“What do you know for sure?” I’ve always liked this greeting because it gets beyond the niceties of “How are you?” (which is seldom asked as a serious question) and goes straight to an inquiry about ideas. Taken as a serious question, the modern skeptic would answer “Nothing, absolutely” because every statement contains a contingency which becomes the seed of its own rebuttal. But there’s a difference between giving incontrovertible evidence of the truth and asserting from the heart what is true. Only the cynic would deny me this.
So…. what do I know for sure? Well, that beauty trumps science. Because without a sense of meaning and value the other operations of humanity are pointless (see Trofimovich’s speech in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.) Another thing I know for sure is that all is one. Best said in the original Sanskrit (…and after all, what isn’t?): “Ekam sadavipra bahuda vadanti”, “That which exists is one, sages call it by different names.” The last thing I know for sure is that everything is going to be just fine. Don’t ask me how I know, I just know.
But what about more contentious issues, like… does God exist? Blaise Pascal said belief in God was the safe bet but I’m not sure. I think landing on either theism or atheism lets me off too easily. Everyone seems to think that answering this question needs to come prior to getting on with the rest of our lives. Actually, I prefer leaving this as an open question, one that my life periodically bumps up against. An odd thing happened one day when I realized that my belief in God actually relies on periodically returning to the question…” does God exist?” So for me, the answering of this question short-circuits the investigation. It should never come first. As my wife says, “Let’s not get previous here!” We rush to answer it when we should make examination of ourselves and our place in this world the priority. To say that “God exists” is not the result of establishing a first principle. It is a hard-earned realization.
Having said that, I must confess to a distinct penchant for magical thinking. Sometimes, all that my “sensory antennae” pick up is background static but sometimes… its a kind of music. On certain days the world, its plants, its people, its buildings all sort of glow with an unearthly light. It happens on days when I’m not pushing my agenda. Not analyzing, not deciding, and definitely not in charge. Sounds like mysticism, right? Might well be something along those lines. In these moments the “God question” itself doesn’t exist. Why even ask? Who’s doing the asking? Exist? What, are you kidding me? The question itself seems to be a silly, petulant demand from someone willfully oblivious.
What I don’t get is why I find it so important to defend the thing that is absolutely indefensible in any objective sense? The existence of God. Who is my dog in this fight? Why not let everyone come to their own decision about it and let that be the end of it. Fine and good. There’s powerful truth in that. But if I just leave it at that, life starts to flatten out. What happens to the interesting story we can tell each other about it? Where’s the color and contrast? Where’s the challenge and the sense of open-ended possibility? My rule number one in deciding on a path of action: Go to the one that promises the more interesting terrain.
But maybe we aren’t seeking proof of God. Aren’t we looking for meaning? Then let’s look at basic beliefs. Basic beliefs are those that need no proof, and often cannot be proven. These are the “What I know for sure” statements that provide the foundation for what we finally decide and discuss. Things like; the belief in our individuality, the belief that our senses tell us all we need to know about the world, the belief that time in linear with a beginning, middle and end.
There are many others basic beliefs that start with questions. Are there other minds besides ours? Does the past exist? These questions can never be proved “objectively”, yet they prevail as common sense perceptions. And we make extensive use of them every day. So… is my argument for God only based on what my “sensory antennae” tell me? Well it does start with that.
My steadfast and trustworthy rational intellect quickly counters with: I have no evidence for the existence of God therefore God does not exist. What am I talking about with all this touchy-feely sense of the divine stuff? My rational mind tells me I’m an atheist, right? I mean, do you really see God out there anywhere? Fair enough. And there lies the challenge to the believer. But its the corollary “The evidence as I see it eliminates the need for God” that oversteps into intellectual arrogance. First, I would argue that the “god” you are eliminating is a caricature, a straw man that only exists in the minds of very unsubtle true believers (as something to affirm) and materialists (as something to deny). And second, I would hesitate before prescribing the benefits of existentialism to us all. We aren’t all born to be self-justifiers.
I understand the dangers of the religious subjective with its desire to persuade instead of demonstrate. The philosopher warns us to “Beware of exuberance…” (John Locke). On the other hand, I’m not sure that the rational mind can answer all questions. Or that on its own it can lead us to a proper life.
An interesting insight along these lines comes again from Dostoevsky and has been called his “Golden Dream”. Rowan Williams describes it as “…(envisioning) a world from which belief has disappeared and in which the muted sense of bereavement caused by this (drives) people closer to each other, loving each other.” In other words, the demise of simplistic and servile belief might just be a healthy entree into true compassion.
John Milton examined a very important pitfall in our ethical life when he told us that we have a tendency towards “slave mentality”. He shows this to be a common danger, either if we see ourselves as religious fundamentalists or rational materialists. Both groups are given over to the view that there is a literal understanding of reality. We see the world as formulaic, understandable by creed and conclusion. We become enamored of the icon, focusing on what it can do for us instead of the meaning it can impart to our lives. We limit ourselves to appearances instead of complexities.
Independent of the argument denying God any objective reality, God is a story we tell ourselves. To say that we invented God is not a reduction. As Louis Borges says so well “metaphysics is a branch of the fantastical literature”. Religion is our most wondrous creation. We invent what we need and our sense of the divine leads us to tell the story. I’m not limiting God to our story about God because it is part of my belief that there is an independent reality involved. But even if you don’t subscribe (and my own doubt is basic to my understanding), it is still possible to see that our religious “fabrications” are an essential component of defining ourselves as human.
One of the most ironic developments in the scientific critique of religion is the blindness to the history of science itself. Without the establishment of our basic integrity as human individuals operating in history and without our sense that the universe itself is sensible and understandable, we would never have the necessary tools to investigate nature properly. The gift of independent rational thought (in the west) was presented by a religion of grace combined with its humanistic offshoots. An eternally revolving universe of endless cycles populated by tribes does not suggest intelligibility in the same way as a world of precious individual souls operating in linear time. Our culturally ingrained interpretation of time as linear may or may not be absolutely factual (and who can tell) but it profoundly affected how we operate in it.
I guess my main objection to scientifically based anti-theism is that it presents a substitute hierarchy of knowledge. Instead of the old Catholic church model (pre-Vatican Two) of the priestly class saying “there, there” to the laity, we have a new Illuminati (Dawkins, Hitchens) preaching a rational clarity that can eliminate God from our lives. I’m a proponent of a more level playing field, an egalitarian exploration into matters both rational and intuitive. I find the possibility of God to be a leading edge motivator that is basic to my imaginative capabilities. If I decide that the theoretical physicists have answered all the basic existential questions (including the “Why?”) then I give over power to the new priestly class and diminish or de-legitimize my own capabilities for personal exploration. And it is important to keep in mind that any knowledge, be it derived or experiential, carries with it the responsibility of skepticism.
So I think the old theist-atheist debate might be missing the point. Each side tends to argue from entrenched positions which can only result in nothing gained, no information exchanged. I also think that each side represents the extremity of a functioning polarity that is closer to representing truth. I actually find it more useful to categorize people as being either “Possibilians” or “Limitarians”. And these more basic dispositions can be found in both believers and non-believers and transcend those contentious categories.
Do I believe in God? Might be the wrong question. Does a sense of divine presence inspire me? Better.