On the Question of the Existence of God: A Meditation
Grace Marguerite Williams, thank you for the question: "God...... Is or Isn't existing? Why? Why not?"
Let's assume God existed but what would that mean to human beings of this planet Earth?
Take an ant. Pick up an ant sometime and ask yourself: "Can this ant see me?"
You think that a preposterous question? But think about how tiny an ant is; and of course, the ant's eyes would be virtually microscopic.
Of course, a seeing ant can see other ants and surrounding "reality" or "the world." But can the ant "see" to the extent that he can identify human beings as separate from the environment?
In other words, what I am asking is: Even if you pick up an ant and hold it on the tip of your finger, would the ant "see" you, in the sense of being able to tell that there is a "you," as opposed to the surrounding reality?
In still other words, I am asking if the ant can "see" to the extent of being able to differentiate you from everything else, from the surrounding reality?
You still think I'm being ridiculous, I know. You say to yourself: Surely the ant feels himself, knows himself to be being picked up?
I'll grant that but there is the question of attribution. To what might the ant attribute his levitation?
If the ant cannot "see" well enough to the extent that he can "differentiate" us humans from surrounding reality---as mobile, living, at least instinctive biological units---then what might he attribute his "levitation" to?
Human beings and ants have lived on this small planet together for some time. Ants, for all we know, may be "used to" sudden, sporadic, "freak" episodes of "levitation," as part of the phenomena featured in what they experience as surrounding reality.
In that instance, ants would be in no position to say one way or another, whether we, human beings, actually exist----even though we know that we, human beings, exist.
Our own knowledge of our existence is irrelevant to the ant world, if they cannot perceive us. We exist, but on the other hand, we might as well not exist. But we do exist; and it would, therefore, take an extraordinary augmentation of the ant's perceptive equipment to be able to "see" human beings.
The point of this exercise is to say that the existence or non-existence of "God" is not necessarily reducible to the simple binary: Does "he" or does "he" not exist.
However a whole lot of people "believe" in God.
Are there any ants that "believe" in human beings, I wonder, or any other big life-forms of this world?
It would be interesting to review some of the myriad ways that a feeling of connection with "God" has been generated. "Faith" is, when you think about it, taking other people's word for it; it is "believing" in people, who believe in people, who believe in still other people---going back through the centuries---that "believe" in God.
There are many differences between humans and ants, not least among them are self-awareness and imagination, as far as we know.
I'm not going to go into to it here; but the point is that certain faculties we human beings possess has brought the concept of "God" into human life, thought, and culture. Of course, the divine has taken many conceptual forms over the centuries, forms which need not detain us here.
I will say that a Cartesian formula is not necessarily relevant. I'm talking about the French philosopher Descartes and his "I think, therefore I am" routine. That is to say, just because we human beings have "thought" of "God," it doesn't mean that he, she, it, or they for that matter, exist.
But how can we think of something that does not exist?
The same way one can think of an idea for an invention that does not yet exist. But the thinker, the imaginer believes that the creation of such a thing will serve a badly needed purpose, fulfill a desire, solve a particularly vexing problem, or something like that.
I am not claiming that "God" does or does not exist. I am claiming that we human beings are not in a position to talk intelligently about that at this time.
"God," or "the gods," may be right on top of us, all the time, for all we know. But like the ants, who probably cannot discern our existence or that of any of the large mammals of this Earth---so, too, are we incompetent (without the ability or power) to discern the existence of "God," or "the gods," apart from the rest of surrounding reality, if indeed he, she, it, or they exist.
But what about a "God" that "answers prayers"? I am neither inclined nor prepared to go into the ins and outs of that. Let me just say this: In the broad African-American faith community there is a saying that goes something like this: "He (meaning "God") may not come when you call him, but He is always right on time."
I have to say this certainly puts divine deliverance on a very relaxed, open-ended schedule, to say the least. Because as you are continuing to suffer whatever it is you are suffering, we console ourselves with the idea that the suffering is beneficial, that hard times and difficult trials burn away the "impurities" of the soul, and all that.
We say that "whatever doesn't kill you, makes you stronger." And we say that "God doesn't allow you to suffer more than you can handle." There is a "saying" from way back in the African-American faith tradition; its a kind of prayer that goes something like: "Lord, help me hold on 'til my change comes!"
"God" functions as a kind of patience training device.
Why do we swear "so help me God" to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on the witness stand? Why do we swear on a Bible and invoke "God's" help to be fully truthful?
What does it mean to "swear to God," even in passing? Why do we reference an outside agency such as "The Lord," to attest to our sincerity, or anger, or disgust?
Why do we invoke "The Lord's Name" in vain? "Jesus!" "Jesus Christ!" Why do we do that? What function does it serve?
Is it a way of claiming absolute objectivity, like when we say something like (How would a Martian see this?)?
When we say "Jesus!" as an expletive, it is a variation on the plea for the "Lord," to "give me strength!" Why do we ask an outside agency to give us strength in such circumstances? Do we have the desperate feeling that all Earthly and human sources of "strength," or the ability to cope have run out?
Let's go back to swearing "so help me God" to tell the truth. That's a curious idea when you think about it. Stay with me, I'm going to zigzag a little bit.
When a historian writes a book for publication, he provides a notes section that lists the references he used. Nobody writes an academic or scholarly book, using only herself, the author, as the backstop reference.
The purpose of providing the references is to assure the reader of the "integrity" of the work she is reading. By "integrity," here, I do not necessarily mean "honesty."
What I really mean by "integrity" is something like we mean by the term "structural integrity." When we claim that a thing has a high degree of structural integrity, we mean that it is solid, well-built, it has "consistency" all the way through.
The reference section is there to show that the work, particularly if novel arguments are made, is anchored in previously well-established and respected scholarship---"so help me God."
Sometimes people say, or used to say, something like: "If I'm lying, may God strike me down!" Usually one thinks of a thunder bolt coming out of the sky. The electrical, so-called "lie detector" or polygraph machine is a curious conceptual outgrowth of this "may God strike me down!" idea, is it not?
You know, I think it would be hysterical to find out that the inventor of the "lie detector" machine was inspired by the very thing we're talking about: "God's" electricity as a way of telling the truth from lies.
Okay, so where does all of that leave us from the point of view of morality and ethics? I only pose this question because, for many people, "God" and religion serve as a backstop for morality and ethics.
I, for one, believe that the ambiguity attaching to the existence of "God," leaves us in a pretty good place.
Let's take two practices from two different religions: the Muslim Ramadan month of fasting; and the practice of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church.
I am not a Muslim but the Ramadan fast strikes me as a beautiful act of social solidarity.
The express doctrinal reason that Muslims fast for a month every year, is to remember the poor who cannot eat and drink whenever they feel like it. For me, personally, that is as "divine" as it gets and that is enough.
What about the practice of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church?
Look, its low-hanging fruit to even allude to this. We all know the primary negative consequence this practice has had: the ongoing, open sore of child sexual abuse by priests, not only here in the United States, but around the world.
And when I learned the history of how this practice came about, priestly celibacy seemed even less inspiring. It turns out to be an eleventh-century reform, rooted in feudalism, designed to safeguard Church property against being inherited by the illegitimate children of the clergy, and thus withdrawn away from the corporation.
So grubby materialism is the origin of the practice of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church.
In the King James version of the Bible, the verse goes: "And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
Now, according to Bible hub.com, the verse is a description of the last judgment, at which time everybody will have to give an account of himself and herself. But let's focus on the words themselves.
Jesus, here, is saying that whatever you have done for the lowliest of the world, was of greatest service to himself.
Another way of stating it is to say something like: If you raise up the lowliest of society, the poor, for example, you are raising the level of the human species as a whole.
At the risk of political shamelessness, I will say that you are not lifting the human species as a whole, when you give massive tax breaks to the top one-tenth of one percent, in the United States of America, for example. You are not raising the species as a whole by taxing investment income at a lesser rate than salaries.
I believe it was John Kennedy who said, "A rising tide lifts all boats." Barack Obama has repeated this mantra.
But how did they propose to raise this tide? How does government always do it these days? What is the usual, desperate mechanism government always uses to raise the tide to lift all boats?
The answer is tax cuts for business. Excuse me, tax incentives. This may make more work for lobbyists, tax lawyers, and accountants; but not a whole lot for nonsupervisory wage workers---especially given the fact that we're living through our fourth decade, in the United States of America, in which the real wage for workers has remained flat or a little depressed from the that of the late-1970s.
Real wage, remember, is not absolute wage. Real wage keeps track with inflation. As the latter goes up, so does the former, so that workers can continue to pay for stuff they need to live, without borrowing to do it. But since inflation and the wage became detached in the late seventies or early eighties, the only way the working class has been able to continue consumption is, by in large, by way of the credit card, which began to be mass distributed in the 1970s, if I'm not mistaken.
Okay, that'll do it.
Thank you so much for reading!