The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction

For those of us who pay close attention in Sunday school, a troubling dissimilarity may begin to appear between what we are told of God’s personality and what we learn of it from His actions. For example, we are told that God is merciful, just, compassionate, and the very definition of love and forgiveness. However, the Bible lays out God’s primary qualities very differently: he is jealous, petty, unforgiving, bloodthirsty, vindictive, and worse! Originally conceived as a joint presentation between influential thinker and bestselling author Richard Dawkins and former evangelical preacher Dan Barker, the book we will be talking about today, God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction (Sterling, 2016) provides an investigation into this rather serious discrepancy. Barker combs through both the Old and New Testament (as well as thirteen different Bible editions), presenting powerful evidence for why the Scripture shouldn’t govern our everyday lives.

Dan Barker is a former evangelical minister and current atheist. He is the co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, cohost of Freethought Radio, and cofounder and board member of the Clergy Project. A widely sought-after lecturer, debater, and performer, he regularly discusses atheism and lifes meaning and purpose in the national media, with past appearances on OprahThe Daily ShowThe O’Reilly FactorGood Morning America, and many others. He is here with me today to talk about this witty, well-researched book and explain to us how the evidence in it suggests that we should move past the Bible and clear a path to a kinder and more thoughtful world.

Richard Rohr: Seeing with God’s Eyes

Love [people] even in [their] sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love. —Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov [1] 

God refuses to be known in the way we usually know other objects; God can only be known by loving God. Yet much of religion has tried to know God by words, theories, doctrines, and dogmas. Belief systems have their place; they provide a necessary and structured beginning point, just as the dualistic mind is good as far as it goes. But then we need the nondual or mystical mind to love and fully experience limited ordinary things and to peek through the cloud to glimpse infinite and seemingly invisible things. This is the contemplative mind that can “know spiritual things in a spiritual way,” as Paul says (1 Corinthians 2:13).

What does it mean when Jesus tells us to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind (not just our dualistic mind), and strength (Luke 10:27)? What does it mean, as the first commandment instructs us, to love God more than anything else? To love God is to love what God loves. To love God means to love everything . . . no exceptions.

Of course, that can only be done with divine love flowing through us. In this way, we can love things and people in themselves, for themselves—not for what they do for us. That’s when we begin to love our family, friends, and neighbors apart from what they can do for us or how they make us look. We love them as living images of God in themselves, despite their finiteness.

Now that takes work: constant detachment from ourselves—our conditioning, preferences, and knee-jerk reactions. We can only allow divine love to flow by way of contemplative consciousness, where we stop eliminating and choosing. This is the transformed mind (see Romans 12:2) that allows us to see God in everything and empowers our behavior to almost naturally change.

Religion, from the root religio, means to reconnect, to bind back together. I would describe mystical moments as those attention-grabbing experiences that overcome the gap between you and other people, events, or objects, and even God, where the illusion of separation disappears. The work of spirituality is to look with a different pair of nondual eyes, beyond what Thomas Merton calls “the shadow and the disguise” [2] of things until we can see them in their connectedness and wholeness. In a very real sense, the word “God” is just a synonym for everything. So if you do not want to get involved with everything, stay away from God.

Richard Rohr Meditation: Transcendence

God, it seems, cannot really be known, but only related to. Or, as the mystics would assert, we know God by loving God, by trusting God, by placing our hope in God. It is a nonpossessive, nonobjectified way of knowing. It is always I-Thou and never I-It, to use Martin Buber’s wonderfully insightful phrases. God allows us to know God only by loving God. God, in that sense, cannot be “thought.” [1]

Our scientifically oriented knowledge seeks to master reality, explain it, and bring it under the control of reason, but a delight in unknowing has also been part of the human experience. Even today, poets, philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists find that the contemplation of the insoluble is a source of joy, astonishment, and contentment.

.. One of the peculiar characteristics of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that exceed our conceptual grasp. We constantly push our thoughts to an extreme, so that our minds seem to elide naturally into an apprehension of transcendence. .

..  People practice their faith in myriad contrasting and contradictory ways. But a deliberate and principled reticence about God [talk] and/or the sacred was a constant theme [at the more mature levels] not only in Christianity but in the other major faith traditions until the rise of modernity in the West. People believed that God exceeded our thoughts and concepts and could be known only by dedicated practice. We have lost sight of this important insight, and this, I believe, is one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today. . . .

.. We are seeing a great deal of strident dogmatism today, religious and secular, but there is also a growing appreciation of the value of unknowing [and unsaying].

.. There is a long religious tradition that stressed the importance of recognizing the limits of our knowledge, of silence, reticence, and awe. . . . One of the conditions of enlightenment has always been a willingness to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we had never dreamed of. We may have to unlearn a great deal about religion before we can move on to new insight.