Belief in a Personal God

The following is my response to the theologian Jason Michael McCann’s blog post about the personal nature of God in the Christian tradition. Yesterday, he posted a critical response to one of my short essays on materialism and imagination that I will also respond to soon.

The distinction between truth and fact (which I understand to be similar to that between archetypal/a priori and experiential/a posteriori knowledge, respectively) is very helpful. Your point that Medieval Christians were not trying to explain the measurable motion of matter, but rather (as I see it) to understand the existence of personality in the universe (which, indeed, seems to require entering into a loving relationship with this universe and His/Her/Its* personality or spirit) is also well taken. Post-Enlightenment materialists like Richard Dawkins refer to the “God hypothesis,” and dismiss it as unscientific since scientific explanation must refer only to natural phenomena. God is supposedly immaterial because supernatural, and to admit the existence of such a being (with each of His/Her/Its usual characteristics, especially omnipotence) would put all scientific attempts to explain the universe by reference only to physical phenomena in a rather uncertain epistemic situation. All the sudden, natural phenomena no longer exist and behave as a result of arbitrarily imposed “physical law,” but instead draw their being from the Being of God, and act according to His/Her/Its grace. But Christianity is not committed to an engineer’s conception of the universe, wherein “God” serves the role of explaining how the whole thing was designed and put together. God is not, as I imagine Him/Her/It, a clock-maker who oversees the proper functioning of the cosmic machine, interfering with its natural processes to perform miracles at various points of human history. God, rather than a hypothesis, is the very basis of my own existence, confirmed not by scientific proof but by the immediate relationship or felt presence of divinity in my personal and interpersonal life. God is present in my life as the voice of conscience which I know guides not only myself, but every human being. It is not my voice, it is the voice of God. His message and only commandment is simple: “Love.” We do not always have the ears to hear this voice, of course. We can become deaf to its gospel. Sin is a reality.
As for your reading of my thesis ["that autonomous human imagination and creativity is able to construct its own reality"], I would remove the words “autonomous” and “own.” The human imagination is to the divine imagination what the microcosm is to the macrocosm. As Coleridge put it, imagination is: “…the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and is a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am.”
You write: “Like the primal relationship between mother and child, the primordial relationship between Creator and creature is one which occurs within the interiority of the human spirit without the demand of either party lacking concrete reality.” The notion of our relationship to God being only interior feels lacking to me. My relationship to the exterior cosmos as God incarnate is no less revelatory (indeed, perhaps it is more so). Earlier in your essay, you spoke of personality being a pre-requisite for sociability. I’d want to balance this statement by pointing out the opposite but equally reasonable notion that personality depends upon relationship. I do not think there is a specific point in time when a developing human becomes completely “cognitive” or self-conscious. There is a continuous movement toward more consciousness, if we’re lucky, but never a sharp break where we move from “dependent” to completely autonomous. My identity is never fully my own, as I remain dependent for the entirety of my life upon my relationships with others. Others are forever like mothers, in this sense. I can only be as intimate with myself as I can be with others, since I come to know who I am as a result of the way others respond to me. Personality is constituted by love and its need for both expression and recognition. I note in closing that the notion of a personal God would (if the above is valid) imply that God is not unaffected by human love.
*(sorry for the clumsy use of pronouns, but I think the nature of God is neither exclusively masculine or feminine, nor exclusively personal… Men [Him], women [Her], and children are made in the image of God, as is the universe [It]).

Power and Presence in Theology

Another response to NRG’s questions for me on Pharyngula:

I have trouble conceiving of God as all-powerful because of the problem of evil and my experience of human freedom. I associated God’s omnipresence with “will” even though, for God, there is really nothing to “do.” From the “perspective” of eternity, God is already everywhere and everywhen at once. It is when omnipresence get’s stepped down into its human incarnation, that it becomes will or desire; unlike God, humans between birth and death have a particular embodied perspective on space-time, but volition is our means of approaching the infinite presence of God. To actually unite with God’s infinite presence, I believe one would have to die for the love of or in love with all other sentient beings. We only get one chance per lifetime to will the infinite in this way. It is not easy, I suspect, to remain fully present to others in such a way during one’s own death.

I should remind you that I am playing here, that I have indeed stepped outside the strictures of scripture and am making this up as I go along, so to speak. Am I just feeling that these nice ideas should be true, or am I willing that they be so out of the power of my own imagination? I think I do feel and will that they are so. But I think this. My thinking is not separate from my feelings and my will. This is the mystery of the Trinity: three persons/functions, one God/Self. I do not think the intellect could know anything at all without volition (will) and judgment (feeling) involved in the act as well.

Does the reality of a soul, or of a soul not confined to the body but extended into the world, mean that “God did it?” No, as I said above, I don’t think the idea of God does any epistemic work when dealing with natural phenomena (the soul is “natural” in that it is part of the manifest world, part of the actual phenomena constituting our psychological experience as people). All that it means is that “matter” is not the ultimate explanatory principle.

I was raised with a foot in both Judaism and Christianity, and became an atheist around 11 or 12 when I first read Stephen Hawking’sA Brief History of Time.” I believed until about 17 that “science would win,” as Hawking has since suggested. I saw Western religious institutions as dogmatic and oppressive, and their scriptures (which I’d yet to read much of) as deluded and in flat contradiction to the facts of science (or the claims of scientists, a distinction I wasn’t yet able to make). But then I took a psychology class in 11th grade and read the ideas of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and Alan Watts, among others. I realized that something intrinsic to human nature inextricably lures us toward the sacred and would continue to do so despite the success of the scientific method. I begin to study philosophy more closely in college, and realized soon after that the “facts” of scientific materialism didn’t necessarily hold up after sustained reflection on the history of science (Kuhn). I came to see also that there existed a rich diversity of thriving philosophical attitudes concerning the ultimate nature of things–in short, I came to recognize that materialism was not the only conclusion to which one could be lead based upon the last 400 years of natural science.

“God” is an idea I play with, an idea I admit I cannot know fully, or even know how I know what little I may know about it. But everything I experience points me toward this “strange attractor” called God (or Hegel’s Absolute, or Plato’s idea of the Good, or Teilhard’s Omega).

When I first watched the following clip from an interview with Jung, I was intrigued by the expression on his face after being asked if he believed in God… “difficult to answer…” Something like the feeling he must be experiencing behind that smirking face guides my intuitions about the divine:

God did it, or aliens?

“NRG” posting over on Pharyngula asks me:

Why impute an admittedly Unknowable Omni God to explain currently inexplainable phenomena, if it’s much more reasonable, based on what we actually know, to assume that other citizens of the universe, evolved like us but to a much greater degree, are responsible for such phenomena? To make it shorter: Why say that God did it, when it’s better to say that Aliens did?

I wouldn’t marshall the concept “God” as an explanation for a natural phenomenon (explanation of the universe itself is another matter, as strictly speaking, the universe as a whole is not a “phenomenon” available for scientific observation–I’ll say more below). I suspect that if the miracles of the Old Testament turned out to be the handiwork of a technologically advanced extra-terrestrial species, Christians would no longer be satisfied that this presumed being, “Yahweh,” mistakenly worshipped by the Israelites, was in fact God. God is not a being among beings, a species among species. God, for a Christian (at least for a philosophical Christian like Augustine, Aquinas, or Hegel), is the Being of beings. God is Creator, and not creature (this doesn’t necessarily mean God is entirely separate from creatures, just that, while creation participates in God, God still transcends creation’s immanence).

Francis Crick had the same intuitive reaction to the complexity of life on the molecular level that Intelligent Design advocates try to rationally justify their belief in God with, but Crick correctly recognized that aliens are more likely to have engineered this marvel than Jehovah. But then again, this just passes the buck back another layer of explanation: we’re still left wondering who/what created the first living organism capable of such intelligent design. So maybe it is better to say aliens did it, but it is still only relatively better.

The universe contains many marvels assuring its continued existence as cosmos instead of chaos, but I don’t think resorting to “design,” whether theistic or naturalistic, is the best way to explain it. William Paley and Charles Darwin share more in common philosophically than is often admitted (ditto for Hegel and Marx). Design is itself a paradigm, and it does theoretical work whether one’s analogy compares God to human designers (who select for traits in domesticated animals) or one compares Nature to humans (as Darwin did). The universe cannot be explained by way of design (natural or divine) unless we are prepared to accept a dualistic framework, where one substance (God or Nature/Laws of Physics) shapes and lords over another (human beings/life).

I read Plato with great joy, especially the Timaeus, where he suggests it is a “likely story” that the universe is a living creature, rather than a clockwork. The universe is unique among science’s objects of study, because unlike natural phenomena in general, it does not and cannot show itself all at once. The scientist, like Plato, lives in a natural universe in the process of becoming. Neither can say anything for certain about its shifty and transitory nature, but each can offer a probable, or likely story. Fiction or non-fiction? Well, the difference is not so clear, but we can be discerning… Plato’s story remains a bit mythical, but his student Aristotle grounds his teacher’s celestial ideas in the more concrete matters of life on earth. Ideas (“ideas” in the Mind of God, or “causes” of Natural Selection) do not “design” or shape organisms from the outside, in Aristotle’s biology; rather, organisms give actual expression to God’s creative and intelligent potential.

There is no need to speak of “God” interfering with the course of events in Aristotle’s cosmos. The notion of an interventionist deity has more to do with Modernity than it does with traditional theism.

As for aliens, I wonder how much this possibility can be distinguished, in practice if not in theory, from the medieval notion of angels, or the pagan belief in faeries? Might not alien abilities and attributes be just as fantastic as humanity’s earlier iterations of the strange and unknown intelligence potentially lurking beneath the more mundane appearances of our universe?

[I've since posted several more comments on similar themes.]