God: As Real as You or I

I was planning on posting on this subject anyway, but I then got tagged with a meme by Lingamish, and so the original idea will have a longer prelude and the post will have a slightly different form. The meme began at Elizaphanian. It poses the following questions:

1. if the nature of god is omnipotent, benevolent, and anthropomorphic (that god is a person, who sees suffering as wrong, and can change all of it), why does god not act to relieve all suffering, or at least the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest amount of people the greatest amount of time?
2. if you were god, and you were omnipotent and benevolent, how would you respond to suffering?
3. if this is not the nature of god, what is the nature of god, that allows suffering in the world?
4. if these are the wrong questions to ask, what are the right ones?

The ifs in the first question are BIG ifs. But the question itself illustrates a key point. Often the issue of theodicy is viewed as finding the best solution to the problem of undeserved suffering that preserves the concept of God we already have. But this assumes that we have received a unified, definitive understanding of God that must be preserved in this way, and anyone who has engaged in academic study of the Bible or religion in general will know that this is not the case. And so unless one has good reason for assuming a particular set of symbols and doctrines relating to God, the best approach is that set forth in the Book of Job: formulate and reformulate a view of God that does justice to the world as you experience, while also acknowledging how limited our understanding of the universe we are a part of really is.

If I were the sort of anthropomorphic God mentioned, I would like to hope that, if I asked my creations to be the sort of people that “go the extra mile” (literally or metaphorically), help those in need even if they are foreigners from a hated race, and hold them to these sorts of ideals, then I would live by those ideals myself. An anthropomorphic God is one who is very much like us, only bigger and more powerful and supposedly better in the sense of more kind and loving. If I asked my creations to forgive 70 times 7 times, and to turn the other cheek, I hope I would also do that myself. But this is one of the paradoxes of many forms of fundamentalism: it depicts God as setting a standard for human beings that the Scriptures, stories and doctrines of that tradition do not consistently show God living up to.

This is not to say that one cannot hold to some form of anthropomorphism and deal with the problem of evil in some way. The free will defense works to a certain extent for moral evil, even though it does nothing to mitigate the issues of cyclones and tsunamis. One simply has to acknowledge that God has placed constraints on his freedom by giving freedom to his creations. The analogy I used to use was of a chess grandmaster. If I play chess against a grandmaster, the expert can know for sure he or she will win even though I am free to make any legal move within the game. How is that possible? Simple: the grandmaster is better at it, and can see further ahead because of it. Apply this to an omniscience, omnipresent God, and his will reigns supreme even if we are free. Of course, sooner or later you have to explore the details of the analogy and that is when things get dicey. What are God’s pieces in such a scenario, and how does God move them?

At present, I tend to use panentheistic language, symbols and metaphors for God. For some progressive Christians, giving up theistic language has led to God being thought of as in some sense “less real” (in practice if not in theory). But such an outcome is not essential. We must think about God differently than people did in the past, but can one avoid objectifying God without making God seem less real?

In light of both a better understanding of the Biblical literature and an increasing scientific understanding of human nature, we’ve rethought the idea of human identity localized in an immaterial soul. But does this mean that there is no sense in which I exist? Not at all. What it means is that the personality and subjective experience I think of as me are emergent phenomena out of the material substances that make up my body. I am inseparable from all the cells, the chemicals, the molecules, the atoms, the subatomic particles that make up my person. Yet if you take each one and analyse it looking for “me”, you may never find “me”. I as a personality arise from the interconnectedness of these substances. I’m there in the relationships between them. I am the sum of their whole, and somehow (seemingly miraculously) I am greater than the sum of my parts.

I find it helpful to think of God in the same way. Is this not perhaps the reason why our experience of God centers around acts of kindness and self-sacrifice, the experience of love and being loved, the ensemble of musicians making harmonies? Is this not why the mystics so consistently speak of having a sense of the interconnectedness of all things? If we take apart our relationships, we will never find love as a separate substance. If we stop the orchestra and bring in scientific apparatuses of various sorts, we’ll never find the music. These arise out of the interrelationships and actions of things and of persons.

If we think of God as the ultimate level of existence, that which or the one who emerges out of the interconnectedness of all things, then we won’t find God in any of the places we look or the gaps between the things we understand. But that doesn’t mean that God is less real than you or I. It means God exists in the same sense as you or I.

Let me conclude by pointing you to an interview with Bart Ehrman on “The Artist’s Craft”:

"I guess, for my part, I don't see what the problematic part is. Jesus' saying ..."

Satan against Satan
"I personally disagree with that view, but you're nevertheless entitled to your opinion. :-)"

Jesus: A Gluttonous Drunken Disobedient Son?
"This has all been extremely helpful! I do think that setting it within the framework ..."

Satan against Satan

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  • Thank you, James, for this post. It decisively addresses one of the questions floating around about the beliefs of what you are calling progressive Christianity (though I find the term confusing given the Progressive label used in the late 19th century – intentional?) My follow up question would have to be: Does being characterized by a complex relationship of individual parts necessitate emergent properties? Is my car an emergent property? Or, more appropriate, is an ecosystem? I would think that some indication of emergence would be required before we can assign the designation (There’s that damned proof thing again!) Arguments from religious experience or fine-tuning might fit the bill here as they do in more traditional, creationist, arguments (no slur intended). That debate will surely go on.One is still left with the question of whether panentheism is Christian, but I don’t expect that to be settled anytime soon either.

  • I spoke too soon. A quick Wikipedia check shows that I do not understand the nuances between pantheism and panentheism. Need more research. I also have not realized the thread of both -isms in various Christian sects. So far what you espouse does not line up neatly with my first read of the definitions but that is likely my problem not yours.

  • Well, I must admit I’m not too troubled to find I’m out of sync with Wikipedia’s definition… 🙂 But more seriously, the first several paragraphs I skimmed are full of “and/or”. But I think I could make a strong case that anyone who doesn’t understand “panentheism” as I do should stop using the term since in their case it is something of an oxymoron. If everything exists within God in something other than the sense I’ve suggested, then God is something other than this “all” and so the “all” isn’t “all” after all! 🙂

  • If God is within us, as panentheism suggests, then God is so intimately connected with us that it seems to me we cannot stand outside of God and relate to God as a wholly Other. I think that makes objective characterization of God problematic. This, by the way, is one of the reasons why I think that the whole “what proof do you have of supernatural beings?” mantra that some atheists keep repeating goes off course. They seem to view God as simply another example of a “being”, in the same ontological category as all other conceivable beings, be they natural or supernatural. They think that all “beings” are thus subject to the same standard of analysis and verifiability, and since God is supposedly a supernatural type being who cannot be empirically verified, they sneeringly reject religion out of hand. But if God is not of the same ontological category as beings like you or I, then this whole line of analysis falters, a point that they really just refuse to consider or grasp.Anyway, it seems to me that if God is within us and thus we are all a part of God, then making any relationship to God as an Other (in the same sense that another human being is Other to me) problematic, then objectifying God is also problematic. But when we try to make sense of our understanding of God by assigning concrete qualities to God, or by using metaphors, do we objectify God in some sense? It seems to me that when we try to define God in some way, we lose something in the translation, but that this is not something can avoid because we can only use the tools we have at hand to try to characterize the Divine, limited though our tools might be.

  • I was afraid that my title might lead someone to understand me in this way. The only point I wanted to make in connection with the title is that “you” and “I” are similarly difficult to objectify. If it was possible to be a part of our organisms and to view things from that level, I don’t know that any cell or bacterium could see us in the sense of our integrated life and self-consciousness. They’d just see cells interacting.When we look at the universe, we see stuff that is simpler than us and we see one another. I’m suggesting that God, rather than being a ‘kind of stuff’ that permeates the universe, is an emergent transcendent reality related to the universe in the way we are to our bodies. In essence, I am returning to the classical Greek “world soul” idea, but reinterpreting it in light of modern scientific perspectives on the soul.Perhaps even doing that is objectifying God too much. Or perhaps I’m taking this metaphor too literally. What do you think?

  • I think it is an intriguing notion that God might be an emergent property. I had never considered that before. I am rather fascinated with the idea of emergent properties in general (and Whitehead’s metaphysics does include this idea as well). The physicist Robert Laughlin wrote a book about emergent properties that I tried to wade through because I was interested in the topic, but I just couldn’t finish it. As I said, I don’t know how we can talk about God except via metaphors. I think it comes with the territory.

  • Metaphors? The electron: Is it a particle or a dessert topping! 🙂

  • Bad

    “The free will defense works to a certain extent for moral evil, even though it does nothing to mitigate the issues of cyclones and tsunamis.”I head this a lot, but even leaving aside the basic philosophical incoherency of “free will” I think there are far better objections than natural evil. Many decisions we make that result in moral evil are, for instance, not intentionally evil, but end up doing evil because of lack of knowledge, appropriate foresight, misunderstandings and miscommunication, and so on. It’s not clear at all how a respect for free will would justify a designer allowing people’s ignorance leading to bad consequences: if anything, better information and understanding would expand, not contract, people’s range of choices. Likewise, it even more fundamentally makes no sense to say both that preserving free will is paramount and that actions that force certain choices to reduce suffering harm free will. We live in a universe that by its (designed?) nature is chock full of many many sorts of forced choices and limitations placed on our choices: some are even forced TO cause suffering. I’m just rambling on this point I suppose, since the necessary conclusion, abandoning one or more of the key elements of traditional theism, is not exactly a contentious subject here.

  • I certainly agree that freedom is not absolute. We have all sorts of constraints upon us. Having said that, I do think that there is something that can legitimately be called “free will” or “originality” or “creativity” or something like that. I also think it is worth having. And for that reason, I think that one can make sense of some aspects of the world we inhabit in theistic terms by appealing to this. But this still wouldn’t be the God depicted in much of the Bible. While contemporary philosophers often argue that there needs to be the possibility of not believing in God for there to be genuine human freedom, God as depicted in the Bible showed no such concern for not overwhelming humankind with demonstrations of his existence and power. And so I think a key point that needs to be emphasized is that if we could get the vast majority of religious believers all across the spectrum who are not in practice constrained by the Bible’s viewpoint to recognize/admit that this is the case, we’d have an overwhelming majority outnumbering the remaining fundamentalists! 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Mind if I add a question to this age old issue: If God is the creator of the universe and its natural laws, and the laws of nature have real consequences, then why should we not be subject to the consequences of nature? Or if we enjoy the positive consequences, why should we be exempt from the negative consequences?I certainly don’t think that puts an end to the discussion, but I do think that such questions are better than many of the “answers” to the question of suffering that I have heard.

  • Bad

    ” james f. mcgrath said…I certainly agree that freedom is not absolute. We have all sorts of constraints upon us. Having said that, I do think that there is something that can legitimately be called “free will” or “originality” or “creativity” or something like that. I also think it is worth having.”I’m never clear in these cases whether one means merely freedom to choose, or something more. Theodicy demands the “something more” sense of free will in which it is claimed that a person is in some sense from their own character and nature: a proposition that, as I said, I think is ultimately philosophically incoherent. Otherwise, it’s a trivial matter for a God to ensure or alter people’s characters such that they are kind and wise to a far higher degree, all without in any way hurting their free will (in that sense) and in fact probably enhancing it in the process!Talking about “freedom” in this context has always seemed to me to be an embarrassing exercise in almost deliberately confused terminology: the concept of “Free Will” in the strong sense can only survive as long as no one demands a definition. The very effort to define what it is, what role it plays in choices, what a choosing process is like with or without it, the alleged concept evaporates. Like I think with asking about “meaning” without specifying to whom what means what (as if “meaning” was something that could float around the universe on its own), talking about the freedom of wills is aggravating rather than illuminating. It’s defining a will by what it is not, when we need to know what it IS to understand what may or may not threaten it. “While contemporary philosophers often argue that there needs to be the possibility of not believing in God for there to be genuine human freedom,”An argument that, frankly, has always seemed just disappointing. In what other realm of life is our freedom enhanced by the possibility of what is ultimately a _factual_ error/mistake? Plenty of non-believers have stated that if such a creature as the biblical god existed, they would never be able to judge it good no matter what the consequences: including hellfire. So moral freedom, at least there, doesn’t seem to go away with the idea of god existing for sure. And what possible world are they imagining in which the knowledge that God exists would be the end of the story? As you note, virtually ever traditional text, such as the Bible, weighs in against this scenario: Adam and Eve knew, without doubt, that God existed. So did countless others. None of this made them morally perfect. “Anonymous: Or if we enjoy the positive consequences, why should we be exempt from the negative consequences?”This is actually a fairly standard retort, but the general answer is that its not clear why there would have to be any, or at least anywhere near as many, given the god concept that is generally at stake. An all powerful God would have no reason to respect natural laws in the first place, and a traditional gods certainly don’t, in scriptural practice, show any particular feeling that they need to respect them. Nor would such a God even need to have a world of natural laws at all: as Mill noted, nature is artifice and mechanism, which pure metaphysical power would have no need to resort to to get things done. And an omniscient god would, via even the natural laws we have now, achieve nearly any specific result of features in the natural world they wanted via causality.

  • Bad

    I’m way late to the party on these discussions, and maybe even commenting on a post past the first page is too late, but I recently penned a piece of my own with these discussions in mind, concerning one of the things that really interests me about more liberal theologies and the way they practice and use texts and so forth. I’d appreciate opinions on it, whether or not you think it’s directly directed at you (I think it’s an interesting question regardless of what or how you do in fact, use texts).