Saturday, March 28, 2009

Thoughts on God: Two Views of Deity

I'm going to shift away from my normal discourse of Ethics and Politics to focus a bit on God.

Public discourse usually assumes that the definition of God is univocal, that there is a standard set concept we all agree on. This is not remotely true, there are various conceptions of the divine. I here want to take a look at two which are dominant.

For many years now, I have rejected traditional theism. I do not believe that the universe is the artifact of a separate and supernatural "person-like" being. I do not believe in the Lawgiver, Judge, and King of popular religion. I think such a being is too easily explained as a psychological projection, is difficult to square with unanswered prayers, and not easily compatible with modern science.

Nevertheless I do believe in God. Fundamentally, I think of God as reality at its ultimate level, "the ground of being," or even reality as a whole - that which is eternal, infinite, and immanent in all things. It seems to me we have good scientific and philosophical reasons to hold that reality is, at its deepest level, absolutely unlimited; that is, eternal and infinite. This corresponds well to the ontological description of God in the western philosophical tradition.

I would furthermore say that reality as a whole, since it is the ground of our being, and source of our life, is the object of our ultimate concern. The knowledge and love of reality at its highest level is our greatest good, inspiring reverence, awe, devotion, and a sense of mystical union. This is, in the western tradition, the existential description of God.

In the following clip Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan explain how one can emphatically reject conventional theism, but maintain a robust belief in God:

Even though my own views are very near Borg's and Crossan's, I am not here writing to defend it, nor to attack the more conventional views. I Merely intend to note that there is more than one understanding of what "God" is.


  1. Matt,

    When I first read your post I thought you were advocating pantheism! You said:

    "Fundamentally, I think of God as reality at its ultimate level, "the
    ground of being," or even reality as a whole - that which is eternal,
    infinite, and immanent in all things."

    That sounded like pantheism to me. I had the same impression at the
    beginning of the video....until the concept of "panentheism" was
    introduced... aha! Now, if this is what you and the two gentlemen on
    the video are advocating them I have nothing to say other than we are
    in agreement. My only reproach is to the way it is presented. You see,
    by focusing on the difference with theism and leaving aside the
    difference with pantheism, it seems as you are dening transcendence,
    which panentheism certainly does not. Panentheism, as far as my
    understanding of the term goes, declares both transcendence and
    immanence. How to reconcile these two, how to understand this
    reconciliation, has been a topic for centuries, one that entertained
    many of the Fathers of the Church (both within the Roman and the
    Eastern tradition). I believe this is something we inherited from the
    Jewish tradition, and thus share with them.

    At some point on the video the topic of evolution was mentioned. That
    caught my attention. I have never completely understand what the
    problem with evolution is for most forms of American Christianity. The
    video mentioned that evolution can become a problem from the point of
    view of extreme theism (I always thought of panentheism as a moderate
    or soft theism) and that makes sense. It help to view it that way. One
    of the reasons Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Jewish have no problem
    at all with evolution is because we understand God not just as
    transcendent but also immanent, so in a way God is "still creating".

    One final comment...about unanswered prayers, I like to believe (and
    this is just my believe) that "some of God's greatest gifts are
    unanswered prayers" ;)

  2. Anonymous,

    To clarify: yes I am a panENtheist and NOT a pantheist. in my latter post I put up a video of Spinoza. Some think Spinoza is a pantheist, but most leading commentators think this is inaccurate, several even calling Spinoza a panentheist. I think this is correct.

    The question for the Panentheist is how do we understand transendence? It cannot mean "separate" or "supernatural." I venture two core Ideas: 1) God is beyond all of our concepts of God, and 2) Though all things are finite expressions of God's infinite power (hence the immanence), God cannot be reduced to (though neither can God be separated from) the sum of the collection of things.

    Pantheism, as I understand it, simply means that the physical universe is somehow sacred and divine; that is not my view. Though neither do I believe in a divine person "out there" who issues laws, judges people, and causes miracles. I would also say that the universe is part of the reality of God, just not all of the divine reality.

  3. Two more things Anonymous.

    1. Some of our unanswered prayers are very much a great gift though we don't know it then!

    2. I don't get the problem with evolution that American Christians have either. Unless one is a Biblical Literalist? But then again Biblical Literalism has never made any sense to me, and most clergy and theologians I know reject it!

  4. Borg seems to suggest that scientists and atheists/naturalists believe that evolution is moving "towards something...we don't know what."
    Anyone who really understood Darwinian theory would admit quite the opposite is true. The first error people make when they start thinking about evolution is that life is evolving TOWARDS something--even pre-Darwinian naturalistic thinkers like the French materialists and Schopenhauer believed in hierarchical evolution, and social Darwinists like Haeckel made the same mistake. Evolution guarantees only the survival of whatever form is fittest in a population's given environment; complexity is no guarantee of fitness. In fact, sometime it is a burden. Tapeworms' ancestors were actually more complex than their descendents, but lost a digestive system that became superflous after they started inhabiting the intestines of hosts who did the digesting for them. Much of their sense organs and neurons also got lost in the shuffle due to the lack of stimulation.
    Though I personally don't believe in teleology of any sort, I don't cite Darwinism to refute universal purposefulness as borg cites it to defend it. But the hierarchical fallacy of evolution is universally pervasive and universally wrong, so I had to bring it up.
    Also, I'm Bento over at The Word Warrior. Only posted as "anonymous" because I couldn't figure out how to do otherwise.

  5. Hey Bento

    What you write seems correct. Darwinism is anti-teleological. Your description seems exactly right.

    I think Borg is sometimes guilty of sloppy thinking, or at least being sloppy in his descriptions of what he is thinking. Surely atheists or agnostics who accept strict Darwinism would not agree that the universe is evolving toward something. There he must have either misspoke or been wrong.

    I don't accept teleology if it means that there are Aristotelian final causes, or that God has something like human intentionality. I'm not sure if that is what Borg meant to suppose is the case, but his comments appear to suggest this.

    Spinoza argues that God cannot "acts with an end in view." For that would be to think of God as a being contemplating a future, presumably something an infinite being is beyond being able to do. And this is my own position as well.

    However, some Spinoza scholars argue that teleology means that all things and events are to be understood as aspects of a larger context or whole which orders them. I don't know if that is a plausible teleology, but if it is, then I am fine with that. But the more conventional teleology is problematic I think.

    Of course some read Spinoza's God as a God only in name. Such argue that Spinoza, when all is said and done, is an atheist. But I do not accept this reading.

    Spinoza's God is non-personal, and certainly not a separate supernatural being, nor a law giver, judge, or potentate. However, his God is infinite, eternal, the cause of all things, supremely perfect, our highest God (the aim of the Philosopher for Spinoza is to love and know God), etc.

    I should further think Spinoza, though he states that all things are modes of God, fiercly maintains that God cannot be reduced to simply the total collection of God's modes; which appears to me to be the Panentheist position.

    All of this is just my long term way of saying the same thing as Einstein did, "I believe in Spinoza's God," with this caveat: that does not mean that all my beliefs about God are the same as Spinoza's, only that I agree with him with regard to the fundamentals of the divine ontology.

  6. to correct a spelling error above: God is our "highest good" for Spinoza, not our "highest God" the latter is rather self-evident.

  7. By the way Bento. The tapeworm example as an excellent illustration! NOVA did a movie on Darwin a few years back, that I watched for his 200th birthday. In this piece they used the adapations of HIV to illustrate the way evolution works, it was extremely thought provoking.

  8. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  9. Thank you Ruth! That is very kind, I'm glad to have you as a reader!



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