What Is God?
I have often complained of the shallowness, triviality, and anaemia of current theism/atheism discussions. In the following contribution (hopefully to be followed by others) I mean to infuse some lifeblood into the discussion. If, on whichever side of the discussion you may be, you still find much in what I say with which you strongly disagree, which indeed irritates you, that will be all the better. I mean to stir stagnant waters, inject turbulence into placid intellectual positions.
The idea of a creator or of creation is metaphysically bankrupt. It is a silly notion that breeds more riddles than it solves. In fact it solves nothing. If we ask: Why should there be anything rather than nothing?, we see immediately that there can be no answer. To advance the idea of a creator to resolve the mystery of being does nothing but confound and complicate the issue. In the first place, the ultimate mystery remains where it was. For why should there be that creator or first being rather than not? There is no answer. Moreover we have the riddle of why the creator took it into its head to produce something where there was nothing. Being is the ultimate mystery and there is no way to make it yield to our questioning. We have to accept it on its own terms.
It would be easy to see the idea of a creator producing the world as the understandably crude attempt by human beings in the infancy of humanity to resolve the riddle. The answer would easily suggest itself to them on the analogy of their own production of things.
Why do so many humans today accept that answer and believe it to be reasonable and obvious? The answer again is simple. Traditional cultures inculcate it in them. If you ask, Why should we accept those traditions as true?, the traditional answer is that that answer was revealed by that creator itself. Who says that? That same tradition. We have to believe the traditional doctrine because the tradition tells us it was revealed by the creator and we have to believe that it was revealed by the creator because the tradition tells us that.
I say it would be easy to see the fatuity of all that, if only we could bring ourselves to think for ourselves. Unfortunately, most of us do not think for ourselves. It is so much more comfortable to have others think for us and to receive our mass-produced thought finely packaged, home delivered, user-friendly, and with promises of alluring rewards thrown into the bargain.
Let us ask again: Why should we believe our traditional teachings? Because they come from God. Well, let us close our eyes to the circularity of the answer. Let us look at the credentials of that God as that tradition itself presents him. Let us try for a while to put aside the reverence and awe instilled in us by our traditional upbringing and look at the God of the Pentateuch, the God of Paul, the God of the Book of Revelation, the God of the Koran. Let us judge him by the common moral standards that we now accept in decent, civilized society. We find him a liar, a despot, a capricious, vengeful, cruel creature. True, we will find in the Torah, in the Gospels, and in the Koran, many fine sentiments and ideals. But we find similar and even finer ones in cultures either with no gods or with gods we no longer take seriously, which should show us that those sentiments and ideals which we rightly value are independent of belief in our monotheistic God.
So much for the cosmological argument for the existence of God. Let us move on to ontology.
The question Does God exist? is inane. The existence of the existent does not need proof. You go to a primitive tribesman and ask him: ‘Does God exist?’ He answers: ‘Of course. Come, I’ll show you.’ He takes you into his cave or his hut and shows you the effigy he worships saying, ‘Here is God.’ What proof better than that can you ask for? On the other hand, how would you go about proving the non-existence of God? To try to prove logically the non-existence of an unknown nothing is the height of absurdity, the worst kind of eristic juggling.
The sensible thing then is not to ask: ‘Does God exist?’ but to ask: ‘What do we mean by God?’ Throughout the history of humankind, humans have had many differing ideas of God. Many of the old conceptions are no longer taken seriously by present-day members of the human race, so we can leave those to anthropologists. What about extant ideas within the established religions? Then, you may argue that the Yahweh of the Old Testament is revolting, the God of the New Testament is replete with contradictions equally with the Allah of the Koran. So what? There is no logical impossibility in the idea of a being mighty and clever enough to make the universe and run it in accordance with its whims and who may yet be as imperfect and as unaccountable as Yahweh or God or Allah.
A. N. Whitehead’s final answer to the question, What is God? is summed up in the final paragraph of chapter III of his Religion in the Making (1926). I will quote this beautiful paragraph in full:
“The order of the world is no accident. There is nothing actual which could be actual without some measure of order. The religious insight is the grasp of this truth: That the order of the world, the depth of reality of the world, the value of the world in its whole and in its parts, the beauty of the world, the zest of life, the peace of life, and the mastery of evil, are all bound together—not accidentally, but by reason of this truth: that the universe exhibits a creativity with infinite freedom, and a realm of forms with infinite possibilities; but that this creativity and these forms are together impotent to achieve actuality apart from the completed ideal harmony, which is God.”(1)
Does this prove the existence of God? The question is, strictly speaking, meaningless. What Whitehead gives us is a way of looking at the world, a vision of the world, in which the world exhibits meaningfulness and value. And the gist of that outlook is that, if we are to find meaning and value in the universe, we must see order, coherence, intelligence, and goodness as ultimate characters of reality. This is what I mean when I say that to be is to be good, when I maintain that ultimate reality must be intelligent and good, when I describe ultimate reality as Creative Eternity and say that Creative Eternity is Love.(2)
If we replace ‘the soul’ by ‘God’ in the famous proof of the immortality of the soul in Plato’s Phaedrus (3), we have an exquisite ‘proof’ of the eternity of God. But what would the ‘proof’ prove after all? Nothing. It would neither prove the existence of God nor tell us anything about what God is. What it does is to establish the ideal reality of our idea of eternity, in the same way as Plato’s ‘proof’ both in the Phaedrus and the Laws and his arguments in the Phaedo establish the reality of the ideals of autonomy and integrity embedded in the Socratic-Platonic concept of the soul.(4)
But while some of the philosophers I admire most speak of God and though I could without qualm declare that I believe in God in a very real and profound sense, yet I think it advisable to avoid using the term ‘God’ in philosophical discussion, since a philosopher using the term will find it necessary to spend as much time explaining what s/he does not mean as expressing what s/he does mean. The same holds for the term ‘faith’. I could readily affirm that without a core of faith philosophy would be vacuous and valueless. But this word ‘faith’ is laden with untoward associations with the ideas of revelation and dogma. While therefore I maintain that reason is not only compatible with, but is in fact meaningless without, a certain something that could be called faith, yet in general I try to keep clear of this suspect word.
Because this sounds so complicated, let me put it in a different way. Faith as commonly understood is, in my view, a mockery of reason and an insult to human intelligence, and the usual attempts to reconcile faith and reason turn out to be no more than word jugglery or self-deception. But on the other hand, through mere reason we cannot find our way to any reality or any value. Kant had to support and supplement pure reason with practical reason. Kant’s followers restored Reason to the Whole to rescue it from its sterile purity. Whitehead put reality and value back into the world by insisting on the integrity of experience. These were all insightful moves. To preserve our dignity and our worth as human beings, we must have unfettered Reason, but it must be Reason with a throbbing heart. I hold that the one way to achieve that object is to find all reality and all value within ourselves. The self-evidence of the reality and value within us is the Faith we need, is the God the believers craved and the unbelievers sacrificed.
William Ernest Hocking expresses this elusive idea well in the following words: “The birth of the idea of God in the mind – the judgment ‘Reality is living, divine, a God exists’ – is so subtle, like the faintest breath of the spirit upon the face of the waters, that no look within can tell whether God is here revealing himself to man, or man creating God.”(5)
If I have not irritated you enough already, dear Reader, let me tease you with some mystic-mongering:
god is real
therefore god does not exist
for reality is opposed to existence
the circumference of a circle is not in the circle
the circumference is not outside the circle
the circumference does not exist
it is an idea
it is a reality
it does not exist
but without it no circle exists
there may be round things in the world
but without that reality that does not exist
no round thing is a circle
nor is it even round
god is an idea
god is real
god does not exist
but without that real god that does not exist
no thing in the world has meaning
no thing in the world has value
no thing in the world has reality
no thing in the world has existence
the idea that constitutes my world is my idea
it springs from my mind
my idea encompasses my world
whose idea constitutes the world encompassing me?
what mind gives it birth?
that is a question no one can answer
neither science nor pure reason can tell
that is a question about which we can only mythologize
and mythologize we must
without mythologizing our world rots
but when we forget that our myths are myths
the mind that created the myths
rots and dies and petrifies
with the death of the mind
god then exists
but is no longer real
that dead existing god is the god of religion
Maximus of Tyre in the second century of the Christian era wrote winged words in his beautiful “defence of idols” with which I like to close this essay: “Let men know what is divine (to theion genos), let them know: that is all. If a Greek is stirred to the remembrance of God by the art of Pheidias, an Egyptian by paying worship to animals, another man by a river, another by fire — I have no anger for their divergences; only let them know, let them love, let them remember.”(6)
(1)Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 1926, pp.119-20.
(2)See my Let Us Philosophize, 1998, Book Two “Reality”.
(3)Plato, Phaedrus, 245c-246a.
(4)See my Plato: An Interpretation, 2005, especially chapters 5, 7, and 12.
(5)William Ernest Hocking, The Meaning of God in Human Experience, 1912, “The Will as a Maker of Truth”, reproduced in Approaches to the Philosophy of Religion, 1954, ed. Daniel J. Bronstein and Harold M. Schulweis, p.20.
(6)Maximus of Tyre, quoted by Gilbert Murray in Five Stages of Greek Religion, 1935, p.77, n.1.
D. R. Khashaba is an independent philosopher. His books include Socrates’ Prison Journal and Hypatia’s Lover. He lives in his home country, Egypt, and has a website at Back to Socrates as well as a blog.