Truth, God, Morality and Ethics: Conversations with Martin (part 2/2)

This is the second part of my email conversation with a friend in which we began by discussing panentheism (see Conversations with Martin (part 1/2)), and then moved on a variety of subjects including free will, the nature of God, morality and ethics, and more.

Each discussion topic is prefaced with a question, which will hopefully make the conversation easier to follow.  I realise that the text is a bit disjointed in places, and I apologise for this.  I hope that you will enjoy the discussion, and feel free to leave your comments at the end.

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Is truth more important than faith?

Steven:
It’s interesting to consider whether ‘the truth’ is more important than ‘faith’.

Martin:
Definitely – I believe this consideration is absolutely paramount.

Steven:
This is something I have struggled with a bit recently.  Perhaps there are some things we aren’t supposed to understand, and should simply believe?  Perhaps that is what Christianity asks us to do, and what if this is right in God’s eyes and really is the way to salvation?

Martin:
This seems perfectly sensible in terms of a religious purpose – but it is very difficult to persuade someone without faith to believe in this.

Steven:
…but then there is the history of philosophy, which seems to have been about a search for the truth, so maybe when there are things that we believe to be more rational than a particular belief it is right to go with that.  Maybe truth is the ultimate thing worth searching and living for.

Martin:
I wouldn’t say that because something has the appearance of being more rational and reasonable then it is right to ‘go with that’ instead of a religious / faith belief. If you hold a sincerely felt religious belief which is hard (or impossible) to explain using reason, to me this is possibly worth more than a point of argument that has the appearance of reason on its side. Philosophers can be greater slaves to reason, maintaining their viewpoint no matter what strange conclusion it made lead them to, than a religious person may be a slave to their belief system. And we haven’t explained everything away yet using reason (as far as I am aware) so why should reason be held in such esteem? As you may have noticed I’m all for arguing against things, but I don’t have much positve to offer in terms of what I do believe. I hold out absolutely no hope of establishing anything that I firmly believe in – I doubt I will ever subscribe to a religion unless I have a certain experience, but who knows. But I seriously doubt I will ever subscribe to a purely scientific / reason view either. Basically I have no faith (!) that anything humans can conjure up – whether religious, scientific or philosophic – can hold any perfect (or even near perfect) explanation of the universe. Not that it isn’t worthwhile trying…….

Steven:
I’m not even sure I believe in reason!  I think reasoning seems to be relative.  But then we could get into logic and mathematics in thought and then it would seem like there is reason, as A + B really does lead to C, etc…

~~~~~

Does God have a plan?

Steven:
You seem to be saying you don’t have all the answers, and probably won’t ever have, and that seems to me to be quite realistic.  It seems to be part of God’s plan that we don’t have all the answers in this life.  But as you suggest, you may well have experiences that develop your faith in a certain way at some point, we shall see!

Martin:
I don’t believe that god has a plan.  I wouldn’t say that I had a faith, just a belief (quite possibly unfounded and quite possibly not a true belief) that god exists.  Given the inklings I have hopefully given you about what i believe ‘god’ to be, do you think that I actually believe in god? Because I would say that I do, but I could understand why a religious person would say that I didn’t believe in god. But I think what I believe does seem to be in common with pantheism?

Steven:
I really am intrigued about your idea of God.  I believe God to be the supreme being with complete free will, who created and is shaping the universe in every moment.  I am quite sure that God does have plans, as the vast networks of interactions that take place between things and creatures in the world seem to me to be purposeful, rather than random.

You say God is a force, the force, which is quite interesting.  That does sound panentheisitc and I do agree in a sense.  Maybe where we disagree is that I believe God to be in a sense personal, God is living, and able to talk to people, for instance.  Do you believe that God is living?  Do you believe God can talk to people?  Do you believe God makes a decision about whether or not a thunderstorm is going to happen, or whether a person will be born?  If the answer to these questions is no, then I’m not sure what you mean by God.

It seems to me that if God is doing everything, as we both seem to agree He is, then that implies that He is doing things in a certain way.  If this is the case, then things could be other than they are, if God chose to do differently.  Otherwise, in what sense do you believe God is doing everything?

Martin:
My main problem is that I neither agree nor disagree with what you have stated about the nature of god, mainly I just believe that somehow the language you use such as ‘plans’ ‘decisions’ ‘living’ ‘talk’ to describe god are inconsistent with what god is/does.

I would have to say that I don’t think of god as a ‘being’ as such. I think god is a force – but maybe there’s no difference between force and being. The idea of god as a being who makes decisions, communicates with humans etc seems to me to be detrimental / denigrating to god’s nature/power but I agree god created and is shaping the universe. I suppose what I believe is that there is a force who exists and whose nature is beyond the possibility of human cognition and I call this god – but maybe I should call it something else!

Steven:
I’m intrigued to know what the force is doing.  Can you describe it in any more detail?  For instance, what is the force doing in an apple? (making it grow, presumably).  What is the force doing in a table?  Is there anything behind the force, making it happen?  If not it must be intelligent, right?

Martin:
I would say that the vast networks of interactions that you mention, are certainly not random, but I would be very reluctant to call them ‘purposeful’ either (though of course they serve purposes on a ‘lower’ level). They are powered by god hence aren’t random, but again, the use of the word ‘purpose’ proves a struggle for me. God could have a purpose in creating the universe, but what would that purpose be, and would we be able to comprehend it? If the purpose has anything in particular to do with humans, then I would be unable to accept it. Why would a force of such immense and incredible power (and I believe these to be denigrating words, but what can we do!) ‘care’ about creating this universe that is so large and beautiful etc etc – wish I could think of better words – with any kind of ‘purpose’ specifically for such insignificant, temporary beings as humans?

Steven:
I don’t know that we are insignificant or temporary, I rather think we are significant and eternal.  Because I believe God ‘animates’ us, I see that He is taking great care in each moment to unfold our lives.  I believe all of creation is ‘animated’, and so God is taking great care in all of it, making all of the parts interact, giving us thoughts and feelings and actions – it seems as though a lot of work is going into it (although to describe God as working is a bad metaphor as there may well be an ease to the way in which God works as He is supremely powerful).

You ask about what God’s purpose might be in creating the universe.  Perhaps the whole of creation is God exploring God’s nature.  If within God are infinite possibilities, then God’s creating is like self-expression.  Perhaps God is the animator of a grand universal play, and it all exists for God’s pleasure?

Martin:
If god does have a purpose (which seems such a human concept to attribute to it) then the chances of the purpose of this whole universe having anything at all to do with humans seems minuscule to say the least. And to my mind the only ‘proof’ we have that would suggest otherwise is the existence of texts/religions as written by humans (though of course humans’ capacity to create such things is entirely due to the existence of god – in the same way that anything else we have produced is).

Steven:
But surely, if God takes the time and effort to make our blood flow, our hair and nails grow, etc, then that shows tremendous care towards humanity?  Why would God create humans unless there was a point to us?  Or do you not see God as creating humans, is it more chance that we exist?

Martin:
To answer your questions – for what my answers will be worth (not a lot)- I believe god is living, I believe god can communicate to people (but that it can also communicate to monkeys, ants, weeds, the sea, mountains). I believe god makes thunderstorms happen in the same way that it makes everything happen, so in a sense does make a ‘decision’ about this – but not a human style decision!

Likewise for a child being born. And for me there is no more value in God’s ‘deciding’ whether a child is born or not, than God’s ‘deciding’ about anything else at all. So I suppose my answers are not ‘no’, but not ‘yes’ in the same way that I presume you would answer ‘yes’.

I agree that god is doing everything, and that it is doing them in a certain way, and most certainly agree that things could be other than they are if god ‘acted’ in a different way.

Steven
Yes, I agree.  God has choice in every moment.  God can ‘intervene’ in any situation, although in doing so God is really intervening in God’s own action.

~~~~~

If God is a ‘force’, how does that work?

Martin:
I wouldn’t know how to explain what my force is doing in objects, other than to say I believe it is the cause behind, and in, the objects. Also, the force is intelligent in itself, and doesn’t have anything behind it making it happen – I suppose it is self causing – hence it feels natural for me to call it ‘god’!

Steven:
This seems to relate quite well to my understanding of God – being in and behind all things.

Martin:
As for the type of ‘decision’ god makes – I think god is the cause of all things and is responsible for all that happens, as the intelligent force. However i don’t think god makes a conscious decision of whether to proceed with a thunderstorm or not each time one occurs – more like thunderstorms are a necessary feature of god’s creation. So god is the reason thunderstorms occurs, but I struggle to say it has made a decision each time.

~~~~~

What role does God play in creation?

Martin:
I like the idea of god’s creating/creation as being god’s self expression – I think this would allow me to say that all of creation is serving no particular purpose, although I doubt you would say this…. 😉
I do see god as creating humans, and wouldn’t say we, or anything else, is ‘chance’ – i’d be more tempted to say all of creation has come about as necessary continuations. The main point I am trying to make below is that there is no more value in humans than there is in any other being.

Steven:
I’m not sure what necessary continuations are?

Martin:
Necessary continuations – please refer to my mate Spinoza!  I suppose what I mean is that although god is responsible for the existence of humans – and in that sense ‘created’ us – I don’t believe that god created us out of nothing – we are a necessary continuation (or evolution) due to all (or part) of the other parts of god’s ‘creation’. With god’s creation as it is, there could not not have been us, in other words, there must have been us!

Steven:
Your use of the term ‘necessary continuations’ seems to me to be linked up with evolution, and the idea that God set the world in motion and then it subsequently evolved according to God’s laws.  I don’t know if that’s exactly what you believe, but a lot of people do believe that, I think it’s called Deism.  My problem with Deism is that it takes God out of the everyday, like my current decision to take a sip of coffee.  To me God is presently doing this through me, whereas I think to a Deist God is more detached from the present.  I’m not sure what a Deist would say God is doing right now!

Martin:
I could sympathise with the idea of Deism, but I wouldn’t say that god set up the world and left it. I would probably agree that “the creator does not intervene in human affairs or suspend the natural laws of the universe” (Wikipedia!) but I wouldn’t agree that God has ‘left’ the world. In answer to your question about what god is doing now, I would say that as god exists independently of time, it is both doing everything and nothing – in which case it doesn’t make sense to think of god as ‘doing’ anything at any particular time. I would probably have to say that god has some involvement in your decision to take a sip of coffee – god has certainly made this possible – but can I really say that and that it is not intervening in your affairs?! I’m not sure! I really think that our language and our concepts restricts so much of what I would say about god.

~~~~~

How does this discussion relate to morality and ethics?

Martin:
I’m keen to find out your thoughts on ethics / morality, which seems to be a natural progression from what we’ve been talking about. What do you think about good and evil/bad and right and wrong? My understanding of these terms are that they are human inventions – very useful ones – but that that they do not exist. I’ll leave it there for now!!

Steven:
Good idea to move on to morality/ethics!  Because I believe God to be doing everything, it’s difficult to talk about good and bad and right and wrong.  Everything has the same source, so how can you distinguish between these criteria?  I believe God uses suffering in people’s lives as a way of adding to earthly experience.  Life is a journey directed by God, and suffering is part of what God chooses for us to experience.  My hope is that God never lets the amount of suffering that any individual experiences get too bad, even though I appreciate that suffering can be extremely horrible in certain circumstances.

I do believe that there is a way in which we exercise free will, even though I believe free will is illusory, and that it is really God’s will operating in us when we make decisions.  But make decisions we do, and therefore there is a way in which we can choose between good and bad action, between harming others or benefiting them.  I am not sure at the moment whether I believe the Bible to be God’s word, or not.  If it is, then clearly it is there for our moral guidance and we should learn the lessons contained in it.  I know you don’t believe this is the case.

Martin:
I pretty much agree with what you have said about good/evil/right/wrong! It seems that we both deny that good and bad objectively exist. I would also agree about the free will part – we are able to make decisions, and we can attempt to choose between what we believe to be right and wrong, although these are subjective values. I suppose the problem if one does believe the bible to be the word of god, is that then there is such a thing as good and bad (I would say that the bible indicates that there is such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’?), and god is telling us the difference between them (again, I’m presuming he does?). Therefore we should apply the guidance he gives in the bible to all aspects of our modern lives, and this, I would imagine, is pretty difficult. Is what I have just said remotely sensical / sensible?! I would add that even if the bible isn’t the word of god, and even if right and wrong don’t exist, the help these provide are crucial in our attempts to live in the most beneficial way to society and ourselves.

Steven:
In terms of the ethical stuff it surprises me that we are largely in agreement as well!  I agree with what you have said about the Bible and it’s significance if it is or isn’t the word of God.  It’s something I feel I really need to figure out my stance on, as if the Bible is God’s word I need to spend my life studying it!  Have you read much of the Bible?  I’ve read all of the New Testament, and Genesis, Exodus and a couple of other books from the Old Testament, there’s lots that I haven’t read though.  I sometimes listen to UCB Bible, which is a radio station where the Bible is read out all day every day.  But since I have started to believe myself to be a panentheist, I have stopped reading the Bible, as there is a big question mark over the Bible’s significance (as much discussed by us!).  I’m not sure whether it’s something I will be able to settle in my mind, or whether I will remain in doubt for the rest of my life!

With the Bible there is also the issue of it’s openness to interpretation.  Even if the Bible does give moral guidance, it’s still human beings with their radically differing opinions who have to interpret what the Bible says.  Christians would normally say they rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit to show what truth is.  I believe in the Holy Spirit in a sense, although I think it is the ever-present spirit of God that permeates everything, whereas for most Christians it seems to be something that comes and goes (i.e. one might or might not be ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’).

Martin:
I haven’t read any of the bible since whatever we may have had to listen to at school, so I am completely unable to talk about its contents! Perhaps I should read some of it, but I’ve never felt the inclination, any more than I have to read any other religious text.

~~~~~

Thank you for reading.  Do you have any thoughts relating to this conversation?  Please comment below!

3 comments

  1. I’ve enjoyed reading this conversation and would be interested in reading more of the sort perhaps with extended interactions on the individual subjects. (point, counter-point, etc…).

    As for content I’d merely point out that there are Christians who’d contend that the Bible is the Word of God in the sense which I think you’ve used it and who hold panentheism concurrently (in contrast to your intimation that the acceptance of latter led to a rejection of the former). Finally the notion that the Holy Spirit acts as our interpretive lens emerges in Christianity only with Luther and Calvin (and subsequent Protestantism). The older traditions, for instance Eastern Christianity, may offer you a more cogent explanation.

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