What Sort of Thing Might God Be?

This is my first post here, and I figured I’d start out with a series of posts on philosophy of religion since I’ve been meaning to do something of this sort for a while.   I’ll start with a post on the ontology of God.  That is, I’ll try to answer to the best of my ability the puzzling question, “What sort of being might God be?”

Karen Armstrong says that the insights of religion “are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle.  Without such practice it is impossible to understand the truth of its doctrines.”  If she is right, then we cannot really evaluate the claim “God exists” without a deep understanding of the practices that treat this claim as being true.  But why would that be the case?  On the face of it, the belief that God exists seems roughly analogous to belief in something like the Loch Ness Monster.  If we want to know whether the Loch Ness Monster exists we don’t need to worry about the practices that people who believe in the Loch Ness Monster engage in.  We shouldn’t get hung up on the details of all the Loch Ness Monster boat tours that excited tourists go on.  What we should do is look at whatever evidence there is, see what the most probable explanations for the photos and reported sightings are, and, if we can, simply check the lake to see if it’s there or not.  Why wouldn’t the same be the case about God?

Explaining why belief in God should not be treated like belief in the Loch Ness Monster has traditionally not been too easy of a task.  The Christian existentialist, Paul Tillich, tells us that God is not simply a being among beings, but “the ground of all Being.”  In a similar vein, one of the more religiously sympathetic atheist philosophers, Kai Neilson, writes that “Coming to see that there is a God is not like coming to see that some additional being exists. It is not, as Kierkegaard paradoxically put it, like coming to see that something exists, but it is a coming to an acknowledgment of eternity.”  These sorts of theological explanations are all well and good within a theological framework, but they might be seen by skeptics as vague and evasive.  “Oh, come on,” the skeptic says, “I have no idea what that could possibly even mean!”  And while one might write off the skeptic’s protestations here as shallow and narrow-minded, I think there is a more straightforward explanation for why belief in God ought to be treated differently than belief in an ordinary thing like the Loch Ness Monster.

The Loch Ness Monster is going to exist or not regardless of whatever practices we have surrounding it.  But not all things work like this.  If my neighbor is teaching me how to play chess for the first time and he tells me “The knight goes on the inside of the rook,” this is a true statement (that is in fact where the knight goes).  However, it’s also an action of my neighbor holding-up a rule.  It’s what we might call a “norm-enforcing” practice.   Outside of norm-enforcing practices like the one he just took part in, there is no normative structure in virtue of which this claim could be possibly be true or even meaningful.  So it’s true that rooks exist and that we can make true statements about them, and yet, we cannot regard these things as existing separately from practices which treat them as existing.

Perhaps, in a way much like rooks and knights, the existence of God cannot be understood outside of our practices which treat God as existing.  This would provide a model to make sense of Armstrong’s statement that we cannot understand the truth of religious doctrines outside of practice.  But there’s an obvious problem here: the existence of rooks and knights is wholly dependent on whether there are people interested in playing game.  For any game we might want to play, we have no problem inflating out ontology to include the pieces of the game.  But we can’t inflate our ontology in the same way to accommodate the gods of Christianity, Hinduism and Greek Mythology just because people might be interested in worshiping these Gods.  The objects of religious worship are supposed to have some sort of deep and real ontological status that knights and rooks do not have.

So, at the very least, we need a stronger analogy.  Consider then the existence of persons, rational and moral agents who can be held epistemically and morally responsible for their claims and actions.  I strongly believe that persons exist.  However, they don’t exist in the attitude independent sense that the Loch Ness Monster might exist. Without any treatment of each other as persons in this sense, without holding anyone responsible for anything at all, the notion of a person would make no sense.  Like a rook or a knight, a person is a normatively governed entity, and an entity of this sort can make no sense completely outside of our norm-enforcing practices of treating others as persons.  Still, a person’s status as a person is not identical to our treatment of them as a person. We can imagine cases where we get it wrong.  For example, if someone has locked-in syndrome and we believe that they are brain-dead, and thus we do not treat them as a person. We’re missing an important and deep truth here, and yet this truth would make no sense outside of any of practices of treating each other as persons.  It is a profound fact about us, that we really are persons in this sense, and about the world, that it contains beings that really are epistemically and morally responsible.

So perhaps, rather than chess pieces, persons is a better model for thinking of religious belief.  Still, if we are to think of God, will we get a conception of God that is ontologically robust enough?  Well, that depends.  Different conceptions of gods will need different properties in order to be called that god.  The existence of a particularly anthropomorphic god such as Zeus, who intervenes with human affairs in a way quite like a human (literally throwing lightning bolts and whatnot), will be hard to defend in this this fashion.  Belief in Zeus, presumably, is more like belief in the Loch Ness Monster in that it is hard to see a way in which the very concept of Zeus would be ontologically dependent on practices committed to Zeus’s existence.

However, there is a certain conception of the Christian and Jewish God often suggested by theologians that is quite unlike Zeus and for whom this ontological picture may not be unreasonable at all.  The conception of God I have in mind is something along the lines of the Tillich’s conception, in which God is not a “being among beings” but the “ground of all Being,” Buber’s conception where he calls God the “Eternal Thou,” the intersection of all interpersonal moments which transcend our everyday relation with the world, or John Hick’s conception of God which he simply calls “The Real.”  Differences aside, it’s possible to see all of these characterizations as attempting to point at some sort of fundamentally ineffable Absolute which underlies all reality.  It is this conception of God that may be ontologically compatible with the idea that its coherence is dependent on our practices.

I think there are some good reasons to think that a God of this sort does in fact exist, but I will save articulating those reasons for a later post and focus instead on what it would mean if such a God did exist.  An interesting consequence of this sort of theological view is that it is entirely compatible with a modest version of metaphysical naturalism.  There are a few different ways we could articulate metaphysical naturalism, but for our present purposes, let’s just think of it as the claim that ultimately, natural stuff (the sort of stuff that natural scientists investigate) is causally responsible for everything else (whatever that “everything else” happens to be).  Now this will certainly come as a surprise to many theists, so let me take a moment to explain.

I don’t mean to mean to say that naturalism is necessarily the correct metaphysical view; just that naturalism and theism aren’t necessarily incompatible.  It seems plausible to think that moral facts and mental facts are causally dependent on the physical stuff of natural science (though perhaps are not reducible to them).  I’m suggesting that it might also be plausible to think about theological facts in this way. This is only theologically catastrophic if we have a particularly anthropomorphic conception of God, if we think of God like a supernatural human being that goes around meddling with the stuff of the universe.  But I think, beyond its allegorical uses, we have good reason to reject this anthropomorphic conception of God anyway, and rather think of God more in the fashion of Tillich or Buber.  Since, I don’t think a God of this latter sort is lost at all if metaphysical naturalism turns out to be true, I don’t see why we should resist it.

As I see it, the statement that God exists is ultimately a statement about us.  To explain this, it might be useful to make an analogy to ethical truths.  On the metaethical view that I hold, statements such as “Moral facts exist” ultimately boil down to statements about ourselves.  To make the claim that moral facts exist is not to say that there are that there is some set of moral facts out there in the universe that exist completely independently of us, but to say that we are the sorts of beings that are normatively bound to each other in certain ways.  Likewise, to say that God exists, on the view I’m trying to articulate, isn’t to say that there is some entity completely outside of us that just happens to exist.  Rather, it is  to say we are the sorts of beings for whom making sense of ourselves Absolutely is appropriate.

To believe in God is to take a certain stance to our situation here as beings in this world.  To say “God exists” is to say that this stance is something that makes sense for us, given the sorts of beings that we are.  Articulating exactly what it means to take this stance is a difficult task.  In large part, it seems to be something that someone must figure out for oneself, in the same way that one must figure out for oneself what it means to be a good person, or what it means to be true to oneself.  But, while this journey of understanding is one we must each take for ourselves, we can be guided by religious institutions or theology, receiving on the support from those who have undertaken this same journey.


4 thoughts on “What Sort of Thing Might God Be?

  1. I find you are being a tad unfair to Zeus here. Zeus throwing lighting bolts and curses and impregnating women isn’t really different than the biblical Jehovah throwing floods, sending murderous bears, and impregnating women. These are stories that, in both cases, popular adherents of the respective religions have taken literally, while theologically sophisticated adherents have taken as traditional imagery. Zeus is otherwise a way of portraying the intrinsic order of the cosmos, the Law of Zeus being as absolute in character as the Law of Gravity or the Law of Primes (in other words, the “Law of Zeus” is just The Way Things Are). So I’m comfortable in betting that, when religious Ancient Greek devoted themselves to ritual and religious practice, they got in touch with Zeus, experiencing the same kind of ineffable absolute that the Catholic mystic did.

    The main point of difference is that in paganism this touch is approached from different aspects (cf. Walter Otto), which I find to be a positive property because it lends naturally to a pluralism of ways of living: think of Nietzsche’s Apollinean and Dyonisiac modes, and then consider that Apollo and Dyonisus were actual gods – not just metaphors and tales but things to worship, honor, sacrifice to, things you could touch. To put it another way: the difference is that in paganism if you respect celibacy you have Artemis, but if you’re moved by the terrible power of sexual attraction you have Aphrodite. Moreover, whatever your choice, you’re required to respect the other (cf. Euripides’ Hippolytos, who is punished not because of his celibacy and devotion to Artemis, but because he went as far as condemning sexual love – the moral transgression is the condemning!)

    • You may certainly be right about Zeus. It just happens to be an example that some philosophers of religion have used for contrast with the non-anthropomorphic God of Tillich or Hicks, and I followed along.

      And yeah, I was just assuming some sort of monotheistic picture here without looking closely into how a polytheistic picture might plausibly be worked out.

  2. The view of Tillich (and to a lesser extent Buber and Hick) isn’t much different from the classical view of God held by everybody from Plato and Aristotle through the Scholastics. I’ve wondered how arguing for the God of classical theism as simply a metaphysical conclusion without all the explicitly religious arguments dragged in as well. For what it’s worth, I do believe in God religiously (Catholic) and personally as opposed to merely philosophically, but it would be an interesting argument to make all the same.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s