The development of secular forms of spirituality, without supernaturalism or spiritualism. by Matthew Lowe
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Do you believe in God1 or God2?
This entry was originally posted on State of Formation in June 2011. Some people who don’t believe in God still want to believe in “God.” The result is a modified type of God-idea. Call the new kinds God2.
God1s are characterized by “classic” God attributes, most notably will and power, or put more simply, agency. Without agency, there is no God1—no Creator, no Judge, no Redeemer, etc. The advance of the scientific, naturalistic world-view has driven God1s back into the far-reaching “gaps” in our knowledge. In the ancient near east a God1 could send or withhold rain, and even cause localized earthquakes (Num. 16:30-33). With modern meteorology and plate tectonic theory, those who attribute natural disasters to an angry God1 are challenged to explain at what point in the natural chain of cause-and-effect God1 intervened.
Before we move on to God2s, let’s first take into account options for modifying a God1 belief in the modern world.
1) A deistic approach forces God1 into the gaps at the extreme edges; for example, when someone claims that God is responsible for the Big Bang. God1’s agency is here limited to the ultimate first action—quite the honor, but also a far-cry from the natural and historical interventions previously allowed.
2) While not a modern move, one also can witness a profound limitation placed on God1 in the move from Deuteronomic to Christian theology, that is, the move from this-worldly to next-worldly reward and punishment. A God1 whose justice reigns over heaven and hell is powerful, but certainly nothing like the God1 whose justice reigns on Earth. However, the mystery of life-after-death still keeps a large, inviting space open for belief in God1.
3) The God1 of limited theism (found in books like Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People) has greater agency than a Deistic God1, but is still severely limited. Frankly, I find the limited God1’s agency very confusing. What does it mean if God1 can’t put out a fire, but can inspire courage in the heart of a firefighter? (Kushner 139-142) How does that work? What exactly are the dynamics and boundaries of God1’s psycho-emotional powers, and do they move atoms at all?
Regardless, these modified God1 beliefs express the desire to harmonize an agential God with a mostly-naturalistic world-view.
God2 is any “God” that lacks agency, that is, will and power. Here are some kinds:
1) Mordecai Kaplan’s God2 is a power without will—a force. Also known as “the power that makes for salvation,” adherents of Kaplan’s theology relate to this God2 by identifying in nature and history the developments that foster human flourishing. Kaplan’s God2 is not just a symbol—in calling his God2 “God” he is attempting to point out the existence of an objective force in the world—but his God2 clearly lacks the distinct agency of a God1.
2) The God2 of pantheism is identical with the world. Being all things, pantheistic God2 doesn’t choose sides or make a plan, so It doesn’t have much of a will. Being all things, this God2 is powerful, but only in the sense of being like Tillich’s “power of being” (aka ground of being aka being-itself). This is not the kind of power that God1 seekers care about. A siddur will not get you far if you are looking to pray to the God-that-is-all-things. Anyhow, it’s an awkward God to worship. Sure there’s probably a lot of good poetry about God2 (Rumi?), but the popular praise-request-thank model of prayer doesn’t seem to fit with such an amorphous God.
3) Another God2 borders on the symbolic—the God2 of definitive metaphors like “God is love” or Gordon’s Kaufman’s “God is serendipitous creativity.” As an out atheist, it’s hard for me not to read those phrases as anything other than closeted atheism. That’s “God” used as an exclamation point, not as a proposition. All of the meaningful content is in the second half of the sentence; all “God” does to the idea is give it a name, and affirm its utmost importance.
What all of these God2 share is that they are descendants, once-removed, of God1. In order to read God2 into any part of the western religious canon, a lot of ironic reading (aka allegorical interpretation) is necessary. A God2 is likely to be factored into a scenario of salvation, but one can never say literally that “God2 saves,” as if God2 were a specific agent that could identify problems, have motivation to act on them, and act on them. In all of these God2 examples, God2 will save you, but only at the pace and power of human progress. And a God stripped of supernatural power loses a lot of appeal for most people. Think of all the images of “God” that are dependent on the God1 model: Creator. Father. King. Judge, Shepherd, Friend. Redeemer. Savior. Can the word “God” be cleansed of all these personalistic images? Please—“God” is a name! It’s a proper noun—that’s instinctually (because grammatically) personalizing. And so to say that God2 “speaks,” “wants,” or “loves,” is to speak very equivocally.
Indeed, the phenomenon of belief in God2 is founded on a desire to equivocate. The term “God” gathers a variety of significations, and many people want to hold on to some while letting go of others. Insofar as “God” functions to tie together rhetoric about ultimate meaning, cosmic explanation, and ethical direction, it is an unacceptable loss for some people to lose “God” when they begin to doubt the existence and power of a God1. They still desire an ultimate point of reference, on account of the orientation and instruction such a point of reference provides. The need for sense and order backs the desire for monotheism, and so “God” simply holds a central place in the individual and communal psyche. And so, modern-minded folks still seek out a one-principle to hang their hope on, to call “God.”
But should God2 be called “God”? What is a God without will and power? Yes, the word “God” carries many significations—but are certain significations essential? Does God2’s lack of agency disqualify it from deserving the label “God”? Think of what the mass of people right now, and throughout history, mean and meant by “God.” To them, God is a conscious over-being with the power to save and the right to judge and kill. That’s God1 aka God. What can you do with a God2?
(**An addended love-note to God2 lovers: Sorry! Also here’s where we agree—(1) the world is interconnected; (2) self-conscious life is the closest thing there is to “the Universe contemplating itself”; (3) transcendence is still available even without the supernatural; (4) people are indeed capable of great good.)