Wael Al-Mahdi (2011)
“They ask you about the soul. Say: the soul is an affair of my Lord.” -Holy Qur’an
I, and many other people, may tend to think about God in terms of existence or non-existence, as if he was a physical entity. Surely, I cannot prove to you that God exists the same way a table, an atom, or a black hole exists. I think the issue has been framed incorrectly; an attitude that wants to be scientific, that wants to challenge science on its own turf, attempts to ‘prove’ God the same way we prove the existence of a physical phenomenon. I think this attitude has misdirected many modern people from a more appropriate understanding of God. Why? Because modern people, especially scientifically minded individuals, know, or at least they think they know, so much about the physical world and how it works that the idea of a physical God seems lame by comparison. So you have people like the science fiction writer Douglas Adams stating that he prefers the wonder of knowing over the wonder of ignorance any day. Apparently he thought these two types of wonders are comparable or mutually exclusive. The idea of the existence of a divine agency in the physical world simply can’t compete with our detailed knowledge of causation, statistics, biology, medicine, and engineering; let alone our grave metaphysical doubts about why evil exists, why bad things happen to good people (and vice versa), and why injustice reigns.
Again, it’s my opinion that the whole of issue of God’s existence has been set up wrong. The paradigm must been adjusted if we are to have a better understanding of the divine. But you and I have the right to ask, why should we arrive at a better understanding of God in the first place? Do we really need this complication? Why not just rest content with an automatic acceptance of the conventional God of organized religion (the catechism God, for example)? In the case of atheists, who really needs the aggravation of hashing out the hypothesis of a superhuman entity? I can’t claim that everybody has a need to come to terms with the divine, nor that such an understanding would have a universal benefit. I can only say that for some types of men and women, some types of temperament, this understanding is of the utmost importance. Indeed, in some cases, it can be a matter of life or death, spiritual or physical. In short, only to the extent that a man or woman deems it psychically hygienic to understand this perennial question do we need to pursue the matter at all.
To my mind, it’s better to avoid considering God in terms of physical existence. Instead, it would be more to the point to consider God as a relationship; more precisely, the possibility of a relationship. This relationship does not posit blind faith (which immediately presupposes the concept of ‘existence’) or even trust in the divine, which is a more mature way to consider the divine. No, we should think in terms of entertaining the possibility of a relationship between the human individual and a psychologically-perceived phenomenon we call God. Further: instead of believing in God, of taking his physical existence on blind faith, we should simply accept the possibility of the existence of a psychic relationship with a non-human (but humanly understood) phenomenon which our spiritual traditions call God.
This much is clear: we cannot prove the existence of God physically, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to even conceive of the place and role of a god in the universe (Stephen Hawking recently stated that we definitively no longer need the concept of a causative divine agency in our conception of the universe, not even as the primest cause of all. The universe could’ve started itself just fine.) On the other hand, there are plenty things in our human world that have no existence in the physical universe. Almost all the concepts that set us apart from the animals, that give us the possibility of having culture and civilization, do not exist in the physical sphere. Indeed, our very values do not in any way intersect with the physical world. Few people would say that our most sacred values, like love or fate, have a physical existence. We know love ‘exists’, sure enough; we see human lives ennobled or destroyed in relation to this concept. Love in all its forms, in other words any feeling that we call love, is one of the things that define us as humans. Although we can detect physical changes in persons who are in love, such as the activation of specific brain areas or hormones, we certainly cannot derive the meaning of love from these bodily correlates of love. In this instance, science can tell us ‘how’ but not ultimate ‘why’. Fate is a similar intangible concept that plays a humanly defining role. We could argue that fate is a mental construct imposed on the environment, but such an argument could hardly help to clarify the omnipresence of this concept in the narratives and worldviews of all cultures. Love and fate are essentially relationships, not only with other humans and the environment, but also with certain possibilities that not are directly predicated on physical objects. Love is the possibility, the potential of certain type of relationship with another person but also with oneself that simply doesn’t exist. Yet it is the main point of the greatest narratives in the history of the world, it makes or breaks men and women, it can even be where our most supreme human values stand or fall. With fate we stand before a similar relationship, the possibility of a relationship with events whose causation is partly physical and partly human, but whose meaning can only be construed in human terms. In a way, fate is an epiphenomenon based on, but independent from, physical events, in the same way the mind of the is an epiphenomenon based on the brain. That fate is an epiphenomenon, however, does nothing to diminish its importance. Yet where in the physical world is the locus of love or fate? The ancient Greeks did well to realize that the university didn’t give damn about the fate of humans. Our most vital values can not be physically proven to exist, yet we cannot deny the extent of their effect on our lives. They can be argued to be mental constructs imposed on the physical world, and so they are. But in the human world they can make all the difference between ‘happiness’ and lack thereof, assuming we can reach a more or less universally accepted definition of happiness or even grant its universal desirability.
Now, as far as God is concerned, let me ask: could we conceive of God in terms of a humanly vital relationship which we should not conceived in physical terms? Psychologically, we can say along with Carl Jung that we know God exists. It’s difficult to deny the psychological importance of the God concept in the history of cultures and individuals. This points to some locus of psychological functionality behind the concept. In fact, only relatively recently have we started to conceive of God in scientific terms, in terms of existence or non-existence. But now that we grant the difficulty of thinking of God in physical terms, perhaps we should try to conceive of him in terms of a relationship; the relationship of the individual with a phenomenon which seems very important and which confers a vital psychological balance. More precisely, one could point out that one of the psychological aspects of the belief in God relate to the provision of a safe conduit for psychic energy that can’t be controlled by the individual will. I have long wondered how strong a man needs to be in order to become a true atheist, a denier of all forms of metaphysical constructs, including hope, justice, and morality. Perhaps we have an answer in Nietzsche, who called himself the first immoralist, who denied even pity. We all know how that story ended.
In considering that God is the possibility of a relationship with a psychologically perceived phenomenon, we should also consider God’s ‘attributes’. At the level of a psycho-spiritual relationship with God, as opposed to an intellectual understanding of him, we should perhaps do good to be rid of the concept of divine attributes. Why? Because it appears that all the attributes we can tack onto God are either physic or human. I must ask: is it not unhealthy, at least at the level of understanding that we are reaching for, to conceive of God anthropologically, namely in terms of a relationship with another human being? There are many who dress up their god as their father, mother, or friend. Much worse, I should avoid setting up my own image in God’s place.
The most ancient traditions realized the advisability of avoiding picturing God, if one is to have a more spiritually mature understanding of the possible relationship. Therefore in the monotheistic religions the metaphor of the sky stood for God. In other contexts it was a burning bush, a whirlwind, or, to avoid a divine image altogether, messengers were posited. Christianity made the task of imagining the divine easier by introducing the divine man Jesus, but God himself remained unconceivable. In this day and age, perhaps we should follow this ancient cue and avoid attributing not only images to God, but all physical and human attributes. In an age of doubt, where man seems to be alone in the universe, the dearth of the paths to God is worrying many thoughtful individuals. Perhaps by considering a wider paradigm of understanding divinity, we can keep alive the possibility of a relationship with an indispensable and invaluable source of meaning.