Monday, March 18, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - 1

1. God is that which destroys all gods which we might ever want to use as cover or as justification for our actions
— Michael L. Harvey, holy man

Nepotism be damned. The number one definition for God comes not from a (canonized) saint or (as yet) famous philosopher, but from our own midst. Perhaps it was revealed by the Loving Surprise Herself. It is so great I need another top 10 list of reasons why:

10. Like The active relation between ideal and actual, it can appeal to both sides, the simple atheist and the simple believer. Wait! It can even appeal to those seeking more educated answers than either of those certainties. There is no dogma or doctrine involved. It is non denominational.

9. Like God is the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands, it focuses on what God does, i.e. destroys, not what God is. God is not an aloof, static entity, but a continual force, one event after another, and each event is personal in which we have an active roll. Further, it promotes the give-and-take relationship with God. We recognize that without God there is no us, but, perhaps more important, without us, there is no God.

8. Like There is no God but God, it avoids the idolatry of giving God attributes. It has scriptural backing of all the world's major religions. All warn against idolatry. All hold us accountable for our actions.

7. Like the Tao Te Ching, it provides the way. It is not metaphysical, as much as ethical. It is not intellectual, as much as psychological. It is an operational definition, challenging us to find the way of God.

6. Like God is that which calls us into being, it is understandable without a degree in theology, philosophy or a deep knowledge of scripture. It requires no elaborate metaphysical scaffolding. It is practically self evident.

5. Like God does not exist, it is not pantheistic or humanistic or onto-theological by turning God into the universe or what we learn from the universe or some philosophical construct. In fact it does what practically no other definition does—constantly warns us against the idolatry of making God into our desired image.

4. Like God is the mother of all metaphors, it does not embrace a particular religion or doctrine. On the contrary, it unequivocally addresses the common (mis)conceptions that religion is based on certainty or that it is a set of beliefs. It explicitly tells us we cannot rely on a set of rules or beliefs when dealing with God.

3. Like God is love, it makes a difference in living our life. It calls us to action. What need is there for a God that doesn't change our life? It is not self-referential by simply saying God is unknowable. In fact it is quite specific and personal. An impersonal God is useful only in theological arguments.

2. Like God is surprise, it is mysterious and completely unfair (in human terms). We are thrown into a situation (life) for which we have no cause nor responsibility, yet are called to be responsible—that's so typically God.

1. Most importantly God is not irrelevant, nor even ancillary. God is the primary force in keeping you from making excuses for your behavior. It reminds us that God's only importance is influencing how we live, how compassionate we are, how much we take responsibility for our actions. If God doesn't change our life, as defined here, then God has no purpose, which is infinitely more important than God's existence.

I'd like to end by encouraging thought and criticism. Myk's Santayana comment under God is Love nails the purpose of this series and, indeed, the purpose of philosophy and theology in general. Unlike science, philosophy adds no new facts, but it does something more powerful and dangerous. It changes us. It makes the familiar strange. It distances us from our settled beliefs. Philosophy should come with a warning: Herein lies lost innocence. Like the last definition, it destroys our comfort of certainty. And there is no guarantee that the change makes us better. It could make us worse.

In fact, a common reaction to philosophy or theology—or this top ten list, might very well be: what's the point? It's just a lot of bullshit—all fluff, with no answers. We've been asking the same questions for thousands of years and, if this list is any indication, we haven't settled anything. Well, philosophy has a word for that. It's called skepticism. It can paralyze us with apathy or despair. Philosophy also can respond to skepticism. I'll let Immanuel Kant handle it, "Simply to acquiesce in skepticism can never suffice to overcome the restlessness of reason.”

So I challenge you to pursue "the restlessness of reason". Hopefully, we are now asking better questions. Yet, there is something radically more important than all the philosophical enquiries we can ask. As stimulating as this list may be in catching a glimpse into what religious experts have said about God, it means nothing without acting. Karen Armstrong sums it up with her criticism of the religious, though it could be said of everyone: "a lot of religious people would rather be right than compassionate." You can't be right, but you can choose to be more compassionate. 


Big Myk said...

Shucks, folks, I'm speechless.

The fact is: like everything else I’ve ever written, this definition of God did not originate with me. It comes mostly from the writings of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Any fanatical reader of this blog will recognize much of what follows but I sum it up here so that credit can be given where credit is due.

We all know that in Genesis, the serpent promised Eve that, if she ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, she would become as the gods. According to Barth, “What the serpent has in mind is the establishment of ethics.” Barth opposed all efforts to formulate moral rules or principles, the focus of ethics. Rules for judging behavior are to Barth nothing more than a denial of God’s sovereignty and an attempt to replace God’s judgment with human judgment. So, genuine ethics for Barth was not knowledge of standards of conduct, but rather the awareness that “at every moment of life…we have to respond by our action.” That is why for Barth “it is important to keep the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”

Bonheoffer echoes Barth’s thoughts: “The knowledge of good and evil appears to be the goal of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate that knowledge. In launching this attack on the underlying assumptions of all other ethics, Christian ethics stands so completely alone that it becomes questionable whether there is any purpose in speaking of Christian ethics at all.”

According to Bonhoeffer, the Christian is not concerned with “doing good” or being blameless. Instead, he focuses on the will of God: “Whoever wishes to take up the problem of a Christian ethic must be confronted at once with a demand that is without parallel. He must at the outset discard as irrelevant the two questions which alone impel him to concern himself with the problem of ethics, ‘How can I be good?’ and “How can I do good?’, and instead of these he must ask the utterly and totally different question ‘What is the will of God?’”

The will of God has nothing to do with conforming one’s behavior to a set of rules: “The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be.” God’s will, according to Bonhoeffer is discerned through our encounter with our neighbor and our awareness of his need.

The demand is unparalleled because there is no way to know ahead of time whether what we are doing is effective, beneficial or has any value at all. As Bonhoeffer says, the responsible person must on his own “observe, judge, weigh up, decide and act. [He alone] must examine the motives, the prospects, the value and the purpose of his action.” Bonhoeffer goes on to say, however: “But neither the purity of the motivation, nor the opportune circumstances, nor the value, nor the significant purpose of an intended undertaking can become the governing law of his action, a law to which he can withdraw, to which he can appeal as an authority, and by which he can be exculpated and acquitted.” He must act “without any claim to an ultimate valid knowledge of good and evil. Good, as what is responsible, is performed in ignorance of good…”

So, for Bonhoeffer, the “ultimate question” is not one of moral justification – how can I “extricate [myself] heroically from the affair,” – but of total responsibility – “how the coming generation is to live.”

And so, God is what undoes our sense of being righteous or justified and demands we face our responsibility.

I reach for a piece of wood. It turns into a lute.
I do some meanness. It turns out helpful.
I say one must not travel during the holy month.
Then I start out, and wonderful things happen.


James R said...

True to your God, you eat your own Dog food. But millions have read Barth and Bonhoeffoer, but only you came up with your memorable, and best, definition.

Thanks for the explanation. Perhaps I should not have not used the word 'ethical' in the number 7 reason, but I was not using it as a set of laws but to contrast with intellectual.

There's an interesting psychology experiment that relates to this, but I'm hesitant to say how. The experiment was conducted by C. Daniel Batson, et al, at the University of Kansas.

He told participants that there were 2 jobs to do. One was boring; the other interesting which would give them free lottery tickets upon completion. The subjects were then left alone to make the decision of which job they would take and which they would give to the other, unknown participant. Secondly, they were asked to rate the morality of their decision on a scale of 1 to 9, 9 being most moral.

As you would suspect a high percentage chose the interesting job, but they also rated their morality middling to low. Some participants were told they could flip a coin to decide. Interestingly, performing the coin flip did NOT significantly change the distribution. Participants fooled themselves by assigning the coin flip the way they wanted, but the morality rating they gave themselves went way up to about 9! Even when the coin was labeled good job/bad job rather than heads or tails about 80% assigned themselves to the good job but rated themselves totally moral.

There were many other scenarios but I'll only mention the most interesting one. A mirror was placed in the decision room. When the mirror was facing away from the participants there was no change. But when a mirror faced the subjects, they achieved an incredible assignment rate of 50% when flipping the coin for good job, bad job. Of course they also rated themselves a 9 on morality.

I'll let you decide what that says about God, but my point is, or rather I think Myk's point is: Why should we rate ourselves moral from flipping a coin!!! In fact Myk seems to be saying, we can never rate ourselves moral. If society (religion) could teach us to struggle assigning others an equal place as ourselves yet give ourselves no credit for it, that would be a good religion/society.

James R said...

Reading this over, I probably should have written "each participant" where I wrote "participants"—each participant was alone and unobserved.

Big Myk said...

Actually, your psychological experiment is a perfect illustration of what we're talking about here. When we hand over the responsiblity for our action to someone or something (the coin) we end up believing that we are the more moral for it. At least we're not to blame. If one stops to think about this for even a few moments, he can see that this is the opposite of morality. It's an abdication of responsiblity.

It is no different ceding responsiblity for your actions to some other authority, like the Roman Catholic magisterium or your commanding officer. Given the usual arbitrariness in the choice of authority (who has made a careful study of every moral rule and principle?), you might as well flip a coin.

As Thomas Jefferson observed: "I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent."

It is interesting that Sartre also speaks of shouldering responsiblity, but believes that you can't get there without atheism: "Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimise our behaviour. Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. – We are left alone, without excuse."

If we believe, however, that God is "wholly other," we must accept that He cannot be identified with any humanly recognizable value or command, and believers wind up seeing Sartre's insight. Once again we return to George Santayana's observation that "the God to whom depth in philosophy brings back men's minds is far from being the same from whom a little philosophy estranges them."

Big Myk said...

After having read over my last comment, it occurs to me that there may be little difference between belief in the God of depth philosophy and atheism -- except the ability to appreciate religion.

James R said...

For the most part with some obvious exceptions, I did not talk much about atheism in this list. It is a huge subject. But I agree, and some of the definitions pointed this out, that there is often very little difference between atheism and belief in God. In fact I generally am attracted to self-described atheists as they are closer to God than many Christians—at least some of my notions of God (which, I realize are wrong).

One big problem with atheism is that it requires so much knowledge. As Karen Armstrong suggests perhaps the atheistic view point is useful, just don't announce it.