Sunday, 18 November 2012

Just Who Is This God You Speak of?

Just Who Is This God You Speak of?
by Jonathan Bellot

            It is easy to forget that “God” is a proper name. For most theists and some deists, God, after all, is supposedly in some sense personal, if not a person outright; it’s only convenient he, she, or it have a name one can refer to. But while it may seem convenient for this thing, this deity, to have a name, it’s ultimately more problematic than convenient. A name, after all, should refer to someone or something one is in some way aware of, acquainted with. To use a name that does not clearly refer to someone or something is a bit odd. In a talk entitled “What’s Next for Atheism?” A. C. Grayling put the problem like this: if we replace God’s name with something more common, like “Fred,” the oddity of our claims becomes pretty apparent. If I say that Fred went to the 7-11 on Friday, and, once pressed, must admit that I do not know much about this Fred—what he looks like or sounds like, how old he is, where he lives, even if he is truly a “he”—you would be right to ask me how I can say that “Fred” went to the 7-11, since “Fred” has no clear meaning in this context. No Fred could be identified by me or anyone else on a security camera, either, since no one has the faintest idea what Fred looks like, assuming Fred looks like anything.
            Or, as Grayling put it: “Who made the universe? Fred. I have a deep personal relationship…with Fred.” By humanizing God, by making this indistinct person seem more intimate by nothing more than the change of a name, you might suddenly realize how empty the space seems beneath the word “God,” in the sense that it’s not clear who or what should go there. If I were to say I have an intimate relationship with Melissa, but have no idea what she looks or sounds like, no sensory details at all, indeed don’t even know she’s a “she”—well, you’d be right to look at me with raised eyebrows and start stepping back.
            The same, you may be about to say, goes for God. While it’s true that some speakers will provide specific definitions and traits of “God,” it’s also true that many people use the name to refer to whatever “supreme” being they have in mind, regardless of whether or not that being’s characteristics may accord with someone else’s. Thus, a Christian, a Muslim, and a deist who do not know each other’s respective beliefs can all say “I believe in God” and think they are speaking about the same being, though each one of them may have a being with different properties in mind. It’s not unlike if we imagine that there are two people chatting in a cafĂ©, and each has a friend named Brian; without asking for further identification, each assumes that the “Brian” the other person is talking about is the same Brian, when, in fact, each is talking about a different person who simply happens to have the same name. This can easily lead to misunderstandings. One need only turn to various American conservatives’ attempts to claim that America is a Christian nation because the founders (such as, say, Jefferson and Paine) believed in “God” to see how easy it is to make mistakes, if not simply deceive the simple-minded. Jefferson and Paine, after all, were deists; Paine, in particular, took pain to emphasize the fact that he was not a Christian by ridiculing Christianity in an infamous pamphlet of 1807 (in its final form), The Age of Reason. Yet he spoke of believing in God, and misunderstanding—or manipulating—such passages might lead one to believe he was talking about the same “God” fellow as the founders who actually were Christians. The same, of course, is true for Einstein and Spinoza—and Spinoza famously equated God with “Nature,” thus revealing a singularly different being from the God of the Abrahamic faiths.
            Clearly, then, it matters what person—or thing—we mean when we say “God.”
            But it’s interesting to note that this seeming emptiness behind the word “God” doesn’t only extend to potential ambiguity; it extends even into the more complex definitions of God one may run across. The Reformed Epistemologists, like William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga, for instance, have made—though they did not invent the definition—a certain description of God infamous: God, we are told, is spaceless, timeless, eternal, immaterial, changeless, enormously powerful (if not omnipotent), omnibenevolent, and metaphysically necessary (uncaused). On the surface, this sounds great; God has finally been pinned down. But on closer examination, the matter is hardly clear—or perhaps it’s all too transparent. Taken literally, these definitions inform us that God takes up no space, consists of no matter (appropriate, really, given that he takes up no space), and exists outside of time. One could stop there. God, if we take this literally, is theoretically indistinguishable from nothingness—or, at least, frighteningly close. Mind you, like Parmenides, I don’t quite know what nothingness is, not having ever experienced anything but something; as Wittgenstein said in a 1929 Lecture of Ethics, “it is nonsense to say that I wonder at the existence of the world, because I cannot imagine it not existing.” But God here is as close as I can get.
            Of course, there is another way to take these words, which is to invoke the possibly apocryphal medieval exercise of counting how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. (Such exercises did exist, but it’s unclear whether or not this specific one did or was created later as a caricature of the exercises in general.) It is possible to think, intuitively, of something taking up space without taking up space (and that was the answer to the pins question—angels take up no space, not being material, so an infinity of them could fit on the head of a pin). A mind, Craig likes to assert, is not material and does not take up space as material things do. And, as for time, Craig asserts—though more shakily—God might have created the universe at the exact same moment he desired to do so, since the desire cannot have preceded the creation of the universe, or God would have been acting in time—and time, according to the Big Bang model, cannot meaningfully exist at the moment of the Big Bang (and thus, there isn’t really a “before” the Big Bang, since relativity means that time loses all meaning when the universe is bunched up altogether at once in the point of the Big Bang, the singularity). Mind you, all neuroscience currently points to the mind being a product of the brain and not independent of it, as the dualists would assert (and Craig is not unsympathetic to dualism). Moreover, while we can say that things can take up space “without” taking up space, it’s not actually clear that this is either possible or even a meaningful statement. What is actually beneath those words? What does it mean to take up no space or to be “beyond” space—or, worse, time? (On the assumption that time even is even real, that is, more than just a convenient illusion, which I’m unsure of, somewhat alongside Julian Barbour and J. M. E. McTaggart.) At this point, someone might retreat into saying we can’t understand these concepts, just as a negative theologian—someone defining God by what he isn’t—might say that God can exist without existing. And I don’t deny that it’s possible that we just can’t understand these things but that they may be possible. I don’t believe in a deity, but I’m well-aware of the fact that I do not know everything, and there may be much more out there to learn. Hell, I can’t even disprove solipsism—and you—some irony for kicks—can’t, either. Perhaps God can exist and not-exist at the same time, not unlike Wittgenstein’s parody of Freud’s notion of the unconscious: “Mr. Nobody,” Wittgenstein called it. 
            Or, as Samuel Beckett asked in the addenda at the end of his novel Watt,
                 who may tell the tale
                 of the old man?
                 weigh absence in a scale?
                 mete want with a span?
                 the sum assess
                 of the world's woes?
                 in words enclose?

            And mystery, indescribability, can be beautiful, in a deep way, as Einstein and Gabriel Marcel knew so well. Perhaps there are names we cannot speak because we will never have the words. 
     But at the same time, we should be careful. If we say something doesn’t take up space, maybe it doesn’t—and maybe that’s all it means, and there’s nothing there. As Julia Kristeva writes in The Feminine and the Sacred, those Christian mystics who went very far in negating God’s existence while affirming it may simply have been avoiding the fact that they were saying there was no God. Kristeva uses the example of Angela of Foligno, who described the divine as “an ‘abyss,’ ‘a thing that has no name.’” For Kristeva, this “thing without a name may betray…a suggestion of disbelief…[t]he latencies of a mystic atheism.” In so negative a theology, God may well vanish if one presses hard enough. Perhaps we cannot escape from this disappearance by using words to cover them up, to cover up the terrifying emptiness and ambiguity behind the very name of “God.”
            But the thing is, I love these discussions. I want to be challenged, to have my world and my beliefs spun on their axis by a new argument or new evidence. I want to hear and have these discussions in the islands—and, believe me, there are people from the Caribbean who are having them. But the average person there (and not only there, of course) does not choose to examine who “God” is or if God is truly Mr. Nobody. We revel in a simple, childish Christianity and, in some cases, Islam. We do not elevate the discussion; we assume that God is as obviously what we think he is as it is obvious that we breathe—and thus to assume God may not exist or may be other than we think may well be tantamount to being a fool or mentally ill (both of which skeptics are routinely called by fanatics, should the topic of skepticism even come up). We need something more. We need to be questioners, to be proud of ourselves for stepping away from simple answers and asking questions.
The world we find behind those questions may not always be pretty or comforting; it may well be bleak and depressing. Or it may be glorious and marvelous. Or depressing. But we will have found it ourselves. And that is the journey—the never-ending journey, like Jose Saramago’s tale about a man searching for an unknown island—we in the Caribbean should be happy to be on. Instead, we tend to attack others for asking too many questions.
Let us make our voices and questions heard—now and not forever after, but for a good long time.