After all these years, I see that I was mistaken about Eve in the beginning; it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her....I should be sorry to have that voice fall silent and pass out of my life.
- Mark Twain, "Adam's Diary"
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Catching my drift.
The banner at the top of this site declares, "This is a theology and philosophy blog written by an non-theist". I’m not sure that non-theist is the best descriptor for me anymore. I think I’m
Sometimes that means showing how we all “worship” something
and sometimes its about showing that we all have to operate without that
something in hand. The classic one is truth. Whenever we argue for truth we are
worshipping it in a way, but we don’t possess it. Hence we all function as both
theists and atheists, living with and without “god”, all the time. To agree
with that you will probably have to smudge and stretch your old concepts of god.
I know I did.
That’s how I encountered a type of goddish concept I believe
in. It’s taking me a long time to articulate though. In fact I would say this
is a process of discovery that really kicked off with "Worshipping a Small God" well over a year ago. I
was told my concept of god was too small. I found that a profoundly challenging
concept. Hence I wrote a post that asks “What does it mean to separate God from
their hugeness? What does it mean to worship a powerless source of good or a
I had previously put God into one of two categories. First
there is the God who commands the unraveling of all history for their own glory
and threatens us in a first person voice through their holy books. They still strike
me as a spooky side-show attraction, at best. At worst they are a demonic evil
that we ought to oppose no matter what.
The other category for God is an impersonal one. They are something non-material, non-rational and just as irrelevant. Plato called them
the unmoved mover. Physicists and philosophers have used this God throughout
history as a tool to make their sums work. They’re like “dark matter” on legs.
I’ve never denied the existence of this kind of God. I just tend to think that
we should call them something else like the Tao or Quantum energy. The word God
evokes too personal a figure for many people including me, to use here.
What I’m beginning to contemplate is something which borrows
from the impersonal god concept their field like characteristics. Fields are
like a force in natural science however rather than being created at a
particular point, spending their energy and then extinguishing, fields
continue. They are continuing qualities of space and time. Gravity is a field
rather than a force. It has no beginning or end.
What I am taking from the personal god concept is that this
field has an interest in life. This field values certain ways of engaging with
life over other ways. As I put this into words I feel uncomfortable with it.
I’m ready to take it back. Am I really saying that I believe in a cosmic field
that cares? You can see why the non-theist label is slipping. (You can also see some of these thoughts developing in " A moral world".
So how have I got to this point? A significant first step is
in recognizing that morality underpins everything. You can’t have science
without a concept of good and bad science. You can’t be a scientist without having
outrage at flagrant superstition. Science is at its heart a moral enterprise
before it is even begun.
This is true of all thought. Morality has to precede thought,
or surround it, or sustain it (choose your metaphor) because otherwise you
can’t have good thought and bad thought. Before you can think, you have to care
Now you could say that this caring is just some evolved
characteristic of our brains. You could certainly make the case for its
usefulness to encourage learning. When we care we pay attention. However, even
if you recognize it as merely evolutionarily expedient to give a damn about the
world, you can’t shake it off. If you try to you’ll crash all your other
functions of thought as a consequence.
Even if it didn’t do that it, rejecting morality would “be”
wrong. That’s something I explored in "It's OK to Kill" The wrongness of throwing away
your morality precedes anything else and persists even after you have thrown
away your morality. I believe that’s because the wrongness is not a product of
our individual morality but an observation of the moral field from which our
morality is drawn.
Woah…hold on. Morality as a pre-existing field in which all other
thought (and intentional activity) is sustained; that’s pantheism not non-theism.
The key distinction is that in pantheism everything is connected by something
akin to a single perspective. The theos is that connective aspect. Perhaps
perspective is too strong a word. Perhaps moral orientation is a better term. As
I said in The Problem of Evil if you believe in an underlying moral nature to
the world you are at least pseudo-theistic.
Historically one of my key reasons for being a non-theist is
that disconnection makes the most sense of the world. I still feel like
there’s something to emphasise there. Viruses and floods and monkeys have
separate causes and purposes. They intersect to create the web of life but they
aren’t in any way part of a gaian hive mind. They aren’t intentionally working
in concert but are just made to work in some kind of concert by sharing an
environment. That is part of the splendor of the world to me.
However now I’m talking about something that is a single
will – the will for good – that permeates at least intelligent life. By
intelligent I mean whenever life is making conscious choices. Choices require
some level of thought and thought exists in a moral field.
A reasonable objection to all of this is that it isn’t real.
I am only describing feelings and to be honest those feelings have
contradictory feelings as well. My response to this objection is that asking if
God is real is a different question for different concepts of God. If God is a
bloke with a staff on a chair then they ought to have the sort of reality you
can poke a stick at. If god is a moral field in which everything makes sense
then the stick test doesn’t work. In fact I would go so far as to say that if
you’re hung up on whether god is real you’re missing my point entirely. Is love
What I am able to do is enter into religious stories in a
different way. I’m understanding the resurrection for example in a
way that I wouldn't have before. People sometimes talk about the resurrection as
an event that can’t be taken non-literally without losing all meaning. I wonder how the transformed body
of Jesus can be considered literally at all. What does literally walked through
walls mean? Think about it; it’s not walking as we know it that’s for sure.
Instead of worrying about the atomic weight of a risen
Jesus, I am considering how whenever we act with moral intent we are acting in
a way that is out of the normal flow of time and space. There is something
eternal about compassion and embracing a life of compassion attaches us to that
eternity. (Just think about when you do something good for a stranger.) Hence the promise of an eternal life for those who embrace love of
others is true – it was never going to be sitting on a cloud but it’s still
This is a journey I’m on. Writing this blog puts that
journey out into a public space. I don’t mind how that puts me at risk of
public contradiction. I see it as growth.
You can expect that I will grow from this point too. I may
recant everything I’ve written here and in the posts I've linked to. That would be surprising. For the moment I wonder if I need to
change this blogs description at the top. Pretty please comment with your
suggestions for a new tag line.
UPDATE: Currently cycling through some options. For reference the original description of the blog was;
This is a theology and philosophy blog written by an
non-theist who has a deep respect for sincere theism.
Expect arguments that intelligent and integritous people
exist on both sides of this supposed divide between atheism and religion.
I also aim to do theology and philosophy which is both
humble and yet trying to be wonderful in the existential tradition.