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.

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Stonehenge Step Aside (plus God)

11,600 years ago — 7,000 years before Stonehenge — humans built an elaborate temple. They had no writing. They had no metal. They had no pottery. They didn’t even have wheels to aid construction. But they had some kind of yearning.

The site is Gobekli Tepe, in southeastern Turkey.

The temple is impossible. The humans foraging for food at the time had no way to undertake such a construction, or to haul the massive stones from a distance, or even to stay in one place long enough to think about constructing a temple.

But there it is. Our origins are a massive multiplying mystery.

Let’s think about God and His chronology.

11,600 years ago, human hunter-gatherers on the border of the Ice Age build a temple, having (to our knowledge) never built anything more complicated than a hut. This is a sacred outreach, a spectacular superfluity in the teeth of challenging Neolithic survival. Nothing seems necessary about the temple, in the way that huts and game and berries are necessary. But such an undertaking could not have happened unless its builders viewed it as necessary — indeed, more urgent than huts and game and berries.

Yet God waited until over 7,000 years after this human monumental yearning for the divine to get in touch with Abraham, and the authors of the Hindu Vedas, then another 1,400 years to inspire Gautama the Buddha, and then another 600 years to send His son into human history to die for our sins, and another 600 years thereafter to speak with Mohamed. Why?

Why not establish the definitive relationship of God and humanity at the earliest point of humanoid yearning for the divine? Why not get it settled? What was God thinking?

Why would God be coy? Perhaps God desired true presence with human beings only when they could truly register it, only when it was possible to spread the Word by other than word-of-mouth. Perhaps God was dealing with other matters for a few millennia.

I must confess to a bias here. The asserted omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience of God makes God unreal to me. An all-powerful, everywhere, all-knowing God generates mind-boggling contradictions. I like a smaller God. A God with a personality — which is impossible if God is all-everything. The ultimate turbo-God looks so much like a necessary heuristic, a concept that had to be invented to reinforce monotheism, but which strips God of any meaningfulness. God is everything? Okay. Not helpful.

If God, possibly, is not literally everything (and therefore potentially meaningful), then a God-space becomes much more attractive. Interestingly, every major religion treats God, in its narrative passages, as a personality. The Jewish scriptures show God changing His mind, getting emotional, engaging in negotiations with good people, and evolving in His sensibility. Christianity and Islam built upon this narrative, but became much more rigorously monotheistic and absolutist — while, oddly, embracing the original Jewish narrative — and in the case of Christianity, ironically, developing a polytheistic heuristic with the doctrine of the Trinity.

The reach of the human imagination is awe-inspiring, and never more so than when it seeks the divine. Our religious architecture — our urgent thinking and feeling about God and everything we conceive in that urgency — is, to borrow Keats, a thing of beauty, a joy forever, and always the best of the human impulse to stand modest before what we cannot understand.

I love the humans that built the Gobekli Tepe temple. I love their sacrifice and their devotion. They were modest and lifted up their hands to God, somehow, and said please save us. And the rest is history.

Our Secular Presidency

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

That is our Declaration of Independence, the 1776 document that set our new nation on its risky course of challenging the preeminent 18th century superpower.  Our beginning could have been — arguably was likely to be — aborted.  The odds were against us.  Ultimately, America was the only British colony over the course of four centuries and a British empire spanning the globe to win its independence by war.

When President Obama recently addressed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, he quoted that Declaration passage as follows (clip at 22:30):  “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal [pause], endowed with certain unalienable Rights:  Life and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

I’ve much less interest in either the religious or the political point than the rhetorical point.  The President’s paraphrase is interesting for two reasons: it preserves the politically incorrect “Men” and omits the less politically incorrect “Creator.”  “Men,” no hiccup; God, hiccup.

Why would this President — assailed in various corners for irreligiosity and Islamic sympathies — edit the Declaration of Independence to omit reference to the “Creator”?  Certainly that benign reference offends no one, and it is as non-denominational as it was possible to be in the 18th century (as Deist Thomas Jefferson precisely intended).

This is the President who wrote, in The Audacity of Hope, that he chose to follow Jesus because “what was intellectual and what was emotional joined, and the belief in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, that he died for our sins, that through him we could achieve eternal life — but also that, through good works we could find order and meaning here on Earth and transcend our limits and our flaws and our foibles — I found that powerful.”

Really?

Most of the religion of politicians is fake.  They pretend so as not to offend.  They act the part because the electoral damage for failing to act the part would be severe.  Politicians, the aspirants to power, believe first in power and its culture, and distantly third, in God.

So the President purports to believe in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, that he died for our sins, and that through him we can achieve eternal life — now that’s down-home religion — but he hiccups at referring to “the Creator” when he quotes the Declaration of Independence?

That hiccup comes from a thoroughly secular mind.  There is no religious sensibility here.  For the burgeoning swath of Americans who believe the President is a Muslim, take comfort, he is not.  His mind and heart are thoroughly secular, incapable of genuine religious devotion.  His sympathies for religions are political, not religious, impulses.

President Obama was the first president to mention non-believers in an inaugural address when he said, “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers.”  Another interesting phrasing and sequencing.

We’re actually a nation overwhelmingly of Christians — 78.4% — compared to 0.6% Muslims, yet that is the President’s chosen coupling.  Jews, rhetorically cast with Hindus and non-believers, comprise 1.7% of our population, roughly three times the number of Muslims.  Buddhists, who are unmentioned, comprise 0.7% of the population, more than Muslims.  “Unitarians and other liberal faiths” also log in at 0.7%.

The President’s solicitude for Islam may or may not be a good thing, but it is political, not religious.  His sympathy for non-believers — who are 10.3% of the population (counting agnostics, atheists, and “secular unaffiliated”) may well be sincere.

UPDATE (Oct. 20, 2010): And he does it again. Omits the Creator.

Pro-God Agnostics versus Anti-God Agnostics

Agnostics are at war with atheists — and properly so, because, like Shiites and Sunnis, or Catholics and Protestants, or Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhists, or Orthodox and Reform Jews, the ones closest to you who tack differently on a point that implicates Authenticity, are reallyno, seriously, really — extremely annoying.

Thus did I have the great misfortune recently to open up another deep fissure in human relationships.  Alas, this is the new rumbling Great War between Pro-God Agnostics and Anti-God Agnostics.

I am unabashedly pro-God.  But not in the sense of having experienced a personal God.  More in the sense of being God’s lawyer.  A very dear friend is rather strongly anti-God, but not in the sense of disproving God, much less having experienced God’s wrath or disapproval.  More in the sense of finding God disagreeable, even bizarrely irrational.

You can imagine the fireworks. The shouting, oy.

So God creates a universe that takes billions of years to expand and produce anything of interest, my friend rants, never mind humans, and this is divinely inspired how?

This is a young God, I say, playing pinball.  You can think pinball is pretty cool for a long time, particularly when you don’t have computer games.  (I know whereof I speak.)  And, okay, maybe not so interesting to you, but I can see how young God would have thought the bing-bing-bing of the billions of years after the Big Bang was cool.  The light show, the explosions, the superhot and supercold, the proliferation of particles and possibilities.

Okay, he says, given everything God has expected of humans, what took him so long to create them?

Good question, I concede.  But who says he didn’t?  Maybe there are humans or humanoids or possibly Klingons or ideally Vulcans out there that God created long before us.  (And, not incidentally, they haven’t attacked us yet.  Thank God.)

But let’s say we’re the only sentient game in town.  The DNA molecule — complex, self-replicating combinations of atoms — was a paradigm shift for God.  Young God could have savored extremely cool explosions and fissions and fusions for a long time before the massive complexity of the DNA molecule would have occurred to him.  Human mythologies put human beings at the end of creation for a reason.  And it’s not just self-aggrandizement.

Yes, he concedes (because he had said it in an entirely unrelated thread of our conversation, and couldn’t now deny it), we’re complex.  But, he says, God created that complexity. 

But, I interject a bit rudely, we know from The Fifth Element there can be a superior being with tremendously more complex DNA.  Just saying.

Right, he says, but I’m talking about our level of complexity.  And God expects that complexity to do obeisance to him, to bow, to worship.  What truly supreme being really expects obeisance and bowing and worshipping?  Particularly from complexity.  And by the way, he opted not to give us perfect or complete — or even much — knowledge.  But by god, we better worship him anyway.  Or bad things will happen to us.  Depending on the sect, anything between truly horrific and eternally boring things will happen to us.  Sorry.  Design defect.

And oh yes, God created that complexity and incomplete knowledge and terrible consequences for failing to worship him, knowing everything that would happen, and therefore deliberately condemning many people to terrible consequences — people he created in order to condemn them to terrible consequences.  Not interested.

Okay, slow down, I say.  Not that there’s not a devastating kernel of truth to what you’re saying.  But you’re talking about Baal, or maybe Apollo, but not God.

The whole omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent thing, not sure that’s God.  If you really think about “omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent,” these don’t add up to a personal God, or a God to whom massively imperfect human beings could ever relate — or who could ever relate to human beings.  If I’m omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, if I know everything, have every power conceivable, and am everywhere, I’m probably depressed, overextended, and very bored.  Just think for a moment what it would mean to know everything, and to know you knew everything.  The inability to forget anything — well, that’s a kind of limitation on divinity itself, isn’t it?  Couldn’t divinity opt to forget?  And couldn’t divinity forego certain of its powers or opt to be less than everywhere?

So, he says, your God is more like Superman or Spiderman or Batman?  He has superpowers, but not every power?

Maybe so maybe no.  And I know you’re trying to trivialize God by comparison to comic book heroes.  But the enormous popularity of these comic book heroes is not entirely irrelevant to the popularity of God…

Exactly, he says, God is the ultimate superhero, addressing our longing for something that has power over the inexplicable…

Let me finish, I say.  (Granted, testy — but this is what happens in internecine inter-non-faith disputes.)

Yes, God explains certain things otherwise inexplicable — but granting as you do the existence of the inexplicable, God fills the vacuum.  On some level, God is a placeholder where human perception experiences fear of the unknown and human imagination supplies an answer — and who knows what the ultimate content of God may be?  Now re-frame that notion: we cannot ultimately know God, but we can surmise that God exists in what will never otherwise be fully explained.

Oh come on, he says, that’s shorthand for God equals the historical extent of human ignorance.  Cavemen who didn’t understand sunlight or rain or lightning attributed them to God — ergo God?

No, God shrinks a bit with every human discovery, but never disappears and never will disappear.  You yourself acknowledged the inexplicable.  The very best minds on the planet for decades have been dedicated to a Theory of Everything, or in other circles to an explanation of consciousness, or elsewhere to what gave rise to something from nothing.  God still dwells in these places.  Indeed, he becomes more fascinating.

But, he presses aptly, what does this God do?  This “placeholder” sounds like a surrogate for what we haven’t explained, not a personal God, or any meaningful God at all.

Yes, that is difficult, but here we must posit a distinction between God and God’s emissaries.  It makes abundant sense to me that much of human mythology is driven by contact with God’s emissaries.  Let us say, for example, that God, or certain of God’s emissaries, exist in a fifth or higher dimension, which our minds — and the minds of ancients — could not possibly comprehend.  It would be like positing a sentient being in the second dimension, on a flat plane without depth, and how that sentient being could not possibly comprehend a third dimension — and how the intervention of a third-dimensional being, like a human, into that sentient being’s two-dimensional world would seem miraculous and amazing — indeed, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.

Well you must admit that this extra-dimensional being’s intervention solves the problems attributed to both God’s apparent violation of physics and God’s quirkiness.

If, I continue (with evangelical promotion of possible-God), God or God’s emissaries intervene from an extra dimension, then a swath of stories — the full range of human mythology, grounded in actual interactive experience — becomes plausible.

But…

Moreover, I continue a bit more loudly (okay, now I’m just being obnoxious, but evangelizing possible-God compels no less), when these stories become plausible — each of them based upon human beings’ actual experience with God or God’s emissaries, then their sometimes bizarre eschatologies are less bizarre.  All of those absurd hellish consequences you deride dissolve into a separate human impulse to assign accountability to human conduct — human conduct measured with reference to what God has told us to do and not to do.  I don’t think God described ultimate consequences — but I think human beings felt a need to do so.  So condemnation to hellfire is one story about what happens when you fail to subscribe to the God-narrative or fail to do what God instructed.

So, you’re not willing to support the existence of God without extra dimensions?

Yes, I’m willing to support God without extra dimensions, but I’m not willing to deny the intriguing possibility of extra dimensions.

Then what would God in three-dimensional space and time look like?  After all, all of our stories of God on our planet are located in three-dimensional space and time.

Hmmm…  well, maybe some of our three-dimensional space and time stories are based upon our inability to comprehend extra dimensions, and maybe the failure to sufficiently imagine extra dimensions explains anti-God agnosticism and atheism.  But, okay, a three-dimensional God would likely be a superhuman.  A three-dimensional God would be, for example, a visitor from a super-civilization in outer space.  All of our mythologies describe profoundly human Gods.  The actual stories are never about truly omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent beings.  The actual stories are never about some luminous ultimate being, but about beings with extra powers who speak and negotiate and get angry and sometimes have sex and have opinions and fight and change their minds.  Only as monotheism became a more solidified dogma do you see the emergence of the concept of an ultimate transcendent all-powerful and all-knowing God.  But I don’t think the concept ever really transplanted the reality of actual contact with divinity.  That’s why the stories persist, even when they don’t square with monotheistic dogma.

Where there are ancient traditions of oneness with God, and God is a viable ultimate (as in Hinduism), the God with which one achieves oneness is not a personal God — except as part of a later story where the narrative human-God is identified with the ultimate God to promote some part of the preferred story.

Even granting all of your bizarreness, he says, it doesn’t seem to yield a personal God.  Obviously, you don’t have a personal relation with God.

No, not yet, and possibly not ever.  And this is something both irritating and embarrassing to me about God and me.

The March of Monotheism

First Things features an interesting review on the common Abrahamic origin of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — but doesn’t conclude that the common origin is a viable basis for “getting along.”  Nice sentence:  “Living religions positively vibrate with conviction, and in this case, as in most others, points of contact tend to generate friction.”

I was struck, however, by a detail in the review: “some medieval interpreters see the Jewish people leading the nations toward monotheism.”

That God would favor monotheism makes sense.  (Indeed, that the gods would favor their various versions of monotheism makes sense. As a cultural phenomenon, monotheism had a competitive edge, notwithstanding the cultural hegemony 2,000 years ago of the nominally polytheistic Roman empire.)

But as the Pauline epistles amply demonstrate, insular Judaism (like Hinduism, but unlike Buddhism and what would become Christianity and Islam) had ceased to become an evangelical vehicle. So if the Chosen People were to be the propagators of monotheism, then they needed a version of Judaism that appealed to Gentiles.

Christianity, with its polytheistic-co-opting Plural Monotheism (in the doctrine of the Trinity), became the perfect vehicle.  With the conquest of Christianity, the purer monotheism of Islam (there is no god but God) became another perfect vehicle. But let it be said, Islam’s more rigorous monotheism would not have been culturally and politically feasible but for the power of, first, Judaism, to insist theocratically upon the supremacy of the one God, and second, Christianity to achieve a universal appeal and wean diverse people away from polytheism.  The sequence of gradual monotheistic hegemony makes perfect sense.