Friday, May 14, 2010

A short note about God

I don't take any particular position on God, but I do believe there is a unifying reality, or truth, that we all experience in different ways. Meaning is positional -- it depends on where you stand -- but ultimately we are looking at the same thing, even if we perceive only a small part of it.

Human belief systems develop through this combination of an "experience of the real" and positional understanding. Because people occupy a range of perspectives, we get a rich diversity of "claims to truth." Often times, such claims are legitimate when taken from a particular vantage point; and, in fact, many conflicts between belief systems stem from an inability on the part of adherents to appreciate "what is true" from any other perspective than their own.

One of the more interesting aspects of the kind of belief system that comes out of something like the Gospel message of Jesus is the association of "worldly power" with evil, developed as it was into a personification represented by the devil. As an aside, it is surely a positional bias of modern audiences that commercial secularism affords us something like "The Lord of the Rings," in fact developed out of Biblical themes, but denies the ancient world the right to do the same with the technology available to them in their day, and the creative approach this inspired, because it "isn't true" -- though truth can be found in either.

The devil operates in a sophisticated way, not by being in "opposition to truth," but by playing to our positional understanding what the truth is, and reinforcing it to the exclusion of other people's perspectives. What it always tells us is that we are right, and they are wrong. This is how evil acts to separate people from each other, and lays the foundations for "kingdoms of man" -- those realms where we worship "false idols," or, one part of the truth to the exclusion of the whole. Hierarchical power is built on relationships that, walled off from horizontal expansion, expand vertically.

Now what is interesting in the case of someone like Jesus, and most of the other prophets as well, is how the liberating experience of "God," or, ultimate truth, is something that can only happen through the synthesis of positional truth into a broader understanding of what truth is. This can only happen through our relationships with other people, because it is other people who see truth from a different perspective. The devil effectively tells us we don't need other people -- we can have things; the Gospel message is that we do need people, because without them we become prisoners to a reality that can't be shared with others.

Institutionalized, belief systems are very dangerous, and this is what people mean when they, almost invariably, say they are opposed to "organized religion." But this should always signal something to us, when people feel free to renounce a particular system of belief, because the likelihood is that this system is no longer the predominant one, on which people depend for their livelihoods, or for which spirited criticism carries real costs. Something else has taken its place, and our relationship to it deserves scrutiny.


Jack Crow said...

I prefer to judge the value of belief by the engagement of the believer.

As noted earlier, there are Christians who abandon metaphysics (Vattimo, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer) or who refuse to externalize their meta- assumptions (Berdyaev), and because their seeking after God does not follow from a desire to escape, they engage their world.

Within the Catholic tradition, you can see that very clearly in the lives and works of the Berrigan brothers, Maximillian Kolbe, Ammon Hennacy and Dorothy Day.

They know that they believe, but that belief in their own faith does not lead them to make the leap towards "spiritual masturbation."

These examples are qualitatively different from those who believe a God who secures them in their own assumptions, this belief reinforcing their urge to control their world - or from believers who slip away into quietism and fantasy, imagining themselves sanctified as they tread the bone roads of tyrants.

JRB said...


What interests me in this case is the tendency of belief systems toward or away from greater integration with the world, and how this is expressed in relations of power (horizontal or vertical, e.g.).

Your examples seem to follow this pattern; but I only drew from the Christian tradition to illustrate how it approached this dynamic itself, through the ideas like "God" and "the devil."

Alternatively, we can see from the body count of something like the "war on terror" how much this perspective is animated by a "search for truth" as compared to a multi-billion dollar effort to deny it. This owes to the institutional framework from which it came, itself perched on the insular, self-serving perspective of "the nation."