scripture itself, but it may well be the flaw that proves fatal to the theologically minded seeker. 

“The pointers have distracted us from what was being pointed to” – Tim Winter 

The Qur’an is a book of pointers/symbols/ayaat – the point of any symbol being not itself but that to which it points. Like the jottings of ink on this page, if one takes them solely on face value they are nothing but meaningless squiggles. It is only as symbols that words have any value – i.e. by gesturing to the meaning intended behind them. 

A theological squabble is often a case of becoming distracted by the pointers. To be so invested in theological pedantry as to harp at length on minutiae is to have lost sight of the broader picture – which itself is ultimately beyond any neat exegetical resolution. Ultimately, all talk of God beyond a certain point is bound to be nonsensical. “Theology is the quest for the least silly definition of God”, T.J. Winter again. 

This insight of treating God-talk always as more about talk and less about God is something that our sister religions have emphasized well: Neti, neti, not this, not this. The map is not the terrain, the menu is not the meal. 

The Sufi traditions in Islam also retain this attitude. Talking about God is only useful as a prelude to knowing God. True Knowledge (Ma’rifa) is not a catechism to be known by the mind, but is a dynamic existential positioning between the two poles of being. It is “the existence of a reverence within you from declaring Him similar to things or disconnected from them.” (Qunawi) 

This is of course a matter for practice and tasting (dhawq) over and above any mental or verbal articulation. Thus one cannot afford being bogged down by language and the letter of revelation to be prevented from tasting the reality and meaning behind it.

“the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (II Corinthians 3:6)

In fact, one must read scripture with the lively expectation of the experience that it indicates – as has been the practice in many Sufi readings of the Quran. Within Zen Buddhism too, where the Buddhist scriptures are of great importance, the primary goal however is direct experience of enlightenment through meditation. In fact, the meaning of scripture itself is illumined by the insight of direct experience. For Ibn ‘Arabi, unveiling becomes the method of proving or disproving the historical truth of the hadiths, but few would be bold enough to take this position, says Ibn Arabi’s translator William Chittick.   

Ultimately, it is always more rewarding to talk to God, rather than talking about God. There is only so much that can be done in the latter, more limited enterprise – for there is only so much about God that can be known or expressed. However, when God is not the object of our discussion, but the subject whom we address – God can indeed be known and addressed. This is the critical difference between conceiving of God as a “Thou” versus an “It”, in the famous phraseology of the philosopher Martin Buber. Only as Thou/Subject may God be revealed, never as It/object

“The Self is not known through study of the scriptures, nor through subtlety of the intellect, nor through much learning; but by him who longs for him is he known. Verily unto him does the Self reveal his true being.” (Katha Upanishad 1:2:23).

“He truly knows Brahman who knows him as beyond knowledge; he who thinks that he knows, knows not. The ignorant think that Brahman is known, but the wise know him to be beyond knowledge.” (Kena Upanishad 2:3)

“How long does one argue about the meaning of the scriptures? Only until the Sat-chid-ananda becomes revealed in one’s own heart. The bee buzzes only so long as it does not sit on the flower. As soon as it sits on the flower and begins to drink of the honey, all noise stops – there is complete silence.” – Ramakrishna Paramahamsa 

There is even a species of God-talkers that is less fascinated with God and more with God-talk, and much prefers the sizzle and sparkle of the latter to the difficult and far less glamorous self-introspection and disciplining required by the prospect of actually ‘remembering’ God; as opposed to merely paying lip service or mind service. In C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Great Divorce’, a realistic fiction about the after-life, we encounter a character who when presented with the chance to finally accept God and enter paradise, he hesitates: since he isn’t sure he accepts the literal understanding of the idea of ‘paradise’, or yet believe that the vision of God has any definitive meaning, and faced with the possibility of the real thing, he acts out of a misguided intellectual humility and decides he would not be reducing God or paradise to any perceivable form, and would rather relish the rich ambiguity of multiple interpretative possibilities about these fascinating mysteries. At the end, he asks his angel-in-charge to be excused to return back to earth for he remembers that he has a fascinating paper due to be presented in his Theological Society – which, he assures the angel, would be an eye-opening contribution of speculative theology that would be talked about for generations to come. He is excused.

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