What sense does this God stuff make?

One of the problems people have with religion today is that they don’t know what to make of the word “God.”

In a sense they’re right to be puzzled. Our concept of God is our concept of the most basic thing there is. It’s a concept of something beyond all concepts. That’s why Aquinas says that in this life we are unable to see God in his essence, and Paul says that “now we see through a glass, darkly” (I Cor. 13:12). It’s why negative theology, which procedes by saying what God is not, is an essential part of Christian thought.

The uniqueness of the concept of God, and the difficulties it raises, is also why Descartes said he could not understand how it had ever entered our minds. He concluded that since in fact we did have the concept of a perfect being, without the experience of perfection, it must have been put there by God Himself. That conclusion was important for him, because it gave him a way out of the hole he had dug for himself through his method of universal doubt that seemingly left him nothing to rely on. If God exists, and is all-good and all-powerful, he wouldn’t give us thoughts and perceptions without making them a reliable means of knowledge. Therefore, Descartes thought, he could accept the evidence of his senses and go about his social and scientific business in confidence and good philosophical conscience.

Still, if Descartes hadn’t inherited such a sensitive philosophical conscience from his medieval predecessors he could have developed the line of thought in another direction, one that dispensed with the need for divine intervention to make knowledge possible. He could have accepted our perceptions and reason as the best evidence for truth, without reference to any further validation, found God unintelligible as beyond reason and perception, and declined to think about Him.

That line of thought has mostly won out, because it’s simpler than the view Descartes actually held. As a result, there’s no place for God in the way educated people are now trained to think about things. What’s real is the world of physics, and the world of our feelings and sensations. Both are just somehow splatted into existence for no particular reason, and anything beyond them is at best a poetic fiction and at worst rhetorical cover for the will to power. So when people mention God today what comes to mind is something that belongs to the things they recognize as real: He is either a figurative way of talking about what we feel is important and how we’d like things to be, or He’s a Great Big Thing somewhere, who wants us to do this or that and will beat us up if we don’t.

Neither conception has much religious, philosophical or human interest, except possibly as a stopgap. What’s needed, then, in religion as in other things, is to overcome modernity and accept the existence of a richer world than modernity permits, one in which being has a Source and divine purpose is a necessary category for understanding how things are. The modern view is that we and everything else have simply been thrown into the world. It’s not clear why anyone would think that’s so. Why is pointlessness the default assumption? If it is, how do we ever go beyond it? In other words, why don’t the people who claim to think that way just shut up? We can’t help but try to make sense of things, and to do so is to assume that things make sense. Without that belief everything becomes arbitrary, and reasonableness becomes indistinguishable from craziness. Thought can’t even get started. What’s rational or believable about that? But to accept the order and intelligibility of things, understood as good and therefore in some manner integrated into a system of implicit purposes, is in essence to believe in God.

2 thoughts on “What sense does this God stuff make?”

  1. via negativa
    you’re onto something here Jim, but you aren’t open-minded enough to see it…

    Pointlessness is not the assumption (not once you get over the cynical need to proclaim the “death” of the Author), and you’re right to argue that our need to express ourselves (even to say “it’s all meaningless”) is the best possible argument aganst nihilism, but why can’t meaning be constructed consensually, rather than given?

    Why assume, simply because we know that life has meaning, that this meaning MUST be tied into some sort of Universal Plan?

    There is no reason to assume this. It is not logical. The idea of an “origin” is indeed so strange that no human mind can ever hope to understand it, but that doesn’t mean that you HAVE TO infer that there is some entity that has the “answers”. If our bodies have built-in defects (and I don’t know about you, but mine does!). Why couldn’t the same be said of our minds? In neither case is there a panacea. Still. the “negative way” has been followed by most of the best philosophical minds of the past two centuries (from Emerson to Derrida), and I’m delighted to see it referenced here!


    • via sola esse non potest
      I don’t understand the notion of bootstrapping meaning through agreement. Normally something has meaning by reference to a scheme of things that includes it and helps make it what it is. The notion that we construct meaning seems to suggest that we start off as fully-formed agents capable of constructing things, but without a scheme of things to determine what we are and give us and our actions meaning. We then decide to create such a scheme of things and do so. But that seems impossible, because it seems we could not act to create the scheme of things without already being able to act meaningfully. Before our constructive act we would already have to be part of a scheme of things that gives us and our act meaning.

      The point of negative theology, I think, is that it brings out how special God has to be in order to get around that problem. After all, He has to have meaning without being part of a larger scheme of things that includes Him and helps make Him what He is. As the Scholastics said, his being has to be the same as his essence. So as I say in my entry He can’t be conceived as a Great Big Thing somewhere even though our language (see Mr. Fiore’s dismissive comments about ‘Universal Plan’ and ‘some entity that has the ‘answers'”) has to suggest something of the sort for us to speak of Him at all. That’s why mystics wax paradoxical and Dennis the Pseudo-Areopagite uses expressions like “super-essential” in speaking of God. Still, negative theology can’t be the whole of theology and still be theology. It’s role is necessary but corrective.

      I agree our minds are limited in various ways. I don’t see why recognizing that gives support to any particular view about what the world is really like. To my mind it makes the view that we are the ultimate source of meaning even less plausible if that’s possible.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

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