Keywords: Candide, Dr. Pangloss; theology; Viktor Frankl; challenges; problems; heaven; Karl Popper; G. K. Chesterton; gratitude; problem of evil; theodicy.
My old friend Ken wrote a private letter in response to my blog about atheism. I’m going to put two of his paragraphs here without giving his surname, in case he doesn’t want publicity, and then reply to each one. Ken writes;
“I read your blog about current discussions re faith and atheism. I have just read Sam Harris, The End of Faith, and am much impressed by his critique of religion as the basis for belief systems which are not only unsupported by evidence but also which support ideas which lead to violent conflict. An example is Christian fundamentalist support for Bush's unquestioning support of Israel (based on Book of Revelations assertions about the role of Jews being present at the end times, apparently to be given the choice to convert or go to Hell.) He argues there is too much politically correct tolerance for views which are detrimental to world peace (e.g. treatment of infidels as recommended in the Koran). He recommends Buddhism as a means to discover the truth about our spiritual natures (meditation leading to an awareness of the lack of duality, the false idea we have of the subject/object distinction). I haven't read Dawkins but I think Harris is more explicit about the detrimental consequences of some religious commitments.”
I haven’t read Harris and probably won’t. I’m much more interested in imagining what the divinity may be like than in reading the theory that he/she/it does not exist. The non-existence theory doesn’t explain anything that I find problematic. Naturally, I’m not promoting just any old theology. I quite agree with most of this paragraph, which criticizes religions that are all too familiar to me. (I was brought up a fundamentalist.) I also endorse meditation, but my endorsement is worthless since in fact I am not good at meditating and haven’t really discovered much about myself from it. (I’ve spent hundreds of hours meditating, though not well, so far as I can tell.)
I distinguish between belief and faith, where belief is acceptance of propositions as factually correct. I don't have many firm beliefs, since I don’t know what to believe about ultimate reality. All I can say is that whatever I believe is bound to be 99% wrong, just as my beliefs about cosmology are totally inadequate, as are my guesses as to how many dimensions there are or how many universes exist. Nobody’s theological beliefs can possibly be correct. We’ll never know what is so. Therefore, I try to hold my theological beliefs lightly.
On the other hand, I trust that whatever is so is good. If I could comprehend the truth about ultimate reality, I’d be satisfied. That sense is faith,” which is quite different from belief. I have a lot of faith. Yes, I guess my faith amounts to a certain Panglossian confidence that the universe is ”unfolding as it should.”
I don’t have any hesitation when it comes to reciting the liturgy in church because I don’t see it as something that should be believed or disbelieved. I don’t think it makes me a hypocrite if I say that Christ rose and is sitting on the right hand of God. That’s not a proposition but a metaphor. I see the liturgy and most biblical teachings as poetry, as metaphor. It’s meant to move me, to put me in touch with aspects of reality that I can overlook too easily, spiritual experiences that are worth cultivating. You don’t have to believe a poem. That’s beside the point. But some poems can work better than others. Some worship services move me and make me a better person, whereas other services fall flat — though that may be because of my own shortcomings, not because the event was intrinsically pedestrian. It’s pretty subjective, so individuals differ in their responses.
“I was interested to see you believe that the world, or universe, is perfect,
and is unfolding as it should. This sounds a bit like Dr. Pangloss in
Candide, based on the philosopher Leibniz, I believe. His view was that God
is a perfect being, and as such could only have produced a perfect world. I
marvel at the wonder of creation, as it has evolved, but this evolution has
brought with it a humanity capable of self-destruction, given the advance of
technology and the absence of a moral evolution that would assure the
rational management of human affairs according to humanitarian ethics.”
But since I was busy and didn’t answer immediately, Ken must have concluded that I was offended, so he sent this follow-up letter:
“I regretted my remark about your idea of the universe as perfect
and unfolding as it should, as I recall, comparing it to Dr. Pangloss. That
was impertinent if not insulting. I should have asked you how you sustain
your belief in the face of the destruction caused by humans, a part of the
universe? If I offended, please accept my apology. I think your frankness
in expressing yourself on your blog is admirable and I learn from it.”
Now I am not a bit offended. I think Pangloss’s statement of faith (that “this is the best of all possible worlds”) is a clever, amusing little epigram — and not half bad as a working attitude. It’s a belief, and I’m not wedded to any particular propositions about ultimate reality, but as a general orientation, as a declaration of trust, it’s pretty close.
To oversimplify, it seems to me that if you believe in God, you have to decide whether he/she/it is really in charge of everything or whether there are some opposing principles at work determining causality. There are three possibilities: (a) you either accept that God’s behind everything that’s going on, or (b) you divide the divine force into separate entities that have control over particular domains — say, the way the Greeks believed that their gods had jurisdiction over specific areas (Poseidon over water, Athena over wisdom, Aphrodite over sex, etc.). Or (c) you can divide it into just two categorios – a good God and a bad Satan, the way Manichaeism did. Everything was a struggle between the dark and light spirits.
Having been a fundamentalist, I have rejected this good-versus-evil worldview. And I cannot imagine being a polytheist. I have nothing against the idea, but I couldn’t take it seriously as a plausible hypothesis. So what I have left is the strong sense that the universe is a seamless whole, working interactively as a complete system, of which not a single component is truly independent of all the rest. Everything in the universe is connected to everything else. I think that’s actually what physicists say, and if they didn’t, I’d still believe that it’s so.
There's one question that has to be addressed by anyone who trusts such a notion of God: the problem of evil. The problem of theodicy -- of justifying God's ways to humanity. If God is all good and all powerful, why does she make the world so full of suffering and mistakes? By taking the view that I do, I am obliged to say that there is meaning in suffering, that it's part of a larger purpose that we simply cannot recognize. I don't have any trouble holding that perspective. Suffering and errors and accidents are not part of my scheme, but good things can come out of bad, and bad things come out of good, and that goes on forever, so we can never say whether something was good or bad in the long run. The long run is never over.
(It's like the Chinese story about the horse. A farmer's horse gets loose and runs away. “What bad luck!” say the neighbors. The next day the horse returns, leading a whole string of wild ponies. “What good luck!” say the neighbors. The farmer's son tries to break one of the ponies but falls off and breaks his leg. “What bad luck!” say the neighbors. But then the local warlord is recruiting soldiers to go fight for him. All the other young men in the village are conscripted, but because the son's leg is broken, he is not. “What good luck!” say the neighbors.) What is good or bad? There's no way to know. You just have to have faith.
From my point of view, it’s not that there’s a single God out there someplace separate from us, making the universe go. It’s that the whole thing is a system — not just the sub-atomic particles and galaxies but the souls and the music and the psychological experiences, the desires and hatreds, the violence and the peace, the diseases and the medical sciences, the poets and the genocidal dictators — everything, everything. The whole beautiful, amazing, interacting intelligent shebang. And the intelligence that is this system is what I call God. I don’t know whether it was a “creator” who set it going, or whether it always was going, but there’s something beautiful and wise being expressed in what is going on and I can't help saying, “Thank you!” dozens of times every day.
G. K. Chesterton's “proof of the existence of God” went like this: I feel gratitude, so there must be someone to be grateful toward.” That's not exactly logical but it feels true to me. (See his photo.)
I also don’t know whether God interrupts the flow of what’s happening in order to change its course. If I utter a petition, requesting a particular outcome, is God going to perform a miracle to answer my prayer? I rather doubt it, just as I doubt that anyone will be punished in hell for not doing the right thing. I just sense that whatever the outcome is, it’s part of a system that’s working very well and so I had better appreciate its goodness if I can. Who am I to say what the outcome should be? If the leaves fall off the trees, do they complain about it? If the alligator eats the gazelle, does the gazelle conclude that God made a mistake? If so, the gazelle’s complaint is also part of the perfectly working system. And if I hate nuclear weapons or racism, that hatred is part of the system too. But that doesn't make my political attitudes right or wrong in any transcendent sense.
Mostly I think of the universe as a fabulous game. If we’re immortal souls, we need some problems to solve, so we’ve set it up (or she/he/it set it up) so we can find puzzles and problems to work on, and you can win or lose big time. You can get to be prime minister or win a Nobel prize, or marry Brad Pitt, or you can become alcoholic or step on a landmine or run down a pedestrian. Are these payoff “fair” or are they just part of the larger problem you’re supposed to work on? I don’t know.
When I was seven years old my theology came to me one Sunday morning and basically it’s the same one I’ve been living ever since. We were in Sunday School class and my grandmother was the teacher. Someone asked what heaven is like, and she said it is where you go when you die, if you’ve been good. And in heaven there are no problems. No suffering. No scarcity. Everything that you want, you can have instantly, without effort.
I decided right then that such a place would be so boring that I would refuse ever to go there. What could you possibly do there? I demand a place with problems. That’s the only kind of place that would be interesting or fulfilling.
But how many problems do we need to make the world interesting? About as many as we have now. Actually, for many people I think there’s really a shortage of problems. Why else would they waste time lying around on a beach doing nothing? Karl Popperwas my philosophy teacher and he said that the main thing a scientist needs is a good nose for problems. You have to look hard to find problems that you can work with. I think we’ve got some excellent problems these days. I am working hard to solve war and peace and climate change, and I’m having a wonderful time. I have a woman friend who’s a physician; she thinks the world is a terrible place because there’s disease and pain and poverty. But what a terrible world it would be if there were NO disease or pain or poverty – if we all had to lie around on clouds strumming harps, or whatever people are supposed to do in heaven! Practicing medicine, or social work, or planning economic development strategies or resolving conflicts are more fun.
I like Viktor Frankl's metaphor: Life assigns challenges uniquely to each of us. (He didn’t say “God,” but rather “Life,” but either word works and I usually say “God.”) We have to pay close attention to figure out the meaning of each situation — what the possibilities are that we’re supposed to address. Frankl reached that insight while in a death camp. I remember that when I was giving birth, I was saying, “Okay, the only thing I can do in this situation is suffer. Bring it on, then, God, and let me see how well I can suffer.” Of course, in that situation there was a purpose behind the suffering — my baby — but the same challenge can exist even if there’s no hope of having it all turn out well. The challenge is to do the best you can, and trust that doing so is your contribution to the universe — which is worth it.
Thanks for asking, Ken. This is my favorite topic.