I have not blogged in some time. It is good to be back and doing so again.
I have decided to re-enter the world with a subject that has long been important to me: The existence of God.
As a Philosophy teacher, particularly one who often teaches World Religions, students sometimes ask me if I believe in God. I find answering them difficult. The very short answer is “yes, I do.” But it’s not that easy. When it comes to the most common understanding of what kind of reality the word “God” points to, I have to admit that I do not believe such a being exists. I do not believe in what is ordinarily understood as “supernatural” realities.
I will be developing this thought at San Diego State’s College of Extended Studies this August.
At San Diego State’s Osher Institute. I will be teaching a two session course titled “What is God”? The first class is about the most common understanding of what God is. This is the popular view that God is a very human-like intelligence that created and governs the universe from “outside” of it. This God is also pictured as judging us humans, and often our eternal fate, based on whether or not we have lived up to the moral code that God as given to us.
There is a crass anthropomorphic version of this view, that many scholars call “Supernatural Theism.” This unsophisticated version sees God as pretty much a super version of a human mind, existing “out there” in some kind of “divine space” apart from the universe. Such a God thinks and feels sort of like we human beings do, but knows far more and never makes mistakes.
In Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, the theologically well-trained have offered a more sophisticated version of this “supernatural” God. Their God is less anthropomorphic and more philosophically abstract. Nevertheless, the idea of God as a separate being who governs the universe but is not part of it remains. I will call this more sophisticated conception of the God “out there” Conventional Theism
In Western nations fewer of us believe in this kind of God. “New atheist” types tend to dismiss Conventional Theism as idiocy and categorize all believers in this God as morons. This is unfair. There are a number of sophisticated arguments for the existence of this God and it takes a lot of knowledge and hard work to show that those arguments don’t work. Personally, I think all these arguments do, in fact, fail to establish the existence of the God of Conventional Theism. But one needs to know much about causal reasoning, logic, and even physics and biology in order to demonstrate that. Even then, the refutation of these arguments is not so crystal clear that only fools would still utilize them. I do think, however, that the steady and continuous replacing of supernatural explanations with natural ones over the past several centuries has made the God of Conventional Theism superfluous and thus highly doubtful.
For the last several hundred years we have increasingly explained the world through natural/mechanical causes. We no longer explain hurricanes by witchcraft, illness as punishment for sin, or tuberculous as the result of vampires. Likewise, since Newton and Darwin we have come to see that the heavens operate according to laws of nature, and thatbeven the very origin of the species can be explained by the result of natural forces. It is, I confess, possible to fit in the God of Supernatural Theism where we still have gaps in our knowledge. But those gaps keep shrinking. I suspect the most reasonable conclusion is that the God “out there” does not exist.
Despite this conclusion I do not identify myself as an atheist or even an agnostic. It seems to me that God, understood as the supreme person-like creator – is best thought of as a human personification of the Divine. This is what my second class session this summer will focus on. Allow me to elaborate.
Not all religions give gods a central role. Certain branches of Buddhism, Jainism, and Confucianism all either deny that there are gods, or simply don’t set their sights on them. And even in some religions that have gods, like Hinduism, the gods are not the ultimate divine reality. What all major religions do have, however, is a reverence for and centering in that which is Sacred, Transcendent, and Eternal. These traditions have different images of this Eternal Sacred: Confucians talk of an “order,” Buddhists of a “state of being,” Hindus of an all-encompassing “divine force” and Jews, Christians, and Muslims of a Supreme Being. These are images, ways of approaching the ultimate. It does not seem to me that we can or should take them as literal descriptions of ultimate transcendence.
The God of Supernatural Theism is simply a way of thinking about The Eternal. In our Western Religious traditions we approach the eternal as if it were a person.
What is the Eternal really though? I’m not sure we can say much here. Beyond describing it as Eternal, Transcendent, and Sacred, and perhaps Infinite as well, I don’t think we know what to say. Even these terms define it by negatives. Eternal means it does not change, and has no beginning or end, infinite that it has no limits, and transcendent that it is beyond anything else we have experienced or can explain. To say that it is sacred to to say that it is the source of awe and wonder. It grips us, compels us, but, to be honest, scares us a little. The proper attitude toward something so moving and powerful is humble reverence.
Of course we must clothe it, try to image it in some way, and that is where the various traditions have their primary metaphors. But none of these are literally true. For my own part, I identify the Eternal with Reality at its most ultimate level: The all-inclusive whole of which every thing, ourselves included, is a part. As Reality itself nothing can limit the Eternal. Nothing can create or destroy it. It is self-caused and self-contained. It always existed and always will exist. It has no limits in time or space. The physical universe is part of this infinite reality, but only part of it. That there is more than just the universe we now live in, seems likely to me. This all-inclusive divine whole of reality is how I have come to think of God
Some people might wonder why I think of this Eternal and Infinite Reality as “God.” Surely I don’t believe that there is really a person-like being apart from the universe, controlling it from outside? Obviously I don’t think there is no cosmic judge and moral law giver in a literal sense? I affirm both these points. I do not think the person-like supernatural deity of conventional western theism exists. On the other hand, traditional theologians have always said that God is Eternal, Infinite, not caused by any other being, Transcendent of our thoughts and categories. I do believe Reality at it’s ultimate level is all of this. Furthermore, I think that it is sacred, holy, and divine. The awe and reverence, the wonder and marvel that fill the heart of the great religions are, I think, an experience of things at their most real, an experience of Reality at it’s ultimate (eternal and infinite) level.
Finally, to say that Reality is Ultimately “God,” is to identify with a particular tradition: The Jewish, Muslim, Christian Tradition. These traditions say that in loving our neighbor, in caring for the marginalized and the oppressed, in living ethically and responsibly, we serve God, and we become near to God. I do in fact think that this is among the best ways to experience and draw near the divine, and so I choose the word that identifies with that tradition.
I do not claim that others must call the Eternal reality of which we all are part God. I call the divine that because it captures my way of approaching the sacred, but that is my way; it need not be everyone’s. What would be desirable, however, would be if we all appreciated that reality is grounded in the sacred. If we approached existence as something awe-inspiring, amazing, and truly wondrous. A little reverence for “what is” can go a long way.