Morality and God: Do good and evil exist objectively?

A photo looking down on a man reading the Bible on a wooden table

I recently watched a debate between the Christian philosopher William Lane Craig and the atheist philosopher Sam Harris, on the subject of whether good and evil can exist without God. It was an interesting debate, and if you can spare a couple of hours I would recommend watching it. I have embedded the video at the bottom of this article.

I thought it might be helpful to communicate my own views on this subject. Those of you who are familiar with my philosophical outlook will know that I am a panentheist (I believe the world is in God but God is more than the world), and also that I believe God permeates the entire cosmos and animates all action; including human action, the movement of planets, the movement of cells, and all other action.

Some obvious questions arise when one considers morality in terms of my worldview, outlined above. If God is doing everything, is there free will? Do human beings have responsibility? By what standards should we measure good and evil?

In order to answer these questions, I first need to explain the way in which I believe reality has two separate layers or dimensions. These might be described as the God dimension and the creaturely dimension. I believe God has the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, which means all that exists is known by God and experienced by God in any given moment. God has a universal perspective. The creaturely dimension is much narrower. Human beings have an experience of reality that is limited and partial. Our window of experience allows us to perceive a small part of the whole, in a way analogous to seeing certain colours in a spectrum.

Because God is everywhere, there is not an atom in the universe that is separate from Him. Because of this, it makes no sense to talk of freedom from God, or of free will. Clearly, if all is God, then all action is God’s action. In the creaturely dimension, we have the experience that we act independently of God, but this doesn’t mean that in reality we are separate. When I raise my arm or nod my head, it is I who am doing this in the creaturely dimension, but it is God who is doing it in the ultimate dimension.

What evidence do I have that suggests all action is God’s action? I would point to the fact that all activity is coordinated. Within the human body, for instance, there are millions of complex interactions working in harmony. This means that something must be able to coordinate what is going on in my heart, brain, and foot, all at the same time. That something is God.

More evidence that God is in control is that we grow from nothing into human beings. We never make a decision to grow from a baby to a child to an adult; something is clearly causing this process to happen. For me, scientific ideas like ‘genetics’ and ‘evolution’ do not really explain this process of growth – there is clearly a power that grows us from babies into adults. That power is God.

I could present further arguments that all action is God’s action, and I do so elsewhere on this blog and in my books. But if you have had no insight into God’s existence – no experience or revelation of God’s reality – then the likelihood is that you will disregard any argument that implies God’s existence, however logical that argument may be. It is a shame when people are closed-minded in this way, but the fact is that if God doesn’t choose to reveal Himself to people then they will never believe. I have to accept that.

Returning to our discussion of morality, an important question remains. Even though all action is God’s action, in the creaturely dimension we still have the illusion of free will, and we therefore have choices and decisions to make. How do we decide what is good and evil; what is right and wrong?

Christians might argue that the Bible is the supreme revelation of God’s moral direction for mankind. But the problem with this idea, from my perspective, is that God has created all books (including the Qur’an and other holy books), so what makes the ideas expressed in one holy book more true than those expressed in the others?  It is possible to argue that many different scriptures that contradict one another are divinely revealed, so it is impossible to know which one we should regard as the absolute truth.

So we cannot realistically say that the Bible is the supreme guide for moral action on this planet. Where else are we to look? From my perspective, this is problematic. It would seem that without moral guidance, we are living in a world where ‘anything goes’. It is important to note, however, that it is not actually the case that anything goes. Only God’s will goes. I have to admit that God includes rape, murder, torture, and other horrors as part of His action in the world. It may seem illogical for God to be involved with these things, but I believe that He has good reasons, as outlined in my post entitled The Reason Why We Suffer. In essence, we are made to suffer because God Himself suffers.

So it is not in fact the case that anything goes, but rather that everything is an expression of God’s will. But it is also true that along with the illusion of free will we have the illusion of decision making and responsibility. We seem to live in societies, and we seem to be affected by the actions of others. There is nothing wrong, then, with creating laws that protect people’s wellbeing. In the absence of objective morality, this is a difficult, subjective process. It might involve prayer (that God guides us towards right action), and laws that aim to achieve the greatest happiness for everyone. There will of course be difficult moral decisions to make, and we must rely on God to guide us through these, always attempting to do what we feel is best in any given situation.  Our decisions regarding what is best will have to be based on intuition, and compassion, which we must hope that God will grant us.

In summary, then, the realisation that God exists, and is in all things, creates a problem for moral discussion. The problem is that if we are not really in control, then how do we make decisions about right action? The answer in the dimension of ultimate reality is that God will take care of this. The answer in human terms is that we must struggle to do what we believe is right, all the while acknowledging that God is the guiding force in our decisions.

Is it possible to be at peace in suffering? A conversation with Gregg

A painting of a person holding their head in pain

Gregg:
This quote made me think of you:

By realizing Him who is subtler than the subtlest who dwells in the midst of the chaos, who is the Creator of all things and is endowed with many forms, who is the non-dual Pervader of the universe and all good – by realizing Him one attains the supreme peace.

Steven:
Thanks for this.  I think I have realised that God is real but I don’t think I have realised supreme peace.  I don’t believe that is possible for anyone in this lifetime – everyone lives under the shadow of suffering and death.

Gregg:
Well, there’s still time… 🙂

Steven:
Do you believe anyone really achieves supreme peace?  What about if you develop a disease?

Gregg:
Yes, I believe that it is possible, even then.

Steven:
What if you’re in agony?  That’s not peaceful is it?

Gregg:
It doesn’t sound like it, no.  I think peace in the sense used is referring to peace of mind in relation to the absence of seeking; the absolute utter conviction that all is grace.  If such a state were possible then I can conceive that a man may bear even such agony in peace.

Steven:
Oh, OK. I can relate to the first part of what you said – peace being the absence of seeking, but I’m not sure you can experience peace in agony, they seem to me to contradict each other.

Gregg:
If there is no resistance or no interference in relation to the experience of what is, even if that is agony, then there is no contradiction, and therefore peace.

Steven:
But agony hurts.  It has nothing to do with resisting or not.  There’s nothing you can do when you experience pain.

Gregg:
But if a person can accept hurt without trying to change it then even hurt can be peaceful.  Peace is not limited, is it?

Steven:
I don’t agree, I think suffering is horrible.

Gregg:
It’s the fight to stop being in pain that is not peaceful.

Steven:
No, I don’t agree.  Pain is painful.

Gregg:
Yes, exactly – that way of thinking is the seeking to end suffering.  If there is no judgment on the experience then pain is pain.

Steven:
I don’t think it has anything to do with judgement; it’s feelings and sensations.

Gregg:
I’m not saying that it’s an easy experiential position to be in, but I believe it’s a possible one.  I urge a rethink if you think it has nothing to do with judgment, I would say it has absolutely everything to do with judgement.

Steven:
If you kick me in the leg, it hurts, whether I judge the pain or not, it’s horrible.

Gregg:
Without judgment there is nothing coming in between the experiencer and the experience.  “Horrible” is a judgment.

Steven:
No, horrible is just me describing the sensation.  It’s a feeling that happens.

Gregg:
Yes, so without description at all there is just the experience, and if this is accepted fully as grace, then there is just what is being experienced.

Steven:
I can’t believe that you really think that!

Gregg:
Most of us want to change experience; to shape it, create it.  We have ideas of what is good, bad, right, wrong, etc.

Steven:
What about if you have breathing problems? Are you making a judgment that that’s uncomfortable?

Gregg:
I would argue that breathing problems are a manifestation of a deeper struggle to allow life to breathe.

Steven:
Even if they are the result of a physical problem?  For instance, if someone has harmed your throat.

Gregg:
I don’t believe that things are ever just physical.  Even in your example, I would argue that there is more to it.  Harm is a manifestation of a deeper experience; a manifestation perhaps of a deeper experience of self harm that is not being processed.

Steven:
So you are saying that if you are attacked you are responsible?

Gregg:
Well, yes, in the sense that such an experience happens to offer an opportunity to bring us into the experience of how we are attacking our self on some level.  If we use experience that way then we can use our experiences to move into owning more of who we are.  But responsibility is all grace, so God is responsible really.  I believe the outer world mirrors absolutely our inner world – they are reflections of each other.

Steven:
You seem to be saying that you draw suffering to yourself, and I don’t believe that’s true.

Gregg:
I am saying that whatever you experience you draw to you.  I’m saying there is something called unconscious process which is infinitely deep, profound, and complex.  Do you think it is possible to experience whatever is being experienced without any interpretation whatsoever?

Steven:
If you poke me in the arm with a pin, there is no interpretation, just a feeling of pain.

Gregg:
Well, just a feeling, let’s not even give it a name.

Steven:
It hurts!

Gregg:
There is the experience of hurt, OK.  You can leave it there, then – no good or bad involved.

Steven:
You think you can somehow be at peace with that feeling?

Gregg:
I think it is possible, yes, and peace in this instance would refer to being in a state of experiencing without any interpretation occurring.  Just a movement of experience, ever moving, ever changing, ever flowing – all grace.  Except I think that even the blocks and the struggles and the sufferings and everything is also grace too.  Not just the good, but the bad too.

Steven:
I agree that it’s grace in the sense that God is doing it. I just can’t equate peace and suffering.  How can anyone feel suffering and not want to be free from it?

Gregg:
The presence or absence of struggle with the experience defines whether it is peaceful or not.  To accept suffering as God’s grace is it’s end!  Is it not?

Steven:
That’s easy to do when you’re not suffering…

Gregg:
Indeed!  No one said it was easy.  It’s the hardest thing in the whole world, ever, I reckon!  I have been trying to do just that for many many years, and funnily enough, it is the intensity of suffering that is always my greatest teacher in this respect.  Not whilst I’m going through it though, I have to say –  then I would almost rather die – but it is indeed the greatest teacher in that suffering has taught me about grace.  It has helped break my arrogance, and broken me, and left me ruined until all I had left was to accept all life as grace.  And even this keeps going round – I accept, I get arrogant after a while, I get broken – but each time when I come back to grace, it’s more intense; more profound.  And hopefully I’m a little wiser (although I am dumb to be fair!).  It takes ages for me to learn really simple things, so I suffer loads.  Bless those who are pure of heart!!

Steven:
Thanks for sharing these thoughts.

Gregg:
Here is an example for you of what I mean by peace in the suffering.  In my experience of excruciating self-hate and pain, real spiritual pain, and feeling completely abandoned by God (as if I had irrevocably failed God, my life, and my destiny), the peace came in the midst of that.  When I just accepted that this was what God wants of me right now.  God wants this!  God wants my suffering!  That was my peace.  God is responsible for my suffering and my joy.

Steven:
Well, I agree with that, and thank God that He gave you that realisation – it is a gift.

Gregg:
Exactly.  It’s all down to Him.  In my helplessness, in my suffering, I found peace – not away from it, in it.

Steven:
But not through your own effort.

Gregg:
No, the intensity of the suffering was the end of my capacity to make any effort, it’s always like this for me, in the cycles of suffering and redemption.  It’s like I’m holding on with all my might, but then the suffering forces me to let go and it frees up my hands.

Steven:
You have some great insights, Gregg.  As I see it, you’re never in control, so surrender or no surrender there is no choice, it is God’s will for you in any given moment.  So the best thing to do is to beg for mercy, and hope that God treats us kindly.

Gregg:
I’m totally with you but at the moment I’ve suffered so much that I won’t even beg for God’s mercy any more – not for kindness or anything.  He can do what he wants!  I will just do my best to experience what’s coming, and love the ride!  Because I do you know, I love at once the utter fragility and also the utter resilience of the soul.

‘Descartes’ Error’ by Antonio Domasio (book review)

A portrait photo of Antonio Domasio sitting down

descarteserrorDescartes’ Error was recommended to me by my psychotherapist.  In my psychotherapy sessions in recent weeks there has been a lot of discussion about body systems (e.g. the autonomic nervous system;  the limbic system), and feeling that I don’t really have a grasp of the more complex language that relates to the biological and neurological workings of the body and brain, I asked my psychotherapist if he could recommend any good introductory books – particularly in the domain of neuroscience.  He immediately suggested Descartes’ Error, explaining that it was a key book in the field, and the next day I purchased a copy from Amazon.

The book explores the relationship between mind, brain and body.  It is not a simple book in terms of the language used, but it is well written in the sense of containing simple sentence and paragraph structures.  This allowed me to get a general sense of the ideas being discussed, even if it was difficult to understand a lot of the technical vocabulary.

In the first part of the book, there is quite a lot of explanation about brain regions and systems.  I found this very difficult to follow, and the many diagrams depicting the brain in various different ways didn’t help at all – not only were the low quality black and white images difficult to see, but the accompanying descriptions were too complex for the novice reader.  As a result, I found myself reading the rest of the book with little or no understanding of what terms like “prefontal cortex”, “hypothalmus”, and “amygdala” were actually referring to.

The narratives of the case studies described in the first part of the book were easier to follow.  The author describes the case of a man called Phineas Gage, who suffered an injury whilst undertaking engineering work.  An unexpected explosion led to Gage’s brain being pierced by a metal rod.  The accident led to brain damage, and a significant part of the book is dedicated to trying to unravel what the brain damage meant for Gage’s life, in terms of his relationships, his working life, his well-being, and his emotions.

As well as the case of Phineas Gage, there are many other case studies that the author draws upon as he tries to explain how brain damage can affect human response to real life situations.  The impression one gets is that this pursuit is a bit of a guessing game, and nowhere is the impression given that there is much clear evidence for the way brain and emotions interact.  There are many hunches and hypotheses presented, but the author is quick to point out that neurobiology is a field in it’s infancy and there is still a vast amount of progress to be made.

The essential aim of Descartes’ Error is to readdress the way that we see the relationship between the mind and our emotions.  Rene Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher, envisaged a clear divide between the mental faculties and the emotions.  He famously said “I think, therefore I am”, which shows the primacy he afforded to thinking within the experience of self.  Domasio’s philosophy is rather different.  He uses his own theory, the Somatic Marker Hypothesis, to attempt to persuade the reader about the ways in which mind states and thoughts, and emotional states, are intimately interlinked.

My understanding of the Somatic Marker Hypothesis is that the body produces a gut feeling, which is like a warning sign, when one perceives that unpleasantness might be experienced in a future scenario.  For instance, if I am discussing my new medication with a doctor and she mentions that I may experience nausea or vomiting as a result of taking the pills, I would most likely experience a bodily reaction as I heard about this, and this reaction would anticipate the ill effects.  I would momentarily experience an unpleasant “gut feeling”, which would act as a warning and may help me to make choices, such as whether to take a lower dose of the medication in order to avoid too many of the unpleasant side effects.  The gut feeling is a somatic marker.

Healthy individuals experience these somatic markers all the time, but what do they tell us about the connection between mind and body?  Clearly, they tell us that there is a close correlation between the two.  One might perceive that the connection is so close that it is difficult to imagine disembodied thought, as envisaged in the “brain in a vat” scenario that the author describes.

Domasio’s theory doesn’t to me seem radical in any way.  But on the other hand, he may well be challenging the assumptions on which a great deal of modern brain medicine are based.  From what Domasio writes, it seems that the brain is often viewed by scientists as an entity in isolation from the rest of the body, and this is surely wrong if we view the mind/body as a holistic system.

Descartes’ Error is an interesting book that has probably (in a small way) contributed to my understanding of neuroscience and neurobiology.  The book frustrated me by being too complex in places, but on the whole was accessible enough to follow in general and I did enjoy reading it.

Domasio has attempted to contribute a challenging perspective to the study of neuroscience, and to some extent, by focusing on human feeling, I think he has succeeded.  But for me, there are some glaring omissions that prevent this book from being a classic.  A philosophical perspective on life’s bigger questions is lacking throughout, and the crucial question about whether or not God exists barely gets a mention.

If God does exist, there are clear implications for neuroscience and scientific endeavour in general, and these considerations have been completely overlooked by Domasio.  For instance, if God is responsible for human thought, by creating our minds anew in every moment, then we will never find out how the mind works by focusing on the physical dimension of the self; we need to explore the spiritual – the way God and humans interact – for illumination.  This has been a subject of philosophical speculation for thousands of years, and opinion is radically divided, but I have no doubt that these considerations are the primary ones we should be addressing in our quest to understand the human self.


Do you believe thought is linked to the human body? What do you believe emotions are?
Is God relevant to neuroscience? 
Please feel free to discuss in the comments below!

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

A black and white picture of God with the world as His footstool

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.

~~~~~

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.

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

Panentheism, Sacred Texts, Creation: Conversations with Martin (part 1/2)

An open Bible

I recently had an intriguing email discussion with my good friend Martin (not his real name – he wanted to remain anonymous) that started with the subject of panentheism and grew to incorporate sacred texts, morality, and a whole lot more.  I wanted to share a few highlights from our chat; I hope you will find them interesting.

I have separated our discussion into sections, each prefaced with a question that was being considered.  I thought that this was the best way to sensibly convey the content of an email discussion that contained many comments/quotes and jumped all over the place.

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Panentheist or pantheist?

Steven:
I don’t know if you’ve ever come across panentheism or pantheism?  Panentheism is basically the belief that the whole universe is ‘in God’, and it’s what I believe.  The trouble is Christians tend to believe that some things exist apart from God, like the devil for instance.  I find it impossible to understand how something can exist in opposition to God, who for me created and sustains everything.

Martin:
I would certainly say that what seems to have most in common with what I think (or what I used to think when I used to spend more time thinking about such things) is pantheism, rather than panentheism [pantheism is the view that the world and God are identical – ed]. I believe that ‘God’ is one with nature/the universe rather than a separate creator of the universe. Perhaps my main reason for this is that I struggle to think of something existing outside the universe and time, when I can’t (and who can?!) conceive of the vastness of the universe and time as they are.

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How are we to understand panentheism?

Steven:
In my view of panentheism, God is creator and, importantly, sustainer.  I have a very “present moment” understanding of God, i.e. the reason why blood is flowing round my body, my hair is growing and my heart is beating, is because God is ‘doing’ those things.  The scientist would of course argue that they are biological processes, but the question then for me is, what is making those processes happen?  Can this vast and complex universe be purely mechanical?  I don’t think so, I think the universe is alive with what I call ‘the animating power of God’.

Martin:
I feel the same as this, I agree that ‘God’ is ‘doing’ these things, and that God is the ‘reason’ all things happen  –  and that scientific mechanical explanations and biological processes can fit in perfectly with this.  But how is your above belief panentheism rather than pantheism? Because God is creator? I would like to know what pantheists think about how the world was created? In panentheism, if god exists externally to the universe, is he doing something else too? Or is he just sustaining the universe externally – yet also internally because he is the sustainer?

Steven:
I love your question about ‘what else is God doing’ other than the universe!  It’s a little tricky to answer.  I think my answer would be that there may be a way in which God exists but is doing nothing, as well as everything, and that there is also the potential within God for infinite creativity that is unexpressed.  Perhaps these things make Him more than His creation? (I use the capital ‘H’ in ‘Him’ and male gender out of Christian habit!).

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Is the universe ordered by a living God?

Steven:
I believe that although the universe is chaotic in certain respects there is a very definite order to things.  Like the way the planets move, and like the way that if you look down at the earth from an aeroplane at motorways and cities everything seems to be ordered.  And there are ecological systems, the bees and the honey and flowers and oxygen and light and how all of that works together, that seems to represent order.  How does all this order come about? For me, God is ‘doing’ everything!

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Do human beings have a special place in creation?

Steven:
As regards humans having a special place in creation, I’m not sure about that one.  I can understand that human beings might have more ‘power’ (e.g. nuclear weapons, huge cranes, space rockets) and some philosophers would say that we have reason which sets us apart, but are we more valuable than other creatures?  I think panentheism would veer on the side of ‘no’, because God permeates the universe and is therefore in birds as much as humans.  But Christianity certainly seems to have a special place for humans, as you suggest.  I suppose if the Bible really is the true word of God as many Christians believe then we would have to believe humans have a special place because of the scriptures in Genesis about man having dominion over the other creatures.

Martin:
I think that I disagree with scientists who say that reason sets us apart from other animals. Although I would agree that we have a very well developed capacity to reason, I think that animals also have the capacity to reason, and I also think that we are very similar to other animals in that we obey our instincts and what we have learnt from our past experiences and upbringing, rather than abstract reason far more often than not. So behaviourally I do not think we can wholly separate ourselves from other animals (maybe only in degrees), and thought-wise – we simply do not know what animals think (I think!). So for this reason I don’t think I can ever believe that any sacred text is the word of god. We are just attributing human characteristics to god in my opinion.

I think what I am trying to say here that as I believe that there is no distinction in terms of importance  between humans and other animals in the universe, anything that humans ‘create’ (sacred text wise) has no more value truth-wise than anything any other animals may attempt to create / communicate.  I realise that I may have just provided a good argument against myself in that its seems nigh on impossible that any other animal could create a system of beliefs and communicate it, but I suppose it is logically possible!?

Steven:
I agree in that I think animals also have the capacity to reason.  As you suggest, we cannot know, but I see birds making decisions to sit on a branch or swoop for that worm, and I’m not sure how much that differs from our reason.  Animals may also have imaginative thoughts.  I’m not sure it’s simply a matter of brain size, as you get some animals without brains (Jellyfish I think?) that live lives of doing and moving and eating just as we humans do.

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How important are ‘sacred texts’?

Steven:
Is there something special about the Bible?  Perhaps.  I know that all three times I have been in psychiatric hospital, for reasons that I can’t explain, I turned to the Bible for truth and for help.  In those dark moments it seemed to provide light and encouragement.  Who can explain why I turned to the Bible and why it spoke to me so profoundly at those times?  Why has the Bible lasted for two thousand years?  Why do Islam, Judaism and Christianity all have scriptures in common, i.e. the old testament prophets?  Can man alone make these scriptures so globally important?

Martin:
This is the crucial point I suppose.  Where I cannot believe that any sacred text, or any human made religion (as I see them) to have really stemmed from God in any way more vital or powerful than anything else that exists in the world, I can completely empathise that a feeling of faith is the only way a person ever could or should believe in one particular religion or text, and that this faith is surely more worthwhile when grounded in a specific experience (or 3!) rather than something that has been taught.

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Which religion is correct?

Steven
With a panentheistic view, God has created all religions, therefore how do we pick which one is correct?

Martin:
My immediate response to this, and it most be crucial to our different views, is that humans have ‘created’ all religions, not god, in my view. Although I would agree that god is and does everything in the universe, and so in that sense has created all religions, in my opinion god has no more created religions that he has created cars. In my opinion, humans have invented cars and religions, though cars and religions are part of God’s creation, if you follow what I mean!? And therefore it would be logical in my view that religion has no more value truth wise in informing us about God than cars do.

Steven:
Ah, now this is important, and to me is about the whole question of what God is doing and not doing.  You see in my view, God is responsible for all human action, and that goes back to what I was saying about how it is God that makes my hair grow, my blood flow, etc.  So I see the world as kind of like a play, wherein we are animated entirely by God.  I get the impression you don’t see things in quite this way, and believe in free will?  I don’t believe there is any will aside from God’s will, so I don’t believe in free human agency.  How can God be in all things, and doing all things, and there still be free will?  Very interested to get your thoughts on this.

Martin:
Can’t god’s ‘will’ be that all beings have free will? As god has free will (though I’m not sure it does – see below) and we are all part of god (god makes our hair grow etc), it seems to me that we can’t but have free will – all actions we take are gods actions as we are part of god. It is logically impossible to act against god’s will, as our will is gods will. The thing that strikes me as I write this is that I don’t believe that god has a will as such, god just ‘is’. It may be just a language problem, but whenever we use human attributes when talking about god, it doesn’t seem right to me. I don’t think god cares whether we have free will or not, and it doesn’t care whether we manufacture items, sports or religions – although god is the force that enables us to act/manufacture (and any other verb).

Probably the reason why we seem to agree that god is the motivating force behind everything, and indeed, in my view, is everything, but yet we don’t agree on much / anything else, or perhaps even understand quite what the other is getting at (not so surpirising given our method of communication!) is that we probably mean different things by ‘god’. I don’t think god has desires, a will, emotions, requirements, or a ‘mind’ as such. I think god is nothing like a being that we would recognise. God to me is a force, and not just a force, the force. The force that forces all forces, and would not ‘be’ otherwise.

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How important is Jesus to all of this?

Steven:
In terms of choosing a religion, if Jesus really was the son of God then I would have to choose Christianity, but the degree of difference between Jesus and other human beings is troublesome in panentheism, because if God is in everything, there is a sense in which we are all sons and daughters of God.

Martin:
I agree with this view – all beings are sons and daughters of god of equal value.

Steven:
But I can still conceive that Jesus may have been different in some way, set apart as unique by God.  At Jesus’ baptism there was a voice from heaven that said “This is my son, the beloved, in Him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).  What does this mean?  Do we have to assume that this was some kind of false vision?

Martin:
To me this is purely a matter of faith, not reason, so I can’t comment on it as I don’t have religious faith.

Steven:
OK but to me there is an important question about whether or not to believe these things.  Because Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God is very significant and has implications for everyone on earth.  One still has to ask questions (and reason) about the truth of Jesus’ claims, no?

Martin:
I don’t believe in the truth of Jesus’ claims to be the son of god. Not as being son of god in anyway more significant than all beings are caused by god, and are as such ‘sons of god’.  So Jesus’ claim to be the son of god has no implications as such for me as I don’t have faith in this. No Islamic beliefs have any implications for me, and no religious beliefs have any implications for me unless / until I start to subscribe to a religion.

For the second part of this discussion see the post Conversations with Martin (part 2/2).