Old-school concepts of God are actually kind of intuitive

Old-school concepts of God are actually kind of intuitive

Back in December, I spent a month really exploring atheism.  I read a book by Richard Dawkins, began listening through a cool atheist podcast, and listened to a few lectures on influential skeptical thinkers, from Hume to Marx.  Although I have believed in God for as long as I can remember, I emerged from my Month of Skepticism with a clearer sense of my own doubts.  I concluded that there were, in fact, many good reasons to not believe in God.  I couldn’t help but notice that my idea of God was strikingly unnecessary and counter-intuitive.

But recently, that story has begun to change.

I just finished reading The Experience of God, written by David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox philosopher.  According to Hart, most “developed” religions (including Christianity, Islam, Vedantic Hinduism, late paganism, and a handful of others) all agree, more or less, on the correct philosophical definition of God.  They may produce different sculptures of God, so to speak, but they all start with the same metaphysical clay.

To my surprise, as I read through Hart’s description of this very ancient view of God, I began to realize that it was my particular mental sculpture more than the clay itself that I was having trouble believing in.  Popular atheists today spend great effort showing how popular explanations of God’s action in the world end up bordering on nonsense, but little (if any) attention is given to the traditional metaphysical concept of God.   To my surprise, the popular view of God described by Hart, called classical theism, is actually pretty intuitive.

So what is this philosophical clay that many religions play with, and how did David Bentley Hart’s book convince me to take it seriously?

Hart’s book takes a few building blocks of everyday human experience and shows how they are also the building blocks of classical theism.  It’s a surprisingly effective strategy.

Think about Beauty for a minute.  According to Hart, when we notice beauty, we appreciate how wonderfully unnecessary something is.  Even though beauty isn’t some physical object that we could put under a microscope or measure with a yardstick, we go looking for beauty as if it is something real, something that exists “out there” for us to find.  Beauty is something beyond any finite thing, a unity worth more than the sum of its parts.

Classical theism embraces this intuition and claims that the search for Beauty is the search for God.  God is the underlying Ground of Being that unites everything by being its metaphysical source; God is the single necessary cause in our entirely, wonderfully unnecessary existence.  Our hunger for limitless Beauty, never quite satisfied with any finite thing, is in fact the hunger for God, who is limitless and perfect.  Beauty, despite being immaterial, seems to exist independently from any human because it does!

Morality is another good example.  Moral impulses (like “slavery is wrong” or “all people are created equal”) are tricky things.  Try as we might, it is virtually impossible to not treat your morality as something real, something beyond personal preference.  If you don’t believe me, try considering the Holocaust as something other than inherently wrong.  Further, we tend to suppose that morality is not subject to the demands of what is useful and practical in any given situation; a moral person is someone who does what is right regardless of their practical concerns.

But if physical reality is both inherently meaningless and all there really is, as many of today’s popular atheists claim, then what in the world is morality?  Morality must be the sum of physical arrangements and meaningless particles that somehow add up to the appearance of transcendental value.  This may be true, but it is certainly contrary to our basic intuitions.

Classical theists, by contrast, are happy to accept our intuition about morality without a fuss.  To them, morality seems to be a real transcendental reality because it is.  God, who is limitless perfection itself, is the source of both morality and physical reality, giving legitimate being to both.  Classical theists affirm that morality is as real as we assume it be in our day to day lives.

Or take consciousness. We talk as if we are each a single person who has a body in addition to a self, or mind.  We act is if we are a single, centralized perspective who experiences the world around us through our senses on a moment-by-moment basis.

But for many popular atheist thinkers, such as Daniel Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained, consciousness is essentially a complicated illusion, a kind of metaphorical simplification of what is really going on.  You are really a bunch of neurological events happening throughout your brain, never really coming together in a single time or place.  Once again, if physical reality is both inherently meaningless and all there is, then there can be no separate “mental” layer to reality; what seems to happen must be some sort of chemically induced illusion.

Once again, classical theists have no issue believing in a mental, immaterial layer of reality.  God, in fact, is perfect consciousness, a limitless act of Being and Knowing.  Similarly, you seem to be part of a conscious, unified, non-physical reality because you are.

I think Hart is correct.  Commonsense assumptions and intuitions do seem to get along better with classical theism than with popular atheism.  No wonder so many thinkers, separated by centuries and religions and continents, came to the same basic notion of the divine.  No wonder belief in God has been taken for granted by so many generations.

Of course, this all goes without saying that our intuitions about things are not necessarily correct.  Personally, I can never be satisfied with unquestioningly accepting what seems, at first glance, to be the case.  For me, many important questions about God remain: How can immaterial mind interfere with physical objects and events?  If God is good, why do bad things happen?  If there is a single Ground of both Beauty and Morality, then why do  smart, well-meaning people reach such contrasting conclusions about what is beautiful and what is right?  This abstract God who grounds Being is kind of cool, but how could this God influence or alter certain events or relate to specific people?  How well does the clay of classical theism suit a particularly Christian sculpture of God?

Over the next few months, I will be diving further into these kinds of questions.  I will read books by John Cobb, Paul Tillich, and Karl Barth in that order, and I will continue to share my journey here.  Each of those thinkers represents a very unique understanding of God, each straying to some degree from classical theism.  Who knows what I will end up believing?  (I sure don’t.)

But before I step out onto this next leg of my God project, I can’t help but notice how much has changed between today and one month ago.  David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God hasn’t solved the question of the existence of God once and for all, but it has given me the suspicion that believing in God, despite all the great points raised by atheists, might actually make some kind of sense in the end.

9 thoughts on “Old-school concepts of God are actually kind of intuitive

  1. Your loss – if it’s further down the rabbit hole of unverifiable navel-gazing it is, then that is what you will chase.
    Somehow, I don’t think the atheists are going to much impressed by any of this.
    At least you tried for while.
    Somewhere down the line, though, your mind will get exasperated with all the contortions that are needed to sustain illogical, unsubstantiated “believing,” and you’ll wonder how you could have journeyed so far down the road with nothing at the end.
    It doesn’t matter what commonalities ancient superstitions trafficked in – that’s not even close to being “evidence” of anything besides common fallacies.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I’m tempted to reply point for point to your comment, but to keep from writing a short novel here, I just want to point out a couple of things:
      1. All I claimed is that classical theism is intuitive. Of course, it may well be intuitive that the earth is flat, but it would be foolish to leave it at intuition (see number 2). I get the impression that you think I’ve made some big declaration of belief, which I certainly have not done here.
      2. As for “unverifiable navel-gazing,” sign me up! Personally, I have little interest in naively accepting all of my philosophical assumptions just because it’s hard to study them empirically. But I would think that, if anything, my propensity for deep questions would make me far more likely to end up atheist, at least if Richard Dawkins and friends are correct.
      3. I’m really not out to “impress” atheists – and who knows, I could certainly become an atheist at some point! – but I cannot overstate how important their feedback is to me. I grew up believing in God, so in some way it’s hard noteable that belief in God seems intuitive to me (but see number 4). You have the ability to judge belief in God from the outside looking in, and I can only achieve this via abstraction (more navel-gazing!); I sincerely hope you will offer meaningful feedback in the future as I explore what recent theologians have to say.
      4. As for “ancient superstitions” – I honestly began reading Hart’s book under the assumption that belief in God, especially among premoderns, was mostly superstitious. I was shocked – SHOCKED – at how reasonable classical metaphysics are. Again, not saying I buy into it (see #1), but if you think it’s all superstition, then I suspect you haven’t looked very hard. To use the Catholic distinction (don’t worry, I’m not Catholic), the ancient views on God’s Being *in itself* is actually pretty understandable, whereas their views on God’s Being *in revelation* was, no doubt, saturated with notions that we would rightly, I think, call superstition.
      Again, I really, truly, appreciate your comment, and your feedback will only become more valuable to me in the coming months.

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  2. Interesting. This stuff boils down to a difference in disposition, I suspect.
    The bicameral world has always seemed intensely counterintuitive to me. Even as a child, when I was told by the preacher that I was really a spiritual being who was simply a visitor in this world, I still couldn’t help but feel that I really belonged to the soil, stones, snow and sun, and not to some other realm.
    Likewise I have never seen a moral fact, and I am instinctively on my guard when I hear someone begin to expound upon the inherent moral content of this or that. A destructive act typically follows.
    Don’t get me wrong, I cannot make sense of most all theistic descriptions of the world – especially those of ‘classical theism’. I find them incoherent.
    But I also find them intuitively discordant.
    Go figure.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I’m really glad you shared that. I’ve been in church all my life, most of that time in conservative churches that insisted on a personal relationship with God, and so in a way it’s completely unsurprising that belief in God would turn out to be intuitive to me. It’s very fascinating to me that you grew up with a dualistic worldview, but you found it suspicious “from within,” so to speak.

      Can you help me understand your point about morality? I spent a few years really getting into postmodernism, and moral absolutes, absolute truth, etc. strike me as deeply suspicious ideas. But I’ve found it near impossible to consistently purge myself of those notions. For example, a good postmodernist is suspicious of labels, but how can you avoid labels unless you give a label to labels, assume from the outset that they’re all bad, and then go about your life identifying and purging them? I don’t see how labels are pragmatically or logically avoidable. In the same way, my pesky moral convictions, although squishy to be sure, never seem to quite go away. Even if I decided to avoid all moral absolutes, it seems to me that I’d have simply substituted another moral absolute into the equation (that is, that moral absolutes are absolutely immoral) and pretended to not see it. Kind of like someone who goes into a library and shouts “EVERYONE SHUT UP! THIS IS A NO-TALKING ZONE!!” over and over…

      Am I making any kind of sense? Can you help me understand what you’re thinking?

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  3. You are sounding a little like Blackburn.
    That’s the rub though, isn’t it? Metaethics is basically a descriptive project, and when we craft a description, we assume that our description is a description of something.
    That makes the realist’s opening salvo very easy: an incredulous stare.
    But that sells realism short. We describe imaginary things, for instance, without thinking that our descriptions are not descriptions, and without thinking that the imaginary subject is real.
    What realists want is independent efficacy. If a proton is real, the world can’t make a move without it, and we cannot fully explain the world without that proton.
    Does a moral property meet that criteria? Doesn’t Moore’s open question impugn any realist claim for moral properties?
    I mean, if you can hold a straight face while asking, “Yes it is good, but is it Good?”, then is Good even an effective (much less a necessary) category?
    I think that is the starting point for non-cognitivism and error theory.

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