Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

2/9/11 Straw Gods

I had an argument with a TV character. An ANIMATED TV character, no less. Also, the argument was in my head, so there's that. All told, not one of my finer moments, but one I feel a need to share.

Brian from Family Guy is an atheist. Yes, Brian is also an animated, fictional, talking dog, but he represents a point of view I hear a lot on the internet. The usual arguments for atheism tend to revolve around the same few tropes, and Brian often comes back to them (to be fair to Seth MacFarlane, I sometimes have difficulty telling if Brian is meant to be a parody of a self-righteous atheist, or an actual representative of atheism's chief arguments).

The one that particularly got under my skin is the one that goes something like, "Well when we looked into space with the Hubble Telescope, nobody saw a giant old man with a white beard." The idea that believers in God, whatever flavor they may choose, believe literally in their particular anthropomorphic version of Divinity as represented in art is a little disingenuous.

Let's be clear. Most people I know who believe in God don't believe in that version of God either. God is not a white, bearded, old (sometimes more-or-less virile) old man sitting on a cloud somewhere in space. Almost nobody for a moment takes that seriously. There are versions of faith out there that believe all the Sunday School versions of the bible: the six days of creation, the rivers turning to blood, the walking on water, etc. etc. etc. But that's not stuff I believe, nor does anyone I know who has given it more than a few minutes thought.

When the bible says "Man was made in God's image," that phrase has a very specific meaning. We are in the image of God, insofar as we are participants in creation. The creative principle by which the world came into being is the same creative urge that infuses our highest aspirations. When we speak (cf. Emil Brunner) we engage in the same process that spoke the world into existence. There are indications that the words we use to describe our world to ourselves literally help to create that world, and insofar as we change our ways of thinking about the world, we change our experience of the world. We are not fleshy, poorly made copies of a more perfect body, but embodiments of the creative principle that made the universe.

So if God is not the "old man on a cloud" what is He? The atheist sets up the clearly poetical and metaphorical representation of Michelangelo's God, and then proceeds to tear it down. But that God is not my God, not the God I know (though he is useful as a metaphor - more on that in a later post).

One of the things I love about religion, in spite of its many shortcomings, is the language it uses, and one of the most beautiful phrases I've heard to describe God is as that in which we "live, move, and have our being." On my Facebook page, I describe my beliefs as "Panentheist." This is in contrast to "Pantheist" which, when I was a kid, I thought made a lot of sense. Pantheism is the idea that God IS the universe, that they are equivalent: everything we encounter is God, as are we, and the entire universe is God revealing Himself to Himself. Lots of very smart people whom I respect a great deal (Alan Watts, Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary) believe that, or some variation thereof, and as a model, it's pretty good. Pretty good, but it doesn't go far enough. When I finally figured out that it, to a degree, depersonalized God, it lost some of its shine. My experience of God as loving Father and friend wasn’t supported by this rather more impersonal version of Him.

Panentheism is the idea that God both pervades the universe, and that the universe is within God. God is in us, and we are in Him. This pervasiveness is what causes the universe to continue to be. The universe in no way "contains" God, in the sense of a pitcher containing water, or even "is" God, in the way that a series of systems (engine, drive train, tires, electrical system, etc.) "is" a car. It reverses the emphasis in a crucial way. God creates us, sustains us, is (as the Quran says) closer to us than our jugular vein, even, in a way, IS each of us and everything we see, and yet is not exclusively and only us.

So to get back to the original point, how does this version of God reconcile with the one the atheists tend to argue against? God as a doddering old man (I’m looking at you Philip Pullman) is a perfect “straw man” argument:science has not yet found, and will not ever (as far as I can tell) find the Old Man Sitting on a Cloud(tm). That’s not God, and if it makes any atheists feel better, I don’t believe in that version either. The vision of God (and again, we can only speak metaphorically when we speak of the Ground of Being) painted by Panentheism has the benefit of being less ridiculous, at the very least, and also doesn’t contradict science. Fundamentalists and children believe in Old Man God, and atheism, while a valid choice in the face of evidence, should do better than disprove a conception of God that most thinking people don’t believe in anyway.

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