God without certainty


I recently got into a discussion in James McGrath's blog with a Buddhist who asked me what the point of theistic religion is if it doesn't entail receiving clearly defined messages from God. He saw his own nontheistic religion as a scientific and empircally valid form of psychology, and for him any religion--especially one involving God--that is non-empircal or riddled with ambiguity and uncertainty is pointless. This discussion illustrated, I think, a common misconception about what religion necessarily means for everyone. Those who don't get progressive religion are often baffled by the idea of a faith that isn't about dogma or certainty. This is certainly the assumption of a lot of fundamentalist Christians, for whom certainty and dogma are central. But I have found that a lot of atheists also share the same assumption. Many of them think that there is no point in positing a God if that God doesn't give us obvious and unambiguous instructions, apparently accompanied by lightning bolts and spoken with a booming voice from the sky.

For others of us, however, religion is not about having answers handed to us on a silver platter, but rather about the mystery and the journey of discovery. It is about myth, meaning, and community. For us, to ask what is the point of belief in God without certainty is like asking what is the point of a poem. This is something that some people just don't get, and, unfortunately, such people often seem to spend a lot of energy trying to insist that the rest of us see things their own way.


Andrew said...

"is like asking what is the point of a poem."

That is a great example.

Noel said...

I recently read a quote that said, "Just because we affirm God as mystery does not mean that we can say nothing definitive about God." I do not know how I feel about that quote (honestly, I don't think I like it). As I am a relative newcomer to this journey into mystery, I wonder if your experiences have shed any light on the situation.

In your opinion, can we say anything definitive about God?

Mystical Seeker said...

Interesting question, Noel. I am not sure I know the answer to that.

Scott said...

First, as the individual that Mystical was referring to, I'm not what most would consider a traditional Buddhist. Instead, I've drawn on several aspects of Buddhism, among others, which I find practical and clearly useful. In fact, I think much of the wisdom of Buddhism is trapped in the religion of Buddhism.

Second, my questions were twofold.

01. What is the value of a dualistic view of nature and the divine?

If we define religion as "there is an unseen order and our supreme interests lie in harmoniously adjusting ourselves to that order.", then under that definition, I would be religions. But just because an order is unseen, doesn't necessarily warrant the creation of an entirely different category such as "divine." For example, much of what we know today was at some point "unseen", but is not considered divine.

To illustrate, I gave the following Zen saying….

"Thirty years ago, before I practiced Zen, I saw that mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. However, after having achieved intimate knowledge and having gotten a way in, I saw that mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have found rest, as before I see mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers."

In other words, while this order may be initially unseen, It's unclear why we should say that the result of said process must define this order as "supernatural", instead of nature.

Nor do I think the process of aligning ourselves to this order is, or ever has been, "handed to us on a silver platter" in fact, we must be mindful and keep to our practice to determine how our actions can be better aligned. Even the scientific method, which requires a methodical testing and a number of techniques to avoid bias, is an endeavor that stands on the shoulders of those who came before them.

Furthermore, Mystical seem to imply that understanding the process behind these techniques and practices somehow undermines or invalidates them. Why is this? For example, doctors do not proscribe drugs which have not been thoroughly tested when there are alternatives that are proven to work. Nor do doctors proscribe drugs with side-effects when there are other drugs which have fewer or no side-effects at all.

Instead, Mystical seems to advocate keeping this "order" the realm of the supernatural because of a preference for mystery. If such an order exists, should we try to understand it in as much detail as possible?

Scott said...

02. If God is 'active' in the world, but his nature is such that we cannot determine how or to what extent he is active, then how is God relevant?

Just as Mystical read into my use of the term Buddhist as one of my influences, the term "theism" implies a personal, sentient being that has intent and makes choices. If these aspects, which are at the core of theism, are unknowable or inaccessible then what remains?

Perhaps Mystical is inspired by the idea of a supernatural being who "cheers" us on from the side lines when we align ourselves with his will, despite having a nature that results in his cheers going unheard. But if God's will is unknowable, then we are free to think God is cheering us on when we do X, Y or Z, when in reality, God actually may be silent or even discourage X, Y and Z.

In other works, theism implies that there is a transcendent being that wants some things, but not others, which has implications. And If it has no implications, then why is it relevant?

It's one thing to say there is an order, but to personify this order adds a level of complexity that is unnecessary and only serves as a distraction to an already complex and volatile situation.

For example, if we think we were remotely created in God's image and God has a will, then we may assume some parts of his will coincides with ours. But what parts? If we cannot know which parts, then this only serves to muddy the waters even further. Instead, if we approach this order without preconceived notions, including consciousness and intent, we're more likely to be more open to discovering this order's unique qualities.

Many of them think that there is no point in positing a God if that God doesn't give us obvious and unambiguous instructions, apparently accompanied by lightning bolts and spoken with a booming voice from the sky.

Which I noted was a false dilemma. We need not be omnipotent to reveal ourselves to others in a way that can be identified beyond appearing as statistical chance.

For us, to ask what is the point of belief in God without certainty is like asking what is the point of a poem.

Poems do not make claims about history or reality, such as the existence of a transcendent realm. They can inspire us from a context of humanity nature.

Ultimately, my question is, does the desire for mystery about said order outweigh the distraction and preconceived notions that are inherent in the very core of theism? (intent, sentience, etc.)