The God Challenge, Pt. 2

Aron: In an exchange, you once wrote to me that “that thing we call God emerges through our experience of a meaningful life and moral obligation.” Since you took me to task for my vague theology a few weeks ago, I think it’s time to return the favor.

First, let’s clarify: are you arguing that God emerges from our experience of those things, or that our experience of God emerges from them? What bappens once God emerges? What does the word emerges even mean?

Second, the details: What are the relationships between God and “moral obligation” and between God and “a meaningful life”? Is God reducible to these two phenomena and, if so, why use the word “God”?

Allen: All right. You’d like something a little less vague– in other words, something a little less like Heschel. Instead of answering your questions one by one, I’ll lay all my cards on the table; apologies in advance for stealing your paragraphs. Right up front, I’m borrowing heavily here from Alisdair MacIntyre, John Finnis, and Philip Kitcher.

We’ve already discussed the issue of how to define the word “God.” My teacher Shaiya Rothberg offers as good an answer as any: God means that which is worthy of my worship and devotion.” Worship implies priority. God is either the most important of our concerns or an irrelevance, either everything or nothing. Devotion implies obligation. God makes demands, or what philosophers call “normative claims”. These claims deserve our respect– more than that, our reverence.

The question of whether to believe in God, then, can be rephrased as follows: is there anything in this world worthy of our worship and devotion? There may be. If we human beings share a single purpose to struggle for; if we’re joined in the pursuit of a single common end; if all of us, black and white, rich and poor, peaceful and desperate, ought to strive toward a single goal– then that purpose deserves our constant devotion.

So we need to understand what a “purpose” actually looks like in daily life. Consider chess as a simple example. The purpose or object of a game of chess is to  achieve victory through checkmating a king– but not by any means. Strict, sometimes arbitrary rules are imposed upon the board. A knight can only move two squares forward and one square to the side in one turn, and so on.

Likewise, the purpose of life is to achieve excellence within the constraints imposed us by nature. You may object at this point that chess is an artificial game with a beginning, ending, and fixed set of rules, while real life is nothing like that. To which I respond: Life does indeed have a beginning: birth. It has an ending: death. It has a fixed set of constraints: age, weakness, and sickness.

Can we win in life like we win a game of chess? Yes, since philosophers, scientists, and most importantly, regular people like you and me all recognize that there are fundamental things worth getting for their own sake. St. Thomas lists these “basic goods” as life, intimacy, knowledge, choice, and fellowship. Evolutionary biologists have come up with a strikingly similar list through experiments involving high-functioning primates. So, too, have anthropologists through their observations of diverse cultures.

All agree that fellowship, especially, is a precondition for a fully human life. Anyone unconvinced need look no further than the ghastly effects of solitary confinement. The Bible has understood this truth from the beginning: “It is not good for man to be alone.” We’re born into a web of interpersonal relationships– son, brother, friend– that defines and sustains us. Even Robinson Crusoe once rested on his mother’s breast.

Most of us remain intently focused on our individual efforts to achieve the basic goods, just as a chess player zeroes in on his own pieces before a move. But at the pivotal moments in the match, we look up only to realize that we’re surrounded by people playing the same game. We’re all bound by the same rules: we all die, we all suffer. We’re part of a tournament, as it were; and all our points count together. Or to borrow a different metaphor from John Donne’s Devotions: “All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that Library where every book shall lie open to one another.” This is our purpose, this is our God. This, only this, is worth our worship and devotion.

In the end, the basic question at issue is this: do our lives mean anything? My answer is that meaning comes from the stories we’re all a part of– the fullness of our experiences with our family, friends, lovers, and selves. That meaning I call God.

Is this God, the God of purpose, powerless compared to Michelangelo’s grey-bearded divine caricature? Not so. The old-time God shattered the Amalekites in battle; but it was purpose that shattered the British Raj without firing a shot. That God brought death to Egypt from the sky; it was purpose that brought rebirth to South Africa from the depths of a prison cell. That God rains down on the crops; but it’s purpose that moves us to reap the harvest.

Is God as purpose overly abstract, intellectualized, impersonal? No, again. Because the end of all our striving is as close as a father’s arms or a lover’s kiss. It bears all the tenderness and heroism and glory that color our deepest relationships. The Bible and the Kabbalists had it right: God is always emerging, always growing, because humanity grows when we draw close to one another. We may one day solve chess, but we’ll certainly never solve God.

I have the feeling I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered; but hey, what’s a blog for? Feel free to take some parting shots in the latest round of our theological boxing match. Hopefully this one won’t go the full fifteen rounds.

Aron: You’ve offered an inspiring vision of what humanity might become. As you’ve said, though, you’ve raised a lot of questions. First, I wonder about some of your definitions. Worship implies priority and devotion implies obligation, but is worship limited to priority, and is devotion limited to obligation? It seems that you’re conflating secular aspects of religious terms with the terms themselves to evade the fact that your moral system can be (and has been) described without religious terminology. Aren’t you just talking about ethics?

Second, in your theology, what’s the value of prayer? Is it merely an expression of our desire to bring humanity’s shared purpose about? What’s the value of the siddur, which is premised on the existence of an active God with whom communication is possible? Why not change our prayers to reflect your definitions?

Allen: Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments. A very brief response:

I do believe that the story we’re a part of calls for religious language. To play a role in a drama not of our own making, to act out the role for which we’re uniquely suited, to join together in a common enterprise along with our ancestors and descendants– awe or reverence or devotion seem only fitting for the occasion. Keep in mind: Maimonides spends Book 1 of his Guide defining Jewish concepts in Aristotelian terms, and his opponents made the same critique you did (l-havdil). I bring this up only to make the point that the line between “religious” and “secular” language isn’t quite as clear-cut as you suggest.

As for prayer, the point’s a fair one, and deserves a separate post. It seems we’ll have to leave our eager audience with another cliffhanger for now. Until next time!

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2 thoughts on “The God Challenge, Pt. 2

  1. I have a little trouble with Allen’s definition of God. It seems very devoid of human emotion, which is such an integral part of not just prayer, but religion generally. So I look forward to seeing the next installment of this discussion.

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