I’ve been reading The Qur’an as well as Moby Dick. I’ve been writing a lot about it also, though I haven’t posted anything. I thought I might, after I was finished with Moby Dick, but I’m not sure it’s entirely separable. Reading them in tandem, I think about them in tandem also.
It’s a complicated book to read as an atheist, The Qur’an, in part because I come it with preconceived cultural ideas about what a god is and what it does but no personal ones, and, I realize, I develop expectations, given those ideas and the parameters in the book (‘Allah hath power over all things’, ‘Allah hears and knows all things’), of what a god should be. I’m trying, really trying, to read this book and understand what it is that over a billion people on this planet believe, and not just what it is they believe, but how they believe it. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the nature of God.
In the shower, standing in the steam letting the water run over me, I was thinking about God and whales, and I brushed my arm on the wall and left an impression, a moment of clarity in the condensation.
In Moby Dick, Ishmael describes artistic representations of the whale:
But these manifold mistakes in depicting the whale are not so very surprising after all. Consider! Most of the scientific drawings have been taken from the stranded fish; and these are about as correct as a drawing of a wrecked ship, with broken back, would correctly represent the noble animal itself in all its undashed pride of hull and spars. Though elephants have stood for their full-lengths, the living Leviathan has never yet fairly floated himself for his portrait. The living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight, like a launched line-of-battle ship; and out of that element it is a thing eternally impossible for mortal man to hoist him bodily into the air, so as to preserve all his mighty swells and undulations. And, not to speak of the highly presumable difference of contour between a young sucking whale and a full-grown Platonian Leviathan; yet, even in the case of one of those young sucking whales hoisted to a ship’s deck, such is then the outlandish, eel-like, limbered, varying shape of him, that his precise expression the devil himself could not catch.
I think God, the idea of God, may be like Ishmael’s whale. Too vast, and too much obscured to depict accurately, and if you did somehow manage to extract it from its element, to separate it as a discrete being, to say this is what God is, this is what God looks like, you have lost something of its nature, some essential quality.
And there’s another thought, too. That it’s not possible, not really, to say God doesn’t exist. God patently does exist–the effect of its passing is visible. Not as a discrete being, an entity that makes men from earth and raises the dead, but God exists in the way that justice and love and mercy exist. It’s not a thing that can be hauled from the sea and examined in its physical form, but only seen in its displacement, its wake, the impression it leaves on the world.