Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - 9

9. God is the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands.
—Alfred North Whitehead, (1861-1947) English mathematician and philosopher

Alfred North Whitehead was first a mathematician and logician who co-authored with Bertrand Russell Principia Mathematica, a colossally ambitious attempt to derive all mathematics from a small set of axioms using logic, which later was shown to be untenable by Kurt Gödel. However, Whitehead's philosophy and religious writings hearken more toward Eastern thought with the idea of dynamic reality, called Process Philosophy, rather than a static, object centered one.

Driven first by science (as seen with Dewey), the twentieth century saw tremendous and diverse changes in thinking about God and religion, and the idea which gained the widest traction, despite formidable historical hurdles, was that God is not impassive nor immutable. Especially after WWI, the God of St. Anselm and the theological notion of impassibility, were widely rejected by theologians and the laity alike. After the war an immovable mover made little sense; after democracy, a supreme being, likewise. And no one more ingeniously or reasonably initiated these changes in the west than Alfred North Whitehead.

For Whitehead, God does not stand impassively outside the system and remain independent of it—a last resort deus ex machina to hold it all together. Rather, God is an integral element in the whole and participates actively in its struggles and concerns.

Whitehead proposed a metaphysics which many theologians adopted. God and existence itself, are described as processes, activity. We find this echoed by many of today's physicists and cosmologists who prefer events to particles. Dividing the world into substances and qualities (particles and properties) is the commonsense way to cope with everyday life and individual scientific problems, but when looking at the ultimate nature of reality, Whitehead insisted "We must start with the event as the ultimate unity of natural occurrence."—particles are but instantaneous manifestations of the process.

So, what is meaningful is not attributes, but how God acts or relates to the rest of reality. Actualities (including ourselves) arrive from interaction with God in a primordial sense which is "the unlimited conceptual realization . . . of potentiality." But we (via each actual occasion) also relate in a consequent sense which is how God relates to physical reality. God prehends all actual occasions of the physical world as they emerge. Each occasion or event impacts God through this prehension (i.e. the non-sensory sympathetic perception of antecedent experiences). God is not impassive but actively changes. In this way God is not a concept apart from our temporal reality—the nature of God requires there be realities other than God. While God's existence is neither uncertain nor dependent on the actions of others, Whitehead poetically says, “It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God.” God is essentially in a give-and-take relationship with the world.

God affects us; and we, God—through God's understanding (prehension). As Whitehead imaginatively says, God is "the poet of the world." God suffers as we suffer. The description calls to mind J. D. Salinger's (son of) God as Seymour's "Fat Lady".

Obviously, the metaphysics is difficult to quickly summarize and I've omitted major portions, but it is built, not from a need for God, but from a rational view of reality. I think you can see that Whitehead's metaphysics leaves no room for the supernatural. Indeed, God is defined by what experientially is. Per Whitehead, apart from experiences "there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness." I started thinking that Whitehead was the first quantum philosopher, and then recently discovered there are a number of books and lectures on quantum mechanics and Whitehead philosophy. The crazy thing about his work is that it appeals to hardcore scientists as well as Christian theologians who use it in an attempt to rescue Christianity from the blows received during the twentieth century.

Here are a few other prescient quotes by Whitehead on religion:
"Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science."
"Idolatry is the necessary product of static dogmas"
And a favorite, remember this is a mathematician:
"The worship of God is not a rule of safety — it is an adventure of the spirit, a flight after the unattainable. The death of religion comes with the repression of the high hope of adventure."

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Monday, February 25, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - 10

10. The active relation between ideal and actual 
—John Dewey, (1859-1952) twentieth century American philosopher in A Common Faith

It's not sexy, but it's by a pragmatic atheist. John Dewey's writings and influence spanned education, psychology, philosophy, and social reform. He has been called the father of modern American education (when that was seen as a good thing), a founder of Pragmatism (a term he eschewed), an atheist, and a humanist. Like the 'New Atheists' of today, he felt "Never before in history has mankind been so much of two minds, so divided into two camps as it is today."—the extreme religious, crusading for the supernatural and the anti-religious crusading for science against religion and the supernatural. Unlike the 'New Atheists', he reasoned that both groups failed to see that the supernatural was not core to the practice of religion.

He criticized militant atheism for failing to recognize expressive nature, and militant religion for failing to recognize empirical nature. In order to find commonality between the two, he retained the term God, but "would not insist that the name must be given." Though he reached out to the religious he did not favor religion. He separated the two: the religious engages us to transform the world; religion instructs us how to act in resignation to the state of the world. God, if one chose to use the term, was not transcendent, not supernatural, and not revealed through scripture, but immanent.

"What I have been criticizing is the identification of the ideal with a particular Being, especially when that identification makes necessary the conclusion that this Being is outside of nature, and what I have tried to show is that the ideal itself has its roots in natural conditions; it emerges when the imagination idealizes existence by laying hold of the possibilities offered to thought and action."

"For there are forces in nature and society that generate and support the ideals. They are further unified by the action that gives them coherence and solidity. It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name God."

Science had undermined the credibility of western religion. For Dewey, what is important is not a body of doctrine, but the method of search. We should use the methods of science in finding our collective ideals. He starts out with Hegelian terminology, which later becomes increasingly Darwinian, and then uses the idiom of organic growth in describing the search for ideals. However, "The actual religious quality in the experience described is the effect produced, the better adjustment in life and its conditions, not the manner and cause of its production."

What the definition lacks in poetry it tries to make up in universal appeal. Perhaps it's the nature of the debate, but neither side felt a strong attachment. As we know today, his conciliatory efforts were, at least thus far, a spectacular failure.

I can't resist the temptation to share a couple of passages from my book The Angst of Atheism written about the same time as The Death of Determinism. Near the beginning of chapter 3, we find, "Is Dewey still to be considered an atheist after expressing his thoughts on God and religion in A Common Faith?", and in the next chapter, "Surely we cannot burden the atheist with the task of denying every possible view of God—that seems to invoke a double standard."

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Friday, February 22, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - Honorable Mention 3

The Mysterium Tremendum
—Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), German Lutheran theologian, in The Idea of the Holy

I wept when I pulled this one from the top ten, but I felt many of its concepts were found in other definitions. Indeed, Otto had a great influence over theologians and others, including Martin Heidegger, Carl Jung, and C. S. Lewis. “God is the mysterium tremendum that appears and overthrows, but he is also the mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than my I.” wrote Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965).

Otto coined the term 'numinous' to describe the "non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self". Ironically the four horsemen of 'New Atheism' embraced the term without realizing it was fashioned by a Lutheran theologian. 
(I have long suspected those four were religious, but they insist religion must be unchangeable, repressive rules and beliefs.)

Otto calls the numinous reality "Wholly Other"—totally different from anything in this world. The experience of the numinous is the mysterium tremendum.

Here's a favorite Otto quote: "The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide . . . It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering."

Other terms used to describe the mysterium tremendum are: beyond rational and ethical conceptions, non-empirical, non-utilitarian, simultaneously attractive and repugnant, monstrous and sublime, creative, urging humility and simultaneously exaltation, outside space and time, bi-polar, terror and attraction, horror and fascination, daemonic dread, awe, absolute unapproachability, creature-consciousness and the simultaneous experiencing of the self as nothing, a need for covering.

This is not God for the aloof or the timid. Many definitions of God are comforting; the mysterium tremendum confesses to the paroxysm as we peer over the existential abyss. Dominican Meister Eckhart, a fascinating German medieval philosopher, theologian and mystic captured the feeling long before Otto when he wrote, "Let us pray to God to be free of 'God'." Among the many implications of the mysterium tremendum, I get the feeling that the truly religious should make great sexual partners.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - Honorable Mention 2

The greatest conceivable being 
—St. Anselm (of Canterbury, 1033-1109)

Noted philosopher, abbot, and Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm produced, perhaps, the most famous definition of God. At one time I placed it tenth—no doubt seduced by the gravitas of a saint. Unfortunately, Anselm's description and subsequent work, including his famous 'ontological proof' for God, grew into a fantastic divine-attribute-generating machine spewing surreal sticky notes onto God which were later codified by the church

Much of the blame can be placed on the Roman and Greek intellectual tradition—both in the early Church and its revival in the Middle Ages—which tried to incorporate philosophical ideals onto something which originated as unknowable. Speaking of God became, as theologian Karl Barth wrote, "speaking of man in a loud voice"—no longer totally different, but just more intelligent, more powerful, and in more places.

As we see today, it is but a short step (of about a thousand years) from this to God as the greatest conceivable American football fan whose divine mind in execution (i.e. through the actual bestowal of grace and glory) wins the super bowl. What chance does humanism (or religion, for that matter) have against the Immaculate Reception?

It's not all bad, however. Any definition, embraced as strongly as Anselm's was, is bound to lead to idolatry. We all have a hard time not conceiving some image of God, try as we might. In the top ten we will discover some pretty abstract notions which also can lead to problems. C. S. Lewis tells of a girl he knew who was brought up by "higher thinking" parents. God was not anthropomorphized in her household. However, "in later life she realized that this had actually led her to think of Him as something like a vast tapioca pudding. (To make matters worse, she disliked tapioca.)"

Doesn't it make sense to use the finest model we have? Using a chair, for example, we could talk of perfect stability, infinite support or everlasting comfort. But by choosing a human model we can infer divine compassion, intelligence or love (and, yes, heaven forbid, the anthropomorphic 'intelligent design'). So while Anselm's definition has practical use, it contains failures also. But even the very best definitions of God, no matter how compelling, fall short—by definition.

In St. Anselm's defense, he always said at the end of his arguments, "this thing we call God", as a means of keeping the idea open ended.

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Monday, February 18, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - Honorable Mention 1

In variance with the portrayals of some church bureaucrats and unimaginative atheists, the number of different definitions of God are ginormous. There are two principal reasons for this, and both are dogmatically insisted upon by every major religion (that I know):
  1. God refers to that which is beyond our understanding, so naturally it will be difficult to define. 
  2. God implies a relationship, so naturally it will be personal.
Thus, we have many, many definitions—possibly one for every person on the planet. Therefore, I feel justified in presenting a few honorable mentions, which did not make the top ten, but are nevertheless noteworthy.

What’s “God”? Well, you know, when you want something really bad and you close your eyes and you wish for it? God’s the guy that ignores you. 
— Steve Buscemi/James McCord from the movie “The Island”

[Picture goes here but for copyright privileges]

This definition is soon to be a classic, if not already. It echoes The Doors' Jim Morrison's decree:

And there's plenty of theology behind it. Of course, there's theology, on the other side, supporting petition prayer. (Just to be clear, theology is not necessarily esoteric; it simply means thinking about God.) The greatness of this operational definition is that it addresses our earliest childhood and teen notions that the world resolves around ourselves, and that God is, or should be, our own personal magic currant bun (i.e. wish dispenser). 

The idea here is not that God is a bungling manager, who needs to be roused and cajoled into correcting numerous godawful mistakes, but rather God is a bungling manager, who needs our concerted efforts in correcting those mistakes.

The Top Ten Definitions of God

It's oddly appropriate that the word God is an etymological mystery. The best linguistic guess is that it comes from the Sanskrit hu or the Gothic gheu "to invoke or to sacrifice to". In any case the word seems to have been invented to express the feeling when we no longer have any idea or control over what's going on. Basically, it is a term used to capture what is beyond the limit of our understanding. 

In this light, atheism seems supremely arrogant. However, no honest atheist, believes himself omniscient. He denies, rather, the attempts to redefine God into "the one Supreme Being" or "the creator and ruler of the universe" or "the source of all moral authority"—our current culture's dictionary definitions—or, even more so, the detailed descriptions designed by organized churches. In this light, atheism is seen as an escape from idolatry. 

Compiled here, for atheists, idolators, and all non-omniscient people alike, is a list of the top ten definitions of God. They come from a variety of religious people including atheists, but may vary wildly from the official catechisms of their respective religions. For despite what we may think, we find that adherence to dogma is not much practiced in religion, especially among the clergy and theologians. Apparently, religion is not about belief. 

There is a common ground, however. As German theologian Rudolf Bultmann says, "Why call this dark power ‘God'? Why give the enigma, the mystery that drives us this way and that and hedges us in, any other name but ‘the enigma', or ‘fate'? Or, if there must be a name, why not equally well ‘the devil'? Doesn't this power play a cruel game with us, destroying and annihilating? Is not unfulfillment the distinguishing mark of every life? Is not death and nothingness the end?"

The answer, the common ground, and the reason the word God is used here and not another, is because these definitions come from people who all say, again in Bultmann's words: "And is it not the point, in face of the enigma and the darkness, to insist on the meaning of life with a cry of 'Nevertheless!'?"

So, lighten the coming dreary days of Lenten deprival with an intriguing exploration into unknowable realms. I promise you some surprises—with minimal theology. Think quantum physics without the math. For why would one irrevocably embrace or deny a single definition of God, and miss out on a lifetime of adventure—up until, of course, the final "death and nothingness"?

***Disclaimer Statement***
Unlike many other websites, especially those of large venerated organizations, this website disclaims any special knowledge or authority for discerning God's true identity other than world-disclosure (re: Being and Time, Martin Heidegger).
For any statements made herein, much to our regret and protest, we accept full responsibility, in whole or in part, for any errors, inaccuracies, gains, losses, or injuries incurred (both in this world and the next). Concurrently, the reader must also accept, despite protest, responsibility in whole or in part for any actions taken in response to such statements, including acts of God.
Furthermore, any forward-looking statements or those related to future events are based on current assumptions, and are, therefore, subject to certain risks and uncertainties. A variety of factors, many of which are beyond our control, may cause actual results or performances to be materially or spiritually different than stated.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Battle of Hoth: The Empire's Tora Bora?

Wired's Spencer Ackerman reviews the Empire's spectacular military failure at the Battle of Hoth, concluding, "It’s a classic fiasco of overconfidence and theology masquerading as military judgment. ..."

Inside the Battle of Hoth

Monday, February 11, 2013

Will the Next Pope be from Pittsburgh?

As everyone now knows, Pope Benedict is stepping down as Pope.  This presents a unique opportunity for Pittsburgh.

Currently, Pittsburgh has produced more Cardinals eligible to vote for the next Pope than any other American city.  Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, is from Mount Washington.  Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, grew up in Castle Shannon and attended St. Ann's.  Cardinal Adam Maida, retired Archbishop of Detroit, is a native of East Vandergrift and attended Scott Township High School.  Cardinal Sean O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston, grew up in Whitehall.

If these Cardinals decide to vote as a single Pittsburgh block,  I think we could get someone in there who could really help the city.  Only 121 Cardinals are eligible to vote, and their loyalties will be scattered across the globe.  I doubt that any other city will be able to garner as many as four votes.  If our four Cardinals could agree on one candidate and come up with some persuasive arguments, I think we'd have a good chance of getting our man in.

And here's the thing:  you don't have to be a Cardinal to be elected Pope, you don't even have to be a priest or a Bishop (although whoever gets the nod is elevated to bishop before becoming Pope).  You don't even have to be Catholic -- or Christian for that matter -- as long as you agree to get baptized before being installed as Pope.

I'm thinking either Mario Lemieux -- if he save hockey in Pittsburgh, he could certainly save the Catholic church -- or Troy Polamalu.  Lemieux clearly has mangement ability.  And, Polamalu's spirituality is well known.  He has studied Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Mormonism, Roman Catholicism, Islam and Eastern Orthodoxy, and learned Hebrew and Greek so he could understand the texts as originally written.  His  pilgrimage to Mount Athos, a Greek Orthodox spiritual center in Greece, inspired his book, “Counsels From the Holy Mountain.”  

There may be other Pittsburghers who are worthy to be Pope.  I suggest writing to our Cardinals right away.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Whitehall.

Mount Athos

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Law

Notwithstanding wherewithal and while, there existed a land of barbaric cruelty and chaos. All of the kingdoms in this land fought fiercely against each other and among themselves. The rulers spent all their time devising ruthless strategies to stay in power both from enemies without and enemies within. This left no time to govern, so the kingdoms remained impoverished and impuissant.

Then, in one of the kingdoms there arose a great and resourceful ruler who devised a plan greater than any that had come before. He created laws. "Law above all!" he proclaimed, and the people embraced him, his laws, and above all his motto.

And so laws were created,
Stated and dated:
For eating and meeting,
Competing and cheating,
Sinning and winning,
Selling and yelling,
Warring and whoring,
And not to be boring,
There was one, just for fun:
A law against snoring.

There were laws for ownership,
Censorship, donorship;
Laws for courting, laws for sporting;
Laws against search, God and church;
Laws of propriety when one's in society;
Laws of compliance, and, yes, laws of science.

In short there were laws for everything. The ruler no longer had to spend all his time savagely fighting, and the kingdom flourished. The people loved this new concept of law and developed a motto of their own, "No one is above the law." Of course there were punishments for breaking the law. In the case of society or science the punishment was ridicule (but sometimes reverence). In the case of governing and the rights of people, the punishment could be death. Against God, the punishment was even worse, death and then more punishment.

And then a law was discovered that allowed the great and resourceful ruler to eliminate anyone who was a threat to his rule. It was genius, and scary, but what could the people do? Some became confused and weren't sure if anything had really changed from the time of barbaric cruelty, but the law was now such an important and respected part of their lives that…well, "Law above all!" had really taken hold. And so the ruler lived happily ever after.