My Christian friend Ray sent me the following email today:
When I hear all of the discussions of the god El and the god Yahweh as per as the creation stories, the implication is that religion is a human invention. While it is clear that humans have developed a lot of religious ideas and notions about God or the gods, the question is what is really going on? Is the knowledge of or belief in God a logical conclusion, wishful thinking, or a reflection of a real experience however distorted in history? I think it has to be one of these three choices.
Of course, the least interesting to me is the notion that God is simply a figment of a hopeful human imagination. We needed a psychological comfort and explanation, so we basically invented God, or in the past the gods, to fill the gap.
Perhaps God or the gods are simply a logical conclusion. The evidence is just too strong that there is a creator who made all things. We conclude that it could not have happened by chance. This creator made the universe with incredible design and complexity surpassing anything that humans have been able to fully understand or process. Unfortunately if God has communicated in the past, it is has been too spotty to rely on, or maybe he is the watchmaker who just stopped talking.
I believe what we have is the third option, that the knowledge of God is a reflection of a real experience. Perhaps you can conclude that the knowledge of God has been distorted. The question is whether the myths and legends reflect not just the imagination but are tales of actual events. Were people originally polytheists or did polytheism follow monotheism?
I believe polytheism is the creation of people. The fact that we can see people moving towards monotheism is based on experiences where God supernaturally appeared, indicating that he was the one true God. Most of the primitive societies have a legend that “we used to serve the one true God but then fell away and serve demons”. The Hebrew prophets constantly declared that the idols were not real gods but simply paper, wood and metal.
So I guess the question is to whether you believe that God is real and active in history? If he is real and active in history, such as evidenced by your acknowledgement that Jesus rose from the dead then should not affect how we view textual criticism and the Bible. Was there a supernatural reality behind these stories, or all they simply humanly created myth? Humanly created myth is different from a mythical retelling of a true event.
So is the knowledge of God a logical conclusion, human invention or based on real encounters?
And there it is. The gauntlet has been thrown. I must now state what I really believe. For I certainly owe Ray that much. After all, he is my closest and dearest friend in the all the world, with the exception of course of my wonderful and lovely wife, Ruth. I will blog on my love for Ruth soon. First, though we must turn to Ray’s email.
OK. I think Ray has it fairly close in his explanation, but for purposes of completeness, I think there are the following possibilities with respect to the existence and nature of God:
- God does not exist, and the universe is a natural phenomenon, nothing more. This is the standard atheist position. I have held that position at times in my life. I certainly understand that position very well. I have read all of the “new atheists”, and know the basic pitch. I am not really a fan, though. I choose not to be an atheist, for the simple reason that it is a dreary and depressing way to live. I will probably blog on why I am not an atheist later.
- The existence of God is unknowable, so therefore it is a silly thing to talk about. This is the standard agnostic position. I have known many Christians who believed that an agnostic was an easy mark for conversion, because he / she admittedly does not know whether or not God exists. That ignorance can be cured, after all! But this is foolishness. The correct way to characterize the agnostic position is this: Whether of not God exists is not knowable by human means. That is a completely legitimate philosophical and spiritual position, and I have known many people who hold to this position, including members of my own family. Again, though, I do not hold this position either. Basically, there is no difference in the way that you would live if you were an atheist vs. an agnostic. I would find this way of life dreary and depressing. More on that later.
- God exists, and this fact is clear from the existence and unique nature of the universe. However, He / She / It cannot conceive of our existence. Therefore, the existence of God is merely a necessary conclusion to account for the universe’s existence. Otherwise He / She / It has no relevance or meaning in our life. Certainly, He / She / It never conceived of any “laws” that we, as created beings, are directed to carry out, and does not listen to any of our prayers. This is the standard theist position. Many of the founders of the United States believed something very close to this. This is also very close to the position of Aristotle, with his concept of the “unmoved mover”. Buddhism also gets very close to this, or possibly The Buddha could be referred to as an agnostic. (Certainly he dodged every question he ever received concerning the existence of God. He regarded it as an inappropriate question.) I often flirt with this position. But I am not sure what I would do with a deity that simply could not be contacted by any means. How would He / She / It have any impact or meaning on our lives? Certainly, some of the mystics believe that He / She / It does. There is an inexpressible longing to many theists. I share that longing, and in that sense, I am a kindred spirit. Certainly, I am very drawn to spiritual movements like yoga that are essentially theistic in their philosophical approach.
- God exists and has intimate and loving contact with human beings, through miraculous and spiritual means. This is the standard monotheistic position. It has some nuances though. In my own way, I believe in this most of the time. However, my form of monotheism is a bit eccentric: Most often, I relate to the divine as Female. I call Her The Goddess, hence the name of this post. While this may seem weird to my Christian friends, bear in mind that I had a miserable relationship with my father, while my mother, although she was insane most of the time, actually did love me. And there is actually abundant support for Goddess worship in early Christianity, as well as other religions. More on the Goddess, and why I worship God in this manner, in a later post. One of the aspects of many monotheistic religions, including Christianity, is the notion of a divine law. This gets into the various subsets of monotheism, which I suppose I will get into at some time. Suffice it to say, that the monotheistic religions that claim that God created a divine moral law that we are required to at least try to carry out (which seems to be the basic pitch of Christianity) are essentially all wet as far as I am concerned. Especially if you actually read the law that is supposedly being foisted upon as a divine law. But I digress. Back to the high-level options with respect to the existence and nature of the divine.
- The gods exist and they are real! This is paganism. I believe that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam evolved out of paganism, as I have said earlier on this blog. This does not mean that these religions do not contain elements of truth, though. There seems to be an idea that if a faith or belief evolved out of something else, that therefore it is not true. Certainly, it would be a cool validation of the message of a particular religion if the revelation of that religion simply sprung out, intact and unchanging, onto the world stage. I sense a bit of that longing in Ray’s comment about primitive man being monotheistic. But this is not what we observe. Instead paleolithic man is animistic, which I will cover next, and animism is very different from monotheism. With respect to paganism, however, Christianity is not as far from this as we would like to think. Certainly, notions like the trinity (which is simply a rehashing of the pagan philosopher Plotinus’s notion of the Divine Triad) come very close to being polytheistic, and many of the other monotheistic religions (like Judaism and Islam) criticize Christianity for this very thing. I think paganism is a fun and interesting religion, and certainly I read a lot of pagan literature. (Much of the genre known as fantasy falls into the pagan category.) However, the idea of many ethically ambiguous semi-divine beings who are at war with each other seems rather ridiculous to me. In the end, I would be right there with Socrates drinking the hemlock. So, no, I am not a pagan.
- Everything we can see is a shadow of a spirit world which is more real than this world. Every rock, every tree, every animal, are all pregnant and pulsing with spiritual power. This form of belief is called animism, and it has been the dominant form of belief for most of human history. The paleolithic humans who persist on the earth are largely animists, and some of the more primitive neolithic cultures are as well. Certainly, all of mankind apparently starts out as animistic, according to the universal consensus of the anthropologists that I have read. (Ray, if you have any science to corroborate your “primitive monotheism” theory, please let us know.) When I am in nature, sometimes I feel the numinous impulse, as described by C.S. Lewis, when I see a thunder cloud or some other awesome natural phenomenon. I had that experience once standing at the foot of Exit Glacier at midnight on the longest day of the year. I have also had that experience on the seas in very rough weather. At those moments, I feel what the primitive humans must have felt, and I flirt with animism. But in the end, I know that the universe is essentially rational, and I understand the physics well enough to explain all of the natural stuff I see in front of me. So, no, I am not an animist either.
That leaves monotheism. OK, then I am a monotheist. But am I a Christian? That is a more interesting question, which I will save for a later post.