The Form of the Formless and the Substance of Nothing
Christianity, for example, is a form. Many people who don't understand or respond to religion often confuse form and substance. In other words, they pick apart the form, looking for inconsistencies or logical flaws, when the whole point is to enter and contemplate the beauty and mystery of the form -- very much like, say, watching a movie. To me, a good movie -- and they are few and far between these days -- is one that allows me to seamlessly enter its world. It doesn't matter one bit whether it is a "real" world, which is why, say, The Wizard of Oz is an infinitely greater film than any Michael Moore documentary -- which always unintentionally conveys a dark substance reflecting the deadness of his soul, irrespective of the content.
In fact, the Wizard of Oz is much more realistic than any Michael Moore film, for the precise reason that while some of its forms may be fanciful -- witches, magical kingdoms, talking scarecrows, and the like -- its substance is nevertheless quite real and enduring, even timeless. Conversely, a Michael Moore film is -- to be generous -- presumably about the "real world," and yet, its substance is entirely nonexistent or false. Or it is the "substance of nothing," which is to say, nihilism.
Again we touch on the importance of whole and part, for the substance of religion can only be preserved in its wholeness. Trying to "enter" spirit by first breaking apart its forms is somewhat analogous to disassembling a symphony in order to find out what it's about. If you're going to be scientific about it, perhaps you'd first identify all the notes and then categorize them. This or that symphony has so many B flats, so many F sharps, this many key changes, that many tempos. Sounds foolish, but this is the approach of the ham-handed "Jesus seminarians" who think one can understand scripture by blowing it to bits. It is also the approach of any logic-chopping atheist who thinks he has accomplished anything by dissecting sacred forms like a frog.
In this regard, theology -- "the study of God" -- is really no different than, say, biology, "the study of life." There is actually no science, including biology, that can say "what it is about." Rather, this or that science must assume its content at the outset, since it is strictly impossible for any science to stand outside of itself and make any unambiguous pronouncement on the ontological status of that which it purports to study. If it attempts to transcend this boundary, it generates the paradox and absurdity known as scientism.
For example, no biologist troubles himself (or should, anyway) to speculate as to what Life actually is. Or if he does, he is no longer a biologist but merely a bad philosopher or lame metaphysician. In my book I used the example of a watchmaker. A watchmaker can tell you all about gears, springs, and pendulums, but he is hardly fit to pronounce on the nature of time. Indeed, imagine the absurdity of going to a watch repair shop and asking the owner if he would be so kind as to sort out your confusion about the nature of time. Does it really exist, or is it an illusion? And isn't it true that a clock measures space, not time? Is time an empty category, or does it condition the events within it, as students of the I Ching believe? And is time actually "tight," as maintained by Booker T and the MGs? (See here for demonstration.)
I think you can see that posing these types of metaphysical questions to the watchmaker is exactly -- exactly -- like asking Dawkins/Dennett/Harris/Hitchens to tell us about God. What they can tell us is precisely nothing, since they are fundamentally confused about the form and content of religion.
Again, the biologist just studies "living things," even though biology can by definition never explain how the living things got here, or even what Life is. Or look at my profession. A psychologist can help you overcome and "cure" an emotional problem, even though psychology will never be able to say what consciousness is (except in a fatuous way).
In fact -- and this is a critical point -- as I mentioned a few days ago, there are many schools of psychology, and they all more or less work, at least with some people some of the time. What seems to be most important -- in addition to simply being a gifted healer of souls, which is another mystery that cannot be quantified -- is that the therapist have a very clear theoretical framework, or form, for the study of what is otherwise completely invisible and amorphous -- i.e., the mind.
Thus, it is very easy for those of a materialistic bent to criticize psychoanalysis on the grounds that it is more mythological than scientific, or that it reifies things that don't actually exist -- say, the "id" or "superego." While there is something to this criticism, in that it is possible to reify concepts and confuse one's abstractions with the underlying reality, it is nevertheless true that without such concepts, it is not possible to "observe" or work with the mind. In other words, just like the biologist, we have to make some assumptions about the mind at the outset, or else we are simply confronted with a blank mystery.
Ultimately, a good theory of the mind allows one to think about thinking, and all that implies (and I am including emotion as a form of thought which stretches on a vertical axis from the primitive to the highly sophisticated). Think about it: how does one productively think about thinking? By having a useful model, an abstraction, even though no one knows what a "thought" actually is. True, the abstraction is not the same as the reality, but that is equally true of biology or even physics. The genome is an abstraction; it is not synonymous with Life. Likewise, the equations of quantum physics are abstractions. It is not as if you can take these abstractions and create a cosmos with them.
No. The real world is the human world, the day-to-day world we encounter with our mind and our senses. All scientific models are abstractions of that world, abstractions we wouldn't even know about if we weren't first situated in the human world. This is one of the secrets of religion that materialists and atheists simply cannot get through their thick skulls: religion conveys forms that specifically concern themselves with the human world and its relation to the divine world. Take, for example, the stories of Genesis. These stories are not about the abstract worlds of biology, or cosmology, or profane history. Rather, they are about certain fixed coordinates, or eternal certitudes, of divine-human existence.
This is what I was trying to convey with the joycey gymgnostics in the prologue and epilogue of my book. For example, on pp. 7-17, I am not attemtping to scientifically describe what happened "once upon a time." Rather, I am attempting to give form to that which perpetually happens (present tense), beginning (and ending) where "One's upin a timeless without a second to spore." Yes, it's meant to raise a smile, but it's also a straightforward ontological statement: One's upin a timeless. Obviously. How could it not be?
Just as psychoanalytic theories are models for "thinking about thinking," religions are forms to contemplate and reconcile oneself to the Formless Infinite. Yes, the Formless is the prior reality, but we still need a way to approach it. Thankfully, we have this thing called "revelation" with which to do so. Like the biologist who cannot say how life got here or even what it is, I don't really trouble myself with how revelation got here or "what it is." I only know that it is -- to my everlasting surprise -- a supremely effective means to think about and know the substance of God.
One of the working titles of my book was A Huge Mythunderstanding. Which, unlike materialists and atheists, I admit to engaging in up front. The only question is, "is it useful for thinking about ultimate reality?" -- that is, do its forms convey the intended substance? I suppose not, since Hitchens sells more books in an hour than I have in two years. But the question remains: how could God not be understood as great if one has conveyed an adequate form to contemplate his substance? And how can man understand any truth at all unless he is by definition the being able to conform himself to the true, and therefore a form of Truth, a mirrorcle of the abbasolute?
If God isn't great, then man isn't even adequate -- certainly not adequate to make any pronouncements about God.
In the opinion of all unbelievers, it is the absurdities contained in the sacred Scriptures which primarily stand in the way of the credibility of the Message.... First of all, it is necessary to envisage a Scripture in its totality and not be hypnotized, with perfect myopia, by a fragmentary difficulty, which after all is the perspective of the devil, who disparages a mountain because of a fissure and, conversely, praises an evil because of an inevitable particle of good. When Scripture is envisaged in its totality it imparts global value and its supernatural character to whomever is not blinded by any prejudice and who has been able to preserve intact the normally human sensibility for the majestic and the sacred. --F. Schuon