Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A "God Glut" in the US of A? You Better Believe it!

"We have God on our dollars, God in our pledge of allegiance, God in our congress...God in our public schools, a few of which cling to creationism. God's wishes are cited in efforts to deny abortions to raped women and civil marriages to same sex couples. In our country, God doesn't merely have a place at the table...He or She is host of the prayer heavy dinner party!"

-Frank Bruni, "The God Glut", New York Times, p. A25 today

Columnist Frank Bruni's thrust in his piece is that America is so far God-gone in its collective brain that there isn't "enough room for doubters".  We cavalierly use the word "God" more than the people of any other nation, but pay little heed to any substantive meaning of the word, as if the noun alone confers reality. As Bruni puts it:

"We Americans aren't careful at all....and our religion suffuses arenas where its claims should be carefully measured."

Indeed. But the heart of the problem is that too many Americans never bother to parse the G-word when they use it, or the assumptions behind it. Many of these concern the attributes assigned to their deity. If these attributes are in conflict (for example, omnipresence and omnipotence) then the "god" that results is inchoate, a farce for the febrile-minded.

It was Philosopher Mortimer Adler who first identified the attribute of “aseity” as the most fundamental for any putative divine being. Adler translated his coined term as synonymous with non-contingence, i.e. depending on nothing else for existence. In many respects, aseity trumps all other properties when it comes to identifying a divinity or trying to assign properties whereby a God can be defined consistently.

For example, aseity extended under certain conditions enables us to eliminate certain types of deity. Consider, for example, a proposed pantheistic deity which some define as being co-extensive (or “coterminous”) with the physical universe. But philosopher Alan Watts in a brilliant verbal tour de force showed this isn’t a credible deity. As he put it (‘Behold the Spirit’) if one subtracts the entire physical universe from the pantheistic deity then one arrives at zero. In this case, the pantheistic deity is effectively contingent on the physical universe for its existence. But if it is contingent on the physical universe then it lacks aseity or non-contingency.

Interestingly, a dualistic deity is also prohibited, including one which posits a reality controlled or governed by its deity which splits into absolute evil and good portions, or parts. Thus, an abiding reality which includes an absolute evil presence called “Satan” – presumed to govern the domain of Earth, and an absolutely good entity ‘God’, presumed to govern everything outside Earth, falls under the weight of non-contingency.

The reason is that in such a dualistic good-evil “theo-verse” the putative deity (“God”) becomes dependent on an absolute evil entity “Satan” to do its afterlife bidding in herding “sheep” and “goats” - the former to “heaven” and the latter to “hell”. The problem is, as Anselm once noted, that once credence is given to such a split spiritual reality, the “God” within it is no longer non-contingent. Hence, it is more a cartoonish convention or construct.

Can aseity be assigned such that an entity called “God” can truly be imaged or encapsulated? Perhaps, but more likely not very likely! The reason, as Alan Watts has observed, is because to envisage such deity requires a perfect balancing act between fixity and fluidity. In fixity one seeks to possess or fix a definition or image, but this borders on idolatry. (A perfect example is the fundie who clings to every word of his bible as the god-given absolute truth). In fluidity one admits to the constant motion and ephemeral nature of reality around him but in this case no imaging is possible because all the images flowing are also fleeting.

This has led Watts to finally conclude (‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’, p.27):

“The incredible truth that what religion calls the vision of God is found by giving up any belief in the idea of God. By the same law of reversed effort, we find the infinite and the absolute, not by straining to escape from the finite and relative world, but by the most complete acceptance of its limitations.

Paradoxical as it may seem, we likewise find life meaningful only when we have seen that it is without purpose, and we know the mystery of the universe only when we are convinced that we know nothing about it at all. The ordinary materialist fails to reach this point because he does not follow his line of thought consistently to its end.”

The last statement is particularly significant, in that it discloses the true materialist is actually a genuine spiritual thinker, provided he does follow his line of thinking “consistently to the end”. He may then likely be far more spiritual than his fundie cousin because he is less likely to grasp or clasp an idol …..whether in the form of a special “salvation” formula (Watts also warns against clasping too closely to Christ using his own words) or embodied in the words (often mistranslated)  of a book taken to be absolute symbols of truth.

Ironically also, the materialist may well be closer to a generic divinity orientation –  by the simple expedient of using the law of reversed effort in giving up any belief in the idea of God! One can then argue that if more Americans employed reversed effort vis-a-vis "God", they'd surrender their rank certainty when they use the G-word and even be less inclined to do so. In that case, we'd see a welcome retreat in the overuse of the G-word whether in the halls of congress, at public school sports events, or from insufferable NFL players who believe their spectacular catch was due to intervention by the "Almighty".

On that note, let's also be thankful that Tim Tebow is now more a marginal sideline sideshow for the NY Jets than driving a Godly-Sports movement in an already God-besotted nation!

Mind blowing, eh?

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