Asking “God?”

question“God” is not an answer, but a question.

To wonder about God, to think about God, to pray, to worship, is to ask the question: where is this coming from? “This” being all that we experience: whatever we think, whatever we sense, whatever we imagine, whatever is extended in space and time before us. Now, this question may not occur to everyone. Many people seem to assume that what-is is; it just is. It’s there. But under careful reflection, this credulity starts to look rather strange.

Our lives, the whole ebb and flow of existence, of experience, of living, is marked by contingency. Contingency, in this broad cosmological sense, simply means that whatever-is did not have to be. Whatever is happening, we know something else could be happening. It’s important to note that this is true even if one is a strict determinist. Even if you believe that every event that has happened since the Big Bang has been caused without any possible variation by the preceding set of events, that whole collection of events (that is, the universe) is still utterly contingent: first, because the rules that govern those events seem to be contingent themselves. The fundamental forces of physics, for example, do not seem to be necessary. As far as I know, no physicist argues that these forces or rules are absolute or necessary in the strict and final sense. And when these forces or laws are expressed mathematically, there are a range of constants and operators which we know could be otherwise, at least in theory. The fundamental forces of physics are actual but not necessary. They are, thus, contingent.

But contingency runs even deeper. It’s not just that what-is could be other than it is, it also seems that what-is could simply not be at all. This is often expressed in the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?” It’s important to understand that when philosophers and theologians pronounced “nothing” here, they are not talking about empty space and time, but rather no-space and no-time, no-actuality and no-possibility, even no-necessity. Nothing means no-thing, nothing at all. Often, when people talk about nothing, they mean not-this-thing. But not-this-thing is not nothing, it’s just something else. Empty space and empty time–an endless black expanse with no matter or energy for eternity–would still be something. Extension of space and time is not no-thing, it is something, even if it’s a something that appears as almost nothing to human thought.

So why is there something rather than nothing? The idea of “God” is not the answer to this question! When we use “God” as an easy answer to such profound and unanswerable questions, we both disrespect the intelligence of atheists and belittle the power and mystery of God. God is not an answer, God is not an idea, God is not a topic of discussion. The idea of God is simply the mental response of taking the question seriously. “God” is the horizon of all being and knowing.

To say that one has faith in God must mean that one simply says that the contingent universe, the actual but not necessary flow of whatever simply is at each moment, and indeed the very ground of that existence–extended space and time–that all of this, all of this, proceeds from something other than itself. God, then, conceptually, is the Whence of existence. I use this archaic English word “whence” here because I think it captures something that is harder to communicate in contemporary English.

Centuries ago, in addition to the question word “where”, we also had two other location words in English: whence and whither (not to be confused with “wither”!). To ask “whence” was to ask “from where”, and to ask “whither” was to ask “to where”. So, if I asked “whence cometh thou?” I would be asking “Where did you come from?” And if I asked “whither goest thou?” I was asking “Where are you going to?” Where told someone my current location; whence and whither told them where I had come from and where I was going.

To say that God is the Whence of existence is to say that God is that from which existence flows. Once we have seen that existence is utterly contingent–that it is actual but in no way necessary–asking after this Whence makes sense. But if we see existence as both actual and necessary, if we think that what-is just is and needs no further comment, then we won’t ask after this Whence. This is what it means to say that “God” is a question. When we say “God” we are asking ourselves and each other, “whence comes all that is?”

It is crucial to see one important consequence of understanding “God” in this way. If it’s true that all that exists flows from God, then it is not true to say that God exists. Now, this is not to say that we would agree with what people mean when they say “God doesn’t exist”. Rather, it is to say that the category of existence is simply not able to capture the reality of God. In other words, to believe in God is to believe that existence–the events of extended space and time, and even the rules that govern this extension–does not include everything that is real. “Real” here covers the fullness of all that is in the broadest and deepest possible sense, where “existence” refers only to reality as it appears to humans, that limited degree of reality that we can sense and cognize (for more on this, see Kant’s distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal).

This is why it is truer to say that “God” is a question and not an answer. Prayer and worship are not confident acts of certainty, but the opening of humanity to the mystery at their very center, an attempt to gaze back at the very fount of existence, to ask the great Whence. For Christians, to admit that “God” is a question should not challenge our faith, it should deepen it! For Jesus made this point himself when he instructed us to ask, to seek, and to knock (Matthew 7:7-12). Once we have understood that our actuality depends on something other than itself to be, we have taken the first step towards God.

Talking About God, Part 5: Translating Faith

OK, I lied: Part 4 wasn’t the last post in the Talking About God series, because I barely scratched the surface in that post. I basically rehashed traditional ideas about God’s transcendence, immanence, and redemptiveness. Important ideas, but there’s so much more to talk about! Today I’d like to talk about how spiritualities are “translated” into scientific and philosophical language. This is done both to help evangelism, or spreading the spirituality, and to systematize it, or make sure its ideas are consistent and presented a coherent worldview. Most religions are not conceived of in the throes of philosophical debate; their impetus tends to be personal, mysterious, emotional experiences that shock and change those who experience them.

Theology is the attempt to mesh those experiences with a systematic way of understanding the world. The order of this is crucial to remember: non-dual experiences in which people experience a sense of direct presence of Truth are the foundation of any legitimate spirituality. Reason is brought in later to make sense of the experience. Generally the experiences themselves, however, defy traditional reason by cutting through the dualities that we use to understand and explain the world. So that many spiritualities struggle to reconcile their fundamental beliefs with reason is neither surprising nor an immediate reason to reject spirituality. Reason relies on comparing and contrasting to describe the world; at a fundamental level, religion always aims to transcend these dualities. Faith and science aren’t opposed, but they are different.

For Christians, of course, the fundamental experience is the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion. I want to dedicate a whole post to discussing the different ways of interpreting this event, so for now let’s just admit the obvious: people don’t rise from the dead. This experience, if it was anything real, is mysterious, confusing, even frightening. It doesn’t make sense. Doubting it is normal and rational. But clearly those who experienced it, whatever it was, thought it was a real event. So the heart of Christianity is a claim that seems to defy reason. But Christianity isn’t unique in this regard. The central claims of all the main world faiths are similarly fantastic. Jews (well, and Christians, but more central for Jews) believe that the Creator of the entire universe chose to communicate with and protect just one small group of humans on the Earth, intervening repeatedly to guide these people through a tumultuous history. Buddhists believe that through a cultivation of concentration and renunciation of desire, Siddhartha was essentially able to remove himself from the cycle of cause-and-effect the governs reality. Muslims believe that God recited the entire Quran to Muhammad, who remembered the entire document even though he was illiterate. Hindu believe is more diverse and is less based on one specific event, but the understanding of the incarnations, such as Krishna, are absolutely central to most Hindus’ faith and are equally mysterious events ontologically (I’m going to keep using this term–ontology–over over. If you’re not sure what it means, just click that link for a quick description! I promise it’s not nearly as stuffily intellectual as it sounds.)

These are the central, formative experiences that form the core of religious belief. Each of them defy reason in an abrupt way. And yet the first followers of each of these religions clearly felt that the experiences were not just real, not just valid, but were the most important events that had ever occurred. Were they just ignorant, irrational, unsophisticated people easily misled? Or were their experiences legitimate, something real, even if mysterious? Our answers to these questions are always mediated through a pre-existing worldview. We make judgements not based on actually being present at any of the events asserted by a faith, but based on our experiences in reality in general. What’s problematic is that the worldviews we are using to interpret and judge the religious claims of others are themselves open to critique, and are themselves evolving and changing. Even the most secular worldview rests on certain assumptions. For the modern scientific worldview, there are three crucial assumptions made:

  1. There are fundamental and consistent laws or forces that govern the behavior of the universe.
  2. These laws or forces are temporally and spatially consistent: they act the same way at all times and in all places.
  3. Humans can, through observation and application of reason, discover these laws or forces.

These claims are absolutely central to the modern scientific worldview, but they are absolutely improvable. So far, they’ve held up extraordinarily well, and there’s no real reason to doubt them in general, but it’s possible that they’ll turn out to be less than fully true. In fact, the application of quantum mechanics may be overturning some of these fundamental assumptions, or at least adding significant caveats to each.

Anyway, overall, I think these are good assumptions to work with. The question is, if modern Christians accept these positions, do they conflict with our faith? Lots of people may immediately assume the answer is yes, since Christianity seems to make claims that directly conflict with a scientific viewpoint, but it’s not nearly so simple. First off, we need to delve into some history before we can really answer this question. Secondly, we need to refine our understanding of the empirical method–which I’ll take up in a later post.

Many modern Christians assume a post-Newtonian worldview with ease, but the first Christians lived 1500 years before Isaac Newton. Their understanding of their universe was different from the one we operate with. It’s hard to be sure just how different; our basic understanding of the laws of nature is so fundamental to how we interpret every experience we have that it may be literally impossible for us to imagine perceiving reality differently. But if we want to understand the claims these people made, both spiritually and ontologically, we have to look at the worldview through which they understood reality. Such an approach will allow us to sort of “reverse engineer” theology to figure out how we might talk about the Resurrection in more modern language without disparaging or sidelining it.

There are largely two currents of thought that formed the philosophical and ontological viewpoints of Eastern Mediterranean people around the time of Christ. The most dominant would have been the broad set of ideas that made up the Greek philosophical tradition. Platonic thought, along with Stoicism, Cynicism, Pythagorianism, Epicurianism, and a host of other schools of thought largely developed from the period of 550-250 BCE. By the time of the first century BCE, it was Platonism that was dominant, though Stoicism and Cynicism were also still popular. Platonic thought divided the world into two distinct spheres: the realm of the forms, and the realm of the material. The latter realm is the one we live in: matter and energy interacting. The realm of form, according to Plato and his disciples, is a metaphysical sphere of existence totally distinct from and superior to the material. The realm of forms is prior to the material causally, having given birth to the material world through a complex set of emanations from the Source of everything, which Plato generally called the Good. The material world itself was understood as damaged, and the goal of life was to escape it.

This very brief and basic description will probably immediately remind most readers of lots of ideas in contemporary Christianity. The template for what would become stock Christian ideas about the structure of reality and the afterlife are clearly present, and this is no accident, because in its first few centuries, Christians would use a neo-Platonic framework to describe and defend their fatih. But we need to talk about one other worldview present at the time of the early Church, one that was sidelined early on but is crucial in our effort to understand the experiences of the first Christians.

Jesus and his disciples, of course, were not Greek. They were Aramaic-speaking Hebrews, Jews. Although Greek philosophical and even religious thought had been well-known in Judea since at least the time of Alexander’s conquests (the Sadduccees, mentioned in the New Testament but rarely if ever after the fall of the second temple, were probably the group most open to Greek religious thought), traditional Hebrew ontology was radically different. For one thing, it was much less speculative and systematic. Whereas Greek philosophy largely discarded with traditional Greek polytheism (in fact it was the charge of corrupting the youth of Athens with atheism that Socrates was convicted and sentenced to death), Hebrew ontology is tied intimately with the Hebrew religion. No complicated metaphysics was proposed, God was understood as one, transcendent reality which created, upheld, and governed everything. Whereas Greek philosophy asked detailed, reductionist questions about how nature worked at a basic level, Hebrew ontology tended to be more anthropological and historical, talking about how God was interacting with humans, and what future lay ahead for humanity. Hebrew ontology also was not dualistic, it didn’t divide the world into two realms. In the Hebraic worldview there was just one reality, and speculation about God’s nature was either discouraged or outright banned, for fear of slipping into the idolatry of an idea.

I think it’s clear that each of these two ontologies would yield a radically different way of coming to terms with a wide range of questions, and especially for how to understand something like the Resurrection. Crucially, it was Hebrews–not Greeks–who claimed to have experienced the Resurrection. But just as crucially, it was Greeks, or other Gentiles, who developed Christian theology from the end of the first century onward. So the Resurrection was experienced and mediated through the Hebraic ontology, but then “translated” into the Greek one for explanation and dissemination. And I think much was probably lost in this translation.

From the perspective of Hebrew ontology, if a miraculous event occurred, the only question was, “is this event consistent with what we believe about God”, since God was understood as all-powerful and directly engaged in the workings of the world. So the Resurrection was likely immediately understood and accepted as vindication of Jesus’ teachings and innocence. The message was political and social: the oppressed of the world, though dominated, crushed, and murdered, will, in the end, be vindicated by God. This interpretation is hardly unique to the Jews of the early Jesus movement–the great prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah spoke of God’s action in the same way. This is the fabric of Hebraic ontology: an all-powerful, redemptive God acting to bring out justice in the world. But the Greek viewpoint was, as we have seen, quite different. For the Greek, the most crucial question was, how could this event occur? How did it work, mechanically? Especially puzzling would have been the seeming confusion of the two realms: the form and the material. In claiming that Jesus was divine, Greeks would have experienced a sort of cognitive dissonance: no human can be divine, divinity was understood as limited to the realm of forms. So the very terms of the event didn’t translate well into Greek thinking.

So, what does all of this mean for us today? First and foremost, when we talk about the Resurrection, we need to be careful and clear: those who experienced it didn’t understand reality the way we do. They experienced the risen Jesus as physically yet mysteriously present to them, and accepted it along the lines of their worldview, which allowed for all sorts of miracles. But for us–like many contemporary Greeks–their claims are hard to swallow. Does this mean that their claims are simply and in-arguably false? Not necessarily. But it does mean that had the same event occurred with a community that understood the world differently, it might have been described in radically different terms. So we have to ask what the event really means to us, today. In other words, we have to not only be concerned with ontological questions–what is, how do things work–but also epistemological ones–how do we interpret reality, how do we evaluate claims. This complicates things considerably. I’m going to take up these issues in subsequent posts in the Talking About God series, which, it seems, will continue on for many posts yet to come.

>The Semantics of Theism

>What do people when they say they believe in God? Are they making an intellectual statement, asserting the correctness of a certain body of Scripture? Are they describing a personal relationship with a spiritual being? Are they making a teleological claim about the meaningfulness of existence? Are they just reciting the beliefs of their parents? Modern society is decidedly secular; in many quarters admitting to belief in God is a serious faux pas, an admission of ignorance and superstition.

At the same time, the foundations of Enlightenment agnosticism and atheism are beginning to show signs of wear and stress. Advances in philosophy and physics in particular have led many to a sort of nihilistic skepticism, not only about God but about all knowledge. While the debate between theists and atheists is generally cast as a polarized battle between two diametrically opposed metaphysical, cultural, and ethical systems, even a cursory glance at the writings from both sides reveals that the terms and ideas used are often muddily vague. How much of the debate is really confusion and miscommunication? Can we really even argue about an idea as abstract and ineffable as God in the first place? What does the word “God” even mean?

At the center of this debate is the separation of a word or concept from what it describes. The word “chair” is not itself a chair. My name is not the same thing as my actual body and my history as a person. So the focus of our attempts to talk about and understand God is an issue of semantics: what do these words mean? And what, perhaps more importantly, do these words not mean? If our debates and discussions about God are going to be fruitful, we have to be clear with our semantics.

Getting back to the “chair” example, if someone asked me to define a chair, I think the most accurate and succinct definition would be “a human-made object with a horizontal surface designed for a single person to sit on and a vertical surface to support the person’s back, and that is movable.” Other similar objects, like stools and booths, would be excluded–stools have no back, and booths seat more than one person and are normally bolted to the floor or wall.

When we talk about God, though, are we talking about an object like a chair that can be perceived with the senses and then described? I’m not going to give my own answer(s) here, in part because I don’t know that I have any good answers to give. But there’s no question that considering these questions must be central to any person of faith. Is God a being we can perceive like other beings? Or is God Being itself, the very essence of all existence? Is God a prime mover, a first cause alone? Or is God cause and constant sustainer–transcendent and yet immanent? Can we communicate with God like a sort of super-human? Or does communing with God take radically different forms than we are used to as humans?

Ultimately, what do we mean when we talk about God? I don’t think any of us will have any immediate answers. One might say that the practice of a religion is, at least ideally, itself the answer.