On God

Does God exist?

Well yes, of course, though it’s very unclear what He’s like. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since Christopher Hitchens died. And as between the existence of God and Christopher Hitchens, God has an exciting edge. Generally speaking, the muscular atheists like Hitchens tended to make me favor God.

Richard Dawkins calls God a “moral monster”:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Yikes. God is worse than Hitler. Never mind comparing political opponents to Hitler anymore. Just compare them to God.

This is adolescent nonsense — a rebellion against a caricature the way teenagers rebel against their caricatured view of their parents. And everything Dawkins stridently claims about the God of the Old Testament is a grotesque misreading and misunderstanding of the Old Testament. (See Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God, by Paul Copan.) The God of the Old Testament cared about goodness and wickedness — and the latter was abundant in the Near East before Jesus.

I’m actually more comfortable with the God of the Old Testament, a God with a personality and passion, a God who changes His mind at times, than I am with the ultimate God who emerged from Christian theology — the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinitely Good everything entity who strikes me more as a cosmic supercomputer and a placeholder for Everything.

You get one or the other, it seems to me: a God with whom you can have a personal relationship (and who is therefore Great but flawed and evolving) or a Perfect Ultimate God Who is Everything Infinitely Et Cetera — and with Whom, therefore, no meaningful personal relationship is possible. A being who knows everything, can do anything, is everywhere, is always Good — think about that, step by step. Who can relate to that? Who can even conceive it? How is it possible to have a personal relationship with Infinity? That’s the infinite joke.

I grant the stupendous beauty of the Jesus story. Frankly, if I were God, I’d do it something like the Jesus way, where God becomes human. Tremendous and compelling story. I can even see the point of doing it during the Roman empire (as opposed to, say, now, when everything Jesus said would be wasted in a circus of silly pundits, people like me, and New Jersey housewives).

I just don’t get why people have to go through Jesus to get to salvation, what’s the difference between Jesus and God, why God has to be Ultimate Everything when He evidently wasn’t on Earth 2,000 years ago, how God can even be Ultimate Everything and meaningful, why God would make us choose heaven or hell (!) based upon a story, why God of all people would be coy, why God of all people would allow different (false?) stories to be perpetrated by people of abundant goodness, why God of all people would allow billions of people to be perfectly sincere but wrong, with eternal consequences, why God would design a world where sincerity didn’t matter but faithful subscription to one historical story did, why even an empty Deist God, if all religions are true, would matter a whit personally.

As I’ve made plain before, I’m a pro-God agnostic. I’m pretty sure God exists. I just don’t have any evidence for it. My dear brother said to me over the holidays, “just ask God.” Yes. I haven’t been able to do that quite yet. It reminds me of trying to pray back in the day. Tried. Wasn’t talking to anyone except myself. People who experience God — God bless you.

Here’s what I ask of you. Grant that some of us have tried and did not experience God. Treat that as real. Let it be “God’s will” or whatever story you want, but grant us sincerity. Let me be as real and true as you, okay?

And then, pray for me. My dear Hindu friend, Chaggan Patel, said to me when I lived in Kenya, “we survive on the strength of people’s prayers for us.” Maybe so. Pray for me.

17 Responses to On God

  1. lbwoodgate says:

    “As I’ve made plain before, I’m a pro-God agnostic. I’m pretty sure God exists. I just don’t have any evidence for it.”

    What you and millions others like you do have (like myself) is the weight of a culture that does strongly believe it and not having been given a balanced perspective from an equal number of people who view things differently, you take the middle road.

    Would you have been flummoxed if, in your developing years, you were raised isolated with people who had none of those cultural images to lay on you daily? Probably not.

    • I’m not sure I understand your point Larry.

      • lbwoodgate says:

        How does anyone know that God exists? All that we do know about him/her hasn’t been from a personal visitation but from ancient traditions that have been passed down through the ages vis a’ vis human culture.

        If you don’t have any personal evidence of his/her existence, why would you even suggest that you’re pretty sure God exists if for no other reason than you feel some people you have associated with have come across as sincere in their own belief of the deity and you’re willing to give them the benefit of the doubt?

        I’m not suggesting that we cannot have what I’ll categorize as “spiritual” experiences. I was pretty sure I had one myself many years ago. But was it really other worldly or is the human brain able to evoke a sense of non-corpereal being? Obviously we have yet to discover this about ourselves but we know the human mind is not fully tapped. God on the other hand, as presented to us through our culture, exist only in the stories of ancient scriptures that we take at face value as being true or for some at least as probable.

        Without those stories does anyone today come to “know” God in the same way or even consider his/her existence a possibility?

        • Well, yes, Larry, you tee up nicely the concerns of secularists and lapsed people of faith concerning reliance on ancient stories and cultural traditions. I nevertheless say “I’m pretty sure God exists even though I don’t have evidence for it” because God is kind of a placeholder for what’s going on beyond my comprehension. Science, by the way, does this all the time. If we cannot figure out why our mathematics suggests a tremendous amount more matter than we can see or measure (based upon galaxy rotation speeds, for example), then science suggests a placeholder called “dark matter.” And then, when gravity should slow down the expansion of galaxies, science suggests a placeholder called “dark energy.” Neither is measurable or observable (yet). Both suggest phenomena we haven’t figured out yet. Science does with such placeholders precisely what theology does with God as a placeholder. Both disciplines use logic and what we’ve been able to observe so far to postulate a phenomenon we cannot (yet) understand but that makes rough sense of what would otherwise be an irreconcilable puzzle.

          So I have no more problem with “God” than I do with numerous science placeholders. The controversy with God, of course, comes from non-scientific claims about God’s intervention in human history, God’s expectations of human beings, God’s conditioning of eternal consequences on submission to certain religious narratives, etc. These controversies, because they are truth-claims that don’t abide by the scientific method, seem to pit God against science — but only if God is pigeon-holed in a particular narrative.

          So yes, I’m pretty sure God exists even though I don’t have evidence for it — or to put it more precisely, I have about the same evidence for it that I do for dark matter and dark energy. I have abundant inferences, otherwise unexplainable phenomena, and decent reasons to grant the very real possibility of existence. That doesn’t get me to the primacy of any particular religious truth-claim — but it starts me, robustly, on a path that begins with how much I do not know.

          • lbwoodgate says:

            Okay, I get that. I think sometimes myself that if there be a God then science is the method by which we determine his/her/its existence.

            Science, for me, is also the method we dispel the ancient cultural views man creates of this unseen figure. I like that he serves as a metaphor for our deepest fears and hopes but when people start projecting those fears and hopes into an actual being without realizing it, then I feel it falls on them to validate this in some sense that is tangible.

            “Miracles” to me are a romantic notion on how God intervenes in people’s lives but below that perception is the view that they are simply phenomena that we have yet to fully explain with the scientific method. That sounds cold I know to reduce everything down to the view that everything is definable in man’s terms, but there is still a part of that me that enjoys the mystique aspect about it too. This allows me then, I think, to identify now with your sentiment about being a “pro-God agnostic.”

          • I think we agree that both science and theology can be about wonder. I’m not sure science will ever really catch up with God, and so I sort of disagree with your opening paragraphs. But the rest of your comment resonates with me. Science currently posits multiple (11?) dimensions (to make string theory work), and it’s a given that lower dimensions cannot comprehend higher dimensions. It makes perfect sense to me that God is in a higher dimension — which is why I resist the notion that God would operate with a take-it-or-leave-it story in our dimensions. But thanks Larry, opening into God gives us more than we otherwise have.

  2. jmgoyder says:

    I love this post for so many reasons – too many to state here. Wonderful food for thought for ‘lapsed’ Christians like myself – hehe! I would hope that God, whoever God is, would appreciate your irony and my humour and/or vice versa!

    • Well, could you maybe just give me four or five reasons? Just kidding. Thanks for the visit J.

  3. Great thoughts. I don’t know you, but I was directed to this post from another person.

    I often struggle with the issues you stuggle with. What a trying time it is for me when I truly ponder so many “why?” about God. They are endless for me as I think that I would do so many things differently. As Bono, the great Christian philosopher (!) once said, “I don’t know why, but I know you have to believe” (Playboy Mansion, Pop). I don’t know why you have to believe.

    However, I am a committed Christian who is deeply concerned about these same questions. However, as a Christian, and trying my best to represent how Christians might respond beyond naked empathy, I would say that it comes down to ultimate authority. Who has the ultimate authority to tell what God is like and what he requires? I think that that is where you are right now my friend and that is the answer that you have to come to a conclusion on or the unanswered questions about the justice of hell, the nature of God, the “how?” of the incarnation, and many many other things will simply be in the world of agnostic answers.

    Of couse our feelings have a part to play. Theologians call this the “analogy of being.” We are like God in the Christian worldview being created in his image. In fact the Psalmist says that we are created “a little lower than God” in authority (Ps. 8:5). Therefore we are well within the bounds of the Christian belief when we seek justice, love, and hope filtered through the paradigm of reason. But we are also sinful and corrupted with a broken ability to assess things properly and, more importantly, to trust that God knows what he is doing. Like you said about the know-it-all teen who seeks to judge his parents based on his newly found “wisdom”, the Bible is filled with testimonly that people are continually placing God on the judgement seat to give an accounting of himself, questioning his righteousness, love, and every aspect of his character as he has revealed it to us. In this, we place oursleves in authority over God. This is where our feelings about things leave us in a perpetual state of agnosticism. It is all they can produce.

    The Christian worldview does not say we set aside our feeling, reason, or experience, but that they all come under subjection to the ultimate authority of God as revealed in Christ. This is where faith comes in. No, not blind irrational faith, but the faith of the MOST rational sort as we have a conviction that Jesus rose from the grave and demonstrated that he is indeed God incarnate. This fact does not bring all Christian truth under subjection to our understanding, but it does bring our thoughts and beliefs into subjection to Christ’s thoughts and beliefs. We cannot know how the transcendent can become immanent, we cannot know why God does not save everyone (which is my biggest “problem” with my faith….I mean come on, just save everybody), we cannot know why he does not speak to us like we speak to each other (after all, wouldn’t it be much more efficient if God would just respond to this post HIMSELF!), but we can know that what Christ says is authoritative over what we say and think. When he says “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) and he says that he loves all people (1 Tim. 2:2), and then we hear that most people are not going to ultimately find him (Matt. 7:14), we scratch our heads and try to do an emotional mix-and-match to make 1) ourselves feel better and 2) it more reasonable. But God just says this: “I am God, you are not. Lesson one. Are you willing to go with me there? If so, lesson two. Jesus is my son and has the ultimate authority to reveal what I am like (Heb. 1:1-2). Just trust me and know that I am God. I know what I am doing. I love people more than you know. And I am in more control than you think. I don’t go on any judgement seat of yours (Rom. 3:4). Are you willing to trust me or yourself?”

    It all starts and ends with the question of who has the ultimate authority to define God? I believe, because of the resurrection of Christ, he does.” Therefore, I try (TRY!) to turn the pages of the Scripture more than I turn the pages of my emotions. “I don’t know why, but I know you have to believe.”

    Sorry for being so long winded. I pray that God will give us both peace when we are confused.

    C. Michael Patton

    • Welcome Michael, and thank you for such a thoughtful comment. Your reputation precedes you thanks to some members of my family who follow the great work you do with your Parchment & Pen blog. Unfortunately, your response here doesn’t move me — not, I hasten to emphasize, for lack of sincerity or intelligence — but because it’s so circular: if we just submit to God’s authority, based upon what God has allegedly said in this or that scripture, then it becomes clear and all is well. Well, not to be too pointed about it, but it was presumably clear to Jim Jones’ followers, who submitted to God’s authority, as interpreted by Jim Jones, and killed themselves by the hundreds with cyanide-laced grape juice. My point is that positing “God’s authority” doesn’t resolve (a) whether God exists in the first place; (b) how God would properly exercise His authority; (c) which humans get to be the “authoritative” arbiters of what God has in fact said; (d) which interpretations and translations of what God has allegedly said are “authoritative”; (e) why “authority” would be dispositive if God exercised it so coyly (i.e., why God would make a big deal about His authority, but hide the ball, historically, with legions of religions, most of whom claim irreconcilable monopolies on interpreting God’s “authority”); (f) why God (of all people) would say, “just trust me” — that is, just trust one story, among many, and put all your marbles there, and then everything will be okay (and by the way, He won’t be visiting anymore with burning bushes or otherwise); and (g) why God (of all people) would predicate eternal consequences — eternal (!!)… forever — on submission to His authority as set forth in one story about God. God sounds less and less like God and more like a human urgency to seize a narrative.

      I don’t know any more robust defender of faith by an agnostic than me. I truly and deeply respect people of faith. I am capable of rage at the condescension and belittlement they suffer by glib and frequently stupid secularists. But I cannot submit, willy-nilly, to an “authority” that simply demands my submission because one story says so. I’m reminded of Whittaker Chambers’ powerful description of Communists and the proper party member, who could earnestly believe x today, and then earnestly believe the opposite of x tomorrow, if the Party demanded it. I can’t. Does that make me (according to one narrative) one of the “un-elect”? One of the people whom God already knows won’t have faith? And is that really God-like to pick people for eternal consequences that way? I wish I were a person of faith, I wish it deeply, but cannot make it so by wishing.

  4. I love that…”pro-God agnostic.”

  5. Thanks for the response. I appreciate that you are thoughtful and truly open. I can sense that you are.

    When I say that we submit to the authority of God, I don’t want you to think of this as a submission that is without warrant. At least, I don’t think of it as such myself. There are some “presuppositional” thinkers out there who say that because it is in the Bible, it has warrant. But this can be very circular (athough, properly understood as expressed by thinkers such as Alvin Plantinga and John Frame, it can make sense).

    When I say that I submit to the authority of God, I mean first this: 1) I believe that Christ rose from the grave as a historical event. 2) I believe that the Bible gives a generally trustworthy account of what Christ said and did. 3) Therefore, I submit to Christ’s authority as I believe that he is God. 4) I believe that the Bible is inspired and inerrant.

    I don’t want to start with 4 since it depends so much on the first three. Therefore, I leave that aside. However, would you be willing to go with me here: If Christ rose historically from the dead then, at the very least, his view of ultimate reality is more reliable than ours?

    • Thanks very much Michael. I truly appreciate your taking the time to think through some of this with me. And as you narrow the question, it is indisputable. Yes, if Christ rose from the dead, then His view of reality is more reliable than ours. I think I understand (and respect) your intent here: drive the discussion to the historicity of the resurrection, focus on the abundant arguments for its historicity, and if, when that smoke clears, it seems more probable than not that Christ did in fact rise from the dead, then multiple compelling propositions of the Christian narrative follow. And indeed, as a logical sequence, that approach makes sense. If the Christian narrative is true (or even simply one of the better narratives), then promoting its acceptance would depend upon precisely this kind of careful argument to counter the notion that Christianity demands some suspension of our basic intellectual capacities. But my problem precedes that logical sequence.

      I do not wish to seem coy, or intent on mere cleverness here — seriously. But long before we reach the very interesting arguments for the historicity of the resurrection, I am troubled by the very notion of an infinite and omnipotent God conditioning eternal consequences on the vagaries of historical argument. My masters degree in history certainly didn’t make me an expert, but it did immerse me in the malleability of history and the inevitability of conflicting narratives not merely about “why it happened” and “what it means,” but even more fundamentally “what happened.” Why would God choose this clashing milieu as the basis for assigning billions of souls to heaven or hell? According to the Christian narrative, I may not care a whit about history, have no interest whatever in exploring “what happened” two thousand years ago, and accept Jesus simply because that’s what my parents told me to do — and I get to go to heaven. Conversely, I may care enormously about history and want to know as urgently as it possible to want to know exactly what happened two thousand years ago — but if I decline the Christian invitation (or simply hold it in suspension, as one possibility), then I go to hell. Why would God operate this way?? Why would God condition eternal consequences on sincere vagaries of our personalities — much less award the big prize to lots of people who couldn’t care less what happened? How could that possibly be a rational or even remotely fair mediation of a short human life and eternity?

      I grant that Christianity, almost uniquely among the major religions, opens as broadly as possible, and invites acceptance of its narrative to virtually all personality types (i.e., not simply personalities steeped in certain kinds of rituals or spiritual sensibilities). But it still turns on accepting the historical resurrection of Jesus (even if you have no actual basis for believing, or interest in, that historical narrative), and it therefore still presupposes a God who conditions eternal consequences on an event in history two thousand years ago — when even a cursory reading of current events yields abundant controversy about what happened last week! If I accept with a measure of modesty the difficulty of knowing, with certainty, what happened last week, and then apply that to events two thousand years ago — why am I condemned to hell for feeling just a natural bit of uncertainty? Who is that God?? And most importantly, why would God operate that way? Why wouldn’t an infinitely benevolent God make Himself real and historically verifiable (or at least arguable) in every generation?? Why should I care about a God that demands either a vapid submission to an historical event two thousand years ago or a kind of Pascal’s wager (where I say, well, I’m going with Jesus because “Hell” tips the odds) to determine whether my wee human life yields eternity in heaven or hell??

      A God who is less than Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent, and infinitely Good might operate that way. That is to say, a being greater than humans (but less than Perfect) might enter human history this way, and suggest certain consequences based upon an historical proposition — but it simply makes no sense that the ultimate everything Christian God would operate that way. That’s my problem.

      Thanks again for engaging Michael. I need to get a job, but I’d like to get some closure on God first.

  6. jlmacsr says:

    As your brother, I am always impressed with the proficiency with which you express your thoughts, and greatly admire your courage in placing those thoughts in a public forum for open discussion. I hope that someday you will find God and grow to know Him and His son, Jesus Christ, feeling His daily presence, His comfort and His guidance in your life as I do in mine. It is a choice of yielding authority to God, the creator of all things, or relying upon yourself. Regardless of your choice Kendrick, I will always love you, always accept you as you are, and yes, I will continue to pray for you!

    • Thanks bro, and very much back atcha, with much affection. We have always known this about each other and always loved each other notwithstanding — and this is, frankly, another issue that disturbs me about God. Why would God pit loved ones against each other in this creepy way? Why would God condition eternal consequences on a story that one brother embraced and another didn’t, and then watch the brothers loving each other notwithstanding — even though we’re living in a massive fiction, and according to one brother, the other brother is going to hell, and shouldn’t that matter more than anything? Can you tell me anything in this earthly life that matters even a tiny particle as much as eternity? Yet, you’d disagree about this or that, even get mad about this or that — but you wouldn’t do everything in your power, everything, to save me from Hell? Why would you “accept” me as I am if “as I am” means going to Hell?? The Christian narrative creates family schizophrenia. If you really believe I’m going to Hell, or my son is going to Hell, then nothing on this earth should matter as much to you as doing everything you possibly can to make sure that doesn’t happen. And yet you stay polite (God bless you) — polite, regarding the most significant and permanent consequences in the universe! If Christians really believe what they say they believe, if truly eternal consequences follow from the Christian choice, then every Christian must be doing everything he or she can do to save loved ones. Anything less is frankly immoral — according to the morality established by eternal consequences. No Christian is moral who doesn’t strive abundantly to save loved ones from Hell because nothing, absolutely nothing, on this earth, matters even a fraction as much as eternity. And if my claiming that Christians are immoral for their passivity in the face of eternal consequences seems bizarre or surreal to you — exactly! Why would God operate that way? Why would God (of all people) create that condition? Why would God make you immoral?

      Obviously I don’t think you’re immoral. But seriously — what matters more than eternity? Name one thing on this Earth. Name one thing that matters even a tiny fraction as much as eternity. Nothing. Not even close. That makes “accepting me as I am” a willy-nilly acceptance of eternal Hell for your brother and your nephew. Why would you do that? Why would God operate that way??

      I don’t think God operates that way brother! I cannot accept that. But I thank you sincerely for your acceptance, your love, and your prayers. Much affection bro.

  7. souldipper says:

    We survive because of other people’s prayers for us? I’m in big trouble. I don’t think I’ve had enough problems, crises, misfortunes or accidents to have many people praying for me at all! This means, I better find some things to whinge and whine about or no one will be praying for me.

    I was raised in the Anglican faith, studied some Theology courses, and explored various paths. The God/Jesus/Buddha/Goodness spirit is embedded inside me. I function in partnership with a concoction I call Love. That’s the power I see and feel. I love to keep things simple.

    However! I do pray for others who are filled with fear. There’s the hell in living! No one deserves to be there.

  8. I am very sorry. I just realized that I had not checked back here to see if there were any other comments. I thought I had checked the “notify me” box. Hopefully I will be able to get around to this very soon. Just wanted to let you know I have not forgotten about your great insights and concerns about God.

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