What is it that I DO believe?.

 Eckhart 1260-1328

“Strip yourselves of the images and unite with the formless…” —Meister Eckhart

I never feel that I am—or even could—deny the existence of ultimate reality (that one thing which would explain all other things) but rather the use of the word God as a synonym for ultimate reality. This is because the terms that are used to describe God are problematic. Take the word supernatural, for example. Nearly everyone who believes in God envisions God as either having energy or being energy, yet energy is a natural force, so how can God be supernatural? Yet, what would it mean to say that God is natural? Would it mean that God occupies a certain spot within the universe or simply that—as the pantheists believe—God is synonymous with the universe?

Another way to describe God is to say that God is a spirit. The dictionary defines spirit as a supernatural being, but it defines a supernatural being as a spirit. So it is that, in defining God, one indescribable word is used to define another indescribable word, yet we can only meaningfully affirm the existence of that which we can describe. To view it from the atheist perspective, we can only deny the existence of that which we can describe, as would be the case with a purple schnauzer or a winged kangaroo. So it’s not God that many atheists deny, but rather the claim that the concept of God is meaningful.

Maimonides 1135-1204
Moses Maimonides and others have tried to get around the problem by claiming that one can only speak of God in terms of what God is not. For example, God is not temporal; God is not encased within a body; God is not capable of evil; and so forth. The idea is that any attempt to say what God is represents an attempt to corral the infinite within the intelligence of the finite. For instance, if you say that God knows everything, you can then start checking off a list of what God knows until you reach the end of your knowledge, and are left with “etc.” (God knows how to fry an egg; God knows how pencils are made; God knows how many stars are in the Milky Way…etc.).

It is therefore claimed that the only realistic and respectful way to speak of God is in negatives, yet even this suggests that at least some things can be known about God, but the truth is that any statement we make about God limits God because if God is (or isn’t) one way, then God must necessarily be (or not be) the opposite way. For example, if God can’t do evil, there is at least one thing we can do that God can’t. Then, there is the old speculation about whether God can make a stone too heavy for God to lift. If God can, then God’s strength is limited; but if God can’t, God’s creative ability is limited. So it is that when we try to talk about God, we run into one vagueness or contradiction after another, and this is what I meant when I wrote that it’s not God that atheists deny but the belief that the concept of God is intelligible. Yet, all of Christendom goes on its merry way imaging itself to know all kinds of things about God. But does it do more honor to God to say, as the pope does, that he knows a lot about God or, as atheists do, that all human concepts of God are unintelligible?

As I use it, the term ultimate reality isn’t a substitute for the word God because it lacks consciousness except inasmuch as it is conscious through you, me, my cat, Brewsky, and the squirrel outside the window. All of these things constitute ultimate reality, so if you use the word God as a metaphor for ultimate reality, then you might say that I'm God writing this, you're God reading it, and Brewksy and the squirrel are God watching each other... 

Just as our knowledge of gravity enables us to understand and tie together many seemingly disparate facts, an understanding of ultimate reality would enable us to understand and tie together all facts. It would tell us where the universe—and therefore ourselves—came from and where it is going. My faith consists of believing that such answers exist, and that if my species survives long enough to find them, they will come through rational research. Mine is the same optimism that is implicit in science and metaphoric in liberal religion. As the hymn goes, “Farther along, we’ll know all about it. Farther along, we’ll understand why. Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine. We’ll understand it all by and by.” I think this might be true.

If you worship God, what is it that attracts you to God? If it is your belief that God loves you, how would you feel if you learned that the nearest thing to God is a formula that doesn’t even know you exist? That is how I feel. We humans create God in our own image  so we can look to God for love, meaning, and safety, but also so we can have someone to admire so completely that our admiration becomes worship. If ultimate reality is without consciousness, it can’t give our lives love, meaning, or safety, and we can’t worship it, at least not in the same way we would worship a conscious entity. As for our eventual knowledge of it, my species might never get there, but I’ll most certainly be dead before it does. 

Some people are tied to talk of God because it comforts them; I’m tied to it despite the fact that it brings me no comfort. Perhaps, this means that my religion is more pure; I really don’t know. It must sound strange for me to say this, but I don’t care. This is simply who I am. I ask for no help; I pass no judgment upon myself; and I wouldn’t choose to be in any way different. I consider my life inevitable, and I am content with it. My thoughts and my writing are my reward, and they are a considerable reward. Peggy used to love mountain climbing despite the fact that it made her cold and dizzy and caused her to vomit. She also saw other climbers have terrible accidents, yet she would come home burned and exhausted and talking about rewarding it all was. I am the same way.

I believe that a worthwhile use of religion is to keep us filled with wonder as we reflect upon that which we do not know. Religion too often does the opposite. The Islamic State doesn’t kill people because it humbly admits its ignorance of ultimate reality but because it imagines itself to be on intimate terms with an ultimate reality that is male, violent, and gives harems to martyrs. But not all versions of God are harmful. For example, some religious people are non-dogmatic and practice good works. Others are more selfish, but still innocuous. For example, they thank God for their food (at least occasionally), ask for his help when they’re sick, and imagine that his angels are guarding them while they sleep.

I can’t believe such things, so the best I’ve been able to do since my early teens was to go through the motions of religious ritual. I need this ritual, so I reduce it to metaphor and that enables me to be somewhat at peace with it. When something won’t let go, there’s nothing to do but to surrender to it, but I am clear that what I’m surrendering to isn’t God but to my need that there be a God despite the fact that I consider the existence of such a being impossible. Alongside the objections I’ve already raised, I have an even bigger problem with believing in God, and it is this: even if there could exist an all-good, all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful divine being (aka God), such a being could not exist in conjunction with evil and suffering. Anytime evil is done or a suffering occurs, the concept of a perfect deity is negated. The actions of a perfect God would necessarily result in the existence of a perfect universe.

Bonnie Blue 1997-2013
Those whom, despite it all, can believe in a perfect God remind me of something my heeler, Bonnie Blue, did late one night while she and I sitting in a parked car waiting for Peggy to get off work. When I finally saw Peggy, I said, “Bonnie! Where’s Peggy?” and Bonnie’s intelligent eyes became a study in concentration as she gazed into my own eyes, tilting her head this way and that while considering where to look. To my complete astonishment, she finally jumped down and looked under the seat. I too would like to have faith that the world is so delightfully magical that Peggy might pop out from under car seats, but I can’t and, because I can’t, I wouldn’t wish to because I don’t want to waste time looking for Peggy in shoe boxes. 

Many intelligent people believe things that I consider just as impossible. Why they believe is obvious, but how they believe is incomprehensible. I feel drawn to such people by a shared need, not by a shared belief. By contrast, most atheists don’t appear to experience such needs, so although I am as non-believing as they, I don’t feel that I belong among them. Unfortunately, theists have made it clear that I don’t belong among them either.

Part II
“Jew and Atheist”

The following is from the 1656 expulsion of 23-year-old Baruch Spinoza from his synagogue because of his radical theology and criticisms of the Bible:

“Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him; the anger and wrath of the Lord will rage against this man, and bring upon him all the curses which are written in this book, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven, and the Lord will separate him to his injury from all the tribes of Israel with all the curses of the covenant, which are written in the Book of the Law…And we hereby warn you that none may communicate with him by word of mouth or writing, nor show him any charity whatsoever, nor stay with him under one roof, nor come into his company, nor read any composition made or written by him.”

Spinoza must have been an exemplar of non-attachment because he was unfazed by his expulsion from family, friends, and community: “…this does not force me to do anything that I would not have done of my own accord had I not been afraid of a scandal.” He refused to teach because he knew it would limit his freedom, and instead made his living as a lens’ grinder, happily passing his life writing philosophy in a small apartment, and dying of silicosis at age 44. Religious people called him an atheist, and scholars ridiculed his geometry-inspired approach to truth. Only romantics praised him because they were inspired by his courage, passion, and devotion to ultimate reality, and I’m a romantic. It’s one thing to love a deity that promises you heaven, but quite another to love an ultimate reality that lacks consciousness except inasmuch as you and I are conscious. Such was Spinoza’s God, and such is my ultimate reality. I just wish I could love it as he did.


PhilipH said...

Hi Snowy. I cannot say anything that would be of interest or argument as I just cannot write anything about something that is a complete fantastical nonsense.

However, I came across a clever item from 'Possum' and would like to have your opinion on it:

Snowbrush said...

“I just cannot write anything about something that is a complete fantastical nonsense.”

Theism can be false in terms of reality and still be meaningful in other ways—political, anthropological, and metaphorical, to name three.

“came across a clever item from 'Possum' and would like to have your opinion on it”

I found it delightful, but what is it’s point, really? It’s saying that, sometimes, a person might believe something without evidence, and later be shown to have been correct. While this is true, it doesn’t mean that some other thing that is believed without evidence is also likely to be true.

Imagine that you, Possum, and I are stranded on a desert island, and I announce that a ship will rescue us in twelve days. When asked why I believe this, I simply say that is is a matter of faith. Sure enough, we are rescued on the 12th day, but does this mean that I have ESP or that I lucked out? The likelihood is that I lucked out. Of course, if I had said that the ship was going to be 14-years old, green and yellow, have a 43-year old captain from Bogue Chitto, Mississippi, and be carrying 1,216 people, the possibility of ESP would greatly increase. Such is the case with this story, only the detailed comparison between life after birth and life after death is imposed. In other words, there’s no connection between the one and the other, no reason to think that because one is true the other is true.

When John Kennedy was killed, someone went to the trouble to make an approximately a 25-item list of what was intended to be uncanny comparisons between Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln, who was also assassinated. The list included facts such as that the name of Kennedy’s secretary was Lincoln, and the name of Lincoln’s secretary was Kennedy, and so on (I might be wrong about these particular names, but you get my point).The problem is that if you look hard enough for similarities between almost any two people or events, you will find them simply because there are thousands of possibilities to choose from. The person who wrote this story imposed as many similarities as possible between Christian belief and post-natal experiences, but, as with the Kennedy/LIncoln comparisons, the story doesn’t constitute evidence. It’s also possible that the two babies might have been stillborn in which case the skeptic would have won the day regarding most of the predictions.

stephen Hayes said...

You bring this topic to a higher level of profundity than I am capable of appreciating, but as I get older I come closer to believing that Jesus Christ never really lived, but is a compilation of stories turned into myths and grafted as a religion onto a fading Empire. I believe in spirituality, the need to connect to something greater than myself, but religion is as Karl Marx said: the opiate of the masses.

lotta joy said...

In my 20s, I pursued biblical studies in depth because I wanted to obtain the "peace that surpasses all understanding" that my sister got from her biblical studies.

To her it brought peace. To me it brought anger that I did not understand until I dug deeper into biblical references, concordances, and maps. Then I realized I was reading fiction and decided I could not place fiction as my base of belief.

But my true realization did not come until I made peace with the fact that most (and by most, I mean MOST) religious people have not pursued an intellectual study of the contents of the bible....to the point where most (and when I say most, I mean MOST) theists have not bothered to read the book. They place their beliefs in what they are told they believe.

Many place their beliefs on that good old standby: feelings. "My heart knows."

A lot of atheists attain the same good feeling when singing a cherished hymn from their youth, or participating in a learned action taught from duplicating their parents. A feeling does not recognize truth from fiction.

If there was truly a god of the bible, he endorsed slavery and stonings. In defense mode, theists say the NT negated god's prior decisions. "Ooops. I did a boo boo".

Yet only in the NT is the possibility of eternal damnation and hell mentioned, FURTHER increasing his atrocities under the guise of being a good ol' boy "son".

I find more pleasure in a sunset now by appreciating how fashionably beautiful the world, the entire universe, evolved without trying to equate it with an all powerful, all loving, beast of burden and cruelty.

Sparkling Red said...

I can accept that ultimate reality may not be conscious. From the evidence that I understand, that seems perhaps more likely than not.

On the other hand, consider this metaphor. When a parent brings a very young child to the dentist, the child suffers and screams at the parent: "You're mean! I hate you! You make bad things happen to me!" But in the long run, the parent is acting in the child's best interest. I keep in mind the possibility that there is a greater good that we cannot conceive of. I know it seems like a stretch, but maybe, just maybe...

Elephant's Child said...

As you know, that is a need I don't share. Just the same, my heart aches when I read of your attempts to meet that need.

Snowbrush said...

“as I get older I come closer to believing that Jesus Christ never really lived,”

I have so little regard for what he supposedly said that it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other. His is simply the religion that I inherited.

“In my 20s, I pursued biblical studies in depth because I wanted to obtain the "peace that surpasses all understanding" that my sister got from her biblical studies.”

I naively thought that studying the Bible in college would provide me with the answers that I couldn’t get in church, but it just increased my doubts. Liberal churches, at least, don’t affirm that the Bible is about God but rather about its writers’ impressions of God. Some of its writers were, as you’re well aware, the ancient equivalent of the soldiers of the Islamic State. You’re also right, of course, about hell only coming to us through the supposedly gentle Jesus, but who knows what he really said, and what does it matter anyway? As I see it, the Bible is such a mess as to be almost meaningless, so I’m ever astounded that people think it’s a wonderful book filled with “family values” and, like Superman, “For peace, justice, and the American Way.”

“I keep in mind the possibility that there is a greater good that we cannot conceive of. I know it seems like a stretch, but maybe, just maybe…”

One might hope, but then again, it’s awfully to imagine the good in a woman giving birth to a baby with hydrocephalus, or the squirrel that got stuck behind the chain that held the house that I had made for it and starved to death, or the baby seals that are eaten by killer whales the first time they venture into the ocean, and so on. So much suffering from which nothing is learned. If there is such a being as God, that being could have surely gotten all the good with none of the bad. Such a being wouldn’t have been forced to say, that, “Well, it’s terrible that creatures suffer, but it’s for the greater good, so I have no choice but to let it happen.”

“my heart aches when I read of your attempts to meet that need.”

My heart aches when I read that your aches! I wouldn’t have you do it on my account. Really, I wouldn’t. It’s no good to you, and no good to me.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've gone through various patterns of thinking, including seeing God as the universe. I've also realized that I'll never answer those questions so I've largely given up considering them.

Snowbrush said...

Maybe I’m wrong, but I wonder if anyone is really reading this post. I just went back over it and shortened it some, but I couldn’t take much out. I thought of making it into two posts, but I obviously didn’t.

“When a parent brings a very young child to the dentist, the child suffers and screams at the parent: "You're mean! I hate you! You make bad things happen to me!" But in the long run, the parent is acting in the child's best interest.”

Red, I hope you didn’t take my comment to your comment as disrespectful. There’s a word for trying to reconcile suffering with God’s goodness. It’s called theodicy. Certainly, we can fall back on the thought that we simply don’t know enough to pass judgment on God, but I would hold that we do. The parent in your example could do no better, but human parents aren’t unlimited beings. If they were, the child even need to go to the dentist.

“I've gone through various patterns of thinking, including seeing God as the universe.”

I tried that for ten minutes one night! I cannot for the life of me understand the attraction of calling the universe God. I also have the sneaky suspicion that those who do so imagine themselves somehow more “sensitive” than “ordinary atheists” who simply call the universe the universe. I mean, come on, pantheists are atheists too; they’re just in denial. Spinoza denied his atheism, but no one but other pantheists has ever been able to understand why he wasn’t.

“I'll never answer those questions so I've largely given up considering them.”

Peggy is the same way. Almost all atheists are that way.

Elephant's Child said...

Empathy is part of who I am, just as questionning is part of who you are. I get pain from my empathy, but I also get benefits. Just as you do from your questions.

Snowbrush said...

Empathy is good, but pity is a drag, and when you say your heart aches, I don’t really know which it is. As I see it, pity separates people, and it unintentionally leads the pitier to either feel lucky or superior. Still, it’s unavoidable at times, like when someone’s whole family is wiped out in a car wreck. As for me, though, I’m overall happy with my life, so I don’t feel that pity applies to me. As for empathy, I love to receive that, but isn’t it hard for you given that you don’t share my feelings about God? I think of how hard it would be for me to emphasize, for example, with someone whose wife died because I’ve never suffered anywhere near such a loss as that, so I couldn’t relate it to my own experience.

When I write about religion, I think that I often: bore people; or they feel sorry for me; or they make the judgment that I should have long ago put such thoughts out of my life, and there’s something wrong with me that I haven’t; or they think I’m looking for advice. What I really want is understanding and to feel that I’m stimulating people by telling them interesting things that they don’t already know. I’m always learning, always trying to go deeper into the subject and deeper into myself, but I think that this post, especially, won’t even be read thoroughly by most people. One reason for this is that some of my atheist readers think that anything connected with religion is bullshit. For example, I have a friend who said he wasn’t interested in religion because it’s nothing but a lie and has nothing to teach him. This put a distance between us because it amounted to pronouncing a major interest of mine as being off-limits for discussion. I think it’s also an intellectual mistake to make such a black-and-white judgment. No one would be so dense as to say such a thing about fiction, poetry, or art, but they say it about religion because all they see in it is stupid people doing stupid things when the truth is that it’s a nuanced subject. Besides, this post isn’t about religion so much as it is about me.

Elephant's Child said...

I would put my aching heart on the empathy side of the equation. I don't share your feelinga about God, but have gone through stages of seeking answers to questions which were important to me, where no answers that I could accept could be found. So extrapolated empathy?
I don't understand your search, but it doesn't bore me at all. Confuses me some days, but no boredom is involved.

Chartreuse said...

I get much more from reading a good novel than talking about some mystical being or pure ideas. (I'm currently enjoying All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Who could need anything else?) For a painful 12 years in my early life, I was married to a man who spent countless hours navel-gazing and pondering all the great mysteries of life. In the end I decided he was a bore. And I think that marriage turned me off all forms of philosophy - which I had actually loved in college. Now I prefer to dig in the Good Earth and read great stories by first-rate writers.

Snowbrush said...

“So extrapolated empathy?”

Yes, I see your point. I really do. Thank you.

“I get much more from reading a good novel”

I think you err in framing it as an either/or? I write as I do, but I also read many novels.

“I was married to a man who spent countless hours navel-gazing”

The word for this is omphaloskepsis.

“Now I prefer to dig in the Good Earth and read great stories by first-rate writers.”

I love to dig, but I don’t mean in a garden, I mean deep holes. I love the work, I love the odors, and I love seeing what’s down there—the shades of clay, the kinds of rocks, and an occasional fossil along with the leavings of all the people who have passed this way. I also love dirt. When I have a neighbor who has some topsoil to get rid of, I go get it and either scatter it about the yard or store it for when I need it. My wife says I’m a collector of dirt. Then in winter, I rescue earth worms that come up to escape the rain and end up on the bike path where they get run over. As for “first-rate writers,” I almost invariably read the works of people who wrote at least 80-years ago because a writer can be considered first-rate in his or her time and be completely forgotten a few decades later. By reading the old authors, I know I really am getting the best.

Perhaps, the trouble with your husband was that he was too one-sided, but then if he were to talk about you, I’m sure he could come with some problems that you had.

Sparkling Red said...

I didn't feel your reply was disrespectful. The first time I checked back in to see your response I actually missed seeing it as I scanned down through your replies.