Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Universe without God

       Is that possible—a universe without God?  I suppose so, for there are many who do not believe in God, and who no longer try to explain the disjunction between our alien universe and a caring God.  That is to say, such people have given up the idea of a compassionate God controlling the universe, specifically because the universe is so evidentially hostile to those God is supposed to care about.
       On the other hand, some continue to believe in God, but have given up the idea that God manages the universe, or is even active in the universe for the same reason: the universe is so inhospitable that we are forced to live by our wits, luck, and experimentation without any obvious help from God.  Not even prayer helps such people because the only voice they hear in their heads when they pray is the echo of their own thoughts.
       They continue to believe in God, however, for the simple reason that they cannot explain why there is a world abounding with abundant life, instead of nothing at all.  Their inability to answer that purely technical question is why they believe in God—in some unknown X that gave us the universe and all we see about us, both good and evil.  God technically survives as an unknown X but not as an experienced reality in the physical world, and for that reason also not as a spiritual reality, since they recognize that belief in a spiritual reality may only be a figment of their own imaginations, or the result of undue influence by very persuasive people.
       They no longer know anything about God's character.  They recognize that what they know was only what they had been told, and what they were told contradicts what they experience in the world.  For example, if God is active in the universe how can we explain evil going unchecked?  If God controls the world how can we explain the incompetent management of the divine Weather Desk.  Indiscriminately killing hundreds and thousands through earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. is simply not competent or compassionate management of the weather.   Other examples of Godly incompetence or malfeasance in the exercise of the divine prerogatives can be cited, but they all inevitably lead to the same conclusion: that God, as generally conceived in Christian faith (i.e., compassionate and caring), must be absent from the world.
       The fact that people can live without relying on God's involvement in the universe raises the question: what is left to Christians who are forced by conscience to surrender the idea that the physical world of matter can be spiritually manipulated through faith in the Christian God and prayer?  The issue can be positively asked in this way: what does Christianity have left to offer the Christian, if God is absent from the universe?  Here, very briefly, is what may be left.
A caring community where joys are jointly celebrated and sorrows commiserated.
A sharing community where members share the same traditions, know the same hymns, speak in the same idiom, and share similar values, the bedrock of which is the welfare and worth of the individual.
A common goal, which is to be "the light of the world" and "the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13-14; Gospel of the Savior, 1:4 [Miller, Complete Gospels, 401-10]); that is to say: to transform society by the values of Jesus of Nazareth.
       But spiritual magic, i.e., manipulating the physical world by spiritual means, is no longer an option in the face of modern Science's success in explaining much of what previously belonged to the domain of religion.  Christians must face the vicissitudes of life alone, with only the palliative comfort and encouragement of the community.
       Will that be enough do you suppose, or will Christianity, an ancient blending of religions of East and West, meet the same fate as the Greco-Roman religions?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


Community Christian Church said...

In reading Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God" it seems that you could name almost any century of western history and name examples of thinkers who reached the conclusion that the view of God as a "person" was absurd. As an American, it seems especially odd to me that so many of our nations founders had embraced a form of Deism that was emphatically opposed to a view of God as a person while still being equally emphatic about the divine nature of existence but that this form of Deism disappeared during the first Great Awakening as a publicly held legitimate option.

Where I would seek to make a corrective to your essay is that a lot of us who are post-theistic do not see ourselves as exclusively wedded to the teaching of Jesus. Accepting the historical Jesus as a significant sage among an array of the great sages of history liberates us to be seekers of insight wherever that insight may be found. Of course, as people who have grown up within the fold of traditional Christianity, we may always be inclined to view the world through the lens of a residual Christian perspective but that does not mean that we believe that Jesus was somehow more right than Buddha was.

Of course, what we have of Buddha and Jesus are hints, echoes, and shadows buried in generations of later interpretation and gathering of cultural values and attached to a historical character so what we are really doing when we cite the gospels or any sacred text is the making of an appeal to someone's view of truth…. in most cases, an appeal to a cultural value so far removed from us in time and place that the affect of the ancient witness is necessarily something more our own than it was of the ancient author. Even reading Kierkegaard without an awareness of what was going on in the newspapers of 19th century Copenhagen is quite difficult, reading the Quran without a comprehensive knowledge of the 5th century Arab culture Mohammad was attempting to correct is bound to lead to mistaken conclusions about what he really intended to say…. and we should still be willing to disagree with Mohammad or Paul or Jesus, even when we think we understand them.

For example, the historical Jesus may really have believed that eating shrimp was a sin but we can clearly say that he was a product of his culture in that matter and that he was simply mistaken. In a larger arena, Jesus may have believed that there was an immanent end of the world in a great apocalypse. If he did, he was just wrong. We shouldn't be too upset about him being wrong about something of even such great consequence because, as insightful as he may have been, he was not God and he didn't know everything. I'm confident that he didn't know where the sun goes at night nor would he have known the difference between a virus and a bacteria which, in such matters, made him less knowledgeable than an average modern Middle School student.

Sorry for running on so long…. in sum, I think it is entirely possible, even attractive, to hold onto a life of faith without a supernatural imaginary friend in the clouds. Buddhists have done it for centuries…. we're just finally catching up.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Charlie. Once again, you've reached the heart of the matter--and my heart, as well. As all of nature and society, Christianity has evolved, but it has lasted for 2000 years. Although the individual is given great value, it is in the community that Christianity lives and thrives. As long as we keep the needs and value of the individual and the community in balance, Christianity will remain viable.


Charles Hedrick said...

Thank you both for engaging the issue. You both raise for me several other issues, and I cannot do full justice to everything. But here is my response in part. Roger, what you just described in your second paragraph seems to me to be a post Christian community. What I am trying to describe is a traditional Christian community that has come to accept that God for whatever reason is absent, but a community that nevertheless remains based on the teachings of Jesus. Without Jesus as its creative center or basis, it becomes something else. That does not mean that it cannot draw also from the teachings of the Buddha or even draw from the Manichaean hymns. What it does mean is that what it draws from other religious visions must cohere with the ideas of Jesus, as expressed in his sayings. In other words Jesus remains as the core of the community. In your description Jesus is simply one among many religious visionaries. The problem with what I have suggested, on the other hand, is that Jesus undomesticated may simply be too radical to be the basis for a community. In my description the "personhood of God" is not a problem since God is absent. There is nothing there to allow an argument in either direction, for or against. So one believes as one will. The sayings of Jesus that most would accept has very little "God talk," so while Jesus seemed to believe in God, he was not very specific as to his character. Where Jesus and I would part company is that he believed that God used the weather for the common good, something that does not appear to be the case.
PS I argue this position in a new book forthcoming: The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (Cascade; hopefully this year).

Anonymous said...

Charlie & Roger,

Science seems to have discovered god to be "mother nature", i.e. the physical laws of the universe. This god is consistent, powerful, creative, and will reward or punish humans for obeying or transgressing nature's laws. As I have mentioned previously, imagine one of god's laws is gravity.
Humans are totally depend on the nature of gravity, and it can do us great harm in a minute if we fail to understand and adjust our lives to it. Same with the weather, electricity, energy, etc. We have great faith in gravity and in all the laws of mother nature as we discover and understand what they actually are. Science is on a continuing search for the nature, i.e. truth of this god, and mankind has benefitted tremendously from science's discoveries of nature's laws.

That is not to say science has/can answer all the questions for which humans will continue to seek answers, but as the science of the human mind (psychology) matures, answers to human questions will expand in new areas of nature such as faith, religion, love, empathy, depression, anxiety, and perhaps the most harmful human emotion: greed.

I admire you guys!


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your article, Charles, but I am perplexed as to how a community can draw upon the values of Jesus when, according to the bible, Jesus' main values were the kingdom of God and loving God and each other. Removing God from God's kingdom and removing God from Jesus' two greatest commandments seems to really gut the central teachings of Jesus down to almost nothing. So I, for one, am just not sure how we can be faithful to the teachings of Jesus while rejecting Jesus' view that God was a person - a father-like figure who lived in heaven. Any thoughts on this would be appreciated. Bill

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Bill,
Thanks for the question, but it is a little like trying to explain the amount of ice beneath the surface from viewing the tip of the iceberg. Here is the nub of the problem of following Jesus: we do not know the values of Jesus because we cannot agree on how to sort out what properly belongs to Jesus from what early Christians believed about him stated in the gospels (see my post on June 6). The authors of the gospels represent Jesus from the perspective of their faith; they do not describe Jesus historically. Perhaps the gospels translate into good theology but they are simply unreliable as historical descriptions. So the question becomes: do you want to be faithful to the historical figure behind the gospels or the Christ of the church's faith that you meet in the gospels? They are not the same. For the attempt to make the division see R. W. Funk, R. W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels (1997).