Which God?

In my most recent post, I explained my reasons for rejecting atheism, as well as offering some thoughts as to why I consider both atheists and theists (and, in fact, everyone except the delusional and the dull of wit) to be agnostic. The essence of that piece might be summed up as: “The beauty of proof is that it requires no faith. The beauty of faith is that it requires no proof.” These two statements represent complementary, not mutually exclusive, viewpoints. What I left unexplored, however, was my choice of monotheism over other possible belief systems, and that’s what I’d like to discuss here.

Before briefly examining the various schools of theistic thought, I want to address the subject of relativism. Relativism gained great momentum in the last century, and is still thriving well into the present day. It is predicated on the central premise that my truth is true for me and your truth is true for you, even when those truths contradict one another or are mutually exclusive. Perhaps part of the reason why this idea has gained so much traction is that the concept of truth is somewhat nuanced. For me the truth is that chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream, while for you the truth is that strawberry is the best flavor. In this sense, we are, indeed, both correct, and we each define our own truth. However, if we try to define the “best” flavor of ice cream in an absolute sense — in a sense that will be unambiguously true for all people at all times — we run into difficulties. The truth in this case seems to be that if there is a truth, we cannot determine what it is with any certainty.

When it comes to faith (or lack thereof) and relativism, particular difficulties arise which are so insidious that we appear to be approaching a post-relativist era. In short, by asserting that each person’s truth is equally valid we are asserting a paradox: The absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth; thus, the assertion that absolute truth is relative cannot be absolute, and may be incorrect. And around and around we go. It certainly seems that we must accept the objective existence of some absolute truth, even if that truth is ultimately unknowable. Does this mean that we should give up on discovering that truth? No. But it does mean that we may never obtain proof of it, in which case we must base our beliefs on a combination of evidence, careful contemplation, and considered faith.

This was my starting position some years ago when I began to think about these issues in earnest. And here are the conclusions I drew with regard to the various schools of theistic thought, some of which, it should be noted, overlap one another. Let me be clear: My goal here is not to prove anything or to sway anyone’s belief; nor is it to engage anyone in debate; but, simply, to shed light on how my own thought processes led me to the beliefs I now hold.

Pantheism: This is the idea that God is present in everything. I reject pantheism for a couple reasons. To begin with, according to our best scientific understanding, our universe is finite in both space and time. This means that it must have had a source. Whether we attribute intelligence to that source or not, one thing we can say with some certainty is that a thing which is created cannot be the same thing which created it. Whatever the source of our universe may be, that source cannot be bound by finite limitations, since it has caused their creation. It might be argued that such a creator could be bound by space and time as we are, and is simply a sort of “larger container” for our universe. But in this case we would run up against an infinite regression which would have to terminate, eventually, with either a source outside of space and time, or with the infinitude of the regression itself, which amounts to the same thing. Thus, if we postulate an intelligent creator, that creator must reside outside of space and time.

Deism: This is the so-called “God of Einstein,” who sets up the initial conditions of our universe — the Big Bang — and then stands back, aloof and disinterested. While it is possible that God might choose to operate in such a manner, there are a couple reasons why I have trouble accepting this notion. First, it seems unlikely that a God who could create our universe would not, subsequently, engage with it. It is by no means a requirement of such a creator, but it seems to make sense that an omnipotent creator would exercise whatever power he, she, or it possessed. (It might even be argued that omnipotence is not genuinely established until it is exercised.) My second point hinges upon the question of why our universe was created to begin with. If there was no purpose to creation, then we might expect a non-participatory creator. But, then, is it likely that an omnipotent, omniscient intelligence would create our universe for arbitrary reasons, or for no reason whatsoever? Is our universe a mere by-product of some greater process of which the creator is either unaware or unconcerned? Again, it is possible, but it seems to me unlikely, because it appears to discount omniscience as an attribute of omnipotence. Why, after all, would God ignore a creation (i.e., the human race) which places such a premium on its creator?

Autotheism: There is some potential overlap here with pantheism. Autotheism proposes that God is found within us. Obviously, the same objections I applied to pantheism also apply here. But there are also serious dangers in adopting an autotheistic stance. It means that we are deifying people — individuals. Now, in my estimation, people are fundamentally, deeply flawed, without exception. It is my opinion that no human is capable of achieving a “holy” state of being. By attributing holiness to people, or by allowing them to claim holiness, we grant them license to practice every manner of abuse imaginable, and there is plenty of evidence that this does, indeed, happen over and over again in such cases. Power corrupts, as the saying goes. There are, in my estimation, no holy men or women, and no human beings worthy of worship or devotion.

Polytheism: The central problem with polytheism, the belief in many gods, is that there must be some hierarchy among them. How can more than one god be omnipotent, since in that case absolute power would, of necessity, be shared and, therefore, no longer be absolute? Polytheism, thus, either precludes omnipotence, or requires that one of the many gods be supreme, the creator and ruler of the others which, in turn, means that the others represent a sort of “god-lite.” In which case, why are these lesser gods necessary and why would they have been created to begin with? A supreme god would seem to have no need of “lesser deities” which would only serve to divert attention from him-, her-, or itself.

Monotheism: This is what we’re left with after eliminating atheism and all of the above forms of theism. Certainly from the perspective of Occam’s razor monotheism makes sense. But it also manages to avoid all of the other faults which I’ve noted in the several other systems of thought. A singular God: can exist outside of space and time in an infinite and unlimited state; can exercise full omnipotence by (among other things) engaging with the created universe in which we live; is capable of uncorrupted holiness; and does not have any other deities with which to compete or share power. This latter point cuts to the heart of how monotheism arose in the ancient Middle East as a response to polytheistic practices steeped in idolatry. The contemporaries of the ancient Israelites refer to “the God of Israel” as if Israel’s God is simply one of many, and this reflects the culture of the time. But in refusing to name their God, the Israelites emphatically distinguished themselves from their neighbors, just as they did by refusing to fashion images of God, and thereby engaging in idolatry.

There are, of course, objections to monotheism, especially as it is put into practice. For example, the concept of God’s triune nature is a frequent target of ridicule, particularly among atheists. The Trinity is also sometimes equated with polytheism as an argument against monotheism. But the idea of three things being one is not as paradoxical as one might imagine at first glance. Many chemical compounds exist in three states, gas, liquid, and solid, without losing their essential properties. Similarly, a cylinder (a coin, for example) consists of three sides, two flat, and one curved, but is no less a singular object. There are more in-depth arguments in favor of a triune God as well, but the essential point that such a belief is defensible should be clear.

Perhaps the greatest objection to monotheism, as it has come into practice, however, has nothing to do with the basic idea of a singular God, but boils down to a criticism of the Bible as a source of information about God. This is perfectly understandable. The Bible is, indeed, riddled with seeming impossibilities; supernatural occurrences which appear to fly in the face of contemporary scientific understanding; and what appear to be a great number of internal inconsistencies and self-contradictions. This, of course, is a subject for a different discussion, and a rather lengthy one at that. I would simply note, in cursory response that there are those who believe that many passages in the Bible were not intended, by their writers, to be interpreted literally, and that careful, conscientious hermeneutics can help to resolve many of the inconsistencies we seem to see in the Bible.

In conclusion, I would again like to stress that my goal is not to sway anyone from their belief system, nor to challenge anyone to a debate over my own. My goal here is to simply explain, to those who may be interested, the process by which I decided which God to place my faith in.

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