Saturday, August 7, 2010

God as Purpose

This is a paper I wrote for a philosophy class. I am far from satisfied with it, but I'm going to post it here for now because I know that if I wait for it to be perfect it never will be. I may use it as a nucleus for further discussion later on.

God as Purpose
The oft-asked question of theology and philosophy, “Does God exist?” is sometimes followed (even preceded) by inquiries into the nature of God itself. This is often done with the (implicit or explicit) assumption that God’s existence is in the affirmative (for example, the characters of David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion). While such an assumption is useful for thought experiment and is perhaps a necessary one to carry on any meaningful discourse concerning the nature of something, the assumption often leads one to retain many presuppositions about God that might best be abandoned in the interest of a truly objective analysis. There are many conceptions of God: animist, polytheist, monotheist, deist, pantheist, panentheist. The common traits such conceptions share are often few and far between, but the central idea that most religions express on the subject is the idea of an intelligent, otherworldly being or set of beings which create(s) the universe. Here too, there is variation: not all conceptions are all-powerful, benevolent, or even have intention in their act of creation.

It should be apparent, then, that while in order to have any meaningful discussion concerning the nature of something as ill-defined as God we must try to find its points of commonality, we must also understand that these are generalities which often have intense variation. Perhaps the best approach to understanding God, then, is to understand the reasons why the idea came into being. In fact, this point is one that is especially important: if we were to define ‘God’ as something without relevance to a person’s existence, it would be a strange occurrence for it to still be called ‘God’. This is because in most, if not all contexts that we have seen a god or gods arise as a significant entity within a culture, it has been to satisfy basic human needs for fulfillment. Religion as a cultural phenomenon is said to have arisen, among many other things, out of a need to find fulfillment, meaning in one’s existence.

In the debate on God’s existence, people will not be satisfied by an answer which is not relevant to their individual situation. A God which gives no sense of meaning or purpose to those who believe in it seems not a God at all, more a mere fact of the universe, like the laws of physics (or perhaps for better analogy, the law of karma in Indic faiths, which is taken as a metaphysical truth but is not worshipped or venerated).

In the beginning of Volume I, Part 2 of theologian Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology, Tillich states, "The basic theological question is the question of God. God is the answer to the question implied in being." Tillich’s account of religion was unorthodox and seems slightly inaccurate. He defined religion as the ‘ultimate concern’ in a person’s life, which seems not necessarily true; whereas one may be ultimately concerned with a religion, others may partake in traditional religious ritual yet not be ultimately concerned by it. However, Tillich was not attempting to work within current guidelines of language concerning religion, but sought to redefine those terms (or rather, to correct them, claiming they had been misunderstood and misused). In this sense, we can see religion as being something which occupies a special reality to those who participate in it. Anything less than ultimate concern is what is often referred to as the ‘exterior’ part of religion; showing all the signs of religious concern but not having that core essence.

So let us take Tillich’s basic point and run with it, that of God and religion as being something that must be understood as relevant to the individual. This is a point that the existentialists seemed to agree upon: Kierkegaard (an ardent Lutheran) felt that it was better to be a pagan with infinite faith than a Christian with only a passing interest in their religion. Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead” was an attempt to show people that the implication of disbelief in God was that one was left adrift in a sea of despair, with no moral foundation (such as that created by ~2,000 years of Judeo-Christian tradition) and that we must therefore seek new values. Sartre said that, though God is an utterly absurd concept, It is a desire for completeness and self-sufficiency for man.

If God is the answer to the question implied in being, then defining God ultimately becomes a matter of understanding being, and what question is immediately implied within it. The question of being appears to be what Tillich describes as a "metaphysical shock", that one is thrust into a world of existence that is without inherent meaning or divine purpose. This is ultimately the heart of the concern in existentialist thought, what Kierkegaard describes as 'angst'.

Once one understands the question implied in being, then one is able to say what God is. But because of this very criterion, the definition becomes a matter which is completely relative to the individual. In order to distinguish what we mean, let us say that there are two relevant conceptions of God: the objective, which is something about the universe that remains independent of individual minds (although the possibility of verifying such conceptions can still remain problematic). Here we see the argumentation of philosophers and theologians: cosmological, ontological, teleological, etc. But there is also the level of which is meant to ask what concerns a person ultimately. This is the subjective conception, which is whatever the individual chooses to accept as their answer to the question implied in being. Having faith in God is to be concerned with It totally and ultimately, all other concerns subjected before this one. So the subjective definition of God is 'that thing which concerns one totally and ultimately.’

To demonstrate this difference, let us suppose that there is a certain conception of God which is contradictory or unverifiable. The theistic model of God displayed in the Abrahamic faiths often is faced with such inconsistencies or contradictions: omnipotent and all-loving but allowing suffering within the world; omniscient and omnipotent but allowing for free will; grounding morality yet not making it arbitrary. While these issues have of course been dealt with over the centuries with vigorous debate and reasoned argument, and theologians as such have developed more nuanced ideas concerning the nature of God, let us suppose that one has faith in this God. To the individual, an objective truth concerning this God (that it is contradictory) does little to the individual’s conviction in this God. It is only when one seriously considers such objective truths and relates them to oneself that the individual’s subjective conception of God is altered. But one may take this to be God regardless of such truths. In other words, while a conception of God can more-or-less be rendered objectively untrue, the fact that it is a matter of utmost importance and concern to an individual remains true, and in this sense this God still exists.

However, discussing the question of God's existence presents an interesting problem, because in raising such a question one must automatically assume many things about the very nature of God. While in common usage there are assumptions which concern certain characteristics (such as benevolence, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc.), the implicit assumption of any inquiry into God's existence is that God is something (almost always an intelligent being) which can be said to exist or not exist. While this may seem a trivial point, the implications are potentially far-reaching. For if God is something which may not exist, it cannot truly be the answer to a question implied in being. If God answers being, It must be universal to being. As Voltaire famously put it, “If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

The difficulty, it seems, is in matching up the objective with the subjective; finding a conception of God which is universal to being and answers it as such. It must be a necessary conception: with the arising of being necessary comes the arising of the answer. What is the answer? Here we must admit that there is no easy answer, and herein we can admit controversy and complexity of the issues involved. Some advocate the idea of a single Creator deity, who actively participates in the universe. Others advocate a more aloof conception, of one who activated a single event (e.g., the Big Bang) and set into motion the entire universe, but does not interfere beyond this. Still others say that what is universally answering of being is the attainment of self-awareness, wisdom, and compassion. Whatever the answer may be, it must fit the criteria discussed above in order for the conception to succeed in solving being.

God, then, is the meaning that one chooses for their existence. This meaning may or may not be the correct meaning, in the sense that it may or may not solve the problems one faces as a temporal, fallible individual. However, it is up to the individual to find what gives them the meaning that answers these problems to their satisfaction.

1. Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology, Volume I. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951.
2. Wainwright, William. "Concepts of God". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.). URL = .
3. Crowell, Steven, "Existentialism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

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