William Wordsworth’s God

It seems to me that Wordsworth, in these “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”, is describing a kind of experience that lies, for more than a few people, at the root of what could be called ‘a religious sensibility’.

Once upon a time, human beings thought the universe was very small – a flat earth, under a dome of sky, just above which was located a God who could keep an eye on things, and occasionally pop down for a visit, should the need arise. We now know that our universe extends infinitely in every direction, and no longer offers any credible location for that kind of God, who nonetheless continues to exist for lots of people. For the rest of us, or at least those who believe ‘a religious sensibility’ to be a valid and meaningful human experience, a re-imagination is necessary, and this is where I find these lines of Wordsworth helpful.

They’re not about a ‘person’, a bigger version of ourselves, who can see, hear, talk to and visit us, just as we do with one another. They’re about a “presence” that we can feel, and can experience as “sublime” – giving rise, in other words, to an overwhelming sense of transcendence and awe – one that “disturbs” any down-to-earth complacency and equanimity, but in a positive and uplifting way, “with the joy of elevated thoughts“. 

This transcendent “something” is not separate from us, and outside of us. On the contrary, it is “far more deeply interfused“. It interpenetrates us, so that we are ‘in’ it, and it is ‘in’ us. It reminds me of what I think of as one of the more meaningful and helpful of Biblical images, that “in (God) we live, and move and have our being“. 

Many things can give rise to this kind of experience “in the mind of man“. A key source for Wordsworth, one of the earliest poets of the Romantic Age, was the world of nature, with its “setting suns, round ocean, living air, and blue sky.” It might well be the same for your and me, or it might be a line of poetry, or piece of music, or an image, or sentence in a book, or just a blissful silence when our thoughts have stopped drowning out a deeper awareness.

This “something” Wordsworth pictures as “a spirit“. In other words, it’s invisible and intangible. No words can begin to describe it or do it justice. So much then for books of so-called ‘systematic theology’, when the Bible itself suggests that “God is spirit“. It’s also “a motion .. that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought“. It’s dynamic and potent. It’s the living energy driving the moment by moment unfolding of this vast and breathtaking universe.

The philosopher Baruch Spinoza would have appreciated the notion that it “rolls through all things“. He made the simple point that if God, as traditional theology insists, is infinite, then there can be nothing outside of God, otherwise he would in fact be finite, and circumscribed. The world of nature then, including you and I, shouldn’t be thought of, in my view, as being out-with God, but as an expression of God, assuming we choose to give the transcendentally immanent Source of All Being that particular name.

It seems to me then, that Spinoza’s God was similar to Wordsworth’s God, and is on the record as also being Einstein’s God. I’d feel it an immense privilege to join that company of three, and say, “me too”.  

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