My Religious Paradigm (1) Is there a God?

At the beginning of this new year, and following on from my previous posts, I’m asking myself, having once been a preacher, what my current religious paradigm is. What do I think and feel I can reasonably and credibly believe?

When people say, “there is a God”, or “there isn’t a God”, it’s clear to me that these must be empty statements. The word God, (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary), means, “A superhuman person regarded as having power over nature and human fortunes”. Traditionally this person is regarded as infinite and eternal, is all powerful, knows everything, and is truthful and good in all he says and does. He’s a masculine ‘father’ figure, who created a colossal universe, that includes our tiny world, which he supervises, and can intervene in whenever he so chooses.

My view is, that no mere human being can credibly make such a claim. That kind of infinite and eternal ‘God’, by definition, exists outside of what we can experience in our world of space and time, especially as our human experience is confined to the strictly limited amount of incoming data that can be processed by our five senses. Perspectivity and humility are the order of the day.

One of my favourite quotes is attributed to Isaac Newton, whose outstanding discoveries included universal gravitation, the multicoloured nature of light, and the mathematical calculus. Despite such ground-breaking insights, he compared himself to “a boy playing on the seashore .. whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me”. Our human limitations must mean that an unknowable extent of that “great ocean of truth” is not only undiscovered, but undiscoverable.

A comparable quote, from a man of religion rather than science, comes from Thomas Aquinas who, in his later years, was writing his massive magnum opus, the “Summa Theologica”. While celebrating Mass, he experienced something which not only couldn’t be put into words, but stopped him from doing any further writing. He’s quoted as saying, “I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings like straw.” His magnum opus was left unfinished. No “Theological Summary” could begin to do anything approaching justice to that which is ultimately, universally, and fundamentally real.

In short, whether or not there is a ‘God’ of the ‘traditional’ kind, is entirely beyond our ability to know. All any person can meaningfully say is either, “ I believe” or “I don’t believe”, nothing more. I think this little story from the Indian ‘guru’ Shankara, hits the target … “The great teacher Bhadva was asked by a student what Brahma – the ground of all Being – actually was. Bhadva was silent. Thinking that perhaps he had not been heard, the student asked again, but still Bhadva was quiet. Again the student repeated his question – ‘What is God?” – and, again, Bhadva would not answer. Finally, exasperated, the young man demanded to know why Bhadva would not respond to the question. ‘I am teaching you’, Bhadva replied.”

My religious paradigm, firstly then, would explicitly state that the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved. It therefore cannot be asserted as a fact, but only as a belief, one way or the other, for or against. Such beliefs, everyone should be free to hold, and free to share, but not to force upon others, nor to oppress people whose beliefs are different. That would mean that while it would be entirely appropriate for religious groups to supply humanitarian aid to all in need, without any exceptions, the same would not apply to organised ‘missionary’ activity designed to ‘convert’ people of all other religions, whether by carrot or stick. If that, historically, had been part of the religious paradigm, our world would surely have been saved from centuries of religious altercations, persecutions, crusades, wars and genocides. 

It’s sometimes said, more in vain hope than expectation, that it’s never too late.

6 responses to “My Religious Paradigm (1) Is there a God?”

  1. You start here from an intellectual position, an overview, a “paradigm” you call it into which what you argue will be fitted. It is a neat, tidy, detached objective stance: “whatwe can experience ..in our world….is confined to …a strictly limited–that can be processed by….” “This empiricism” the basis of knowledge that is scientific- knowledge in apartness as Lawrence called it, is applied to kinds of endeavour and knowledge and faith that do not rely on empirical knowledge. In recognising what our attitude to God is you point to belief and not knowledge- ie to faith. That is hardly a radical claim. Christians for instance have always accepted this from Paul’s “we know in part” and of course you add Newton-who did not give up his faith and Aquinas, likewise. Faith of course comes from a different kind of knowing you don’t seem to show interest in-going by this post-knowledge in togetherness as Lawrence put it in contradistinction to knowing in apartness. It would be interesting to see what you might have done by taking what you call the stance of “humility”-asking questions: “Why do we need this thing called faith?”, “Why is there a longing for a transcendent reality” ” “What is it to live in a state of religious depth? How does it enhance our living?” and exploring answers rather than the the magisterial top-down, adoption of religious paradigms as if detached objective minded empiricism can give answers or more often non-answers of significance.. .

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    • Once again, Alan, you seem to me to be saying that if you had written this post, you would have done it in this way, and covered so and so, and such and such. That’s fine – feel free to write your own post, rather than re-writing mine.
      Also, once again, I haven’t written a piece with the all-encompassing breadth and depth of an essay. For heaven’s sake, it’s only 650 words long, and therefore focuses, concisely, on a single issue – that the words “there is a God” cannot be a statement of fact but of belief. You don’t appear to refute that, but say I haven’t explored ‘belief’, or ‘faith’. Not only is my piece a mere 650 words, but it has (i) in its title, telling the observant reader that there’s more to come.
      The word “paradigm”, as anyone who has read my three previous posts will understand, is a carry over from Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. You and I know, however, à la Wittgenstein, that the meaning of a word in any given instance depends on the language game in which it’s being played. It’s meaning here as, I trust, will become apparent as this series progresses, is in no way restricted to what seems to be a bête noire of yours – “detached objective-minded empiricism” – which you seem ready to detect and denounce in its earliest manifestations, even when others might very well not. McCarthyism comes to mind, but I’ll put that aside.
      “Paradigm” as it’s used here, has nothing to do with “an overview”. Where in this piece have I given “an overview” of a series I’ve not yet written. There isn’t one! There isn’t even, as yet, a “paradigm”. I’ve specifically said that in this series, “I’m asking myself .. what my current paradigm is” !!! I sometimes wonder if you read what I write with the same care I take in writing it, before seeming to rush to put fingers to keyboard.
      You could be read as suggesting that my saying that “there is a God” cannot be a statement of fact but of belief, (or faith if you prefer), is self-evident. It’s evident to me that there are innumerable religious organisations and individuals for whom it is indeed a ‘fact’ (and non-religious organisations and individuals – and authors – whose purposes are furthered on that account).
      Which brings me to my final point. The last full paragraph in my post explains why I attach importance to what I’ve written – that the existence of God is not fact but belief, has currently potentially important, and has had historically some very negative, implications. Your lack of comment on that paragraph invites me to think that you’re in agreement with it, which I would, of course, welcome.
      Have a good new year, Alan. “Live long and prosper,” as dear old Spok would say.

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  2. Happy New Year to you Ray. You are probably right I jump in too quickly in my responses seeing them more as conversational points than measured by longer reflection. That said I stand by much of what I said and do regret not finding a way in a short answer of bringing in your final paragraph with which-you wont be surprised to hear- I did not agree either. What writers take as their starting points and their tone and style-what they say and dont say I think from my days of literary criticism does deserve comment. Here I am pointing to something crucial: ways of knowing and the inadequacy of basing judgements of religion on a way of knowing designed for something else. On belief and fact, try this Shakespeare is a profoundly great writer. Belief or fact? If your feeling about Shakespeare is similar to mine you might understand why “There is a God: belief or fact” is not so easy to disentangle as you want to make it. However as you say you have just started and I’ll follow your progress with interest.

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    • Thanks for your response, Alan. I acknowledge the ‘fact’ that your background has continued to be, and rightly and valuably so, that of English Language and Literature. That remains forever alive in my own background. In my blog’s ‘poetry’ folder there are thirty items, almost 17% of the total. I’ve moved into other ‘backgrounds’ since, however, and these, particularly the methodologies of philosophy, do indeed impact on what and how I write. I refuse, however, to accept descriptions of myself that reflect only part of who I am – such as the detached rationalist or myopic empiricist etc. No one who explores the poetry of Dylan Thomas, or submerges himself in the emotional depths of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, or is roused to spiritual ecstasy by the ‘resurrection’ symphony of Gustav Mahler, deserves to be so maligned.
      Saying that religions do not deal with ‘facts’ is, from my viewpoint, precisely saying that they cannot be judged by ‘scientific’ criteria. For example, for me to regard Jesus’ turning of water into wine as a ‘fact’ would be turning it into an unprovable event which, if it were a ‘fact’ would have no more meaningful relevance for the living of my life than a conjuring trick would. Because it’s a story, however, the author’s purpose in imagining it, and including it in his Gospel, opens the door to whatever it may be held to symbolise (and, at one time in my life, sermonise).
      Shakespeare and God are categorically different. Shakespeare belongs to the world of space and time, and there are therefore ‘facts’ available concerning him and his life. The value judgement that he was “a profoundly great writer” may therefore also be described as a ‘fact’ in the light of how he is more or less universally regarded. An infinite and eternal God, who is the subject of religion, entirely transcends, by definition, the realm of space and time, and is therefore wholly beyond the category of ‘facts’, but not that of ‘beliefs’ or ‘faith’. I’m with Emmanuel Kant on this one – the great reconciler of empiricism and rationalism.
      When you are writing about what you think, there is always much that I am happy to agree with, so feel no need to comment on. It’s only when you write about what you think I think, when I don’t, that I feel the need to, from my viewpoint, set the record straight. Joy be with you, always.

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  3. No maligning ever intended. Your aesthetic tastes are not in doubt. My focus was your argument not you. “What do men live by?” is a question raised by art and by religion. The answer does not necessarily start with God as you want to make it do. It starts with man’s need of the transcendent and how that is shaped by religion and culture; it starts from what we live within; in terms of language education, culture and what links us most deeply to communityor potential community. Keeping faith with that is however different from starting with a philosophical proposition as to what God is or is not rather than reaching towards a trancscendent power that is demonstrated in among other things the insight shown by the writing of the miracle at Cana, the writing of Lear, the Reurrection symphony of Mahler and what makes all these possible (directly or indirectly), the crucifixion, death and Resurrection of Jesus. .

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    • We start at different places, Alan, because we’re asking different questions. My question, to remind you, is this – is “there is a God” a statement of fact or an expression of belief, therefore I “start with God”. If you had been writing a blog about the question, “What do men live by?”, you would have started differently.
      I agree about religion being “shaped by religion and culture”. If you and I had been born in India or China, we’d have grown up with a different view of God. Globalisation, with its concomitant multi-culturalism is, to me, a source of potential spiritual enrichment.
      A suggestion that the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus “directly” made possible Mahler’s 2nd symphony, would seem to me to be overstretch to breaking point. In my view, the transcendent archetype, in the human collective unconscious, of the dying and rising god, has shaped the form of the story of the passion, as well as the glorious conclusion of the Mahler. But I don’t expect you to go down that road.

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