Understandings by R. M. Carmichael


The Rev. Ralph Miller Carmichael
Advent 1992


Published by


Blue Mountain Lake, New York: 1995



This is a summary of the understandings that have been most helpful to me, in interpreting the meaning of life. It may interest family and friends. It could be of value to persons who are inquiring, or disturbed, regarding their faith in God, or their understanding of the Church. I have felt comfortable as a member of the Episcopal Church – as comfortable as one should expect to be in this world. But by far, the most helpful thinker I have encountered has been Paul Tillich, in whose classes I sat for two years in Union Theological Seminary, New York City. I commend his books to those who seek further.

The Question of God

God is not one more being, who may or may not exist. The expression, ‘the existence of God,’ should never be used. To ‘exist’ means to ‘stand out,’ as it were from potentiality to actuality. Everything in the universe thus stands out; it might not have. There might have been nothing, not even time and space. This we cannot imagine. To speak of God as Creator is to try to make reference to the Source of all existence, the One Who out of nothing brought our universe into being. Everything that exists has been ‘made’ (see “Symbol & Concept” below); so God does not “exist’; He is the Maker, the One Who gives existence to all that exists. The moment a person speaks of the “existence of God”, that person is not speaking of God at all. He or she speaks out of a misconception. Yet a person with the minimum of technical education can ‘know God’ in the most fulfilled way.

We cannot imagine that time never had a beginning; yet we cannot imagine the beginning of time, without wondering what was before that. It was realizations like this that forced the conclusion that it is beyond the realm of science to answer such questions as even a child often asks. The origin of the universe is beyond all explaining. Articles on the Big Bang theory are fascinating; but they either presuppose that something already existed, or they ‘tell a story’ (see Myth, below). The source of being is hidden in ultimate mystery, never to be susceptible to human understanding. But if we have no reliable understanding of what it all means, we are really all at sea. We don’t know what we are here for.

All religions, and many other interpretations, offer themselves as answers, and usually with brash confidence, and an too often, extreme, hostile arrogance. They realize, if their religious conviction should be undermined, their whole world would collapse, so they become defensive in the extreme. This high emotion indicates the importance of ultimate meaning. Possessions, family members, country – all mean a great deal to us; but their loss does not usually destroy the ultimate meaning of our lives. The word, ‘religion’, comes from ‘religare,’ to tie together. (To jump ahead a bit, Paul wrote to the Church in Colossae that this is exactly what Jesus as the Christ means to us: “In him all things hold together,” Col. 1:17. The experience of this led me out of chemical engineering into the ministry.) Confronted with what might undermine that which holds their whole world together, people can grow desperate.

So we are not talking about God unless we are speaking from ultimate concern as to the meaning and purpose of our lives. Faith in God has nothing to do with “a man upstairs” pulling strings. It is that which makes our own life and our world ultimately meaningful, affecting our emotions and will and understanding. It gives us the ‘courage to be’ (title of a Tillich book), patience, persistence. It is part of being human to sense that, or hope that, beyond all our empirical observations of our universe, there is that upon which we can rely, ultimately meaningful, hidden in the mystery beyond existence. For many of us, it is a profound struggle, sometimes over many years, to find it.

Yet virtually every responsible person carries on his or her daily life, profession, search for work, or retirement, on the basis of a faith, conscious or unconscious, that it is all meaningful. A research scientist proceeds from the presupposition that the universe has a reliable rational structure, and that the human mind has a corresponding rational structure, making understanding possible. This presupposition is faith, not a scientific certainty. On the other hand, the author of Ecclesiastes struggled with the issue of the meaning of existence, long maintaining that “all is vanity and a chasing after wind”. A thoughtful book.

Symbol & Concept

Because “God” is ultimate mystery, beyond any possibility of mental grasp, we cannot “conceive” God. At McGill’s Student Christian Movement a professor asked us to tell our conception of God. One girl answered, “An oblong blur.” I still think she had something. How else can we picture ultimate mystery?

We are trying to think something, and say something, about that which is beyond time and space, beyond (a spatial term, and therefore inadequate) the universe, beyond existence, beyond the contrast of subject and object, beyond the contrast of masculine and feminine, obviously of qualities “beyond” the highest qualities of personality (i.e., not just a force, like gravity). We are limited to our language, to our words and thoughts that are drawn from our experience. We have neither thoughts nor words that can grasp the ultimate. So we have to ask our words to point beyond themselves; they no longer conceive nor define nor describe; they symbolize.

Professor Tillich once said, “All statements about God are symbolic. The only statement about God that is not symbolic is the statement that all statements about God are symbolic.” The term, “Father”, is symbolic, as is the pronoun, ‘He”; likewise, “Mother” and “She”. As indicated above, God is beyond gender contrasts. We use words and phrases like Creator, image of God, eternal, heaven, Kingdom of God, Trinity, Incarnation, Virgin Birth, Resurrection, Ascension, Second Coming, the Consummation – all as symbols. They point, with power, to ultimate Reality; they should not be rationalized which we do when we try to prove they are true. These terms help us express our faith, and share our faith.

We say that God is “Almighty”. This does not mean God can pick up Mt. Everest and put it in Kansas. (I know one man in Kansas who is glad about that. He says mountains and trees get in the way, so that you can’t see the horizon.) It means, really, that there is nothing that can occur which could destroy the meaning of the universe. It is a statement of faith about the ultimate unity of our universe, and rejects dualism, the notion that there are two ultimate gods (usually one good and one evil).

Appreciating this distinction between concept and symbol can save one from futile and misguided arguments regarding God, heaven, and assertions in the Creeds. The big mistake is to take one of these symbolic words and think about it, or argue about it, as though it were a concept, subject to rational grasp and analysis. Treating the important symbol of the Second Coming as a rational idea has produced even sad divisions in the Body of Christ.

There are many fine, thoughtful people in Europe and North America who will tell you, “I don’t believe in God.” Many times such a person means, “I don’t believe there is a grand fatherly Supreme Being somewhere up there running the universe, and intervening in our affairs down here when he feels like it” or when some pious soul asks him to.” Well, I don’t either. All too seldom do clergy clarify this distinction between symbols and concepts, and that is why a young man said to me, “You can’t believe anything the Church says, in this day and age.” I don’t blame him; I blame the Church for a disastrously poor job of adult education.

But our symbols are powerful words, almost irreplaceable. It is inevitable that those expressing faith in the depths of life and the depths of the universe will seek and employ such symbolic language. So you must expect more symbolic words as you turn these pages.


Here is a term little used or understood outside seminaries. I fought against it for more than two years of my 3-year seminary course. I then was still a scientifically minded rationalist, in spite of an authentic conversion to Jesus Christ which took me into seminary. But I was misled by the widespread rationalistic and moralistic theology so popular in the 1930’s.

The philosophy called “Existentialism’ understands our predicament, as we human animals crawl here and there over this small planet. We are confined within the structure of existence. We cannot get outside the universe to see the entire thing whole. We can do no more than say, This is how it looks from where I stand. We are limited to a subjective interpretation, an existential view. Because we cannot understand the universe in its entirety, because we don’t know everything, therefore we cannot be absolutely sure of anything, since all things are interrelated. Existentialism can raise all the questions, and describe our predicament of being deprived of ultimate meaning. But most existentialist philosophers proceed to write books, offering answers (!), thereby ceasing to be honest existentialists.

What actually happens in religious history is that a group of people seize upon a clue, one finite person, or one finite event. Or it seizes them. They are totally grasped by the conviction that here is the Answer as to what life is all about. The Answer is “revealed” for us in this person, or this event. Besides Jesus, people have been drawn to the Buddha, Mohammed, Baha’u’llah, and others. For some extremely nationalistic groups, their nation fills the role. For members of the ancient philosophical schools of Greece, various famous philosophers, or their systems, received the passionate devotion of religion. For the Jews, the Exodus under Moses was and is the criterion for the divine meaning and purpose of life. The content of each religion’s ethical teaching is also derived from the revelatory event, the clue.

Tillich points out that “miracle” and “faith” are correlative terms. A miracle should not be understood as an event that involves a destructive violation of the rational structure of the universe, but rather an event through which people find faith in God. The objective side of the revelation is the miracle, the event which produced the faith; the subjective side is the receiving side, faith. Of course, past ages lacked any scientific understanding, and delighted in wonder-producing events and stories, with many such reported in the Bible. Jesus tried to discourage that kind of fascination so earnestly and consistently, that one may well discount the stories of his “doing miracles”. His healings may well be authentic reports, but note that he could not do much for the people of Nazareth because they felt they knew him all too well. For us the real miracle is the appearance of Jesus as the Christ.

e.g., the Crossing of the Red Sea. The crossing took place in the swampy area of the Sea of Reeds. Two stories are mixed in Exodus. One says the waters divided, with two walls of water. This we have to believe has never occurred, ever. God does not make such changes in the structure He gave to His universe. But we are also told that a strong wind blew all night, lowering the water level, and this made it possible for the slaves to escape. They couldn’t believe it. The greatness of Moses united religion with noble ethics, as expressed in the Ten Commandments and the Covenant or Testament. The Exodus became decisive for the Jews, the revealing event that gave them their faith in God and their vocation as His People. One result was the writing of all the books of their Scriptures, including Genesis which tells in myth and legend the prehistory before the Exodus. It could not have been written before the revelation.

The adherents of a faith cannot simply make a decision to abandon it for another. They are totally grasped, and, it is not too much to say, they cannot help themselves. Conversion can happen, but it is not a process that can be manipulated. (The Spanish forced their brand of Christianity onto Latin America, it is true, but I shall leave that aside.) The point is that the genuine response to revelation is faith. That is not a matter of believing what you know isn’t so; nor of believing what you cannot prove (“taking it on faith”, a terrible expression). It is the experience (for Christians) of finding in Jesus the absolute and final Truth about life, about existence, about the universe, and finding my personal salvation in him, so that I rejoice to belong to his Church (even if I can hardly stand the priest and some of the people and some of the policies of the national leadership). (continued)

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