*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?