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Human Condition section, Ontology of God series

What About the Problem of God?
A philosophical dialog about God

Copyright © 1997 Dorian Scott Cole
About this series..

This article is part of an original research project into the nature of God, by Dorian Scott Cole. The things that we believe that God asks of us, and the way he treats us, as seen in historical religious literature, seem to me to be a window into what God is all about. In creating a construct of characteristics of God (an ontology of one particular kind of relationship) this would seem to be a key type of relationship to explore. This is Ontological Construct Theology.


Ah, yes, this is kind of abstract, isn't it? I wonder, just how abstract can one get? Is there a difference between believing there is a God, and believing in God? Can the concrete make the abstract more believable? And just how would that happen?

"So," I ask my imaginary friend, "do you believe in God?"  I might be on safe ground here - only about 1% of the world claims not to believe in God. And I think I can get away with having an imaginary friend for the purpose of argument, without being looked on as insane, or even mildly delusional. After all, I am accustomed to talking to a piece of paper - or a computer screen.  We shall wait for the reports. 

My friend looks perplexed - that's what I want him to do. "Well, no, actually... actually I'm confused - I really don't know what to believe."

"Don't look at me," I counter.  "I don't tell people what to believe." 

"See, that's just the problem," my friend replies.  "Some people can't wait to tell me what to believe, but their idea of God makes me want to puke."  Very demonstrably, he pushes his finger down his throat and gags.   I'm thinking my friend has been watching the Simpsons TV program, but I can't stand the Simpsons, so ... anyway.  "Other people just smile and say they can't tell me what is God.  Then there are some, like Karen Armstrong explains in her book, A History of God,  who believe God is basically a construct.  He is a figment of our imagination - in fact he is a device of our collective imagination.  We need God, therefore He is."

"Gulp.  I see - that is difficult to deal with.  Well, can you prove any of this - can you prove that God is not?" 

"Well... no.  How can you prove that something is not?  That's a kind of negative logic.  It is difficult enough to prove what is, let alone prove what isn't.  We can imagine all kinds of things - shall we spend our days trying to prove everything conceivable that is not, is in fact, not?  Where would it end?"

"Aha," says I, smiling at the cleverness of my little trap.   "Some would say that everything really is a construct of our imagination.   If you question what is, then you must prove everything exists."

"Go soak your head," he replies.  My friend is sometimes given to editorial comments in lieu of difficult answers.

I charge on, knowing I have him.  "So then, it is better to take what is in the world as a given - a starting point.  Man has believed in God from the beginning of time (or somewhere thereabouts in human history).  If 95+% of people believe in God, does it make any sense to doubt His existence?"

My friend looks skeptical - he has his doubts.  He thinks he might be a Postmodernist.  He thinks he has a friend in me on that account, but he is unsure and he looks most uncomfortable. "Ok, Ok, show me God,"  he demands.  "Show me this real thing that I can put my hands on or see in a microscope.  Show me how I can test God and see if he is real."

I think of all the classic arguments about seeing God in nature, about faith and seeing the results of God in people's lives, and about miracles and explanations of events that can't be explained without God.  But these arguments have their counter-arguments: intelligent agency in the universe - does that mean there is a God; faith and miracles - are they not the power of suggestion, or possibly some psychic phenomenon - does faith mean there is a God? These are things that support faith, but don't prove God.  I'm not going to go there.  Since God is an abstract notion, I try to think of some similar abstract term that also can't be tested.  Yet all I can think of are abstract terms that are built of more concrete and testable elements - that only looks like a recipe for a long argument. 

"OK, I will show you God." 

My friend's eyes grow wide in disbelief, fearing what he will hear next.   "Stop writing, NOW!  You can't put things like that in writing - if people had any doubt that you were completely mad when you started talking to an imaginary friend, now the asylum will be coming to get you for sure.  You will be disgraced! No one has ever shown anyone, God.  You can't do it!  You're - "  He was about to start editorializing again so I cut him off. 

I carried my friend out to the backyard (he's rather light-weight) and handed him a shovel. 

"What?!" he asks in that contemptuous tone he uses when he thinks I'm ridiculous.  He learned it from my teenage son.

"Dig."  He has to dig - he can argue, but I control him.   He can't grasp a shovel, so we don't lose many calories.

"What are we doing?" he asks. 

"We're planting a garden." 

"Oh, get off it," he replies.  "You know you're not going to prove God by pointing to God in nature."

"You're absolutely right.  But take a look around you.  What do you see?"

"A shovel, metal, wood, fertilizer, the earth, worms, growing plants, blah, blah, blah.  What's you're point?"

"You see reality."

"Yeah, are we going to go into this 'you can't prove reality exists nonsense again?'"

"Nope.  When you see reality, you see one aspect of God."

"Oh, brother.  You dragged me out to the backyard to show me this?   At least you got an imaginary garden out of it."

I'm not disturbed by his lack of excitement.  I know where I'm going with this - he's only along for the ride.  I took him over to watch a young man work on a car.  The young man tightened a bolt too tight and it broke off.  He was now in for a lot of work.  We got out of there before the cursing started.  "What was he doing?" I asked my friend. 

He chuckled.  "Learning."

OK, so now you know another aspect of God. 

We passed a neighbor's house where an elderly man lives.  A man in his forties finished raking his yard and other odd jobs and got in his truck to leave.   The elderly man approached the truck and tried to pay him, but the younger man refused.  "What was going on there?"

"Love.  Another aspect of God?  OK, I see where you are going, but this doesn't prove anything.  Humanism could account for all of these things."

"Could it?  Humanism doesn't seem to account for the role of society in creating the very norms that humanism decides are worth having.  And those people in society who created those norms mostly believe in God - in fact believe that He is the author of those norms. But, I'll give you that one, too."

"You are only trying to confuse me," he counters.  "You don't have an argument, let alone proof.  You don't even have a prayer."   He smiled smugly.

"What if I showed you proof, but you didn't understand it?" 

My friend was insulted; irate.  "What do you think I am, an earthworm? I'm just as smart as you are."

"You're as smart as I let you be," I corrected.  But he wasn't consoled - he valued being smart and to have someone control his smartness was not acceptable.  The only thing that would help was to get to the point with a concrete example of just what I'm talking about.

"OK, suppose you are a Neanderthal who I discover in some remote region of the world and I bring you back and you watch as I open my garage.  I have a proximity switch at the end of my drive that senses the car.  It uses radio waves to signal the garage door opener to open the door.  The garage door opens and a light comes on.   The Neanderthal would have no idea how any of that happened.  He doesn't understand radio waves, he doesn't understand electricity, he doesn't understand light bulbs, he doesn't even understand wire or garage.  In his mind, I can assume he would attribute the garage door actions and light to God.  Am I right?"

"Yes, of course, you have just made my point for me, perfectly - God lives in the shadows of what we don't understand.  God is not."

"And you have missed the entire point of coming to understand about God."


"That you don't now have the capacity to understand, but if you keep learning all these aspects of God, you are learning about God.  Like the Neanderthal, right now we don't even have the capacity to understand.  In our pride, we would like to think that we do, because we think we are rational and logical and we have these scientific tools that explore the universe from microcosmic to macrocosmic.  But we have no idea of how vast knowledge is, or of  the measure of other aspects of the world, like love.  So we think that we do understand what is to be known and we say therefore that we don't see God, therefore he doesn't exist."

My friend is not yet convinced.  "I knew it!  You never intended to actually show me God."

"What you want me to do is bring God here, put a label on him that says 'God,' and write a definition for him that defines everything that God can and can't do.   All His powers, all aspects of Him, all His knowledge.  Religions have done that forever.  It's called revelation.  (God reveals himself through history and in the affairs of man.) The most extreme aspect of it is called fundamentalism.  I'll bring you the Koran, and the Bible, and the Talmud, and Bhagavad-Gita, and all the rest. Is this what you want?  A compendium of religious thought?  What does it take to satisfy you?"

"I don't believe any of those." My friend is really in a tantrum.

"Have you tried living any of those?  Have you made their journey?   If you plan a vacation to Morocco, but never make the trip, you never visit the common land and meet a nomad that lives off the land, so you've never been to Morocco.   If you never make the trip to explore God, then how do you expect to know what he is made of?"

My friend shakes his head.  "I might not like nomads, or Morocco.   I only want to read about them."

"Then you are the epitome of the armchair warrior.  You have heard the rules of the game, but you only watch and criticize, and philosophize about it.   If it were football, you would know nothing of the bone crunching, strategizing, instant decision making, man behind you, spikes in the leg, horror of it all."

"You don't even like football."

"Well, it's an example.  I'll use soccer, if it pleases you.   The fact is, you confuse fact with reality."

"You're full of it."

"No, really, there are millions of facts - things other people tell you about things.  Then there is experiential reality - things you know because you have experienced them yourself.  There are facts about iron.  Iron has an atomic number and certain compressive and tensile strengths.  It is meaningless to you personally until you personally hit your finger with a hammer, or try to build a bridge that won't collapse under the weight of a railroad car.  Facts about a soccer game have little to do with your reality.  Aspects of soccer are only real when you play the game." 

"Maybe you have a point," my friend concedes.  "I don't get in the game.  I guess it really isn't quite fair to claim God doesn't exist if I'm not willing to be part of the things that it takes to understand him.  But I see a lot of disillusioned people bow out of religion.  What does that say about religion?"

"I guess that people grow and change and that what they know no longer seems to fit in their mental model of their religion, or of God.  But the fact that they have changed doesn't mean that God has changed or that God doesn't exist.  They haven't integrated a new concept of God that draws from different aspects of God."

"Oh, boy, here we go, psychobabble.  And about religion."

"I'll drop that, my feathered friend."  I gave him really cool pastel green and pink feathers for the moment.  My friend winces.

"Good.  So tell me, you call God a Him, capital letters and all - just what does this guy do, sit on a great throne and shoot lightening bolts at people he doesn't like, and smack misbehaving kids with his scepter, and judge people and send them to Hell?"

"Yes, of course."

"You're kidding."

"Yes, of course.  I was kidding about the feathers, too.  I have no definitive idea what God can be characterized as.  We tend to anthropomorphize human attributes to God.  Whatever we think humans are like, we attribute the same characteristics to God.  In this way, we put labels on God that we can understand, and perhaps control.  We need to understand.  Religion tends to describe God in very abstract terms: 'I am.'  'God is love.'  People having near death experiences typically describe God as a light.  These experiences are usually structured in the religious garb of the beliefs of the experiencer.  The psychic Edgar Cayce described God's beginning as knowing that He knew that exists and pulled Himself together.  Cayce's comment almost seems like a metaphor for the solidification of planets at the beginning of the universe.  Others describe God as the universal consciousness - a metaphor for the collective conscious of all people. Perhaps God is all these things and much more.  Perhaps God is whatever we need Him to be so that we can make sense of our world and learn from our experience, just as electricity serves us in any capacity we wish.  But that doesn't make electricity any less real, and it doesn't make God any less real. Perhaps when we reach the end of the journey we will already know." 

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