December 12, 2013

Contemplating the nature of the divine

By Adam Dahmer–

Now that my cannibalism advocacy has shown my critics the sort of story for which they should reserve their most vehement opposition, I can go back to playing theologian. In this episode, I would like to further examine the nature of God, this time with special emphasis on the question of whether God is eminent or transcendent.

In the last issue that dealt with the topic of God, we had explored the idea that God was a word used to denote the mysterious substance – or lack thereof – that “exists” (here a relative term) beyond the bounds of material existence; or, to put it another way, everything (once again a relative term) that exists, but is not matter (defined here as all things that have mass). The advantage of defining God in these terms, as discovered in the earlier article, is that it conveniently satisfies the basic definitions of God as proposed in a broad variety of religious and non-religious philosophical denominations.

This model, however, is not truly universal. Ironically, when it comes to God, it seems the devil is in the details.  The definition of God provided above envisions a transcendent deity – one that exists outside of space and time, and is divorced from the physical world. Meanwhile, most religions – even those which seem at first to define God transcendentally – describe their Deity (or deities) as being intrinsically linked to the natural world. According to the faithful, God (or gods) performs a wide array of highly physical tasks – like controlling the weather, shaping history and geography, and intervening directly and deliberately in human affairs. In order to do any of these things, a deity would have to be conscious, and have some means of interacting with the material world, both of which traits would be logical impossibilities for a purely transcendent being. For atheists, no further pondering is required; this is yet another way in which the idea of God simply isn’t compelling. If by definition a transcendent God is strictly immaterial, than all talk of miracles and divine presence in the material world is utter nonsense.

On the other hand, for everyone with a vested interest in believing in God (or just more patience for whimsy than the average atheist) there are a number of intellectual paths down which to meander on the way to reconciling the models of divine imminence and transcendence. The first, and least conforming to traditional notions of reconciliation, would be to discard the idea of transcendence altogether, and say that god is wholly manifest in the world. This concept bifurcates into two distinct divine conceptions: God as personally corporeal, and God as universally manifest. A personally corporeal god has a distinct body, and interacts with matter in much the way that human beings do, with the addition of supernatural powers. While among the most straightforward understandings of divinity, this model presents numerous logical shortcomings to be explored in later articles.

Alternately, a universally manifest god is represented in the world itself. In this view, there is essentially no distinction between God and the material world. This too, presents problems – primarily the near impossibility of disentangling the sacred from the profane.

The alternative to these conceptions of God would be the union of transcendence and imminence in a single, comprehensive divine perspective. As it turns out, most religions do exactly that, albeit in distinct ways. In many religions, the sacred dwells in a mysterious and magical realm that is separate from the mundane world. In faiths in which this alternate reality is considered purely immaterial (which is to say, spiritual), God or gods interact with the faithful through visions, dreams and signs. In systems that conceive of the alternate reality as physical, God or gods can come and go from the living world in much the same way as humans would walk through a door, or part a veil. In still other cases, God or gods are described as though they were ordinary beings – not removed from the world itself, but only from the time or place in which their worshippers live. In any case, there seems to be an almost universal notion that the world as we perceive it is only the partial expression of some greater, truer, more comprehensive reality. Although no one can agree as to what it is, or even whether it can truly be said to exist at all, cultures throughout history have tended to regard it with a sense of reverence.

In conclusion, consider this analogy. For the purpose of research, zoologists sometimes construct rectangular terrariums on one side of which is mounted a pair of rubber gloves, which protrude through the wall of the enclosure. In this way, the researchers can manipulate life forms within the terrarium without unduly affecting the chemistry of the environment they have created. To the creatures born within the terrarium, the motions of the gloves are merely a regular function of the material world they inhabit. If the walls of the terrarium are opaque on the inner side, and the chamber is hermetically sealed, they have no access to empirical evidence that any force external to their system is operant on that system at all. Indeed, it would be illogical to assume so, and impracticable to determine how such a thing were even possible. Even if some members of the experimental group suspected the existence of such a force, and the gloves behaved in ways that sometimes lent credence to their beliefs, they would live and die without ever having seen conclusive proof of the hypothesized Mover-of-the-Glove. Moreover, if they ever encountered a researcher in the absence of the glove, or strayed beyond the terrarium, their new experiences would be so wholly alien that they would have nothing with which to compare them, and no adequate means of relating to their companions the story of what they had seen.

With regard to God, I believe that human beings are somewhat like the subjects in that terrarium – conscious or unconscious witnesses to the maneuverings of a force that is wholly different from matter, yet inexplicably interactive with it, and of Whose existence widely accessible and testable evidence will probably never accumulate. It might be that there really is nothing out there, even in the absence of conclusive evidence, it is at least fun to speculate. If many of you disagree, don’t worry. Before musing further, I’ll just have to distract you by flouting another taboo.

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