The idea of God has always loomed large in my life and continues to play a prominent role in my conversation with others. But what if someone doesn’t believe in God or feels uneasy about the idea? The questions naturally arise: Why all the God-talk? On what basis is it justified? Those are fair questions, to be sure, and it seems to me that there are two ways to address them:
- As far as I am concerned, everything is open for discussion and everyone is free to question any particular conception of God. There is no pressure to accept any proposition simply as a matter of “faith” or to “believe” anything that seems incredible. And there is no need for people to keep their questions or their doubts to themselves so long as they continue to show all due respect to those who think or believe otherwise. But rather than (always) thinking in terms of “debating” one another and “winning the argument”, perhaps we could give more thought to the possibility of exploring reality together (without necessarily insisting that we are right and the other person is wrong–or that we must all ultimately see eye to eye). Perhaps our seeking the truth together could be an end in itself!?
- We should keep in mind that, sometimes, the word God is used as a “place-holder” of sorts for the mysterious source, origin, or ground of our existence. Just as I would ask my atheist or agnostic friends to treat believers with respect– and to maintain that respect even when critically questioning this or that element of a believer’s faith –likewise, I would ask those for whom the word God seems to be more than just a place-holder to be respectful of those for whom it does not (and, likewise, to treat agnostics and atheists with respect even when challenging this or that element of their doubt or disbelief).
With these things in mind, I offer the following bulleted items as a provisional point of departure for more fruitful conversations between “believers” and “unbelievers” (of various kinds) and, more specifically, between “theists” and “atheists”:
- First, for the sake of most such discussions, perhaps we can agree that the word God (minimally speaking) refers to that which we tend to think of as the mysterious source, origin, or ground of existence. Let us all acknowledge that, for many people, it is an open question whether or not this source is spiritual or physical; personal or impersonal; knowable or unknowable; real or imaginary. And perhaps we should not presume to really understand what any of those characterizations might mean to someone else until we have conversed with them at some length and listened to them carefully and with compassion.
- Second, as we explore reality together, let Consciousness, as such– the light of awareness –be recognized as the universal horizon of any and all experience. For in a manner of speaking, Consciousness is the Reason that anything appears at all–the reason there is something instead of (merely) nothing. Indeed, from another point of view, it can be said that consciousness itself is the no-thing that provides the necessary background upon which every-thing else appears. For whether we are exploring the natural world or seeking the face of God, we do so in the light of consciousness. And while there are many who naturally assume that consciousness is the product of material processes, there are many others for whom it poses the hard problem– the Achilles heel, as it were –of any physicalistic approach to philosophy of mind. But whatever our position in this regard, perhaps we can all agree that consciousness is in some sense the sine qua non of any and all experience.
- Finally, let the Cosmos– the (the more or less) orderly world of our experience –be thought of as a manifestation (a spatio-temporal reflection or projection) of the aforementioned source or ground (i.e. a phenomenal representation which appears in and by virtue of Consciousness). We can continue to debate whether this manifestation is more indicative of the structure of the human brain, per chance, or of the mind of God–but either way, it seems to reflect dimensions of reality that lie well beyond the ordinary objects of perception–realities that transcend the context of our immediate, day to day experience. From one point of view, these outlying dimensions of reality which we see reflected in our more immediate experience seem to have been there all along, just waiting to be understood. From another point of view, however, they may seem to be hypothetical constructs that are true only for as long (and insofar) as we find them useful. And from yet another point of view, it is hard to deny that there might also be other dimensions of reality that, while real enough on their own level, are by their very nature forever inaccessible to us. For (short of omniscience) however deeply we come to understand the causal relationships that obtain within the flow of appearances, it is our natural impulse to retain an ideal of ultimate Truth (however elusive) and to continue to think, as well, of an unknown source, origin, or ground of all appearances (however empty such concepts may ultimately be). As such, our ideal of God as the ultimate Truth and/or transcendent source for this undivided turning that we call the universe is not easily dismissed (however sophisticated our scientific knowledge–and however absurd the various sectarian notions of God with which we are familiar may, in fact, be).
From this point of departure, then– that of God, Consciousness, & Cosmos –let us explore reality together, becoming more fully aware of the intelligible relationships that obtain at every level of experience. As we do this, it seems to me that references to God are justified (at least in part) by our persistent ideal of Truth–but also insofar as we distinguish the cause IN appearances (i.e particular causes or or sets of causal relationships that obtain within the world of our experience) from the cause OF appearances (i.e. the mysterious source or ground of existence, as such–including the consciousness in which and by virtue of which the cosmos appears). [cf. Kant’s discussion of the antinomies of reason in his Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysic.] The former– i.e. the causal relationships that obtain within the world of our experience –is the ever expanding domain of science. In contrast, the latter– the mysterious source or ground of existence, as such –seems always to elude our conceptual grasp and remains strangely unaffected by our rapidly accumulating knowledge of the apparent world. As such, it is understandable that the skeptic may be inclined to assign to the latter a merely logical and pedagogical function–to think of it as a mere “placeholder” for an inaccessible and ever-receding ideal of human knowledge which nevertheless inspires us and leads us on. Nonetheless, the skeptical point of view cannot rule out the possibility that this imagined first cause (as it is sometimes called) is not just an ideal–but that it may also be our final cause, as well; an ideal that is in Truth accessible through some species of spiritual insight, intuition, or realization that is fundamentally pre-conceptual or supra-conceptual (or nondual ). And this kind of insight (or intuition or realization), it may be argued, is the domain of faith.
While the domain of faith is often contrasted with the domain of science, it may be that Consciousness holds the key to both domains. For as we contemplate of the apparent dichotomy between the source or ground of existence and its various manifestations, it seems impossible to place consciousness firmly on one side or the other. On the one hand, all modifications of our individual states of consciousness (i.e. our “mind”) seem to happen in parallel with corresponding changes in our neurophysiology. As such, it is not implausible to think of the latter as causing the former. On the other hand, it seems impossible to imagine how more and more complex combinations of inert “matter” can eventually give rise to “sentience” (and then to “perception” and ultimately to “reason”), so it seems just as plausible– if not more so –to associate consciousness with the unknown source or ground of appearances (rather than attributing it to material processes, per se). But whatever our take on these things, it would seem that there is plenty of room for humility–plenty of room to find common ground –as we continue to explore reality together. Questions that remain to be considered are:
1. The positive function of religion and its limitations.
2. The positive function of science and its limitations.
* Note: The image, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God”, refers to a recent book by Rob Bell.