God's Limitations, part II: How to Communicate
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Problems with Agnosticism
Because I have not yet come across a spiritual philosophy that makes enough sense to me, I classify myself as an agnostic. Agnosticism, however, is not entirely satisfying either. We agnostics, after all, are left with a few flawed options. First, there is the possibility that there is no kind of a supernatural entity (or entities) whatsoever. While recognizing that this may very well be true, I also am aware of my own ignorance and human limitations. Since the supernatural is, by definition, beyond my ability to observe or understand, how could I ever be in a position to say that it does not exist? There is also the problem of enormous complexity in terms of life forms on this planet and the wonders of the universe in general. Did DNA come into existence purely through natural processes? Is matter eternal, and do the basic forces of energy, light, and gravity operate as they do just because they do? At the moment, neither I nor anyone else has the perfect answers to these questions.
So maybe there are some type(s) of unseen, unobservable God, gods, life force(s) or spiritual entity / entities out there. (To save time, I will from now on refer to this entity using the Judeo-Christian convention of a male God.) But if God does exist, then an agnostic is confronted with a simple question: Why hasn’t this God clearly revealed himself? There are a few possibilities, none of them entirely satisfying. First, there is the possibility that God has no interest in communicating with human beings. Maybe he fits the deist perception of a being that set up the universe with some basic natural laws in place and then let it run like some sort of a machine. Then, over the course of billions of years, humans, like all other life forms, eventually evolved. And as far as we know, life forms more advanced than humans may come along in the future. We are not, it turns out, the culmination of all creation, and the creator is no more interested in us than in all of the other unimaginable things that have developed in the universe.
This is not a very comforting philosophy, and this deistic, distant God clearly does not behave in the same manner as we do. Since we humans are inherently social creatures, we assume that part of God’s motivation for creating the universe was to interact with his creation. And creating the possibility of creatures with our level of consciousness seems somewhat irresponsible or even cruel. Why create beings with the capacity to ask life’s great questions and do nothing to provide them with any answers, allowing them to suffer the same ultimate fate – death – as the most primitive life forms? Considering the amount of suffering that humans and other creatures have endured for thousands or millions of years, would it have been better for God to never create anything in the first place? Or then again, maybe enduring challenges and improving the situation for yourself and your species is what this process is all about. Whatever the case, if the deists are correct, I find it hard to understand what the hell this God is thinking.
Of course, there is also the possibility that God is not so cold and indifferent. Maybe he does care about humans and other creatures and wants to interact with us. As an agnostic, I recognize that this may be true, but agnosticism, by its very nature, leads me to an unavoidable question: If God wants to reveal himself, then why has he done such a lousy job? I would like to know who he is and what I am supposed to do with this life, but all of the religious systems that I have come across are unsatisfying. You would think that the creator of the universe would do a better job of communicating.
Many people, of course, disagree with me. They claim that God has revealed himself. Some claim that he has done this through events and people of the past. He has performed miraculous feats in front of many observers or has chosen prophets to communicate his message. The problem, however, with the miraculous feats is that they typically happened a long time ago, and there is no way to determine if these are merely legends or if they were natural occurrences that ancient people, due to their lack of scientific knowledge, interpreted as being supernatural. And God, I would assume, is wise enough to know that a reasonable person has good reason to doubt the truth of these stories. So why doesn’t he just overwhelm us all today with a display of his power and glory so that we would know without a shadow of a doubt that he is real? A believer in a God with the capacity to perform miracles, I suspect, would have two responses to this question. First, if God overwhelms us into believing in him, this relationship that was now established with his creatures would be based on awe, force, and intimidation. We would have no choice but to believe, and like a dictator that has won the obedience of his subjects, this would not be a relationship with any real companionship. Also, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which God could convince humans of his existence without a shadow of a doubt. Since the human brain is a funny thing, many might conclude that God’s miraculous revelation was actually their minds playing tricks on them.
So instead of making things obvious and coercing us into believing in him, God also has the option of reaching out by appealing to our reason, conscience, and emotions. Instead of providing external evidence in the form of miraculous events, he can reach out to us internally, allowing us to retain the choice of either facing the truth and doing what is right or turning toward foolishness and evil. But how will we know when the voice inside is God talking? This is where the prophets come in. By choosing his mouthpieces and inspiring people to write down the truth and codify these words as scripture, we have an external source of ideas where we can turn. For without this consistent, objective source of information, we would all rely purely on our personal, subjective sense of what God was trying to say. One person’s inner voice would be no more or less valid than anyone else’s “revelation.”
Scripture, however, also has its flaws. In many cases, these words were written down a long time ago by people who we often no little about. Since I never met any of these so-called prophets and authors of God’s word, I am not in a position to assess their qualifications. It’s also difficult to determine if the scripture that we read today is identical to what was written centuries ago. But even if you find a way to get around these problems, there is a more fundamental dilemma with this whole notion of God communicating through the written word. Language, especially written language, is an inherently flawed method of communication. Words, by their very nature, are inherently imprecise. Even when people speak the same language, and they can recite definitions of words that appear to be virtually identical, the connotations associated with words can vary from person to person. And because writing is such a difficult thing to do well, the ideas that the author is trying to communicate are often completely misinterpreted by the reader. All readers, after all, bring in their particular levels of bias, reading skills, and a host of other factors that can shape their understanding of the material. Anyone who has ever engaged in a dialogue on Facebook, through emails, or on blogs knows the degree to which all of us can be blatantly misunderstood.
These problems are even more daunting, however, when we read material that was originally written in a different language. Many words cannot be directly translated into another language. Metaphors, figures of speech, and historical / cultural references that would have been easily understood by people centuries ago can be completely missed by a modern reader. Language, by its very nature, evolves within a given cultural context. When it is removed from that context and then translated for people living in a different linguistic and cultural framework, some degree of meaning will inevitably be lost. Historians, linguists, and skilled commentators may be able to provide some help, but even they do not always agree on the “correct” interpretation. But since few of us speak or read Hebrew, Greek, Sanskrit, Arabic, or other ancient languages, we are left to rely on a small community of scholars to give us the “correct” information.
In the end, all of us, whether we are atheists, agnostics, or people who claim to get their beliefs through divine revelation, are left to fend for ourselves. For even if a person turns to scripture, an objective source of information that appears to be set in stone, the scripture only comes to life when an individual reads it. And once the reading process begins, the words are filtered through that individual’s mind, with the meaning shaped by his or her biases, experiences, academic skills, values, personality, language, and a host of other factors. So each individual is forced to develop personal criteria by which he or she will determine the correct interpretation. And even before the process of reading scripture begins, he or she had to develop criteria to separate “true” scripture from the hundreds (or even thousands) of “false” religious texts in the world. Ultimately, whether we want to admit it or not, we must rely on our own intuitive sense of what is true and false, right or wrong. Or we can just save ourselves all that trouble and believe whatever our parents, pastor, best friend, neighbor or cult leader told us was true. But even then, we had to develop criteria at some point to determine that these sources were trustworthy. Ultimately, we still have to come up with our own answers, and short of appearing out of the clouds to pound the truth into our minds, there is nothing that God can do about it.
If there is a God of some sort who wants to communicate with us, I assume that he is wise enough to realize the flaws inherent in written scripture, prophets, miracles, or the little voice inside of our hearts. This is why I guess, if he exists, that he has chosen to keep things interesting and allow us to seek truth and make choices. And I also assume that he is wise enough to realize that in a world filled with people of various personalities, cultures, and experiences, those who conscientiously seek the truth and strive to do what is right will not always come to the same conclusions. On the surface, they may appear to worship different gods. But when you look beyond the various metaphors that they use to conceive of the ultimate truths – something that the creator of the universe must easily be able to do - you will see that the best aspects of humankind’s major religious traditions have a lot in common. The most profound religious truths, after all, are actually pretty simple, and if there is a God, he has granted us the ultimate blessings: a capacity for knowledge, empathy, and a sense of right and wrong. And whether God exists or not, there is something to be said for being nice to each other.