When I was a nineteen year-old evangelical Christian in the Coast Guard, a youth minister at the Baptist Church I attended in Alameda, California recommended a book to me. “The Pursuit of God” (by A.W. Tozer) was one of the few books I ever read that I can clearly point to as being life-altering. Each chapter was an exercise in giving one’s self up to God, and each in it’s way was frightening, challenging and — ultimately — satisfying. For I was serious about my belief: if this was, indeed, the way to God, I wanted to know it.
The chapter I recall the most was called “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing”. In that chapter I was challenged to think of my most cherished personal possession, and to then surrender its fate to God’s will. I thought of the antique Civil War saber I had purchased at a junk shop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania while visiting there with my uncle Ben. My heart was seized with anguish at this act (if it sounds silly to anguish over a sword, try putting yourself in my position by imagining the one thing in your life you would most fear to lose or — to put a finer point on it — the thing you would most resist giving freely to an enemy or a complete stranger).
The theological basis of this exercise was the notion that everything we have is God’s to begin with, which carried within it the understanding that anything we might be desperate to covet is the very thing God himself might take away from us so that we should have “no other god” in our hearts. (So: better to surrender it now when its surrender could benefit our soul and stave off a potential “book of Job” moment).
I took the challenge seriously, and surrendered my saber to God (a fairly potent symbolic act, now that I think about it). And from that day my relationship to material things was altered: my sense of ownership of anything physical held to be transitory at best.
This was a moment of grace, of spiritual transformation, of deepening my understanding of my God.
What, then, do I make of such a moment when I now believe that there never was a God to make such a demand of me?
There is a paradox in the whole question of whether God exists or not, because the reality of our experience of the divine, the numinous and the spiritual does not (it turns out) really hinge on whether there is an actual god/spirit/intelligence behind those experiences. These are our own subjective emotional and cognitive events. The fact that they are mostly generated within our own consciousnesses has little bearing on the quality of the experience. So to say that there is no God is most often met with a response along the lines of “But I know what I’ve experienced! I have felt God’s presence, witnessed His grace, known His forgiveness, etc!”. And, indeed, I would argue that we have felt/seen/known those experiences. But I would next argue that they are all events that have explanations in purely natural or mechanical terms (even if those explanations might often have more to do with human perception that tricks of nature).
I’ve rattled on about this notion of a god-less universe for the last few years. We clearly know enough now about biology, cosmology and every other “logy” to know that our religious belief systems are ancient, archaic (?), but highly-evolved satisfactions of our wish-fulfillment fantasies of a paternal, caring presence in a sometimes cold and threatening universe. Religion has the advantage of having always benefited from (and, in truth, traded in) those ubiquitous experiences that have always seemed most transcendent and mysterious to our species.
What we have then, basically, is the mountain of evidence that the world, the universe and everything operate on very natural laws that have never required the actions of an intelligent creator, cast into competition with the breadth of human emotional experience which is very loathe to give ground to cold rationalism when the airy-fairy feels so much more comforting to us.
So is there a God or not?
I’ve reached the point where it seems more and more pointless to argue about the existence of God, because even when God is removed from the equation, we will all continue to have “god” experiences, because they are (I would argue) a natural (and, therefore, inevitable) by-product of our evolved mammalian consciousnesses. In that sense, God will never go away, even though he (or she) never really existed in the first place.
Or did he/she?
What am I really arguing against? For if I argue against a god that has only ever existed in our experiences of conscious living, then am I really making a rational argument at all? Am I not really just saying that the problem is that I don’t like what you call your particular collection of transcendent experiences? Pretty much.
I’m splitting hairs, then: validating the natural human experience of consciousness, but criticizing the false externalized (read “heavenly) conclusions we draw from those experiences.
(There are practical reasons for doing this, of course: anything that can undercut the legitimacy of violent, oppressive fundamentalism as it heaps unneeded misery upon millions of living humans every day can’t be all bad).
I set out on a course to find God when I was 13 by becoming a Christian. When I turned 28, God was gone, and I had to learn to be alone in the universe and to make sense of what I had (until then) experienced as “spirituality”.
What has been most striking to me since then is just how little my experience of life changed with God out of the picture. This led me to the eventual understanding that my (and by extension: “our”) experiences of the “supernatural” weren’t supernatural at all (see Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell” — reviewed on this blog). This is how I can now believe the stories people tell me of God, even if cannot concur in their attribution of the source of those experiences.
But life is what it is, and if God is the sum of our experiences of “God” (spirit, mystery), then I have to say that God does, indeed, exist. As soon as I say that, however, I feel the need to correct and say: but not really.
So the answer is a qualified yes, or no. Or, yes and no. Or maybe god is something that we can only possess in the way that we possess our own experiences of living, experiences which we interpret and then hold on to as memories. Does a memory actually exist? Yes, in its way, and for as long as the brain that contains it continues to function. After that, it is gone. And so “god” will continue to exist, as long as there are humans to keep him, her or it alive.
Maybe it would be a good exercise to give up our most cherished idea of God, just like I gave up my beloved saber on that tearful, prayerful Summer night in California, and discover the “blessedness” of possessing nothing.
POSTSCRIPT: A few years after my dark night of the Civil War saber, a robber broke into my rickety art-student apartment in downtown Denver, and stole (among other things) that damn sword. Were I to tell that story to a fellow Christian, they would most likely say “See — you hadn’t really let it go, so God had to take it away!”. But it was that experience (and others like it since) that have shown me just how seriously I took that earlier exercise in my own “Pursuit of God”. With an actual God behind it or no, it was clearly a lesson useful for life in an uncertain world, a lesson that freed me of being overly burdened by the things I own. And that sort of thing has value in and of itself, without getting a god who likes to take his kid’s toys involved.