The Absence of God
by Richard Holloway (broadcast in edited
form on BBC Radio Four on 11 March 2009
under the title Crave for Less)
love the story about the composer who played his latest composition for
a friend. When he finished there
was a brief silence; then, uneasily, his friend asked: "What does it
mean?" The composer looked at
him, said nothing, turned back to the piano - and played it again.
The story points up two important matters. The first is the way we tend
to privilege words in the sphere of meaning, something the composer
challenged by refusing to translate one form of expression - music, into
another - language.
I have to confess that I suffer from this kind of prejudice for words
myself. I find it hard to grasp
the meaning of things unless they are worded for me, put into language. I
take this prejudice into art galleries when I go to look at pictures. Not
content with looking and letting the art disclose its own meaning
to me in its own way, I dive immediately
for the label beside the painting to find out what I'm looking
at. Until I get something in
writing I am uneasy: picture has to become word before I know how to
interact with it.
This is a weakness I am trying to correct, but it is not easy after a
lifetime addicted to words. I am
learning to look, so that pictures can disclose their meaning to me
unmediated by language. I find it hard, yet I know that some of the keenest human
experiences are beyond any words to describe.
That's why the American painter Edward Hopper said if he could say it he
wouldn't have to paint it. Take
the feeling of loneliness as an example. It's
not easy to communicate it in words, but artists like Hopper have
painted it with heart-breaking clarity. You
look at a Hopper painting and feel the loneliness penetrate you like a
sliver of ice.
Music can do this as well. Take
the experience of loss and sadness, and think of music you know that has
swept over you like a wave of
sorrow. The unsayable, wordlessly expressed with almost unbearable
So, even if we love language, as I do, and wonder at its ability to
touch our souls to the quick; and even if we think it is still the best
means through which
to express our most precious emotions and recognitions; we
have to admit there is a problem with some of the claims that have been
made for it, which brings me to the second matter.
When they are thinking about the limitations of language, philosophers
talk about the problem of equivalence, which goes something like
this: because of the special
position language holds in our culture, we think we ought to be able to
put everything into words, make words equivalent to other realities. We think that if we can say it we
can get it.
But there is no exact verbal equivalence to even the most prosaic item. Words
are the names we give things, the signs we create to point to them, but
the things themselves are not what we say they are: the word water is
not drinkable, nor is the word bread eatable. Writers who work with
language as their chosen medium know these limitations better than
anyone. All the time they are
trying to get beyond the words to communicate the experience that lies
behind them. That's why the
guiding mantra for writers is, "Show, don't tell"; show
me your hero is charming, don't tell me he is; demonstrate the
courage of your heroine, don't tell me she's brave. Get
as close as you can to giving the reader the experience you are trying
to describe. Go beyond the words,
get through them to the reality, the experience you are trying to
The issue is this:
if going beyond words is difficult at the immanent level, the level that
is available to our senses, then it is infinitely more difficult at the
transcendent level, the level beyond the physical where we locate the
possibility of the mystery we call God.
We experience a double difficulty here. Even
if we accept the limitations of language for everyday things; even when
we accept that the word water is not itself water, but is merely a token
we have coined to enable us to describe or talk about it; we also know
that even if words failed us and we lost the power of thought, we
could at least go on drinking the reality we
call water. The substance
is available to our senses, even if we accept that no word can capture
its essence and importance to us.
Well, God is not like any other reality. Even for people who claim to
believe in him, he is not available to their senses the way water is. Of
course, you may be going through the desert without water, but even then
you know that water exists somewhere, that you have drunk
it, bathed in it, and now remember it with desperate longing.
It is not like that with God and never has been - in spite of what has
been said about him. As far as
our senses go, God has always
been absent, never been there in the way we know there is water
somewhere, even if we happen to
be going through a waterless wilderness. That's
why we invented a word to express the possibility of an ultimate reality
beyond anything we could touch or experience: the word is
transcendent, which suggests the possibility of that which lies
beyond any human understanding or experience.
The puzzle that gnaws at our minds is how to explain the fact that there
are facts, that there is something rather than nothing. We
can experience the physical universe, touch it, drink it, name it; but
we cannot actually find words to account for where or how it came to
pass, because there is no "there" to point at and name.
Since we are not very good at living with uncertainties and mysteries,
two attempts have been made to resolve the situation, neither very
satisfactory. And since we cannot
get outside the universe to account for it, we postulate possible
solutions to the mystery of its existence.
One answer, prominent at the moment, says
the universe is self-created and popped out of nothing. Since
it is hard to get your head round that idea, scientists offer a term to
fill the gap, borrowed from mathematics, called a singularity. Singularities
are unknowns that defy the current understanding of physics; infinitely
small, infinitely dense somethings, from which everything has
Being the indefatigable explorers they are, it is not hard to imagine
that one day scientists will find out more about this vanishingly
complex hypothesis; but even if they manage to nail it down and tell us
more about it, they'll still have to account for it, say
something about where it came from. We'll
inevitably have to ask them this question: if the universe came out of
this, where did this come out of?
It was to avoid that infinite regression that we came up with another
possible explanation, the one we coined the word transcendent to point
to. Beyond the material realm, it
is suggested, there must be a non-material, self-conscious
intelligence that caused the physical universe to be: and "God" is the
name we have given to that hypothesis.
But even this apparently powerful causal option offers no escape from
dizzying regression, because even God is open to the naive challenge:
"Mummy, who made God?" This is
actually a good question, and one to which no really satisfactory answer
has ever been given.
The classical answer is what philosophers would call meaning by
definition: God, the reply goes, is
self-caused and self-existent - that's what the word "God" means. God
is the uncaused cause, the unmade maker, the uncreated creator; but by
offering those modifiers you have not actually added any new
information; you've just built the answer to the question into the
definition of the term "God"; like the doctor in Moli�re who when asked
how opium induced sleep replied that it contained a sleepy faculty whose
nature is to put people to sleep.
Nevertheless, since most people don't
like sliding down the slippery slope of endless regression, they build
ledges on which to stand with some confidence: either by opting for the
possibility that the universe can account for its existence within its
own natural integrity; or by opting for the supra-natural or
transcendent agency of an intelligence that is outside nature but gives
rise to it.
In our time the arguments between these two possible explanations are
being debated with increased ferocity, probably because neither side is
able to deliver the knock-out blow to the other.
My difficulty with this debate is that if we have a problem with how to
speak of or name what is available to our senses, how can we speak of or
name what is beyond our senses? If
it is tough enough talking about what we have seen, how on earth are we
to talk about what we cannot see?
This difficulty applies to both ends of the debate about what caused the
universe, but recently I have had more trouble at the God end of the
debate. I have felt glutted with
the verbal promiscuity of religion and the absolute confidence with
which it talks about that which is beyond our knowing.
One of the biggest ironies here is that in one of the great Christian
poems we are told that God, aware of the inadequacy of words, empties
himself of language and becomes flesh, becomes that which is available
to our senses, a life. Yet along
comes poor little talkative Christianity and turns flesh back into words
again, trillions of them, poured out incessantly in pulpit, book
and on the airwaves, reducing the mystery of that which is beyond all
utterance into chatter.
I mind religious verbal over-confidence more than I mind its atheistic
opposite, because atheists are not claiming to put ultimate reality into
Speaking entirely personally, and without wanting to generalise or
universalise my own struggles, I have to admit that religious language
has ceased to be able to convey the mystery of the possibility of God
for me, precisely because it confidently claims to be able to make
present that which I only experience as absence, though it is an absence
that sometimes feels like a presence, the way the dead - great writers,
for instance - sometimes leave an
unfading impression on the rooms they spent their lives in.
I don�t want to go back to the days when I had to name that absence.
Even back then I felt insecure whenever I was called upon to offer a description of
that great absence. The best I
was able to do was to persuade myself and others to choose to live as if
the absence contained a presence that was unconditionally loving. That
possible identification, I thought, was surely worth betting my shirt
on. It came as a relief when I
was able to name my belief as an emptiness that I was no longer prepared
to fill with words.
But though I lost the explanatory words for it, probably for ever,
sometimes that absence came without word to me in a showing that did not
tell. So it is now the absence of
God I want to wait with and be faithful to.
In this determination I have been helped
by the words of a thinker and mystic who herself mistrusted words about
God, Simone Weil. Recently, an
Australian poet called James Charlton sent me a poem he had written
about a time in her life when she worked in a vineyard; the poem
contains quotations from her notebooks and journals. Poets,
paradoxically, use words to take us beyond words into a silence that can
itself be the experience of absence.
I want to end with his poem, because
it took me beyond words into that absence that may even be a kind of
She bends in opaque light, in heat-blaze;
picks grapes, prunes thoughts and words.
A hare crouches near the vines:
fully attentive, no muscular effort,
no brow-wrinkling concentration.
The vines' silent liturgy: stem, branch,
stalk, leaf. Attend the planet's
the Rhone Valley's quiet recitation of pure grape,
nine hours each day.
In borrowed cape and boots, Simone
pursues her life's anomaly: to crave for less,
achieve peace with loss of all sense
of presence. Truth is conveyed
by what is withheld.
Attend, recite, repeat: stem, stalk, sap.
She picks her way into autumn,
the body's rhythm. Snip this
snap tendril; shift away from words.
A brace of ravens waddles down a furrow,
lunges at each songbird.
Nature's daily work;
truth of world as is.
I'd rather be an atheist with passion
for Earth than a consoled Christian.
Give up self-questioning, abandon
search. Relinquish the mind's
mythographic cast. Accept the
It is not for me to seek, or even to believe
in God. I have only to refuse belief
gods that are not God.
Each pilgrim vine is circumscribed yet wayward;
cluster blazing purple in light,
black in shade.
the lived reality has point.
Can trellises entwine the vine?
excise all belief: face emptiness.
Expose the mesh of long-held shibboleths;
the grid imposed upon
world's real labour.