We were talking about God.
John Lennon once sang: "God is a concept by which we measure our pain."
I'm not sure if that is true.
My version of it would be: "God is a concept by which we measure our purpose."
Some people would prefer to do without God in their calculations. I'm not one of them.
My friend who lives upstairs from me, and who happens to be gay - in much the same way that I happen to be white (or a muddy kind of greyish pink) - describes God, disparagingly, as "the Vicar's imaginary friend," which is a wonderfully comic turn of phrase. He says he can do without God. But I think that God is a useful concept. As useful, in fact, as those imaginary numbers you find in physics, like the square root of minus numbers, upon which the whole of electronics is based. They may not exist as an actual numbers, and yet they work.
You can say the same about infinity.
So, yes, maybe God is the imaginary friend who defines our purpose. Without a concept of God we have to do without the notion that we have a purpose in this life, beyond the silent calling of our selfish genes and the vast, eclectic configurations of the accidental cosmos.
Are we just empty flecks of matter tossed about in a blind, indifferent Universe, or is there meaning in our lives?
And isn't meaning too, just like God, an invisible presence which pervades our very existence, unaccountable by scientific method, immeasurable, with no length or breadth or height or weight or mass or acceleration or momentum or force, and yet definable by our understanding?
Where does the meaning of these words lie?
Is it in the electronic image on the screen before you now? In the silicone chip that generates this image? In the computer code that defines how the image will be seen? Is it made of plastic and glass and silicone and gold and copper wiring and all the other elements that go to make your computer? Is it even in the English language?
Or is it in an understanding between you and me?
How do we measure God?
We can't, of course. Any more than we can measure love, or happiness, or grief. But we can measure ourselves beside the notion of an infinite goodness, say, or of a divine purpose, by asking ourselves how well we live up to these things.
Personally, when I think about God, I have a taste for the more abstract, less representative ideas that have come out of history. Like the Taoist version, which is called The Way, and is conceived of as a dynamic interaction between the two complimentary forces of Yin and Yang. Or the Kabbalist version, which is called the Ain Soph, which means The Illimitable, and which can only be described by pairs of negative opposites. It is neither up not down. It is neither black nor white. It is neither male nor female, It is neither North nor South, etcetera, etcetera.
However, the notion of a personal, human-type God has its attractions too, even if it is a little too anthropomorphic.
It's not easy trying to talk to a concept.
When I talk to myself I like to imagine another human-being in front of me.
And anyway, anyone who has ever taken a dose of psychedelic mushrooms will know just how anthropomorphic the world can seem at times: all this rustling, shivering, shimmering life, apparently imbued with purpose and personality.
I once saw the face of the suffering Christ in a dead tree stump swathed in ivy, in the back of a prefabricated building, behind a dead industrial fence where no one ever went.
I was out of my box.
The face was like the face in the Turin Shroud, etched out white against the blackness of the wood, complete with a crown of thorns, and with a look of infinite suffering on his face.
He seemed to be the spirit of this forgotten place, the home of rats and nettles and rusting tin cans, caught between a dirty old fence and the wall of a prefabricated building.
I was probably the only person to have gone there since the building was first erected.
I kept blinking my eyes, turning my head this way and that, to see if this was real or not.
It was real. No matter how I looked, the image would not go away.
Later I went back without the benefit of the psychedelics, just to check it out.
The image was no longer there.
Was it a part of the world, or just my imagination?
Isn't my imagination a part of the world too? Doesn't my imagination inhabit the world, along with me?
The problem with the Judeo-Christian concept of God, however, is that it is inherently absurd.
I'll explain why in the next part.