God as manifestation or separate from Creation

 

Question & Answer

 
Suzanne from Canberra, Australia writes:

Question:

Buddhists tend to think of God as a manifestation of creation; Christians think of God as separate from creation. Do you understand that distinction?

Answer: By Cassandra Farrin

Dear Suzanne,

I’d like to answer this question in a roundabout way by sharing and comparing two passages from the literary masters Yukio Mishima and Victor Hugo, each of which confronts the question of God and Ultimate Reality in his own way by asking the question of how free a person is to choose how he lives. Mishima represents one possible Buddhist perspective; Hugo, one possible Christian perspective. Each of the passages below occurs near the beginning of what are widely considered to be each writer’s master works.

Hence, they can be understood as setting the terms of the lengthy stories that follow.

In his Sea of Fertility series, Yukio Mishima introduces the law student Shigekuni Honda, who is deeply interested in questions of ultimate reality. Honda pursues his close friend through multiple reincarnations across his own single lifetime. Here Honda is trying to be harshly realistic with himself and his friend about the concept of free will—the ability to make choices for oneself:

Picture a scene like this: it’s a square at midday. The will is standing there all alone. He pretends that he is remaining upright by virtue of his own strength, and hence he goes on deceiving himself. The sun beats down. No trees, no grass. Nothing whatever in the huge square to keep him company but his own shadow. At that moment, a thundering voice comes down from the cloudless sky above: “Chance is dead. There is no such thing as chance. Hear me, Will: you have lost your advocate forever.” And with that, the Will feels his substance begin to crumble and dissolve. His flesh rots and falls away. In an instant his skeleton is laid bare, a thin liquid spurts from it, and the bones themselves lose their solidity and begin to disintegrate. The Will stands with his feet planted firmly on the ground, but this final effort is futile. For at that very moment, the bright, glaring sky is rent apart with a terrible roar, and the God of Inevitability stares down through the chasm.

But I cannot help trying to conjure up an odious face for this dreadful God, and this weakness is doubtless due to my own bent toward voluntarism. For if Chance ceases to exist, then Will becomes meaningless—no more significant than a speck of rust on the huge chain of cause and effect that we only glimpse from time to time. Then there’s only one way to participate in history, and that’s to have no will at all—to function solely as a shining, beautiful atom, eternal and unchanging. No one should look for any other meaning in human existence.

In this passage Honda envisions “God” is the inevitable forces of all reality, churning one impermanent feature into another, obliterating free will wherever it tries to assert itself as separate. It’s really important to understand that this is not a bad conclusion in Honda’s eyes even though he fights it emotionally. Actually, it perfectly foreshadows how his friend’s beautiful life will unfold again and again in each reincarnation across the series.

By comparison all the great drama and angst of Victor Hugo’s much beloved character Jean Valjean in Les Misérables depends very much on a vision of reality and God that accommodates free will. The passage below occurs after, first, the Bishop of Digne rescues him from a return to prison by giving him back the items he stole in exchange for a promise “to make an honest man of himself,” and second, after Jean Valjean steals money from a child for no good reason.

His heart broke at that point and he burst into tears. It was the first time he had cried in nineteen years.

When Jean Valjean left the bishop’s, as we saw, he was in a state far beyond anything he had ever experienced till that moment. He did not recognize himself. He could not make sense of what was happening to him. He steeled himself against the old man’s angelic act and against his gentle words. “You promised me to make an honest man of yourself. It is your soul that I am buying for you; I am taking it away from the spirit of perversity, and I am giving it to the good Lord.” Those words kept coming back to him. He defended himself against such heavenly forgiveness by means of pride, which is like a stronghold of evil inside us. He felt indistinctly that the old priest’s forgiveness was the greatest assault and the most deadly attack he had ever been rocked by; that if he could resist such clemency his heart would be hardened once and for all; that if he gave in to it, he would have to give up the hate that the actions of other men had filled his heart with for so many years and which he relished; that this time, he had to conquer or be conquered, a colossal and decisive struggle, was now on between his own rottenness and the goodness of that man.

In the glimmering light of all these thoughts, he staggered like a drunk. While he was flailing about, did he have any real idea what his adventure in Digne might mean for him? Did he hear all those mysterious warning bells that alert us or jog our spirit at certain turning points in life? Was there a voice that whispered in his ear that he had just passed the most solemn moment of his destiny, that there was no longer a middle course for him; that from now on, he would either be the best of men or he would be the worst of men; that he now had to rise higher, so to speak, than the bishop or fall even lower than the galley slave; that if he wanted to be good, he had to be an angel; that if he wanted to stay bad, he had to be monster from hell?

Unlike Honda, Valjean’s whole existence rests precisely in what choice he makes for himself—to be the best or worst of men. It creates an expectation of judgment by a neutral force, outside the ordinary forces of reality: implicitly, God as represented by the good bishop.

I find it meaningful that even though Honda and Valjean both approach their separate life struggles from opposite points of view about the nature of reality, they both experience it as a form of obliteration and rebirth, for Valjean’s violent emotional grappling with himself concludes, “Then all of a sudden, he [Valjean] evaporated completely. The bishop alone remained. He flooded the entire soul of this miserable being with a glorious radiance. … While he was crying, day dawned brighter and brighter in his spirit, and it was an extraordinary light, a light at once ravishing and terrible.”

In reading these passages side by side, I cannot help but observe that both require us to accept limits, to acknowledge that our vision of ultimate reality does cradle what our individual existence can mean. In both cases, submission feels like a form of death and rebirth, yet it also provides a sudden bright clarity: How am I to live?

~ Cassandra Farrin

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author

Cassandra Farrin is a poet, writer and editor of nonfiction books on the history of religion. She recently launched the blog Ginger & Sage on religion, culture, and the land. Her writing can be found on the Westar Institute and Ploughshares websites, along with a poetic retelling of “On the Origin of the World” forthcoming in Gender Violence, Rape Culture, and Religion (Palgrave Macmillan). A US-UK Fulbright scholar, she has more than ten years’ experience with cross-cultural and interfaith engagement. Cassandra can be reached at welovetea@gmail.com.

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