Let’s Agree to Agree on Subjectivity

There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer.

~Gertrude Stein


In last week’s post I looked at one way to smooth the waters between theists and non-theists, Pragmatism. Pragmatists say, if it works for you, it’s true.

Now, I know that’s a bit hard to swallow for some people, idealists, mostly. So, allow me to try to get to the same spot from a different direction.

For an idealist, there’s something out there that’s true. Idealists will admit that we see the world as we have learned to see the world; that our seeing affects us and those around us. It affects the world. Our seeing does not, however, make the world into what we see. The world is always as it is.

For example, I may decide that the tree in front of my house is possessed by an evil spirit. I may perform various rites to exorcise the evil spirit. I may even cut the tree down and burn it, thinking that that extremity will at last do away with the demon.

Perhaps I even believe that I succeeded in exorcising the demon and feel better about it all. Whatever I think, the fact of the matter is a dead tree, not an exorcised demon. One is measurable, the other is not.

Before going looking for something. It’s good to know what you’re looking for. What do we want in a god? I suspect the answer is: meaning and purpose in human life; a moral direction to the universe where the good and bad get what they deserve; perhaps even a cheerful afterlife where everyone is twenty-five years old and we get to talk with our grandmothers . . . and  hang out with Abraham Lincoln.

That sort of thing.

This is the sort of god that the mainline monotheisms at one time posited for us. It’s the sort of afterlife promised by the sort of churches I attended as a child. Then I read Sigmund Freud (as did the generation a century before me). And I began to think there is a big problem with this god concept: it sounds suspiciously like wish fulfillment. And it can’t be measured.

Mainline Christian theologians don’t paint this picture of God anymore. They have gone in two broad directions: process theology—“god” is in the processes of nature. (A topic for another day.) Or the psychological route, saying: OK, we’ve got two things here:

There is that which is inside the human brain; and that which is outside the human brain.

This is, after all, how we experience reality: the personal and the impersonal. “God” is subjective: inside the human brain. God is not in the scientifically measurable outside realm.

These theologians will argue that putting god in the category of human subjectivity is not a denigration or demotion of God. Lot’s of important things exist only in our subjectivity. For example, I have spent much of my life fighting for “justice.” (Again with the quotes!)

“Justice” is a human subjectivity. “Justice” does not exist in the outside world as a measurable thing. You can’t weigh it. Consider: “Justice” has no meaning to a crocodile. A crocodile cannot act justly, at least from a human perspective.

Is justice an insignificant or untrue concept because it is the product of the human mind? Admittedly, we can say, “That was a just court decision” or “that was an unjust court decision.” But those are instances in time. The are not the concept “justice.”

Groups of human beings agree on the subjectivity called “justice.”

And the same is true of the several concepts of God. God is a shared consensual subjectivity among various groups.  A shared consensual subjectivity. We agree that our subjectivities agree with each other and that the concept “God” is this way or that way … for us. That’s why various faith traditions require creeds said aloud: they are attempting to keep the shared consensual subjectivity similar in various minds.

Now clearly this concept of God pushes the idea of human understanding beyond the true / false dichotomy. Beyond the dichotomy that objective is true and subjective is false or at least suspicious. But consider—so far as we know, human consciousness is the most complex thing in the universe. So let’s give ourselves a little credit–maybe everything isn’t a zero or a one.

Computers are better than we are at chess. But not at writing poems.  Or symphonies. Everything is not zero or one. Crocodiles or rocks don’t write poetry. People write poetry. And “God” is poetry. God is a human art.  Knowledge is more than information.

It may well be that “religion” or “god” or “gods” exist in the same category as we consider abstract concepts such as “justice”—in objective reality these concepts don’t exist, yet the human brain is capable of creating these concepts out of the chaotic particulars of human experience.

Fact is, no matter how many times the US Supreme Court makes a really, really stupid decision, I’m going to keep working for what I see as justice. For many people, the same is true for “God”—despite all the evidence to the contrary, it is a concept that still makes sense to them.

This is why—despite the fact that I don’t share the subjectivity called God—I don’t get angry and shout about it. It can even be fun—and instructive—to to talk over our subjectivities. We might even learn something from each other.

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