Saturday, October 08, 2005

Philosophy and the God Question

Claire at Spiritual Journeys posted these thoughts on Philosophical Reason, God, and Faith.

There were many good comments in reply. This posting struck me because, being a philosophy professor myself, who happens also to take religious faith seriously, I am very sensitive to the issue of how the philosophical teaching of proofs for and against the existence of God can provoke faith crises among college students. I have seen ways of teaching these proofs that I regard as seriously problematic.

So, I would like to post my reply to Claire's posting, and then elaborate a little:

Yes, "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16).

When I teach about the proofs for and against the existence of God, I interpret them a bit unconventionally and point out that their real value is that they are analyses of different concepts that get associated with the concept of God.

I then tell the class that what is important is not so much whether they believe in God or not, but what they mean by "God" when they say that they either believe or don't believe.

I then have them write essays on whether they do believe in God or not, and urge them especially to examine closely what they mean by "God."For example: if you define God as a "white bearded guy in the sky," and say you don't believe in God, what you are really saying is that you don't believe in that concept of God. "Neither do very many believers in God," I add.

"Do you believe in love? What about in the Bible where it says, 'God is love'? What if we really took that seriously? Would that mean that really, we all believe in God?"

That usually blows my students' minds enough, and so at this point I back off, and read their essays with gentleness and respect.

I love philosophy, but still, I would be the first to agree with Claire that our beliefs must be tested carefully both by thinking and by experience.

I woke up this morning thinking further about this. The mystical traditions (and many, including myself, regard Quakerism as a mystical religion) claim that God is a kind of being that cannot really be conceptualized. Therefore, any ways that we do conceptualize God cannot adequately get at what God is really like. It is not that it is totally useless to conceptualize God, but we must be careful about how we interpret our conceptualizations. We should only take them as metaphorical and as approximations.

But this is not to say that we can know nothing about God. It is to say that the primary way of knowing about God is not through reason alone, but from religious experience.

It's when we reflect on religious experience, and especially if we try to describe those experiences to others, that we then conceptualize -- but again, our conceptualizations are never fully adequate.

Sometimes when people begin to realize this, they become disillusioned with reason and even may want to say things like, "reason is fundamentally flawed." I myself do not think that reason is fundamentally flawed, but I do think that it is limited. What it does, it does well, and with real power. But it doesn't do everything. Reason alone cannot account for all of our knowledge.

There are some mystics who regard it as fundamentally wrong to try to conceptualize God at all. They claim that God must be encountered in prayer and meditation: to then conceptualize God, reason about God, or engage in theology is all suspect. I'm somewhat sympathetic to this point of view, but not completely. Calvin Keene, in "God in Thought and Experience," (Quaker Religious Thought 52, Summer 1981, Vol. 19, No. 2) argues that experiences that remain unconceptualized become forgotten -- even very powerful experiences. "Religious experiences need to be interpreted in meaningful ways before they can be assimilated into one's person and become important for life"; otherwise, they can "lose significance" (p. 15).

Conceptualizing about God is what theology is all about. Then when we reason (construct various arguments about God) we are engaging in a process of coordinating our conceptualizations about God with the rest of the meaning system from which we live and think and act. Our meaning systems then need to be brought back to our actual experience again and again for further testing and refinement.

It is also important to note that we cannot share our experiences with each other or talk about our religious beliefs with each other without conceptualzing. Conceptualizing is an important way that our knowledge works, an important way that we stay in touch with a sense of the meaning of our lives, and conceptualizing underlies our ability to communicate with each other. As long as we humbly stay aware of the limits of conceptualizing, and keep testing our conceptualizations against further experience, there is no need to regard our tendency to conceptualize as problematic.

So, reason and experience do not have to be regarded as being at odds with each other. On the contrary, it is good for us to keep trying to reconcile them.


  1. Good - but I didn't see any Biblical texts, and it's always best to go straight to the true source of wisdom...

  2. Ah, but I did quote from the Bible -- my very favorite passage of all!

    But anyway, is it the Bible that is the true source of wisdom -- or is the true source of wisdom God?