Intimations of “God”

As promised, here are my thoughts on a hypothesis propounded by Robert Wright, briefly excerpted in a previous post.

  1. Ultimately, Wright’s argument is bound to disappoint theists and anti-theists alike.

    Most believers are committed to a particular scripture and a particular understanding of God. As Wright comments, “They don’t want to just hear that some conception of a god might be defensible, or that a personal god is defensible as some sort of approximation of the truth.”

    Meanwhile, anti-theists are dismissive of all arguments for God’s existence. They see no direct evidence of God’s existence, and no need to appeal to God as an explanation for any phenomenon — including the moral order.

    Thus Wright’s book is likely to annoy many people and satisfy few.

  2. But Wright’s argument may have some appeal to a certain class of believers — people like me.

    I have come to the conclusion that the traditional “proofs” for God’s existence are anything but. For example, the resurrection of Christ. It might have sufficed as a proof in the first century, when you could investigate the event for yourself by talking to the various eyewitnesses — Peter, John, James, Paul, etc. But 2000 years later, the resurrection is merely an article of faith rather than a compelling demonstration of the truth of the Gospel.

    Meanwhile, the theory of evolution, substantiated by a solid body of evidence, and subsequently corroborated by discovery of how DNA works — these scientific insights have provided an alternative explanation for the world that we inhabit. The ancient proof from nature — “The heavens declare the glory of God / the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1) — is no longer the only explanation on offer.

    What evidence, then, can we still appeal to — those of us who accept the conclusions of science, yet stubbornly persist in our belief in God? In my view, we are left with intimations of God’s existence rather than proofs.

    Wright is offering exactly that — an intimation of God’s existence — when he describes God as the source of the moral order. Wright interprets human history as a long arc toward a higher morality. To give some examples of my own choosing (I’m not sure what examples Wright would offer) :

    • “an eye for an eye” has been supplanted by, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44);
    • a love that was circumscribed — reserved for fellow tribesmen — has been superseded by the ideal of the “brotherhood” of all humankind;
    • a reflexive human tendency to organize people into castes, with kings and landowners at the apex, and common labourers near the bottom, and women as slaves to the slaves — has yielded to our democratic norms:  i.e., that every person is entitled to one vote, and women can rise to any office in the nation.
    • the arbitrary and absolute power of despots has been called to account by an international recognition of human rights:  “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”; “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”; “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”, etc.

    Too often, the above ideals are honoured in the breach rather than in the observance. Nonetheless, Wright is correct to recognize a remarkable trajectory from a dimmer understanding of morality to relative moral illumination.

    Wright then intuits “God” behind this remarkable display of moral progress:

    “God” is that unknown thing that is the source of the moral order, the reason there is a moral dimension to life on Earth and a moral direction to time on Earth; […] “God” is responsible for the evolutionary system that placed highly sentient life on a trajectory toward the good, or at least toward tests that offered the opportunity and incentive to realize the good.

    — with “God” in quotation marks to indicate that Wright does not assume the sort of deity that theists traditionally are committed to:  i.e., personal, omnipresent, loving, with a tendency to intervene in human affairs, and all the rest of it.

  3. I suggest that Wright’s hypothesis rests on the dissatisfaction many of us continue to feel with respect to the scientific account of the world. The scientific account manifestly “works” with respect to material progress:  it provides us with incandescent light bulbs, antibiotics, the combustion engine, fertilizer, buildings that can withstand earthquakes, and other benefits too ubiquitous to mention.

    That science “works” is perhaps the strongest evidence that it is true. And yet — science cannot pretend to speak to questions of meaning and values. At a point of vital importance, each individual is left to his or her own best guesses.

    Science cannot speak to the innate human conviction that some things are objectively wrong while other things are objectively right. Science cannot speak to the innate human conviction that life is meaningful — that the inevitable death of the individual and the ultimate extinguishment of the sun are not the final chapters of the book we are writing together. Nor can science eliminate the universal perception of the “self” as something distinct from the physical body.

    In such matters, many of us ultimately find ourselves dissatisfied with the scientific account of the world. Where the atheist perceives only the cosmos — “all that is or ever was or ever will be” — we theists perceive intimations of “God”.

  4. Are such intimations sufficient? Of course not. They are the merest wisps of a beginning of a meaningful faith, never mind a full-blown religion.

    I like Wright’s observation, “Some people […] can most readily lead a virtuous life if they think of moral truth as having some living embodiment.” For me, the embodiment of moral truth is Jesus Christ. For a Buddhist, I presume it would be Buddha; for a Muslim, it would be Mohammad; for a Jew, it might be Moses or King David; for a Bahá’i, it would be Bahá’u’lláh. For another person, it could just as well be Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., or Mother Teresa.

    I have grown impatient regarding the exclusivity of most religions, and the religious intolerance that emanates from those claims of exclusivity. The fact is, we cannot prove even God’s existence — let alone that Jesus died for the sins of the world, that Mohammad (peace be upon him) is Allah’s final messenger, that eating bacon is a sin, that humans are trapped in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, that martyrs go directly to paradise, that menstruating women are a source of defilement, or that ultimately only 144,000 special individuals will achieve the most blessed state.

    All such claims are equally unprovable. Inevitably they are canceled out by other, competing claims. Therefore we would do better to love one another, and humbly seek to learn from one another.

    Please note:  I am not saying that all truth claims of all religions are true. God cannot both exist and not exist. (Buddhism, in its purest form, does not believe in a deity; neither does Taoism.) God cannot be both personal and impersonal, both omnipotent and impotent in the face of some evils, both remote and near, both compassionate and indifferent to human suffering.

    I am merely delivering a pragmatic verdict:  whatever path you personally are on, you cannot prove that it is a valid path — let alone, the only valid path.

    But never mind what you can prove:  you can’t even know that it is a valid path, however fervently you may believe you know it is a valid path. The Christian in Colorado Springs, the Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem, the Muslim in Dubai, the Buddhist in Hanoi, and the Hopi Indian living on reserve in Arizona are all equally convinced that they know the truth — which necessarily raises doubts about all such claims.

    Thus there are no grounds for pride or intolerance in any belief system.

Wright insists that we are unable to conceive of God as God actually is. Our theology provides only a proxy for God:

Yes, there is a source of the moral order, and many people have a conception of God that is a useful proxy for that source; still that conception is very, very different from what the source of the moral order would look like were human cognition able to grasp it.

Hence “God” — in quotation marks.

Intimations of “God” are by no means sufficient. But Wright’s soft theism permits us to develop other convictions — the aforementioned proxies for the actual God — always provided that we hold those convictions provisionally and tolerantly.

But that is an approach that very, very few believers aspire to, let alone achieve.


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