A God That Could Be Real but Isn’t

A God That Could Be Real but Isn’t May 27, 2015

By Jonsafari (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
By Jonsafari (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

I just started reading Jerry Coyne’s new book, Faith vs. Fact and I’m finding it to be quite good. Last year he wrote a piece for The New Republic in which he addressed an issue that always frustrates me: the so-called sophisticated theologies. For those of you who haven’t spent years and years studying religion, these are notions of “God as Ground of Being” or the many varieties of process theology. They veer away from an interventionist God, sometimes even shunning the heavily supernatural.

After considering some of these ideas, he came up with three questions he would pose to proponents of such theologies:

1. On what basis do you know that God is a Ground-of-Being God instead of an anthropomorphic God? (In your answer, you cannot include as evidence the dubious claim that the former God is the one most people have accepted throughout history.)

2. How do you know that your Ground-of-Being god embodies truth, goodness, and beauty rather than lies, evil, and ugliness?

3. What would convince you that the god you describe doesn’t exist?

Let a theologian, for once, answer the best arguments of atheists: those that involve the question, “How do you know that?”

I’ve had this argument with many colleagues who have told me how they explain to their congregants “how God works.” God is not a big buddy in the sky, reward and punishment are not matters for the divine, God can’t stop a tsunami or the Holocaust. You get the idea. My question for them was always identical to Coyne’s, “How do you know?”

But the question doesn’t suit every notion of God. There are proposals about God that are immune to it because they involve complex re-definitions of the word itself. For such proposals there is no answer to the question because they are built on sensible things that we do know; things that are subsequently assigned the name “God.”

Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, was the Jewish master of this approach. He posited a very different kind of God. His notion was wholly non-supernatural. I was at one time completely enchanted by his ideas and my regard for him continues.

Kaplan argued that the discoveries of science compel modern people to “transvalue” the idea of God. He explained this in his 1937 book, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion:

Transvaluation consists in ascribing meanings to the traditional content of a religion or social heritage, which could neither have been contemplated nor implied by the authors of that content.

This was a radical idea at the time. God, he argued, is a force that emerges from the human experience, what he sometimes called the “Power that makes for salvation.” It is a kind of internal aspiration engine for humanity, pushing us to be better. I really enjoyed the freedom to see God this way and it salvaged traditional narratives and rituals for me. Until it didn’t.

The more I read Kaplan and thought about his ideas, the more I realized that no matter how non-supernatural he thought his God to be, it was impossible to understand without regarding it as having some kind of independence from humanity; as being a kind of force in the universe. He granted that his God could do nothing independent of human action, but he also described God as “the sum of the animating, organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos.”

In the end, I abandoned my Kaplanian journey. When he spoke plainly, it was clear that the only thing that he claimed was actually real was human action. When he discussed God in the context of Jewish tradition, it all became murkier. Even as he was making radical alterations to the liturgy, he continued to insist upon retaining all too many traditional words and rituals. And I never really got a straight answer as to why exactly I should preside over genital mutilation ceremonies in celebration of my fictional ancestors’ covenant with this non-supernatural power.

Nevertheless, he was an adherent of humanistic values and, alongside the insistently non-theistic founder of my own movement, Sherwin Wine, Kaplan signed the Humanist Manifesto II in 1973. And importantly, Coyne’s question – “How do you know that?” – could be easily answered by Kaplan. The answer is, “What’s to know? It’s obvious that people have within them the ability to act morally and righteously. I call that God.” There are plenty of problems with Kaplan’s work – not the least of which is how complicated it is and how many internal contradictions there are – but at its very core it was a statement about humanity that was (at least seemingly) free of any real supernatural insistence.

Kaplan’s greatest failure lies in his assertions about transvaluation. Despite his best efforts to transvalue God into some kind of brand-new idea and of taking every single story, prayer and ritual in Judaism and turning them into metaphors about human aspirations, the word God is not given to such a radical make-over. Despite the best attempts of Kaplan – and his contemporaries in other religious traditions – the vast majority of people will always think about God in pretty traditional ways. This makes perfect sense when we consider that God is a mostly anthropomorphic character in just about every one those traditions (God “speaks,” “creates,” “commands,” and so forth ad nauseum).

Not everyone who thinks about God this way has learned the lessons of Kaplan’s failure. Now comes along a self-proclaimed lifelong atheist, Nancy Ellen Abrams, who thinks she has stumbled upon a wholly original conception of God.

In her new book, A God That Could Be Real, she expands on this idea. I have not read it and I don’t intend to; I understood it well enough from her online essays.* Like Kaplan, she ties her God-idea to human aspirations. This is from her piece in Tikkun magazine where, after shooting down all the traditional ideas of God (like any good atheist), she writes:

Something new has to have emerged from the staggering complexity of all humanity’s aspirations, interacting. What is that Something?—that emergent phenomenon both fed by and feeding the aspirations of every human being? It didn’t exist before humans evolved, but it’s here now, and every one of us is directly connected to it simply by virtue of being human and having aspirations. It didn’t create the universe, but it has created the meaning of the universe, which is what matters to us. Meaning, universe, spirit, God, creation, and all other abstract concepts are themselves ideas that took form over countless generations, as people shared their aspirations to understand and express what may lie beyond the visible world. This emergent Something has created the power of all our words and ideas, including ideals like truth, justice, and freedom, which took millennia to clarify in practice, and which no individual could ever have invented or even imagined without a rich history that made it possible.

This infinitely complex Something, which has emerged and continues to emerge from instant to instant, growing exponentially and shape-shifting, can be accurately said to exist in the modern universe. It’s as real as the economy, as real as the government. It doesn’t matter if you’re Hindu or Christian or Jewish or atheist or agnostic, because I’m not proposing an alternative religious idea. I’m explaining an emergent phenomenon that actually exists in our scientific picture of reality. You don’t have to call it God, but it’s real. And when you search for a name for it, it may be the only thing that exists in the modern universe that is worthy of the name God.

On one hand, who can argue with the idea that “Something” has emerged from human experience? A lot of somethings have been developed by people over time. We all subscribe to endless cultural constructs and mass myths. Many, like the economic rules and governments, can be quite useful even if they are terrifically flawed.

But we do not relate to the economy on anthropomorphic terms. We don’t call it “Steve” and tell mythological narratives about it. So why should we take the “Something” that has emerged naturally from human experience and call it God? What sense is there in that? Why God? Why not Frank or Bill or Suzy? What is it about the craving to re-purpose and revivify “God” that makes a very smart woman (who takes pride in being married to a world-class physicist) write a book about a human phenomenon and decide that “God” is the best word for it? Is it to avoid calling herself an atheist? Is it so that she can pray to and feel comforted by this fantasy?

News flash for Ms. Abrams: We already learned from Kaplan’s attempts that transvaluation of God is not possible. Words have meanings. And while there is room for all kinds of linguistic nuances for many ideas, there is simply no sense in taking normal human processes and collectively naming them “God.”

(Abrams writes about how she began to think about all this when she joined a Twelve-Step recovery group. I’ve got my own issues that decades ago brought me into such groups. I found them to be quite useless, thank you very much, and I’ve had more success dealing with similar problems since I ceased participating in their pseudo-scientific semi-religion.)

In both Kaplan and Abrams we have ideas that can easily withstand Coyne’s (and my) usual challenges about “How do you know?” But this is only because at the very bottom of their proposals they are offering us literally nothing except bad reasons to use words and traditions in ways that they were never intended and that make no real sense.

There was a time that I found such notions terribly compelling with their attempts to make “God” relevant and naturalistic by applying it to every human phenomenon. But really, why bother? When I stopped playing these theological games, I discovered that it is a more worthy pursuit to simply examine these human phenomena for what they are, abandoning the exasperatingly useless and impossible attempts at reviving God through transvaluation.


*PZ Myers read it. You can read his very funny review at this link.

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