I raised this question in a blog entitled “The God Question” (July 9, 2012). Recently my good friend Buddy Shurden, an eminent Baptist historian and educator being disappointed that I did not answer the question “What does God expect of us?” asked for an answer—to put all my cards face up on the table, as it were. I am not certain that my answer will work for anyone else—as I said in the July 9 blog, everyone must answer the question for himself/herself, and this answer is how I am making sense of life.
I previously published my take on this topic in an essay entitled “Out of the Enchanted Forest. Christian Faith in an Age of Reason,” published in When Faith Meets Reason. Religion Scholars Reflect on their Spiritual Journeys (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge: 2008), 13-24. When I wrote the longer essay, I did so from the perspective of a Baptist “Christian” who was trying to make sense of religious traditions that had nourished his personal thinking—in other words it reflected my views as someone who continued inside the community of faith. Looking back over that essay today, I find little reason to change it.
In this blog, however, I am writing a shorter essay from the perspective of a 21st century human being who, although an heir of the 4th century Christian creeds and canon, finds himself today principally indebted to the 18th century Enlightenment and modern scientific thought. My formal education in the Western academic tradition from the earliest years has been thoroughly secular, principally drawing on logic, critical methodology, and human reason to answer questions that before the 18th century were the strict purview of religion. In this brief essay I set out five very personal conclusions about how I see my place in the world.
One: I believe in God—although I admit I have no personal knowledge of God. I only know what others have written or told me. I hold this belief only because I cannot explain why it is that there is nothing at all, or as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger put it in his Introduction to Metaphysics: the fundamental question of metaphysics is “Why are there existing things rather than nothing?” I hasten to add, however, I did not come to this observation through metaphysical philosophy or prayer, but rather through general reading, observation, and personal pondering. The universe exists and because neither scientists nor religionists can adequately explain why that is so brings me to a belief in God.
Two: No matter what “they” tell us, no one knows, or can know, the mind of God. Even Paul and Isaiah shared that thought (1 Cor 2:16 = Isaiah 40:13 LXX). God’s ways have always been inscrutable (Rom 11:33-34; similar to 2nd Baruch [Syriac] 8:14)—as even the most pious believer should know simply by reading the weather report every day, if by nothing more. Hence the answer to the question is this: I have no idea what it is that God expects of humankind in general or me in particular! I cannot read the minds of human beings who are close to me—much less the mind of God. I cannot take religious professionals seriously when they purport to know the mind of God and tell me what God expects of me—they disagree. Living by the pronouncements of others is at bottom surrendering self-determination for voluntary servitude. Religious professionals are usually well meaning, but claim to know more than is humanly possible.
Three: I alone am responsible for making my way in an increasingly complex world, and for my personal integrity in making decisions in a world of dirty shades of grey. For a thoughtful person an ethical decision in the modern world can be both “right” and “wrong” simultaneously. So I am often called upon to choose between the “lesser” of what I consider two immoral options—and in such a situation I must accept the responsibility for doing harm while aiming to act in love.
Four: All ethical decisions are by definition situational! This means that right and wrong take their character from the situation—there are no absolute rights or wrongs. In some cases an act usually judged right in one situation is completely wrong in another. I would describe my rule of thumb for decision-making and ethical action as a beneficent or empathetic humanism, informed in particular by the best in the Judeo-Christian tradition broadly conceived—meaning that the tradition is both broader and longer than the 4th century canon and Christian orthodoxy.
Five: I am hopeful that my physical death will not result in an ultimate loss of personal consciousness. Hope is not the same thing as faith, confidence, and certitude, as Paul noted: “Now hope that is seen is not hope—for who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8:24-25). So like everyone else I am waiting to see if my hope is realized. From my perspective, however, God shows an apparent disinterest in the world, as I have blogged numerous times, specifically with reference to natural disasters, and disease. See for example “Does God Control the Wind,” Blog May 19, 2011. I do not live in fear of God in the present or in fear of personal judgment in the future. In spite of compelling evidence to the contrary (disease and natural disasters) I continue to hope that God, who may or may not be in control of the considerable powers of the universe, will in the divine economy not consign my consciousness to oblivion.
Buddy how have you answered the question?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
Thank-you Charles, for a thoughtful response to the above question which should provoke thought in your readers about the matter of a potential relationship to the Supreme Being. Thanks also to your follower, Marcia, for the recommended reading on the subject. I would like to say that God is a wonderful Person on the basis of past personal experience of grace communicated to me from above, i.e., heaven.
Posted on 1/17/2013 at 11:54am
Good Morning Paul!
Thank you for sharing your own experience with God. You described your experience with God, as you put it, “as a wonderful Person on the basis of past personal experience of grace.” I struggled a bit with your description of God as “Person”—a description of God that attributes human-like characteristics to the Wholly Other, until I realized you were describing your particular experience, and not, I think, offering it as a description of God—i.e., you are not saying God is person-like, but only saying that is the way God comes across to you. Your description of God as “Person” describes what goes on within you during your putative encounter with the Divine. Your experience is likely shared by many others, but it is not the only claim for how God can be and is experienced. History is replete with varieties of religious experience, all different. Your testimony to have experienced God in such a personal way is similar to the ancient Greco-Roman mystery religions and the great religious crusades in the 19th and 20th centuries. From my perspective there is not one exclusive way to experience God that rules all others invalid. Each experience carries its own authority. The classic study on the subject is by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).
posted on 1/20/2013 at 1:59pm
Charlie, I can't clearly articulate my own views on these questions, but two recently published books address the issues of consciousness and why there is something rather than nothing: PHI, by Giulio Tononi (also the subject of an essay in the current issue of Atlantic), and Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt. Of course, there are no answers, just more questions.
Posted on 1/11/2013 at 11:53am
I ordered a copy of Holt’s book. There is, of course, no answer as to why things are rather than are not, but Holt has apparently tracked the history of the question—hence my interest. I am bound to learn something from reading him. When there is less time before than behind, we tend to become interested in such things, or so it seems to me.
Posted on 1/12/2013 at 12:49pm
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