In “God” Some Trust

*inspired by an encounter in Times Square, July ’09

“Do you believe in God?”  The missionary girl on the street wanted to know.

I looked at her for a second.

“Well,” I started, “I guess I think that’s the wrong question.”

It’s something I had been telling people for a while, ever since I’d realized how many devout believers have basically no idea what they’re saying they believe in when they say they believe in God.  They know the set of principles and values that comprise their belief system; they know what actions are required of them and what actions are prohibited.  But principles, values and actions aren’t what people usually ask about.  They ask about God.  And if the standard baseline assessment of my religious leanings is going to hinge on the question of belief or non-belief in “God,” I guess it seemed to me like the questioner should be able to tell me more about the nature of the entity I would be claiming to believe in if I answered “yes, I believe in God.”

This questioner was staring at me.

“What form does God take?” I asked her. “Or does God even have form?”

I’d been surprised in the past by how many religious people would say that God does not have any physical form.  That answer seemed at odds with their willingness to throw around the term “God” at all, which, as a widely popularized proper noun, compels a notion of form.

But she, too, responded that God did not have form.

“Alright, if God isn’t a physical being,” I asked her, “is it some kind of force, an energy?”

“No, no, not at all.”  She answered.  “Definitely not an ‘energy’!”

I realized that “force” and “energy” probably sound too much like that crazy heretical spiritual stuff – that stuff I was raised with.

But then she offered something that almost landed us in the same school of thought: “God is a completely different dimension,” she said.  “We can’t know what form he takes because our minds were not built to comprehend.”

“Yes!”  I thought.  Radical subjectivity.

“If we can’t know what form ‘God’ takes, if we can’t even begin to comprehend the workings of this other dimension,” I asked, “what makes it special?  I mean, how can we attach significance to something we claim to be entirely incapable of comprehending?”

This point was the one that always tripped me up.  It was hard for me to believe that something could have substantive meaning to our human world and at the same time be utterly bereft of qualities in our imagination.  I wasn’t asking for some ultimate truth about God, or even for there to be a truth; I was asking, what, really, are you left believing in when you say you believe in God? Of course putting these things into words is bound to be inexact; calling God a “force,” for example, would still leave us in gray territory.  But as an attempt at articulation, it would be a starting point for understanding one another.  We can cloak ourselves in the frustratingly convenient paradox of agnosticism up to a certain point, but as soon as we commit to a belief we can’t deny having a personal version of truth.  Belief is a version of truth—personal, individual and imagined.

But the missionary girl didn’t give me her version.  She smiled and said, “All we know is that God created the world and gave us this book of truths.” She whipped out a little bible and handed it to me.

“Book of truths?!” I heard myself say.  This from the girl who had just claimed she could have no idea of the constitution of God, had claimed that God was beyond truth and beyond form.  And yet here was a God so personified that He could deliver unto us mere uncomprehending mortals The Truth.  In a fucking book.

I gave her back her bible and walked away.  Reflecting on the incident later I thought maybe I should have asked not, “what form does God take?” but, “is God sentient?”  Sentience?  Is “God” a rational actor at all, motivated by some fundamental linearity?

Because if God is a form of sentient rationality, then no, I don’t think I do believe in God.  Rationality is a human convention, and I see no compelling reason to believe the world begins and ends with sentient and/or linear and/or reasoned action.  But then again, there’s no compelling reason to believe the opposite either.  And compelling reasons one way or the other will never be found; they don’t exist.  Truth only exists within a framework, from a certain starting point or perspective.  So the only truths that really matter are the ones that actually bear upon our little world, the ones we can derive from our surroundings.

And that being the case, well, who cares whether anyone believes in “God” or not?  We can’t approach the nonexistent absolute truth about how the world began or how it’s going to end.  We can’t know how life began or where or how it’s going to end when death becomes us.  We can’t know what “God” is or, maybe, even agree on what Her/His “existence” means to us in the here and now.  Our framework is society.  So regardless of what lies beneath, or beyond, we have a framework for ethical action.  What we should be concerned with is not who believes in God or what that means.  We should be concerned with how we treat each other while we’re here.  If it takes a religious system, if it takes a “God,” to inform one’s ideas about how to treat others, more power to that system and that “God” that encourages acceptance, love and generosity.  But don’t ask me if I believe in your God.  Ask me the real, functional questions—questions that can’t be answered short of an actual discussion: how do you believe we should interact with those around us?  What are your ethics?  What, simply, purely, do you believe?


Filed under Opinion & Essay

4 responses to “In “God” Some Trust

  1. Cayman

    Reading this made me smile very many times; I miss our conversations.

  2. James

    Interesting argument, one that has gone on for eons. Either/Or philosophy is often used on both sides of the argument for belief or non-belief in God. Pick up Paul Tillich’s “Dynamics of Faith” to totally shake any foundation of faith in anything…with the correct philosophical construct one could argue the existence of ones own hand.

    In regards to form and existence, many physical truths and postulates rely on formless energies and there existence is only “proven” by the effect these forces have on other “forms”. Gravity…time…moment of inertia…how do we prove their existence? We “just know”.

    All in all no missionary girls can use any arguments for the existence of God…EXCEPT as to the evidence that God may have on their lives, their own Book gives a testament to this. Nothing aside from relationship (which is the product and evidence of God’s existence) can cause one to believe. It is no ones responsibility to prove why they believe in God in the same construct that we would try to prove the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. No camera is going to capture his form, no footprint is going to be able to be plastered and examined. However footprints and differently tangible clues do exist. Why are we moral? Why can we put our finger on what is wrong and right on some non-arguable issues? Does absolute truth exist and if it does where does it stem from, what is the plumb line?

    Apologetics, the study of looking at the facts in history, philosophy, bibliographical studies in order to prove religious beliefs used to be a significant interest of mine. It is not so important to me anymore. It is merely garnish to what true faith is, which can’t be argued and must be experienced. It is about relationship. Christianity is that. You can’t do a Crusade to force someone to believe something nor talk them into it. You can tell them your story and if it strikes a chord so be it. If it sounds mystical and other-wordly it is. I would argue that love is something most would believe in, yet I could argue in my scientific mind that love is just a burst of serotonin and norepinephrine in the limbic system to promote a response which makes it likely to get your genes propegated. I believe in love and God. My experiences tell me they exist. Until they are experienced by someone, I would be hardpressed to expect belief in them.

  3. heck yea! this is just the beginning!

  4. James!

    I meant to respond to your insightful comments back when you posted, and I guess the flagged e-mail intended to serve as my reminder must have gotten lost. I just happened upon this again now.

    I like your gravity analogy. We don’t really “know” gravity “exists”; we’ve just assigned a name to a force that we observe in the interaction of matter. Similarly, you observe (feel) God as a force acting in your own life. My question for you (not intended as a challenge – none of my questions on this topic are, though I’m not sure I represented that very well) becomes, what is the nature of the set of feelings that you attribute to this force you call God? What, specifically, causes you to feel compelled to attribute all these feelings to the same supernatural causational phenomena?

    And I guess my key (rhetorical) question is: what is the difference between the supernatural and the physical? Why even draw the distinction, except for practical purposes of expressing ourselves to one another, of representing different types and levels of emotion? You say you could argue in your “scientific mind that love is just a burst of serotonin and norepinephrine in the limbic system to promote a response which makes it likely to get your genes propegated.” I would argue that love IS [not “just”] this burst of chemicals – but I would never argue that the chemical explanation makes the resulting feeling that we call “love” any less special, any less exultant.

    I think science has convinced us that the physical somehow stands apart form and trumps the spiritual, and I don’t buy it. I believe in what I would call “soul” because I have at various times felt certain connections with people that can’t quite be explained simply with reference to personality – it is instead a certain sameness, a certain something deep within them (and me) that draws us together. Can this sameness ultimately be linked to genes and chemical reactions within the body? Probably. Does the link to genes and chemicals change the feeling of closeness I have with these people? No. Soul is, after all, just (or not “just”) a code word for something bigger and deeper and more comprehensive than a collection of character traits. If soul has a physical representation (in genes etc), the word still has meaning. All of our words are codes/just codes, and the physical doesn’t disprove the spiritual; it’s just another view of a single situation. Physical explanations account for the mechanics of various experiences, while terms associated with spirituality represent (like gravity) the sensations we associate with those experiences.

    Hence, I’m chiefly interested in the nature of each individual’s concept and experience of God rather than in the spurious questions of “whether” one believes in God or even whether God is physical or spiritual. “God” is a word that represents, in most cases I think, a sensation or series of sensations. And validly so.

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