What’s In A Name? On Redefining Belief In God Rather Than Rejecting It

VorJack summarizes Robert Jensen’s thesis that God is mystery itself, rather than a principle that hopes to explain them:

Jensen is not saying that God is a mystery. Instead, he is saying that God is mystery itself. God is what we call all those things about the universe that we don’t or can’t understand.

Let me put it in a more familiar way. This isn’t a God is in the gaps argument. This is an argument that God IS the gap. God is simply another name for all the gaps.

And VorJack has quite understandable qualms:

I don’t see what we’ve gained by relabeling all the mystery as “God.” Why is the word “mystery” itself not good enough to describe the situation?

Frankly, I can’t think of a word in the English language that comes with more baggage that the word “God.” We’ve spent the past several thousand years associating Gods with big powerful versions of humans living in the heavens. Generations of philosophical theologians preaching that God is beyond human understanding haven’t broken us of the habit of viewing God as the ultimate monarch. Bringing it into the discussion is just begging us to start personifying again.

If I understand this correctly, Jensen’s idea is not that God explains any particular mystery (which would be a “god of the gaps argument”). It’s that God is just the mysteriousness of the world itself.  The sense that the world is mysterious is the sense of God on this theory (if I have this right).

It makes sense to me to concede there will always be something mysterious about the universe and its workings.  The sense of general mysteriousness is not diminished even when we get an intricate scientific account of particular phenomena. In fact, the more science I learn the more mysterious it is to me because precisely to that degree it winds up being counter-intuitive and revealed to work in ways that still make me want to know “why like that?” even more. There’s always going to be an irreducible complexity on some level it seems—at least for our minds.  And the cognizance that there is mystery to the universe remains even as each particular dynamic gets an account insofar as those accounts still boil down to how but not why, where “why” is something that escapes further explanation and some people might just want to name that something “God.”

And I think for a lot of people that is what they mean when they say the word “God.”  They mean “whatever it is that is most ultimate, most foundational in being, most irreducible” and so I see a use in Jensen trying to formulate that sense of “God” into an account that names those people’s sense of what makes them say there is a “God.”  Yet, I also share VorJack’s uneasiness that keeping the word “God” in circulation perpetuates the general meme of God, which most people will interpret in the personification way. What this winds up meaning is that Jensen says there is a God and he means this very sophisticated concept referring only to an awareness of the universe’s irreducible complexity and source of wonder and his hearer more often than not thinks of a man in the sky instead. And so he’s both using this word and meaning opposite things than his hearers will usually hear and therein inadvertently still promoting the other people’s superstitions.

That’s one way to look at it and it makes me queasy too. But, on the other hand, we might look at the reality of the situation and say that theists so far outnumber atheists that the goal of dumping the word God altogether is impossible to achieve given the number of theists. But if we can influence people to change what they mean by God to something which is far more atheistic in substance while still letting them satisfy their need to have continuity with their tradition’s God meme, it’s a way to make a full embrace of atheism far more plausible down the road. I use the word “meme” instead of “idea” because a meme can refer to something whose meanings and interpretations change. The word God persists and is transmitted as a meme even as the ideas it stands for differ wildly in various contexts. Traditions pass on memes more powerfully than they do specific interpretations of them. And it is in the continuity of phrases and rituals and other practices that the community recognizes itself across time and even as its interpretations of the memes vary.

The way I see it, traditions transmit forms—rituals, group identifications, special words, etc. The content of them can change to various extents as long as the forms and their basic forms and effects remain constant. People’s loyalties to traditions often make it so that they just want to interpret what they think is true as filling out the meaning of their tradition’s preexisting symbols rather than as challenging them. People don’t want to chuck the word God for what they really think. It’s too powerful a symbol and sharing in it creates too powerful a bond to their communal identifications—so instead they reinterpret the word God to be whatever they actually think about the greatest power/most fundamental nature/deepest mystery/etc. of the universe.

People rather fluidly shift their anthropomorphic idea of God to something more abstract which represents a much different actual concept without realizing at all that they are no longer talking about the same thing. They feel very comfortable to say that they still believe in God but that now they just know better what he is “really like,” even though the content of what they say “he” is like means that they are referring to a completely different type of being than they meant originally or than the kind that the Bible literally writes about or than they speak about when they loosely refer to God in all the traditional, personified ways. It is as though they thought there was a bear outside and instead they find out it is a monkey and they say, “I still believe there is a bear outside, I just see now that bears are different than I thought they were” and then continue to proceed to talk about the monkey as though it had bear like features.

Multiple contradictory descriptions are all taken to be acceptable meanings for the nature of God and for theologians who see the absurdities of the literal personified God desperate dances are done to try to say the “god of the philosophers” and the “god of the Bible” are actually compatible in some mysterious higher way.  In all these cases, different people are thinking radically different things when they say “God” and some are meaning two competing incompatible things in different contexts.  This all happens while maintaining general religious unity not because these people agree (either with each other or in some cases with themselves) all because they still use the same memes.  And they can switch from happily from one interpretation of the meme to numerous others without feeling any particular existential angst.  On the other hand to declare themselves a faithless atheist when switching what they mean by God (from something personal to a complete abstraction that the world is mysterious) would induce some sort of existential crisis because of the visceral and irrational attachment to faith itself that instinctive respect for tradition has inculcated in them.   So, the easiest way to think like an atheist, for most people, is to just reinterpret the meanings of their tradition’s words in atheistic ways that still retain all the outward forms.

While we also need us atheists as part of the tug of war of interpretation of reality pulling people further away from personification, there is a place to have these religious moderates closer to the middle of the rope, using their influence on those who share their use of religious terms to persuade them to mean more rationally acceptable things by them. So, even though I worry a great deal that they’ll just perpetuate the meme which will the shallow will persist in interpreting in crude and obviously false ways, I think there is also a real function served by moderates in dealing with the reality that religion will not vanish overnight and so making it a better kind. And the more they find ways to give people transitional interpretations of their traditional memes that move their meaning closer to actually mapping reality, they provide an important service.

Personally, I wouldn’t stay in Christianity without the personal God and that’s why I left. Having been raised a fundamentalist, the choice of watering everything down was not an option I could tolerate. But there is a case to be made that it’s foolish to demand that Christians interpret their tradition in the worse ways than in better ones.  Christianity has differed enough over time that it is not any one belief or set of beliefs. It is just a tradition. It’s like America—America is not any one belief or practice. It’s a place with a tradition and our traditional forms and defining belief statements can all be reinterpreted in different ways and have been differently interpreted throughout history. Christians can change what they mean by Christianity all they like—it’s only the fundamentalists and those who want to police heresies that try to clamp down on varying interpretations.

So, from outside the faith, why concede to the fundamentalists and heresy-punishers that they’re right and they have the “real” meaning of their faith rather than the moderates and liberals? If moderates and liberals are willing to philosophize and modernize their beliefs into more intellectually, morally, and politically acceptable interpretations, why not encourage those interpretations over intellectually cruder and morally more bankrupt ones?

The best reason to try to tie people’s interpretations of religious traditions to their worst meanings is to try to repel them from staying in the traditions and encourage them to embrace a full-bodied atheism rather than one tortuously articulated in religious terms. Ultimately, the problems with religion itself may be so offensive to us that we would rather not have it flourish, even in relatively more rational and humane forms since religious institutions always have the potential to corrupt the layperson. Plus, there is just a concern for truth itself that might make even beautifully re-imagined religion still simply false and worth rejecting regardless of possible pragmatic benefits.

Those major reasons that I am an explicit atheist, rather than some breed of religious liberal interpreting my non-theist metaphysics as still somehow compatible with the Christian tradition. But I am not sure the extent to which whenever we see a debate within religion itself, I shouldn’t root for the side that’s closer to my own rather than dismiss both of them as hopelessly lost until they agree with me all the way down the line.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • VorJack

    You might be interested in Jensen’s essay “The Inquisition” over at Killing the Buddha: http://killingthebuddha.com/mag/confession/the-inquisition/

    It’s an abstract of the first section of the book, which deals with his attempt to join a Methodist church similar to the one he was brought up in. The conflict this creates is instructive.

  • Dan Fincke

    Thanks for the heads up!


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