A Masthead for Vagabonds, Drunkards and Saints

God Is What God Isn’t

Something isn’t quite right—something amiss. All of the world’s great stories begin with this fundamental sensitivity to disquiet and loss, cast from the garden, the savior gone, the Dharma lost, our ancestors split in twain. This loss spurs the telling of stories, stories that make sense of the nearly unbearable grief of divine absence, that suspend mystery in situ, milling it reverently with diction and syntax. Why did God make the Tyger and the Lamb? Why cruelty? Why dream? What suffering? And though in our attempts to answer, or even understand these questions, Gorgons are slain wrestling immortality from life; we are left with a deficit that at best pays historical dividends, and at worst mocks us.

There is simply nothing we can do to prevent the apprehension of loss: build a pyramid, invent a Hamlet, found a democracy, paint a chapel, die for your country, live for your God–no matter what you do, in the end, they’re just ways to cope with a perverse magic show.


Now you see me.

Now you don’t.

To deal with these very large and very intractable problems, with what David Quammen in the The Song of the Dodo calls the “soul-withering biological loneliness” of being human, Western theology has described two methods to know God, two ways one can come to some understanding of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans–the divine mystery which fascinates and terrifies. One can know the blessed either by affirmation or negation: what’s respectively called cataphasis or apophasis.

These philosophic strategies, however, are not limited to Western theology; they also turn up in South Asia, in the forms of saguna and nirguna–Brahman with form, and formless Brahman. God is love, is great, is supralapsarian, is different from you and me–saguna and cataphatic. God is not this or that, has no beginning, without ending, unknowable, is not different from you and me–nirguna and apophatic. Historically, the West has had a strong bias for the cataphatic forms. In fact, so strong that when a mystic gets out of hand and starts leapfrogging God’s strangerliness, identifying with the Godhead by negating difference, the people in charge either knock him into line, Meister Eckhart, for example, or send her to meet the maker-of-all right quick–Joan of Arc.

Islam has had a conflicted relationship with apophasis. One of Sufism’s primary goals is to experience fanaa, or annihilation, specifically of the self so that the mystic can become one with Allah. They do this through a variety of ways–prayer, music, but the most famous is dance: the Whirling Dervishes are practicing to disappear–spin fast enough and poof, gone. God evicts the occupant, burns the furniture, and makes herself at home. However, it’s important not to go too far with the idea. Mansur Al-Hallaj, whose poems are lovely enough in translation to make me wish I had the patience to learn Arabic, was put to death in 922 AD for going too far.

I am He whom I love,
and He whom I love is I:
We are two spirits
dwelling in one body.
If thou seest me,
thou seest Him,
And if thou seest Him,
thou seest us both.

He was known to say, “Ana l-Haqq”– I am The Truth–when falling into an ecstatic trance, and had the audacity to teach his doctrine to the masses. That may not sound like much, but “al-Haqq”–The Truth–happened to be one of Allah’s 99 names, and the people in funny hats and elaborate robes didn’t cotton to his democratizing the all-mighty. Eventually, the authorities had him put to death, after a long drawn-out trial that saw him defended by several prominent theologians and poets of his day. It sort of reminds one of Ginsberg’s “Howl,” with its indecency trial, and his ecstatic identification with blow jobs, ass grabs, and fuck fests. Of course, he won that trial, and death wasn’t on deck, but still, people in power have never much cared for bringing the high too low–look where it got Jesus. It wasn’t just that he wanted to toss out the moneylenders; that was bad, but it was his cavorting with the hoi polloi a little too enthusiastically that really got him into trouble.

Being drunk on all of the ways that God is not different from lust and food and the bump and grind of solar systems and crotch spasms is inherently rebellious. Nirguna, the apophatic way, rejects hierarchy. It flips off cops. It jacks BMW’s and shits on doorsteps. It’s the drunken Zen master who wanders into the marketplace with a gourd of wine and a mind like a quasar.

The saguna, on the other hand, is inspired but sober. The catophatic way lays down tracks. It names the angels. It designs theological justifications for suffering, and writes poems instead of shouting at thunderstorms. Poets have to be in touch with the apophatic, of course, but too far down that path and they won’t write anything. They’ll just tell the people to get naked and follow them into the wilderness, while the catophatic impulse is busy building pyramids on the pattern of Orion and spending half of a European government’s gothic GDP on cathedrals and gargoyles.

In this way, God is the instrument, and God is the nothing inside the instrument that makes music, the nothing inside birds that makes flight–the nothing inside you that makes love. If we were all filled up, we wouldn’t need to drink, or linger, or sing the genius of the sea. There is want, and the brief satisfaction of want, and the ache for want again, and again, and again, and although there are two ways to go to reach home, both of them are painful.

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