WHAT IS GOD? AND WHYTHIS QUESTION MATTERS

The arguments against the existence of god by scientists and the arguments for the existence of god by philosophers (or, for that matter, the arguments for the existence of god by scientists and the arguments against the existence of god by philosophers) that have been proposed over the last few years are doomed to failure. This is because the terminology used in the debates are not scientifically or philosophically exact enough for it to be assumed that everybody involved is talking about the same thing. Basically, how can we argue about the existence of god if we haven't agreed on what god is. To be honest it is all very sloppy, unscientific and unphilosophical.

I'm not just talking about the personality of god for which there are probably as many varieties as there are people who believe in god's existence. I'm talking about the really big stuff.

For example, if god is a creator what did god create? The multi-verse? The universe? Only our solar system? Only our planet? Or did god just bring together a preexisting chaos?

Where is god? Outside of time and space? On a different plane within the universe? On a different planet? On top of Mount Olympus?

What does god do? Is god responsible for every action and event in the universe? Does god interfere occasionally? Did god wind up the clock and then sit back to let the universe sort its self out from there on?

If the universe was created through a big bang did god ignite it or did god come into existence at the same time as the big bang because there was no before the big bang?

What does god look like? What is god made of? Is god made of the same stuff of the universe or spiritual stuff that cannot even be called stuff at all?

Are there limits on what god can do? Does god know the future? Does god know everything?

And so on and so on...

Richard Dawkins says god does not exist. But what god is he talking about? If he is talking about a completely omnipotent creator god who is able to change anything then his logic and science may back up his claims. But if god is a terraforming alien then his science and logic do not disprove god's existence.

Scientists and theologians are talking passed each other and usually about completely different things. It only appears that they are talking about the same thing because all sides use the same words. But as the words have not been defined it is the same as a Frenchman using the word "qui" and an Englishman using the word "wee."

Of course, this problem is also at the heart of all arguments within each faith tradition. When I use the word "god" I mean in it in a different sense to how Rowan Williams would define the word because our understanding of what god is like is different to such an extent that if we both described our god to a third person and send them to meet god off the train they would never recognise god.

When a fundamentalist states that god hates gay people he is telling the truth. But so is the person who states that god loves gay people as much as anyone else. This is because the fundamentalist's idea of god is so radically different to the other person's idea of god that they are talking about two different gods. One god who is homophobic and another god who is a right "peace and love" hippy.

God cannot be regarded objectively. Therefore god cannot be defined. Therefore nobody can say god exists or not. To attempt to do so is foolish. You might as well try to convince another person of the existence or not of "one of those thingies." Also because god is different for every individual believer in god and there is no god template that can be referred to to standardise all the different concepts of god, the Anglican communion (and this is just an example) is not split into two. It is in fact split into as many parts as there are people within the communion. This means that logically the communion should do one of two things. Either split into as many factions as there are people or embrace radical inclusiveness that accepts that none of us worship the same god but sometimes it might happen that all we all worship in roughly the same direction.

Comments

WHAT IS GOD? AND WHYTHIS QUESTION MATTERS — 19 Comments

  1. …embrace radical inclusiveness that accepts that none of us worship the same god but sometimes it might happen that all we all worship in roughly the same direction.

    At its best, Anglicanism comes pretty close to fitting that description, but obviously some who call themselves Anglicans think otherwise, thus the disagreements.

  2. Um, I just got my first cup of coffee. My brain is a caffeine driven device still in warm up mode. And here you are hitting the big questions! Darn time zones!

    Reading the post it occurred to me that there are several things going on here. My reading of Richard Dawkins for instance, is that he has specific issues with what he thinks (incorrectly as it turns out) is the universal Christian image of ‘god.’ His efforts to prove that this particular entity does not exist involve more about his issues with fundamentalists than the question of the existence / non-existence of a divinity.

    In one sense I agree with Dawkins, the god he has constructed by conflating the worst ideas of various fundamentalists does not exist. What may exist is another matter entire.

    FWIW
    jimB

  3. I’m reminded of a Hell joke about Catholics…the premise being, Joe wakes up in hell and it turns out it’s not a bad place after all but he’s suspicious and sure enough around a corner they see a large cave spitting sulfurous smoke and flames horrid cries from within and he says “Ah, ha!” and the devil says, “Don’t worry that’s just for the Catholics, they insisted on it.”

    My point being maybe the fundamentalist god does exist for fundamentalists – maybe god is so beyond our understanding that we are able to grasp our portion of what we need from God for our comfort here on Earth. Perhaps no one has the right to deny anyone their interpretation of God…

    (See MP, that darn reading is working it’s way through my brain)

  4. We all have heard the quote that “If
    god didn’t exist, man would have to invent him”(her?). I think people need to feel that they have someone (G0d) to turn to, to communicate with and so they project their own needs and personality into their image of God. And since each person is an individual and unique, “God” comes out differently, and this leads to all sorts of dissonance, even war.

    nij

  5. Wow. This is geat stuff, and I confess the bride and I go over this sort of thing on a regular basis (being in a school of theology can do that to a person). I have not seen these basic questions espressed so clearly before, and I agree with your conclusion – the Anglican experience is sort of like herding cats…..

  6. Oh and Jonathan, I do have a question.

    How does this apply to people like Joe, who is a “hard polytheist”? That is to say, he is a person who believes:

    1: in multiple gods
    2: that those gods are not interchangeable parts or aspects of a larger godhead, either within his own tradition or even across lines of differing traditions
    3: that they are definitely NOT Jungian archetypes

    To him, just because Freyja and Aphrodite are considered both “love Goddesses” that does not mean they are aspects of each other, aspects of a “Great Goddess” or aspects of some overarching Godhead that transcends all traditions.

    Does this make sense?

  7. It’s Sunday morning here in Connecticut. The Feast of Pentecost. And I get to remind my congregation that while we may think we have tamed and domesticated God, it ain’t so. I commend to y’all Restout’s painting of Pentecost. The only serene figures are among the women, and Mary herself in the middle of them all. It’s stunning.

  8. It applies equally to Joe’s gods as any other gods or single god. In fact, this strengthens my argument. How can anybody argue against god when there are so many different definitions of god. Joe’s gods are so different in character to Jesus, for example, that they cannot be reasonably included within the same definition of god.

  9. Ellie: he thinks that the Holy Powers, kinda like people, have a very intricate web of relationships, and how all this ties together can be seen by reading things like the Poetic Edda and Northern “myths”. For example, in the Lokasenna, Loki reminds Odin that he and Odin had mingled their blood and Odin, at that time, swore an oath that he himself would drink no ale unless Loki also was served at the same feast. Some Asatru say that Odin and Loki are “blood brothers” and given the trickster-esque nature of both of them, it’s not surprising.

    There is also a big mystery in the relationship between the Aesir (sometimes defined as the family of Odin, and the Holy Powers of civilization), and the Vanir (Njord, Freyr and Freyja, the Holy Powers of nature and fertility). Long story about a war between those two groups of deities, followed by an agreement of peace and an exchange of hostages (a diplomatic move), etc.

    These are things he meditates on in his tradition.

    Jonathan: so yeah, that does reinforce your point. What’s funny is that in Asatru, there are even further categories of beings: there’s “Gods” and there’s the “Jotun” and the “Alfhar” (and even within the category of alfhar, there are svartalfhar and ljossalfhar)and the “Disir” and the “land vaettir” etc etc etc.

    Sort of like the Christian tradition having “angels and archangels” and various categories of angels, powers, principalities, thrones, yada yada.

    Wow. We humans do go a bit nuts with classifications, don’t we?

  10. Sometimes I think that there’s something to the Perennial Philosophy, as well as a lot of commonalities between what might be called “tribalist traditions” which would have to include some really ancient Jewish traditions. And what on earth is a person supposed to make of that, when they see that “oh, culture A over here has these beings, and culture B over there has similar being but they call them by different names, of course, because they speak a different language….” etc.

  11. So perhaps there really can’t be any such thing as “universalism” or genuine “catholicism”. I’m not sure if it IS possible to have a “one size fits all” path.

    Or am I wrong?

    Sorry about all these comments. But this stuff just keeps dawning on me.

  12. Ha, the one about Catholics in hell made me laugh and add this one (I’m a Catholic but have no problem with any other faith!)…a sould came to the heavenly gates and asked St Peter what it was like in there. St Peter told him, paradise, harmonious souls etc..but as an aside says, ‘ careful of the Catholics, they think they are the only ones in here’. As the great and unconventional parish priest Fr Gerry at the Church on Oakwood (this is an ecumenical church used by several groups)used to say, ‘We all think we’re right’.

  13. Because we cannot objectively define god, every definition of god is subjective and personal. Therefore, as I say above, there are as many definitions of god as there are people who believe in god (or the gods). If everybody accepted this fact then there would be a true universalism. But it would be a universalism based on the commonality of what we don’t know rather than on a commonality of what we (disingenuously) assert we do know.

  14. One of the reasons I have such a deep appreciation of Buddhism and have committed myself to consistent study of both its precepts and meditative principles is that the Buddhists pretty much shut up about God. The way one high lama explained it goes something like this: God is the Absolute. As soon as we start to talk about the Absolute, we are communicating about concepts and concepts are not the Absolute.

  15. “Therefore, as I say above, there are as many definitions of god as there are people who believe in god (or the gods).”

    That seems a better statement than to say that because there are many different definitions of God there are many different gods. In reality I don’t think there are many different definitions of God. You stated “God cannot be regarded objectively. Therefore god cannot be defined.” I agree, and therefore I would hold that there are zero definitions of God. What we have are many different metaphors and analogies that some people mistake for definitions. Metaphors and analogies are useful when one wishes to talk about things that are difficult to understand. They are essential if one wishes to talk about something that transcends human language and concepts. But you cannot create logical arguments from metaphors and analogies; that is where much of our difficulties arise.

    One must always remember that the analogy is not the thing itself. To the blind men it is useful to know that an elephant is like a rope, like a tree, like a snake, but an elephant is not a rope or a tree or a snake.

    I think we also should acknowledge that not all metaphors and analogies for God are equally useful. If we accept (as I think most readers of this blog do) that there is some aspect of reality pointed to by what we call “God” then some of the metaphors represent a better understanding of that reality than others, even if we can never objectively define that reality. I really don’t think that “God hates gays” and “God loves gays” are equally valid ways of understanding that reality.

    OK, so there is no objective way of proving which of those understandings of “God” are more valid, but I think that what you can do is recognize that people over time who seem to have had some real experience of that reality tend to think of that reality in similar ways. How do we know who these people are? I think a good place to start is to look for the “fruits of the Spirit” that Paul lists in Galations: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-control. Personally, I give greater credibility to the way folks talk about God when I see these fruits in their character.

    But of course I could be wrong.