Monday, January 23, 2006

God's existence, and ours

From time to time, I am drawn into a discussion on whether God exists. Most recently, Snaars commented:
Q, you say that you believe God to be eternal and you do not believe that God caused himself. Most theistic philosophers would agree with you. They do not believe that God "caused" himself - rather, they believe that God possesses certain qualities that necessitate his existence in every possible universe. In other words, they believe that God exists because he can't not exist.
I should point out that this is a very generous comment on Snaars' part, since he himself is an atheist.

I responded:
I like that way of putting it. I suppose I would add that, if God ceased to exist (were such a thing possible) everything else would likewise cease to exist. Because God is the "ground of our being", whatever precisely that phrase means.
Coincidentally, I came across a discussion of the same topic in an essay by Thomas Merton. We're in rather philosophical territory here, but you may find it instructive.

Merton begins with self as the first thing known to us. This is how our minds work:  we begin from our own existence and work outwards from there. But Merton insists that is the wrong starting point. God's existence, not ours, is primary:
In our evaluation of the modern consciousness, we have to take into account the still overwhelming importance of the Cartesian cogito. (Cogito means "I think"; Merton is referring to Descarte's famous aphorism, "I think, therefore I am.")

Modern man is a subject for whom his own self-awareness as a thinking, observing, measuring and estimating "self" is absolutely primary. It is for him the one indubitable "reality," and all truth starts here. …

It is this kind of consciousness, exacerbated to an extreme, which has made inevitable the so called "death of God." Cartesian thought began with an attempt to reach God as object by starting from the thinking self. But when God becomes object, he sooner or later "dies," because God as object is ultimately unthinkable. …

The mystical consciousness of St. Theresa implies [an alternative] attitude toward the self. The thinking and feeling and willing self is not the starting point of all verifiable reality and of all experience. The primal truth, the ground of all being and truth, is in God the Creator of all that is. …

The "existence of God" is not something seen as deducible from our conscious awareness of our own existence. On the contrary, the experience of the classic Christian mystics is rooted in a metaphysic of being, in which God is intuited as "He Who Is," as the supreme reality, pure Being. …

Once there has been an inner illumination of pure reality, as awareness of the Divine, the empirical self is seen by comparison to be "nothing," that is to say contingent, evanescent, relatively unreal, real only in relation to its source and end in God.1
Merton's way of approaching the issue may be unpalatable to all of my readers, Christians and atheists alike. (Though I have one Buddhist reader who may find it amenable.)

I'd make a poor mystic, myself. But I completely agree with Merton's description of God as the supreme reality, pure Being; and of our existence as contingent on God's existence and therefore relatively unreal, real only in relation to its source and end in God.

That is precisely my conviction. Indeed, I suspect this is the first characteristic we should identify in defining what we mean by the word "God".

Anything else we might say about God — that God is a personal being, that God is love, that God is omnipotent — anything else we might affirm about God is secondary to this one fact, that God exists.

copyright © 2006, Stephen Peltz

1Thomas Merton, "The New Consciousness" in Zen and the Birds of Appetite.


At 2:41 AM, January 24, 2006, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

I think you may have hit the nail on the head - I'm basically too self centred to believe that I am just someones dream:-)

I would like to think humanity has a greater role in the universe, and that the individual's life & effort while here really is important.

At 8:31 AM, January 24, 2006, Blogger Mary P. said...

The universe is billions of years old. The earth, millions. In the big picture, an individual human life is less significant - and certainly less lasting - than a sneeze. The human race, barely a hiccup.

While I love and value my life, and while, (with or without God), I believe my interactions with others hold significance to me and those with whom I interact, I cannot imagine that humanity matters much to the universe.

However, humanity matters to God: a miraculous thing!

At 3:20 PM, January 24, 2006, Blogger LoryKC said...

I love Mary P's last statement!

Whether or not we were truly created in His image may be debatable---who can say?
I know I can't navigate my way through life successfully on my own. I find it truly amazing that when I ask for help, He has the time to listen and help me.
Not when it happens every time.
Just the power of positive thinking?
I'm not that powerful.

At 11:58 AM, January 25, 2006, Blogger Sadie Lou said...

The bible says we ARE created in His image. Here's the way I see it:
we create (art, poetry, drama, science)--so does He
we want to be loved--so does He
we want to be appreciated--so does He
we want to be remembered--so does He
we want to communicate--so does He

I can go on and on--He definately created us in His image.

At 2:14 PM, January 25, 2006, Blogger snaars said...

My comment that you cite in your post was meant to show that I respect a position that is well-thought-out. It was my way of saying that your opinion is respectable, even if I believe it to be wrong.

Mysticism is founded on so-called experiences of the "divine". I doubt such experiences are veridical. Even if I were to have such an experience myself, I would have to ponder it with skepticism.

Modern man is a subject for whom his own self-awareness as a thinking, observing, measuring and estimating "self" is absolutely primary. It is for him the one indubitable "reality," and all truth starts here. …

I'm not sure what "primary" means in the passage above. Certainly, I can imagine myself as a non-thinking, non-observing, non-measuring being. That's what I am sometimes while sleeping, and that's what I'll be when I'm dead.

In other ways, I understand all those cognitive functions as being secondary, or dependant upon, the proper functioning of my physical brain.

Consciousness seems to arise out of physical processes, and I have never seen it work the other way around.

At 4:15 PM, January 25, 2006, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Mrs. Aginoth:
I appreciate your comment because you draw attention to a possible misunderstanding — one that I left myself wide open to in the post.

When Merton says that human beings are relatively unreal, the emphasis must be on the word "relatively".

God's existence is absolute. As Snaars put it (helping me formulate something that he doesn't believe in), God possesses certain qualities that necessitate his existence in every possible universe … God can't not exist.

Our existence is not absolute but contingent — our existence is derived from God, and we can't exist apart from God's existence.

Therefore, we are unreal relative to God. It doesn't mean that we are merely a dream (dreamt by God), or that we can accomplish nothing important. But I can see why you interpreted the post that way.

• Mary P.:
I agree with Lory — well said!

Again, you're talking in relative terms: a human life, of short duration, is inconsequential relative to the ancient universe. Just as an insect that lives for less that 24 hours is inconsequential relative to a human life.

This is a truth that an atheist would agree with. Christians have been accused of making human beings out to be more important than they are — of claiming that the whole history of the cosmos centers on us.

As, in fact, the Bible says it does. A paradox! We are insignificant (from one perspective) yet significant (from another).

• Lory:
I appreciate your profession of faith. And God meets our faith with his faithfulness: "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful" (Heb. 10:23).

• Sadie Lou:
I don't think Lory was really expressing doubt that we are created in God's image. I think she meant only that she wasn't sure how we are like God, and you spoke to that question very well.

The text in Genesis isn't specific, of course. Some theologians say we are created in God's image insofar as we have a spirit (on the assumption that the "lower" animals don't have one). Others say, insofar as we are intelligent beings; others, insofar as we are free (non-determined) beings — who therefore are morally accountable.

Less plausibly, St. Augustine reasoned that man must be a trinitarian being, like God, and speculated on the precise respect in which man has a triune nature.

Your suggestions are perfectly acceptable to me. Perhaps they fit into one of the above paradigms?

• Snaars:
I certainly didn't mean to misrepresent you. I did acknowledge that you are an atheist; but I think it was generous of you to help me articulate something you don't even believe in.

When Merton uses the word "primary", I think he is addressing the topic of epistemology. He means that everything we know begins with our awareness of the self; that we work outward from there in our endeavors to interpret our world.

Your assertion, that Merton has overlooked the physical processes as prior to the mental processes, is correct, but perhaps irrelevant to the point he was trying to make.

I agree that a mystical experience is nothing like a proof of God's existence. It's far too subjective for that, and someone who hasn't had a similar experience can equally argue that God doesn't exist. Still, I like Merton's theological formulation.

I also like his critique of our reliance on self as the starting point for all knowing, as if that's the only possible epistemological starting point.

At 5:32 PM, January 25, 2006, Blogger snaars said...

It's always an honor to be mentioned in one of your blog posts, Q. You didn't misrepresent me at all. :)


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