Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Is God a person or just some vague cosmic force?

Is there, in fact "one all-powerful force controlling everything"?  Perhaps a "mystical energy field" that controls your destiny?  Is there some great big guy in the sky who is watching your every move from a throne and ready to judge you if you don't think or act the right way?  Or is such talk based on "simple tricks and nonsense"?

There are times when someone else has said something so well, it is better to let them speak on the matter and add a bit of commentary.

Let's talk read some Kung.

Hans Kung does not dismiss the ambiguous notion of God of some philosophy, agnostics, and the spiritual but not religious, but he does suggest there is more to be known about God than vague apophatic impressions.  As a Christian this is revealed for him in the person of Jesus, by whom it is implied we can evaluate and contextualize what had been said before about God in the Old Testament.  In Why I Am Still a Christian, he writes:
[T]he God of the Judeo-Christian faith unambiguously proves to be a God, not against humanity but for humanity. 'Immanuel: God with us'... a God of liberation, of mercy, of salvation, of grace...  This one and only God* is that one very last, very first reality which, together with Christians and Jews, Moslems also worship as Allah... He is the reality that Hindus seek in Brahma and Buddhists seek in the Absolute Dharma (Nirvana)* as do the Chinese in heaven or the Tao...

This is certainly the biblical God, but the biblical God perceived in the new view of the world according to Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin.  A God who, as the all-embracing and all-pervasive God of the world, is certainly not a person in the way a human being is a person... God burst apart the concept of a person; God is more than a person.

But conversely, a God who is the foundation of the personal nature of human beings cannot himself be a-personal either.  He is not sub-personal.  God also bursts apart the concept of the impersonal; God in not less than a person either.

I can appreciate the objection of that God isn't necessary to explain our nature, that it is the result of evolution (which is the result of physics) and the choices of those around us and our own, but what he is getting at here is more fundamental.  It is a reference to the fundamental nature of reality.  No matter how far we push back the causal chain, there is still no particular reason why certain phenomena should have the qualities they do.

These qualities can be described and modeled and explained as the result of other phenomena, but these explanations can at best only depend on the qualities of the phenomena to which the phenomena under investigation are reduced, and to which those are reduced and so on ad infinitum.

So it can be said that these qualities are just the outcome of the natural laws of the universe, which are the major themes of the collective descriptions of regularly occurring empirical phenomena studied by science.  But it is still dependent on what is already there.  If God is the source, substance and sustainer of existence rather than merely a first cause for (a) universe, then such laws, phenomena and qualities are indeed aspects of the divine, and therefore foundation to our personal nature.

Kung also discusses the idea of paradox, and I would add that his always happens when we push our dualistic categories to their conceptual limit.  They are after all just models and descriptions, and cannot contain the fullness of reality.  This is also relevant for other related divine paradoxes such as God's transcendence and immanence but to stay on the more refined point and return to Kuhn's writing:
[E]ven though this God is 'super-personal', he is still a genuine partner who is kind and absolutely reliable,  a partner to whom we can speak.  Of course we can only talk about this God, and talk to him, in metaphors and images, in cyphers and symbols.  But we can nonetheless communicate with him with human words -- how else?  And it is obviously on this basis that this possibility of prayer and worship depends...

I would suggest that meditation and contemplative prayer can be added to the list, but they are also expressions of human faculties.  To continue:
For in simple prayer and genuine worship even modern men and women can find certain values at a wholly different depth of their existence, and can truly experience where we come from, where we are, and where we are going.

This last part is important for appreciating how the unknown God of the sort-of-spiritual and abstract theology is associated with what we think of as personal qualities such as compassion and grace.

In The Beginning of All Things, Kuhn summarizes these same points and elaborates:
[God] is not a limited individual among other persons.  God is not a super-person and a superego.

Precisely because God is not a "thing", precisely because, as is emphasized in Eastern wisdom*, he cannot be understood, seen, manipulated; because is not at our disposal, he is also not impersonal, subpersonal.

Spinoza's identification of God with nature and the laws of nature does not solve any problems... natural laws such as physicists are tempted to assume on the basis of their particular and limited method cannot explain the whole of reality.

This is not just the view of the Bible and the Qur'an; most Buddhists also accept an Ultimate Reality.  And this is more than the cosmos: more than a universal reason or a great anonymous consciousness.  It is more than the supreme idea (Plato) or a thinking related to itself and thinking about itself (Aristotle).  It is more than the pure beauty of the cosmos or the blind justice of history.  The Ultimate Reality is not indifferent to us and does not leave us indifferent, but is our "ultimate concern", as Paul Tillich put it...
In other words, God defies our notions and the categories which they spawn.  It is no more appropriate to label God a person than it is to think of God as impersonal or a non-person, as some vague cosmic force.  There are many ways to understand God, and many names with which to call on God, but there is no formula or equation or model in which God can be contained.  We should not disparage those whose partial understanding of God differs from our own incomplete notions nor despise the differences in our perspectives.  Rather we should celebrate the many ways we have to know the divine.

*I knew Kung has repeatedly used the phrase "God is not less than a person", and when I searched for a source to quote this and explore the idea more fully I found this, which mirrors what has been said here recently.  How about that?  I guess if I am wrong I am in some distinguished company.

1 comment:

  1. There are so many religions and even more ideas about the divine and its influence on our universe. Ideas about God have evolved along with human evolution, but one thing has always remained the same: the belief in divine or supernatural power. This divine has changed over human history along with development of science. We started with spirits of ancient hunter-gatherers, which evolved into matriarchal gods of Shummers and Mayas, to Greek gods, to Jehovah, Jesus, Allah or Buddah. These Gods all possessed human-like qualities such as love, hatred, compassion, courage etc., so they were anthropomorphic.
    Later, as individuation developed, the metaphysical God appeared. The God is not necessarily anthropomorphic but still powerful, and definitely the creator of the universe. Shortly after, we see how metaphysical God evolved into cosmic god-certainly not anthropomorphic and not self-conscious, merely a cosmic force that caused the emergence of the universe. All these gods are different from each other, and reflect the time when the idea about them developed. What made people question god and seek new answers? My answer is: the combination of human evolution and scientific advancements. With each scientific breakthrough, the man’s knowledge about this universe grew exponentially and the ideas about god had to be adjusted to accommodate for the new knowledge, so that god made sense to the men of each time period. Development of science has never stopped, and along with science, theology will keep evolving, trying to accommodate for newer and newer knowledge. Why? Because humans need to believe in something bigger and more powerful than themselves. Be it a miracle-performing Jesus or the cosmic force that split into four basic forces during the big bang. People need to believe there is a reason why they exist and a purpose to their life. It doesn’t matter how many times science suggests or proves against the possibility of heaven or hell or the theory of god creating and controlling the universe, or miracles, men will always find a way to believe in divine. Ludwig Feurebach says men created the notion of god by exaggerating all the good qualities of man and attributing them to God. Then this perfect god had to be modified to accommodate for the evil in the world, or anything that questions him.
    Accomodationism is in people. It can change their views about divine from anthropomorphic God that has self-consciousness to God being a force that doesn’t have consciousness and is a physical force.
    In reality, people are rational, but they also want to believe in something, because as many say, religion and faith are very human qualities. So every time science beats up pieces that form faith in God, people find a new God by modifying the old one. They are ready to change the characteristics of God as long as there is some kind of God to believe in. Science develops rapidly, and there are always people who would use science to disprove the existence of God, but in order for this to be possible first we have to define God and its characteristics. Since the notion of God is created by humans, it can really be anything. With these said, it doesn’t matter how many notions of God science disproves, there will always be notions of God that will accommodate to the new breakthroughs. It works like this: science says the earth is not the center of universe, your God lied, so he doesn’t exist. Then the believers would say: alright, that kind of God doesn’t exist, how about this kind of God? This is in the base of accomodationism. Atheists will always target the god that is most vulnerable and easy to attack, and God’s defenders will always come up with a different God, and believe in that God.


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