The Other I

March 5, 2008

The problem of God

After yesterday’s post, I started to think about God again.   I don’t do that more than five or six times a week, so it’s not quite as important as deciding what to have for dinner each day.  But as I have gone through my life trying on every variety of belief on the subject, God’s existence or otherwise does impress me as a question that significantly influences my personal view of what in heaven’s name we are doing here on planet Earth.

Personally, I don’t know if there’s a God or not.  Nobody does, though what infuriates me to the point of speechlessness are people who are absolutely sure they do know and who are committed to imposing that certainty on everyone else.  I have met The Certains in a great variety of forms.  Some are committed atheists who rant that people who believe in God and even seriously practice their religious beliefs are ignorant, uneducated, frightened, or probably all of the above.  And then, of course, there are the committed Believers.  I have been told by some that I am on my way to hell.  The most fashionable fanatics these days will actually give up their own lives to eliminate not only anyone who disagree with them, but even those unfortunate enough to be in their presence when the suicide bomb detonates.

I do not want to give the impression, however, that these forms of either believing or unbelieving bigotry are modern inventions.  The most superficial review of history shows that these intolerant impulses have been with us for thousands of years.

But modern Western cultures have a special problem about God.  “I don’t believe in God,” wrote the author Julian Barnes, “but I miss him.”  That’s the problem.  Where does meaning come from without God?  Or hope? 

For myself, I think that not having a God does not pose a problem for goodness, for unselfishness, or altruism or morality.  All the evidence with which I am familiar is that these behaviors are intrinsically rewarding, and we, like many other animals, engage in them.  I gave back a ten dollar bill last week when the clerk accidentally gave me $9 extra change, and left feeling like a superior human being.  I don’t need God to explain that.

But what about dying?  what about the meaning of life?  what about destiny?  what about the fact that you and I and everybody and everything we love is destined for sheer, complete annihilation?

I will confess that I choose to believe in God.  Not the God that would in any way satisfy most religious believers whom I know.  But I simply cannot accept that the Universe is meaningless.  And if it has meaning, I personally can’t see where the meaning comes from without some concept – however incoherent – of some reality we call God. 

I can’t buy the whole package of most religious institutions.  But (and this is what I don’t even whisper out loud to committed Believers) I think we are all part of God, and we have a part in creating God and creating meaning.  Purpose isn’t out there in some Great Plan conceived by some All-Powerful All-Wise God.  We have to participate in giving meaning to existence.  So I don’t ask myself anymore when something (usually sad or bad) happens, “What is the meaning of this?  Why did God let this happen?” but “What meaning can I make of this?  How can I use it to bring about something worthwhile?”

As an heroic and very wise woman said recently after her gifted young son killed himself, the question isn’t “Porque?” but “Por qua?” 

Not “Why?” but “What for?”

22 Comments »

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your post on “The Problem of God.” 3/8/2008
    I think you are on the right track. It’s nice to find someone else who is
    neither fanatic nor condescending about the Meaning of Life. Would
    you mind if I linked your post for my readers (such as they are)? I am
    doing short pieces on the subject through the end of the year, and
    would like to share a little diversity.

    Like

    Comment by Graham — October 30, 2009 @ 7:15 am | Reply

    • Graham – I would be delighted for you to link my post to your blog. I have just read your post “The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales” and I agree we are on the same page. We seem to be exploring similar issues, and I think some of my readers (such as they are) would appreciate your approach as well. I’m going to try to identify several blogs like yours to list on mine.

      Thank you. I will keep in touch with your blog in the future.

      Like

      Comment by theotheri — October 30, 2009 @ 10:13 am | Reply

      • I just realized I never got back to you to let you know that I am fine with you listing my blog on yours. I even tried to create the link but I am not sure I succeeded. (It’s working from me to you, but from you to me seems to be a problem.) If I need to do something to fix that, let me know and I will take another stab at it. In any case, thanks again. I’ll be watching your blog to see how your thinking develops around these ideas. I concur that the more we can enlist others who are grappling with these questions, the closer we will get to an answer.

        Like

        Comment by Graham — October 31, 2009 @ 7:38 am | Reply

        • This has been one of those days when I have more things to do than hours to do them. Which might be why I can’t find the link on your blog. I also did not succeed in actually creating a link to your blog on mine either. So tomorrow it’s back to the drawing board. Actually, I’m trying to find a place on my blog to put some links so they aren’t buried over time. I’m thinking of creating a page primarily for long-term links. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to reading a few more of your back posts.

          If you click on the category on my blog “Catholicism and other questions of religion,” you will see that I’ve been thinking about these questions probably since the day I was born. Even now, I find my thinking keeps evolving into places I’d never dreamed even existed. From what I’ve read of your blog so far, I would be surprised if you aren’t finding the same thing.

          Like

          Comment by theotheri — October 31, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

  2. Check under “My Comments” not under “comments” for your link. (That’s where it shows up on my blog.) Sounds like you were raised Catholic. You might be amused that I was raised Episcopalian (American Anglican)

    Like

    Comment by Graham — October 31, 2009 @ 10:02 pm | Reply

    • Got it! Thank you. I will also link to your blog when I set up my Special Links page – one of these days.

      Yes, I was born and raised a Catholic in the mid-west, and spent 9 years in the convent. It was an American missionary order, and I thought it would be something like a life-time Peace Corps. The disciplined routine actually suited me quite well (possibly not unlike the regular discipline required by navy life – though I would not want to push any other similarities too enthusiastically), but Peace Corp it was not, and I eventually left and got my doctorate in developmental psychology.

      Somehow I am not surprised that you were raised as an Episcopalian. Something about the structure of your thought and the nature of your questioning. Can I ask if you have a take on the pope’s invitation to Anglicans to join the RC church lock, stock & barrel? As I said in a recent post, I think it’s appealing to the homophobic and mysoginist. But I’m not sure many Anglicans are going to like the whole package, once they discover what’s underneath the velvet glove.

      Like

      Comment by theotheri — November 1, 2009 @ 4:41 pm | Reply

  3. In general, I think we are all better off with the current trend towards smaller groups, using private homes to share a meal and an afternoon, not unlike a family gathering (and similar to what Jesus himself taught). We don’t need a God-filter, or a special building, to tell us what to believe. The truth has been wired into our brain. In fact, it turns out that for more than 200 years virtually all of the churches have been misleading us, even though they are taught the truth in virtually all of the seminaries. (See book reference at the end of part 005 of this series.)

    The Catholic Church is about power and control. There is no question who would be on top if we merged. But the systematic use of their power to suppress and protect those who practiced abusive sexual misconduct on children hardly qualifies them for a leadership role (not meant to denigrate the Catholic faith, one doesn’t have to look far to find similar shortcomings in the protestant churches). So I personally would be driven further out of the church. We already have enough of our own issues, as you have pointed out.

    Like

    Comment by Graham — November 2, 2009 @ 1:47 am | Reply

    • I an unable to find any inspiration whatever from any institutionalized religion, so I’m not remotely tempted to think that I might find answers from that quarter either whether Anglican, Roman Catholic, or any other flavour. But I wonder what it is about the last 200 years that leads you to say that virtually all the churches have been misleading us. I would go back more than a millennium. Perhaps two millennium. Not sure what you mean about “see book reference…” but will go to your blog later today, where I might find the answer.

      Like

      Comment by theotheri — November 2, 2009 @ 4:09 pm | Reply

  4. [Jesus, Interrupted; revealing the hidden contradictions in the Bible and why we don’t know about them, by Bart D Ehrman, 2009] I recommended this book to my readers. I think it is at the core of your question.

    Ehrman is the James A Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill); he is author of more than 20 books; he is recognized as a leading authority on the bible and on the life of Jesus. He started out as a “strong evangelical” and became an agnostic.

    In his own words: “And so, just as I came to see the Bible as a very human book, I came to see Christianity as a very human religion. It did not descend from on high. It was created, down here on earth, among the followers of Jesus in the decades and centuries after his death. But none of this made me an agnostic. [p.275]

    … I did not leave the Christian faith because of the inherent problems of faith per se, or because I came to realize that the Bible was a human book, or that Christianity was a human religion. All that is true—but it was not what dismantled my acceptance of the Christian myth. I left the faith for what I took to be (and still take to be) an unrelated reason: the problem of suffering in the world.” [p.277]

    Like

    Comment by Graham — November 2, 2009 @ 10:11 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for the reference to Ehrman’s book. I’m still not sure, though, what began 200 years ago that leads you to suggest that it was at that point that religions began misleading their followers. I would have thought that one of the watersheds was the Black Death in the 13th century, followed by the scientific revolution and the church’s attempt to maintain the power to judge the legitimacy of empirical observations – as reflected in the attempted subjugation of Galieo’s observations and conclusion that the earth revolves around the sun, etc.

      I was still in the convent when I attended a course, taught by a Catholic priest no less, introducing us to the latest analysis of scripture as the writings of Hebrew leaders which reflected a mix of metaphor, prophecies, folklore, and politics. In other words, a human book reflecting a particular human culture in a particular time. As with Ehrman, I never found this a particular assault on faith. Indeed, if the scriptures are inspired by God, I would think he would speak to his people in a language they spoke.
      As with Ehrman, it is the recurring problem of evil and the corresponding concept of god that I find incredulous. The christian concept of god sounds more like a tyrant who holds grudges for thousands of years, takes them out on completely innocent babies for being nothing more than what they are – human – and who, worst of all, finally agrees to forgive us as a result of our rejecting, torturing, and murdering an innocent man who is purportedly his son. What kind of example of love is this? what kind of psychopath have we imagined God to be?

      Personally, I find myself comfortable only within a context of mystery. It is through science that I get there most profoundly. Although music and poetry are also royal roads for me. As, if I understand your blog, they are for you. But as I say in an earlier post, I’m uncomfortable with the word “God” because most people assume that by “god” I mean a supernatural being over and above this natural world. I do not believe in what most people mean when they say “god.”

      Again, thank you. My thinking about these issues inevitably improves when my thoughts are exposed to the bracing air of dialogue.

      Like

      Comment by theotheri — November 3, 2009 @ 2:53 pm | Reply

  5. I couldn’t have said it better. Too many of us use the “idea” of God to justify whatever we want. But I don’t want to speak for Ehrman for two reasons: (1) I am bound to get it wrong; (2) He doesn’t want to be quoted unless it’s by other scholars or reviewers, probably because he doesn’t want to be misquoted. So let me couch this in terms of what I think, and if you want to know the degree to which we are in agreement, you need to get his book.

    What I believe is that modern bible scholarship for the last 200 years has focused on historical and secular analysis of the available materials, and has moved away from the literal faith-based, no questions asked interpretations. But very few of those being trained as religious leaders are sharing the findings of these studies with their students. A principle reason for this shift in emphasis comes from the numerous contradictions in these documents.

    I also rarely talk about “god” because, as you say, the connotations of the word bring along too much baggage. Occasionally, I climb up on my soap box, but I am much more likely to talk about the positive forces in the universe. I would almost rather believe in Stephen Spielberg’s “let the force be with you” than in the anthropomorphic view of god in our image, with all of our faults, instead of the other way around.

    Incidentally, I didn’t mean to suggest that I had a specific date when the clergy began to mislead people. In fact, it would be sinister to suggest intentional misleading; I believe that the truth is closer to the idea that they just didn’t talk about it, and that lack of openness encourages the unthinking true believer to interpret anyway he or she wants. The beauty of coexisting contradiction is that there is enough obfuscation that anything goes.

    Like

    Comment by Graham — November 4, 2009 @ 6:51 am | Reply

    • We are in total agreement that making a literal interpretation of scripture is to completely misunderstand it. I’m not sure you are suggesting this, but it is not an interpretation that historically been given to Biblical stories, even by totally committed believers. As Karen Armstrong points out in her recent book The Case for God, the difference between mythos and logos has been fully appreciated from the very beginning. It is we moderns who have lost it. In fairness, as I said earlier, I was never, even as a child, taught that all Biblical stories were literally true – only metaphorically so.

      In terms of concepts of god, if you have not come on it before, you might appreciate the most recent post on http://tonyequale.wordpress.com/. Be interested to know what you think.

      Like

      Comment by theotheri — November 5, 2009 @ 4:10 pm | Reply

  6. WOW! There is such an amazing plethora of ideas on this blog. I can’t wait until I have time to take a more detailed look at his work. Thanks for the link. For the next few days I have a number of family commitments, but I will definitely take a closer look, starting with the most recent.

    Regarding the Biblical stories, I should have pointed out that he is only talking about within the boundaries of the United States, not the entire world, (See? I told you I might get it wrong) and that his experience is well within the boundaries of my experience, except that he has had more direct exposure.

    I would venture a guess, that the US probably has more evangelicals and faith-based believers than any other country on the planet. The common thread is that they don’t need to think about it anymore because they are convinced that all answers are in the Bible. Taken out of context, that statement would be a bit unfair, but assessing matters of degree in a relative comparison with other believers, it is spot on.

    Regarding the “missing link” I put it on the first post for “The Meaning of Life” (see bottom of post). I’m sure there is a better way, but I just have been too busy to figure it out.

    Like

    Comment by Graham — November 5, 2009 @ 5:05 pm | Reply

  7. Well … Let me start with an apology if I’m stepping on toes, but these are the “Soap Box Arguments” that I have been trying to get away from because they perpetuate misunderstanding by their concentration on nit-picking issues. No matter who or what Jesus turns out to be, the acid test remains: would Jesus (not the man, but the archetype) explain god to me through the use of belligerent argument? It feels like we are back to the discussions of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” What would I do with the answer if I had it?

    This may be a bit harsh, give the amount of time I had to spend with his / her writing but it was definitely a disappointment that the author seemed to be more interested in sounding intelligent at the expense of another who, if we dig below the surface, seems to be struggling with similar issues. I’ll give it another go in a few days, but fear that I will come up empty. Again, I apologize if I misunderstood, and don’t wish to insult anyone, but this is my gut reaction.

    Like

    Comment by Graham — November 6, 2009 @ 3:13 am | Reply

    • What a fascinating response to Eguale’s blog. I, too, have said that I think his arguments would be more effective without the anger and side-swipes, no matter how clever they are.

      But in relation to the actual content of what you call “Soap Box Arguments,” I have a different take. First of all, Eguale himself has a strong background in theology and history, and is often talking to colleagues with similar backgrounds for whom these arguments reflect the way they think. I sometimes have to work to follow his train of thought, but it is meat and drink to me. I have wondered more than once why this may be so, especially since I know and admire – and even love several – highly educated people whose life has reflected an integrity that puts me to shame but who have no patience with these kind of discussions. I myself need a coherent world view, a metaphysics if you will, that is compatible with science but which somehow incorporates values of love and honesty and loyalty, etc. Values that are not just tagged on, but integral. As a cognitive developmental psychologist, my suspicion is that raised as a Roman Catholic, I was given a coherent world view of the universe and existence . I no longer accept that view, but I have the need for a replacement metaphysics.
      .
      I have come to appreciate that these kinds of seemingly esoteric discussions are at best of no value to some. It is not the way in which they arrive at what feels like insight (or the truth, if that is not too elevated a term to use for the shafts of light each of us manages to shed on our existence).

      Which is not to say, by the way, that you are stepping on toes, or that an apology is in any way called for. On the contrary. I find your take quite interesting, especially since you are obviously not responding with the trigger-like defensiveness of a believer. I think it may be similar to my response to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I agree with much of what he says, but think he has an axe to grind which leaves me with little patience to listen.

      Like

      Comment by theotheri — November 6, 2009 @ 2:45 pm | Reply

  8. I think most of us are trying to develop a “coherent world view”—a view that integrates science, the humanities, and the arts with the mystical side of life. But most of us “outsource” the discovery process to priests, scholars, and other “experts” because we feel inadequate to the task. My quarrel with the Tony Equale’s of the world is that they encourage this dependency.

    If the majority of my posts have a common thread it’s just this: we will never understand our universe if we delegate the effort required to understand it; it isn’t enough to copy somebody else’s homework the night before it’s due. For it to be meaningful, it must engage us personally, even if the experts think we are wrong. (E.g., see my posts on what makes great art great, or the self-help posts). For Tony, it’s his job … or perhaps a chance to prove something. For the rest of us, it’s what gives meaning to our lives.

    (NOTE: I certainly don’t question his commitment, his ethics or his integrity. You hit the nail on the head … I question his methods.)

    Like

    Comment by Graham — November 6, 2009 @ 11:50 pm | Reply

    • I’ve read the sections in your blog you mention in your comment above. I could not agree more wholeheartedly that we cannot outsource the discovery process to experts, whether the questions are about art or philosophy or religion or relationships. I didn’t learn to appreciate art until I gave up what my husband called “the Ph.D. approach,” thinking that I had to know what the experts thought before thinking for myself. Now I go into museums and ignore the expert descriptions, and ask myself: do I like it, what does it say to me? There is still a place for analysis, for listening to what the experts say, but there are many great pieces of art that do not speak to me at all and never well. That’s okay. In this spirit, the playwright Alan Bennett suggested putting a sign at the entrance of the Tate Museum of Modern Art “You don’t have to like everything you see here.”

      Taking responsibility for my own decisions, however, does not mean – and I’m sure you would agree – that I can’t benefit from listening to what others might be thinking. I just can’t give over the final responsibility to them no matter how expert they may be. Some people’s insights expand my own, others do not. It is even possible to arrive at the same insights by radically different roads. My sister and I are constantly amazed at how often she reaches some conclusion through poetry while I have been reaching similar conclusions trodding along the paths of scientific theory.

      In relation to Tony Eguale’s blog, I think it would be a mistake to question his methods en toto. Rather, I would say, it is a method that you and many others perhaps find stultefying. Rather like the effect that most Renaissance painting has on me. Clearly it is great art. But it rarely speaks to me. Or perhaps it’s rather like British humour. It does not export well. I personally find it excruciatingly funny, whether or not it is pointed at me. But I have learned to be very very careful in using it with some American members of my family who find it irreverent and obfuscating. (I suspect this might be part of Richard Dawkins’ problem — he tends to write as if the entire world were filled with people who think like Oxford dons.) My own thinking is often stimulated and clarified by sharing Tony’s thoughts. I don’t always agree. But even the not agreeing often helps me think more clearly.

      Tony’s approach does not work for everybody. But he is a dish for a minority of at least this one. (Or at least one dish. I wouldn’t want this to constitute my entire diet.)

      What do you think?

      Like

      Comment by theotheri — November 7, 2009 @ 1:05 pm | Reply

  9. It was a gut reaction. If I really believe what I am saying, then Tony has the right to express himself in any way he chooses, even if he takes “the PhD approach” (I like that description. It sums up my position without igniting the powder keg). It isn’t that I suspend intellect. Central to my approach, I insist that we observe the reality given us, accept it for what it is (a clue) and think about what else we can say about it, while remaining consistent with it’s essential nature. I don’t think sarcasm explains anything about truth, but it says a lot about the observer. I gave up the tendency to make everything about me years ago, although I back slide now and again. An open mind, regardless of the pathway taken (as you have said) will often end up in the same place with other open minds.

    By the way, I appreciate these opportunities to examine my own thoughts for consistency (despite the admonition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”). Thanks.

    Like

    Comment by Graham — November 9, 2009 @ 6:01 pm | Reply

  10. I just discovered some pretty disgusting SPAM on my site. I don’t know how they got past security measures, but they did. You might want to take a look at your site for problems. It was on my site for a couple of days before I noticed the stats said SPAM (1).

    I’ve been pretty driven the last several days, but plan to take another look at tony’s stuff when I have some time. Unfortunately, it might take another week before I can give it the closer scrutiny it warrants.

    Like

    Comment by Graham — November 13, 2009 @ 7:19 am | Reply

    • Dear Graham,

      I apologize for my delay in responding to your recent comment. I am most interested in what you think, and as a matter of fact, sent Eguale a comment suggesting he also look at your take on the way he presents his arguments.

      But just as you have a personal life which has an effect both on what you say but how often you write on your blog as well as those of others, so do I. I work very hard at protecting the private lives of others in my blog, but that often means I do not talk about the most important events that may be occurring in my life at any given time.

      I also find that waiting some time before responding to others comments often broadens my perspective and I understand more fully what each of us may be trying to say.

      It is both these things which have delayed my responding to your comment. It is certainly not lack of interest. On the contrary. Some comments are more stimulating than others, and I include your perspective as one which I value more than most.

      I do hope you will reconsider withdrawing from our exchanges. In the meantime, I am going to post my response to your earlier comment on my blog. That is, if the visit to the doctor’s office this morning does not result in unexpected upheavals.

      With best wishes.

      Like

      Comment by theotheri — November 13, 2009 @ 9:20 am | Reply

  11. Ever since I was diagnosed with an incurable neurological disease, I have found myself racing with the clock to do what I perceive I need to do before I can allow myself to give up and let nature take its toll. It has made me less subtle, more blunt, but hopefully not rude—although some mistake my sense of urgency for arrogance. As for me, I drew the short straw, that’s life.

    I will remove the link that you missed when you removed your comments about Tony. Obviously, you are no longer interested in what I think. You will have to remove my comments yourself. I don’t have the authority.

    I suggest that you don’t over analyze this turn of events, being the psychologist, but accept it like a regular person as your ticket out of a bad situation. Next time you make a mistake about someone, don’t drag it out. It makes everyone unhappy for much longer than necessary. You don’t even need to respond. I’m already over it. Good Luck

    Like

    Comment by Graham — November 13, 2009 @ 8:45 am | Reply

    • Graham – I am rereading your comment above, and am mystified. I did not remove my comments about Tony and do not know what you are referring to. As I look at the comments above, our whole exchange seems to be there, including your Tony comments. However, I suspect there may be a problem at WordPress. Spam was inexplicably posted on your blog. I haven’t had any errant spam posted, but I did have some screwed-up comment that seems to have been bits from a post I made some time ago. In addition, the comment I sent this morning in response to your comment above seems to have been moved up a notch and is now positioned so that it looks as if I wrote it before yours.

      I could not understand why you seemed to angry, but now I see that what happened must have looked like a personal attack, and why you said I was no longer interested.

      Rather than answer your comment (marked #9) right now as I’d originally planned, I am going to go over my blog and see if I can find anything else strangely amiss.

      Just one more thought. My fear is that you will not see this comment on my blog. And so I am going to your blog to put a comment there as well. I do hope this misunderstanding can be resolved.

      Like

      Comment by theotheri — November 13, 2009 @ 2:41 pm | Reply


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