Brad Warner’s “There is no God and He is Always With You”–an incomplete review, notes and rambling

I started writing this a few months ago. Then I had other things to do. It’s too much work for me to complete it as the book is OK but not great and I’ve got a lot of work to do right now.

I likely wouldn’t have read it if the publisher hadn’t sent it to me. Probably wouldn’t have bought it either because I don’t give much of a fuck about God concepts. I think they’re crutches at best and obstacles in general. But it was interesting enough to merit +4K words. So fathom that paradox.

The Review Part of This Post. Also Called The First Part of This Post.

This part is to satisfy the requirement of the email “contract” with the publisher to review this book in exchange for a copy of it.

There is no God and he is Always With You is Brad Warner’s latest book. The reviews so far, some of which are listed at the bottom of this post, are pretty good. Having read them it leaves me wondering what is left to say that has not already been said review-wise. (Plenty actually) So I’ve decided to give the book the “close read” treatment and this post will be mostly to respond to some of the matters brought up within the book.

There’s stuff I liked about the book and stuff I didn’t like.

In short form, I’m taking this from some of his blog posts about the book because they are summaries of some of the positions presented in the book. Note that emphasis. I’ll get to some of the specifics of the actual book in the second part of this post. [OK no I won’t but will discuss the concepts broadly in the third part of this post]

Who the book is for? Brad writes in this blog post, NE Tour Summary & Who I Wrote My New Book For:

So maybe I wrote the book for people who wondered if there might be another way to look at this idea of God apart from True Believers who insist their view of God is the only one and True Non-believers who insist that anyone who believes in God is stupid. After going away from the book I’d like my hypothetical reader to know that there is another way and to understand that she can experience God for herself outside of belief or non-belief….

OK that’s not me. But even though it isn’t a book for me, sometimes it’s good to read such things because it forces one to clarify one’s own viewpoint and objections. That’s often a useful exercise.  I personally don’t care about God-concepts in any form because they tend to get in the way of dealing with life. I do find them interesting in terms of their power, like any ideological construction, to influence people and societies however.

From the same blog post.

I feel like Zen Buddhism has allowed me a way to approach the subject of spirituality without having to view it through the lens of religious dogma and belief. Zazen offers a chance to quietly experience for oneself the deeper layers of human experience both spiritual and not-so-spiritual.

This is the ideology of “no religion”. There is no ideology (religion) here. God-concepts are ideology, non-god concepts are ideology, modified God-concepts are ideology. For ideology we might also use the word “imaginaries”, that is the specific contents of consciousness, collectively or individually. We all have imaginaries. Some of them include God concepts and some of them don’t.

[I’m referencing the word imaginaries in two ways. First in the sense that philosopher Charles Taylor used it in On Social Imaginary [full text] which derives it from Habermas as it pertains to society but also in the Lacanian sense, as it pertains to an individual, not as a fiction but as an ideal construction that has real effects and therefore is very much is or is a part of or at least impinging upon the “real” in Baudrillardian terms or rather like virtuality in Deleuzean terms. I dedicate that sentence to obscuritanist aficionados everywhere. :-D]

Too often in works about God and religion, religion is never defined. I couldn’t find any sort of definition for religion in this book so I don’t know what the author is referring to. It’s some taken-for-granted thing that floats about like a balloon and everybody thinks they know what it means but few ever define it. If they do it’s usually from a reductive perspective that projects a narrow version drawn from a limited experience or exposure on to the entire subject.  It’s like saying “I hate fruit” having only eaten raspberries in childhood. I will write about definitions of religion and the “special case” of Buddhism in the next part.

From the blog post What Do Most People Believe About God?

I was kind of excited when I saw Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. Because I thought it was going to be a scientific look at why human beings believe in God. I thought he’d go into the evolution of religious thought or the neurological research into how and why human beings started creating religions in the first place. I though it might talk about why religion was apparently selected by evolution as a useful trait in human beings. It seems to have been strongly favored by evolution. All societies have some kind of religion. Why? Evolution only selects what helps an organism survive and reproduce. How does religion do that? That is interesting to me.

All that stuff is the realm of Religious Studies and/or sociology and/or anthropology, not Dawkins field of expertise which is biology. Also neurology is not biology. There’s no reason for a biologist to know anything about socio-cultural structures that are based on shared ideologies. Religion is not an evolutionary trait. Eye color is an evolutionary trait.

The publisher’s material sent with the book included a quote from Publishers’ Weekly:

Buddhism has long enjoyed baffling ‘crazy wisdom’ teachers and paradoxical koans, and Warner’s punk iconoclasm fits in nicely.”

That’s a fairly common viewpoint about Brad it seems, and it is to some extent true regarding his reported lifestyle, him not being an uber-capitalist type etc [which I will address near the end of this post], but in terms of teachings and the doctrine/commentary he presents to the public in his books, on his blog, on social media and in video talks [I have read/seen ALL of them] it’s pretty conservative stuff. Not much deviation from the official line. Dogen, for example, is presented at face value. It’s not really anything like ‘crazy wisdom’ but pretty straightforward Shobogenzo based Soto Zen Buddhism.

In this book he compares and contrasts various Christian motifs to Buddhist ideas to demonstrate their similarities and more importantly their differences. It’s a recounting of sorts of the development of his own Buddhist education. That could be useful for some people.

One thing I did enjoy a lot was the travel stories throughout the book. He writes very vivid portraits of the places he’s been and the people he’s met. There’s a lot of detail and it’s quite lively writing. The writing about Dogen is pretty interesting and it’s clear Brad has done a lot of study of Dogen. The writing about Christianity seems a little forced sometimes. The discussions of the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris) cover what is common knowledge about them (Harris meditates for example) and the criticisms of them are the usual ones they are often subject to.

The ideas are not that well organized and some of it is repetitive because of that, but the majority of it is interesting reading.

That is my review.

Now the rest of the response to Brad’s argument as contained in the book.

The Close Reading of the Book Part of This Post. Also Called The Second Part of This Post.

These are notes I started to take as I read the book. They are impressions, points of interest, things that made me raise my eyebrows, things I disagree with and things I liked. Take it as you will. Once I’ve completed these, I will discuss the main point of the book, the God and Religion part. It will be comprehensive. There is another small issue regarding transcendence and immanence which I’m tempted to discuss here but I already have another post in the works on it, so will incorporate some comments about Brad’s book in that one on that particular subject.

[The notes will not be comprehensible to most people so I’m excluding them]

The God and Religion Part of This Post. Also Called the Third Part of This Post.

Definitions for the God and Religion Part

Maybe I should have phrased that subtitle the other way since I’m going to start with the religion part and then tackle God. [I’ll probably hurt him when I do.]

I’m putting a bunch of quotes of other people and only a little commentary because they’ve said it better than I could.

Here’s a bunch of stuff about ideology and religion and philosophy. It’s a soup. Terms need to be defined. Brad doesn’t do much of that in the book but for taking a run at the term god and even then it’s either transcendental or immanent or something in between or both. Reads like a rendering of Nagarjuna’s methodology.

religion

  1. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader
  2. A specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices 
  3. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion

philosophy

  1. A set of ideas or beliefs relating to a particular field or activity; an underlying theory
  2. Any system of belief, values, or tenets
  3. A system of values by which one lives

theory

  1. A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena
  2. A belief or principle that guides action or assists comprehension or judgment
  3. An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture.

 

ideology

  1. The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture.
  2.  A set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system.

A definition of ideology which is pretty close to what I go with:

- a set of explicit and implicit, even unspoken, ethico-political and other positions, decision, choices, etc., which predetermine our perception of facts, what we tend to emphasize or to ignore, how we organize facts into a consistent whole of a narrative or a theory.

~Slavoj Žižek in Some Bewildered Clarifications

Also important to the discussion of ideology is values. Here’s a take I agree with.

Values have a history.  It is this history which produces them as values.  One of the effects of ideology is to mask the fact that abstract values are born out of immanent historical and material conditions.

~Value, Genealogy, and the Task of Philosophy on Fuck Theory blog.

In the second lecture, Circumscription of the Topic, of the series of lectures that makes up his The Varieties of Religious Experience [free, multiple formats], William James writes:

Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us THE FEELINGS, ACTS, AND EXPERIENCES OF INDIVIDUAL MEN IN THEIR SOLITUDE, SO FAR AS THEY APPREHEND THEMSELVES TO STAND IN RELATION TO WHATEVER THEY MAY CONSIDER THE DIVINE. Since the relation may be either moral, physical, or ritual, it is evident that out of religion in the sense in which we take it, theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations may secondarily grow…

~ p. 42-43 (pagination is from a print edition)

As far as definitions of religion go that one is broader than most. The concept of divine though is pretty loaded and something of a value judgment.

We escape much controversial matter by this arbitrary definition of our field. But, still, a chance of controversy comes up over the word "divine," if we take the definition in too narrow a sense. There are systems of thought which the world usually calls religious, and yet which do not positively assume a God. Buddhism is in this case. Popularly, of course, the Buddha himself stands in place of a God; but in strictness the Buddhistic system is atheistic. Modern transcendental idealism, Emersonianism, for instance, also seems to let God evaporate into abstract Ideality. Not a deity in concreto, not a superhuman person, but the immanent divinity in things, the essentially spiritual structure of the universe, is the object of the transcendentalist cult. In that address to the graduating class at Divinity College in 1838 which made Emerson famous, the frank expression of this worship of mere abstract laws was what made the scandal of the performance.

~ p. 42-43 (pagination is from a print edition)

That he mentions Buddhism as well as both the transcendental and the immanent perspectives is useful. I will touch on this briefly now but discuss the whole dichotomy in another post.

Brad rejects the religious label for Buddhism yet accepts the god label. My viewpoint is the opposite in that I accept the religious label for Buddhism [religion somewhat defined above] and reject the god label.

This is the same kind of argument people use when they talk about “culture”. “Those people over there have culture but we don’t.” The spiritual but not religious thing has been discussed to death so I don’t want to take it up. The rejection is either one of rejection of superstition, rejection of alien cultural form (with all it’s implicit racism), rejection of alternate values, rejection of institution, rejection of personal historical trauma by projecting that elsewhere, and a bunch of other things. More often it’s a knee-jerk reaction to one’s own received knowledge concept of what religion is done without investigation or necessary critique to make it a rational choice. The statement “spiritual but not religious” is irrational in the extreme in that way.

Here’s a good point that I agree with.

From sociologist Robert Bellah in an interview in Tricycle magazine (HT Rev. Danny Fisher for posting the pointer on FB):

"The way ‘spirituality’ is often used suggests that we exist solely as a collection of individuals, not as members of a religious community, and that religious life is merely a private journey. It is the religious expression of the ideology of free-market economics and of the radical ‘disencumbered’ individualism that idolizes the choice-making individual as the prime reality in the world."

~The Future of Religion

Yeah that.

Whatever then were most primal and enveloping and deeply true might at this rate be treated as godlike, and a man’s religion might thus be identified with his attitude, whatever it might be, toward what he felt to be the primal truth. Such a definition as this would in a way be defensible. Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life, so why not say that any total reaction upon life is a religion? Total reactions are different from casual reactions, and total attitudes are different from usual or professional attitudes. To get at them you must go behind the foreground of existence and reach down to that curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence, intimate or alien, terrible or amusing, lovable or odious, which in some degree everyone possesses. This sense of the world’s presence, appealing as it does to our peculiar individual temperament, makes us either strenuous or careless, devout or blasphemous, gloomy or exultant, about life at large; and our reaction, involuntary and inarticulate and often half unconscious as it is, is the completest of all our answers to the question, "What is the character of this universe in which we dwell?" It expresses our individual sense of it in the most definite way.

~p. 45 James

Primal truth=numinous.

Numinous, taken from the Latin Numen, and used by some to describe the power or presence of a divinity. The word was popularised in the early twentieth century by the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his influential book Das Heilige(1917; translated into English as The Idea of the Holy, 1923). According to Otto, the numinous experience has in addition to the tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling, a quality of fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel. The numinous experience also has a personal quality, in that the person feels to be in communion with a wholly other. The numinous experience can lead in different cases to belief in deities, the supernatural, the sacred, the holy and/or the transcendent.

~abridged from the Wikipedia entry for Numinous

Rudolph Otto was one of the guys who did a lot of writing about the numinous. 

Otto was one of the most influential thinkers about religion in the first half of the twentieth century. He is best known for his analysis of the experience that, in his view, underlies all religion. He calls this experience "numinous," and says it has three components. These are often designated with a Latin phrase: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. As mysterium, the numinous is "wholly other"– entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life. It evokes a reaction of silence. But the numinous is also a mysterium tremendum. It provokes terror because it presents itself as overwhelming power. Finally, the numinous presents itself as fascinans, as merciful and gracious.

Outline of Otto’s concept of the numinous

"Mysterium tremendum et fascinans" (fearful and fascinating mystery):

  • "Mysterium": Wholly Other, experienced with blank wonder, stupor
  • "tremendum":
    • awefulness, terror, demonic dread, awe, absolute unapproachability, "wrath" of God
    • overpoweringness, majesty, might, sense of one’s own nothingness in contrast to its power
    • creature-feeling, sense of objective presence, dependence
    • energy, urgency, will, vitality
  • "fascinans": potent charm, attractiveness in spite of fear, terror, etc.

~from Rudolf Otto’s Concept of the "Numinous"

Even the New Atheists give credence to the idea of the numenous. The numenous is to be distinguished from the supernatural. See video here:

 

I don’t care for any of these guys because they all became so infatuated with themselves they became insufferable, but in the discussion here, from 6 years ago they’re not so bad. I agree with a lot of what is said in the first 5 minutes, but a lot of the rest is bullshit [another post I don’t have time for].

Calling the numenous “god” isn’t necessary and I don’t think it’s even helpful. I think it obscures more than clarifies.

I was reading quite an analysis of some poetry not long ago and came upon some terms that seemed to me helpful in delineating the numinous experience from the ordinary experience.

Shifting experience from Erlebnis, to Erfahrung

… German, which distinguishes between Erlebnis – or experience as the undergoing of events, one’s mere capacity to register what happens – and Erfahrung – or experience in the emphatic sense, experience from which it is possible to learn and perhaps gain wisdom.It is the latter that Benjamin thinks is destroyed in modernity – and it is no doubt this that Agamben has in mind when he claims that modern man [sic!] is wearied by a jumble of events that cannot be translated into experience.

~Matthew Abbot, The Poetry of Destroyed Experience in 3AM magazine

The first instance is what a lot of Buddhism has become in the context of dominant global culture. Meaningless. It leads to special case Buddhism or Buddhist exceptionalism. Rev. Danny Fisher has a superb post that deals with this.  Rejecting Scientistic and Post-Religious Buddhism

Try to think of the Kalama Sutra as a plea for rational thought rather than either rejection of anything other than the personal phenomenology or an anti-fundamentalist critique of blind faith. I don’t think it’s either of those. 

Or in other words:

credere est cum assensu cogitare
“to believe is to think with assent”

~Thomas Aquinas

Some other reviews online:

Book Review: ‘There is No God and he is Always With You’ by Brad Warner by Tanya McGinnity on Full Contact Enlightenment blog

Review: There Is No God and He Is Always With You by Barbara O’Brien on buddhism.about.com

A Review of Brad Warner’s There is No God by James Ford on Monkey Mind

Brad Warner’s book by Adam Fisher on Genkaku Again

Reviews and discussion from the Treeleaf Forum

Reviews of There is No God and He is Always With You on Goodreads

 


Statement of Disclosure and Some Comments About Publishers:

The publisher sent me this book for free to review. They asked me to review it. I did not request a review copy. I agreed because I find Brad’s perspective interesting in general even if I don’t agree with portions of it.

Brad doesn’t have a big organization with a publicity department and a cadre of volunteers to raise funds and he makes a living from what he writes, unlike many other Buddhist teachers who have other, often lucrative professions such as being psychologists or college professors or doctors or magazine editors (yes lucrative compared to waiting tables at a truck stop for example), or well heeled friends in Silicon Valley or at the Oprah show or Davos, nor does he have a spouse (as far as I know, haven’t inquired about that, not my business really, though I think he’d make it known if that were the case) who works to help supplement his income and share expenses so he can write books and make music and art, etc.

Also I appreciate Brad’s anti-capitalist approach to his work, and his dharma practice, even if he has not characterized it in that political kind of way. He does what he does, and if people like it they support it. What he makes goes back into doing what he does rather than buying himself a gilded temple, a couple of Harley motorcycles, a tropical “retreat" spa and meditation center and cultivating a bunch of slathering sycophantic followers. That’s pretty fucking hard to do anywhere and that he does it in Los Angeles is both humorous and makes quite a point if people bother to pay attention to that. It is the same kind of ethic that Henry Rollins uses for his work. He’s not stepping on anyone smaller to make his way in the world, not using people by proffering unrealistic dreams to fill his bank account, not setting himself up as somebody else’s authority. It’s trying to conduct one’s economic affairs symbiotically rather than parasitically. It’s an ethic that goes back to the DIY punk days (and much further back really). So I’ve got some respect for that.

Publishers. Well. I’ve had enough of them.

This is the last book I’m going to review at a publisher’s behest. I’m tired of publishers and their representatives (not only this one but many others) thinking bloggers are their own personal army of free labor just sitting around waiting to do free advertising for them. We’re not. Ease off on the demanding emails.

Some publishers give locked down, time limited, access to un-proof-read books and demand a review be written in the 2 week timeslot they allot. You can’t even copy/paste from these if you want to include a quote of your choice. Some fill your inbox with pages and pages of copy, complete with interviews and talking points to cut and paste into a blog like you’re just supposed to copy it all and stamp “Good” on it. Sorry I’m not your stenographer (unlike the mainstream press). If you just want people to write what you say when you say and mostly regurgitate your copy, pay them. If bloggers have got an audience it is because we have taken the time to develop that. If bloggers have any integrity or believability it is because we don’t simply regurgitate other’s talking points but write original works with original thoughts and often a fair bit of research. So no, you are not doing us a favor by offering books for review. We are doing you a favor if we agree to review one of your books. In this case I consider that I’m doing Brad, not the publisher, a favor.

And no, a free book is not the same as pay. A $15 (retail—wholesale is considerably less) book doesn’t even cover the cost of the time it takes to read the book. If it’s a book you don’t particularly like it’s even worse. Some I’ve been sent I could barely even get through as they were tripe. Didn’t bother doing a review after those and declined works from those particular publishers. Now I’m declining solicited reviews from all publishers. Not a member of your personal PR corps.

I’ll still do reviews when the mood strikes, on books I choose, whether I get them from the library or buy them or receive them as gifts or whatever, just not at the behest of publishers any more.

3 comments on “Brad Warner’s “There is no God and He is Always With You”–an incomplete review, notes and rambling

  1. Quite the gonzo review, NellaLou! Reading it was a simultaneous numinous experience and headache. BUT the numinosity [NOT really a word (I looked it up, of course), but fuck it.] was in command such that I look forward to future head pain in a land where there is no Bayer.

    First off, I certainly believe in Buddhist exceptionalism, otherwise I would self-identify as a Mormon, or whatever. I don’t crow about it or expect a special tax exemption, but I do like to coax people to take off their shoes and sit on the floor. I have no problem with rankings — oft’ times soft, non-discrete rankings — to distinguish that which is more good/right/beautiful from the not-so-much. That’s what humans do; it’s our job, man. Buddhism tops the list. It’s the Yankees of religions.

    God is a problem for me. Meister Eckhart with his radical pantheism has God in everything in every way such that He is not there at all for me. God is Love? WHAT does that mean? When I say I don’t experience God, does that mean that I am wrong in what I say? he’s there but I just don’t know it? feel it? Like Dark Matter passing through my body? Thus, I don’t disbelieve in God because I can’t get my arms around what it is I can disbelieve. I’m not agnostic. I am just outside the question.

    In this way, I agree with you in accepting the religion label for Buddhism [though, always, it depends on what one means by religion] and I set the God label over on a table, under a lamp, in the spare bedroom.

  2. I’m not miffed that I wasn’t offered a review copy, but I could have done almost as good a job as you did here.

    I think Warner did a disservice to Western and Eastern thought with his attempts here; but whatever. John Lennon did better in one line (“God is a concept by which we measure our pain”) and did it with the accompaniment of a gospel riff to boot, infused by Arthur Janov.

    Still, like I you, I respect Warner; it’s clear he’s trying for the real thing, as it were, and there’s too many snake oil peddlers and multilevel marketing acolytes who don’t even know they’re selling snake oil.

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