God 2.0?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


The Light shines in the Darkness

“Thedownload Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

~ The Gospel According to John


Christmas has come upon us once again. I enjoy the season, but I think many critics of the holiday have pointed out legitimate and disturbing problems with it.  The modern western Christmas is largely a mindless festival of empty consumerism. Sappy advertisements, violent shopping mobs on black Friday, money wasted on unwanted gifts. The Holiday is the epitome of everything wrong with corporate consumerism and commercialism.

Along with many others, I don’t think that Christmas has to be the fit of consumer madness that the advertisers sell us. Christmas can be a time to remember your faith, cherish your family, and simply make merry. Christmas can be something far more meaningful and rewarding than the holiday that is sold to us.

But there is a deeper problem with the modern western Christmas than its consumerism and commercialism. Christmas is shallow. Most Christmas cards, parties, movies, etc offer up bland platitudes and banal encouragements.

The Biblical story of the birth of Christ is about The Light of the World appearing in the midst of the tragedy and the pain of darkness. The Christmas of TV specials, sales, and office parties, pretends that there really is no darkness. That inside us all is an inner child, that children are pure loving angles, a that mere Hallmark sentiment suffices to fulfill the deepest human needs.

This shallow festival of glitter and gaudy decorations is unfortunate. The light is not overcome by darkness, but the darkness is all too real. Grief, pain, illness, heartache, loss, trauma,  and death are not only inevitable, but pervasive and frequent occurrences in all of our lives.  During Christmas none of these tragic aspects of life are diminished or erased. In fact, given the constant reminders to be merry and joyful, life’s sorrows often hit much harder when they hit at Christmastime.

We had better rethink our biggest holiday. Perhaps we could begin by attending more closely to the symbols of Christmas. The Evergreen tree that lives despite the death of winter. Burning logs and lit candles illuminating the long, cold winter nights.  The Christ child Himself narrowly escaping an evil king’s plot to murder Him.

Coming at the darkest time of the year (in the northern hemisphere at least), when the world is cold, the trees bare, the ground frozen, and the elements harsh, Christmas is a reminder that in the face of death life persists, in the dark of night light can still be found, and that in the death of winter, there is still food to eat and warmth to warm us.
We have chosen to use only half of the holiday symbols. We think of the joy, the light, the warmth, and the cheer. But there is no joy without sorrow, no warmth without cold, no light without darkness. In order to truly celebrate Christmas, we are going to have to keep the other aspects of the season before us.


Christmas is a time for joy, for celebration, for love, peace, and light. But it is a mature joy we seek to celebrate; a joy that relishes the good things in life in full awareness of the bad, a light that illumines us in the darkness but that does not eradicate the cold, dark nights, love that knows pain, peace that struggles against violence, injustice, and trouble, and celebration in the face of terrible loss.

By embracing the pain, suffering, and grief symbolized in the dark side of Christmas, we are leaving aside the shallow “cheer” of consumerism and cheap tinsel, for the deeper joy that results from what some might call a “tragic-optimism” or even, perhaps, a “tragic-romanticism.”
To clarify what I mean, let us compare tragic-optimism and tragic romanticism, with their commercialized counterparts. The commercial brand of optimism tells us that all things are right with the world, that only “grinches” get sad during the holiday, and that if we just spend enough of our money at Hallmark and Target, Christmas will warm our hearts with its eggnogy bliss.
Commercial romanticism tells us that if we just put up the right decorations, buy the right “goodies,” and follow the formula, we can have the kind of Christmas we had when we were seven years old.
What I mean by tragic-optimism, on the other hand, is a view that life is hard. People die, dreams are broken, prospects fail to materialize. The tragic-optimist understands that great sorrow is an inescapable aspect of life, and we would be fools to deny that. But, despite this, the tragic-optimist finds existence ultimately joyful. Life is good, being is good, it is all worth it. In spite of all the pain and suffering, life is filled with joy. And this joy is not experienced in spite of pain and sorrow, but somehow because of it.
This is where tragic-romanticism comes in. Tragic-romanticism, as I understand it, is the appreciation that pain, sorrow, suffering, and grief can add to the joy of life, by making their opposites all the more potent and complete.
Let us keep enjoying Christmas. Let us feast, celebrate, sing, and rejoice. But let’s do all this with greater and deeper appreciation. Let us not ignore or flee from all that is dark, cold, and unpleasant. Let’s put on our coats, light our candles, and face the tragedies and terrors of life with joy, song, festivity, and faith.

Why do people deny evolution?

I have been puzzled for some time by the fact that somewhere between 1/3 and 45 percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution. It’s not merely that the theory is confirmed on every possible level and that it forms the bedrock of modern science. The truly troubling thing for me is that so many people strongly feel that belief in the existence of God requires rejection of the theory of evolution. This is very strange.

As long ago as the end of the 2nd century Christian thinkers such as Origen knew and quite vocally said that the creation stories (there are two of them!) in Genesis were quite clearly myths and must be read symbolically rather than historically:

For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? And again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.

Nor was Origen alone here. Traditional Christian thinkers have always been capable of reading portions of The Bible as myths. Furthermore, the idea that God could not have created the world by means of the process of evolution is just plain silly. Of course God could have created the world that way.

I strongly suspect that what pulls people toward a literal reading of  Genesis is a desire for meaning coupled with fear.

People who deny evolution want certainty. They don’t want ambiguity or lack of clarity. They want things black, white, and clear as day. If it is all laid down clearly and beyond question in a book, then I need not think about it. I’ve killed doubt. I’ve killed fear. Sadly, I’ve had to sacrifice, growth, hope, learning, curiosity, and openness to slay my doubt. This is an understandable human reaction. We must have meaningful lives. Read Camus or Beckett to see the empty horror of a life without a deep meaning. It’s miserable. To avoid this people will rush and run for meaning in all manner of places. Unfortunately our fear of a meaningless life often leads us to cling with dogmatic certitude to our favorite views and position. This calms us. This keeps the monsters in the closet and the demons out in the night.

But I say that we lose too much. Not only do we ignore, deny, and foolishly resist the truth, but we never grow beyond stock answers and simple formulas. We need to find the courage to pursue meaning despite our doubts. We must embrace doubt, we must cast off certainty. We must learn to grow. To do so we will have to stumble a bit, to plunge into the scary world of uncertainty and constant questioning.

Illusions and ignorance, however much they may seem to preserve and protect meaning, cannot give us the comfort and security we so desire. To deny obvious truths we must willingly embrace ignorance. This leads us to demonize and rail against those who challenge our cherished dogmas. This is where violence, discrimination, and exclusion are born.

There is more to be said. I suspect that the denial of climate change, the fear of vaccines, and other such irrational belief systems arise from the same frightened clinging to beliefs that seem to close us off from the threat of meaninglessness. We think we have found the devil in our midst; if we just control him, cast him out, we will be free, our lives filled with meaning. We are fooling ourselves. The only way forward is to embrace the facts, follow the truth, and open our minds.

It is not easy. We must live with uncertainty, doubt, confusion. But if we do not stumble forward, plunging awkwardly and unsure of ourselves, we will never move forward at all.


In Defense of Santa Claus

For better or worse Santa Claus is the most commonly recognized symbol of our modern Christmas

For my own part the Santa symbol is one of love, joy, and good will. He fills the hearts and minds of children with awe, and love, and just a bit of magic. I have even written in the past that Santa presents the most positive aspects of divinity to children

For others, however, Santa is a troubling figure whom we are better of without.

Biblical Scholar Candida Moss, whose take downs of Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Palin are splendid, has turned her critical acumen against Santa Claus

According to Dr. Moss “Mr. Claus” has simply got to go. He is, she claims, just about the worst thing that could happen to Christmas and, perhaps even worse, the very symbol of the crimes of capitalism at its most rotten.

Despite her characteristic wit and charm (Dr. Moss expresses herself delightfully with virtually every sentence she writes, she is even more charming on video) one of her major arguments is rather weak. Moss claims that

Then there’s the disservice Santa does to religion. Even if Ole’ St. Nick didn’t spend so much time cultivating endorsements and trawling malls selling photo ops, it’s not clear that he would be beneficial for the religion to which he is attached. For children, Christmas is the undisputed high point in the religious calendar. Between the daily dose of advent calendar chocolate, opportunities for budding thespians to cut their teeth treading the boards in a nativity play, and, of course, the presents, Christmas has it all. In many ways Santa Claus shares top billing with the baby Jesus. And that’s if you’re going to church.
Then one day comes the truth. After spending years deceiving our children about the jolly man who brings presents, can we really say “Gee you got us, but that part about the Virgin giving birth to a child? Now that’s the real deal”? We’re hardly building trust here. We’re catfishing our children. Do Christians really want to bring religion into the rouse?

I find this line of reasoning particularly unconvincing. A great many modern theologians and Biblical Scholars (even a fairly large number of clergy and laity) do not take the Virgin Birth any more literally than they do Santa Claus. The story is symbolic, it conveys deep truths about who Jesus was, not biological facts about Mary’s body.  Similarly, Santa Claus can be seen as a symbol of the joy and benevolence many of us associate with Christmas.

But perhaps I read Dr. Moss too literally here. She may mean only that we ought not to lie to our children and that doing so diminishes our credibility. I doubt this is so, and find it hard to imagine that any child has gone from learning the truth about Santa to distrusting their parents veracity and authority. It is also not clear to me that we cannot in anyway deceive our children, provided we do so for their own good. I don’t think this criticism can stand.

If Christian parents are worried about Santa taking Christmas from Jesus, then they can simply emphasize that St. Nicholas was a Christian Bishop who served Christ above all else, and use that model of piety to inspire a similar veneration of The Good Lord in their children. There need be no conflict here. 

More serious is Moss’ argument that Santa symbolizes the commercial Christmas that puts profits ahead of people and cheapens all values down to mere economic transactions.

That the modern Christmas is often a gaudy and sappy affair that reeks of cheap commercialism and pushes us into a vapid consumerist frenzy for a whole month of the year is indisputable. That the modern image of Santa Claus is, and has long been, deeply connected to this commercialism is equally obvious.

Indeed, this seems to be the heart of Moss’ complaint against the Jolly Ole Elf:

Any five-year-old can see that rich naughty children are pulling down more than their fair share of the gifts. That’s if less affluent families can afford the luxury of purchasing gifts from a figment of the cultural imagination. When petulant rich kids get more presents than poorer angelic ones, it sends mixed messages. The historical St. Nicholas is said to have given money anonymously to poor children. The commercial Santa brings laptops to rich kids. What’s the lesson we’re teaching our children? Life’s not fair? The rules are different for rich people? Better learn the harsh realities of life early. 

But, despite the long and close connection between the two, the Santa Claus myth did not originate in advertising and consumerism. Moss herself acknowledges as much. The gift-giving St. Nicholas, and even the Jolly St. Nick of The Night Before Christmas, are hardly commercial figures.

Moss does, however, point out a problem with Santa Claus. It surely falls on us parents to be sure that we teach our children an image of Santa Claus that does not favor rich over poor, and that does not pitch commercial values over familial and personal ones.

We can do this by emphasizing Santa’s selfless giving, stressing that he loves all children regardless of wealth, class, ethnicity, etc. We can tell our children to put others first and be selfless as Santa is.

How our children picture Santa Claus depends very greatly on how we portray him to them.

It seems to me that Moss entirely misses the joy, the awe, and even the sheer fun of Santa Claus. He is not simply a “sales pitch” and a challenge to Jesus. Santa is, at his best, a symbolic embodiment of goodness, generosity, and Christ-like unselfish love. His person and story can be made to impart these values to our children.

Symbols and myths can convey deep truths to the heart and mind. Once conveyed, such truths sit deeper than mere abstract reasoning can reach.

Simply telling children to care for others, to give with no thought of getting back in return, to love others, to give with joy in our hearts only does so much. But sharing with them a story, that they can later pass on to their children, may convey these truths more powerfully than simple statements ever could. 

As a scholar of religion, I’m sure that Dr. Moss can appreciate the value of symbol and myth to convey important truths that are, perhaps, best expressed in that manner:

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To Megyn Kelly

Dear Megyn Kelly,

You said the following regarding the race of Jesus and Santa Claus: 

These statements are not only unacceptable but demonstrably false. 

Jesus was a middle eastern man and not at all white. Below you fill find a picture of what a man from his time and place would look like it.

Next to this image I have placed a picture of a black man playing Santa Claus. He makes a wonderful Santa! Santa is mythical Ms. Kelly and can be any and all races.

To make these matters even worse. By insisting that Jesus and Santa must be white, you are perpetuating the false and hurtful claims that white’s are superior to non-whites. People of all races need to feel included and affirmed, not told that their most cherished symbols are different from them.

Please rethink your claims.

Matt Wion's photo.

Matt Wion's photo.

Even if Ms. Kelly meant that the historical Saint Nicholas was a white man, she is mistaken on that note as well. Here is a pic of what a man from Nicholas’ time and place would look like:


 I highly recommend that you work on being more sensitive on matters of race and ethnicity Ms. Kelly.

Furthermore, you should do some research on the race of Jesus. I recommend that you start with the following:

Take Back Thanksgiving!

Black Friday is a plague on our nation. Crazed shoppers fighting over bargain prices should disgust all decent people. This Holiday season matters are worse. For this Thanksgiving a number of big chain stores will be open during Thanksgiving dinner. Even worse, they are mandating that their employees work these hours. All of this is to get a head start on the insanity that is black Friday

This cannot be allowed to stand!

It is crucial to the preservation of close relationships and person well being that working people get to enjoy time off with their loved ones. For this this reason I think we ought to continue to recognize national holidays like Thanksgiving: time off work and time with loved ones

Workers are human beings, not machines or animals. The indignity of robbing them of their Holidays and forcing them to spend Thanksgiving dinner mobbed by Zombie consumers fighting to the death for discounts ought to be criminal; it is clearly morally repugnant.

Let us fight these tyrants!

Boycott the following stores on Thanksgiving and Black Friday:

The Gap
Banana Republic
Old Navy
Toys ‘R Us
Whole Foods

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