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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

An Answer for Atheists and Climbing the High Dive

(Some of my posts are silly and some are serious.  I apologize if you wanted one of the silly ones.)

It seems to me that maybe the disagreement between theists and atheists might be settled just by changing its terms. If theists say, “There is a God,” frankly, they’re putting all the cards in the hands of the atheists and agnostics. To start with, the burden of proof falls on the person making the assertion, so it’s up to the theist to demonstrate God’s existence, which is impossible without appealing to faith. At the end of the day, it is logically irrefutable to argue either that God does not exist or if He does, we’re incapable of knowing it.

But a philosopher named Wittgenstein points out there are other uses of language besides “is” statements that can be proven true or false: “I am a man,” “Today is Wednesday,” There is a God,” and so forth. One of these uses of language Wittgenstein calls performative. If a Queen says, “I dub thee Ethelred the Unready,” we can’t very well argue with her and say, “No, you don’t.” The act of saying it makes it so. When a priest says, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” or the bride says, “I’m going to call you Snookums,” these are performative statements.

What if it’s the same with God?

Let’s suppose a person were to say, “God is Money.” A ridiculous statement, but of course, if you think about it, a lot of people say that every day by what they do, their performance. In any case, you can argue that Money isn’t worth worshipping, but you can’t disagree that for that person God, the Supreme Being, might be Money. It’s like the old Dylan song, “You’ve got to serve somebody.” Perhaps everyone has a God, which they declare, not just by their words, but by what they do. God might be your belly, or sex, or your children, or your parents. For the Marxists – if there are any of those left – God might be the Future. For atheists, sternly denying a fond belief in the face of public scorn, God might be the Truth. And there are worse Gods, come to think of it, but I’ve got an even better one.

What if God is Love?

Now you might protest that although I say that, I don’t live up to it, and my personal behavior is more consistent with my God being Self. To that I’ll plead no lo contendre. But I could still declare in my imperfect way that God is Love, that the only being I deem worthy of worship is Love itself, even if other acts of my performance fall short. You’ll also argue I don’t really know what love is, and again I plead no lo. My dog is filled with love, but it’s canine love and very narrow; for her, love is praise in a kind voice, being petted, and having a warm place to sleep. (Come to think of it, for most of us, love isn’t much more than this.) Nevertheless, within the extent of her capacity, she is absolutely filled to the brim with love. She is pure doggy love, and – I say this without being facetious – there is something godlike in her love.

Like my dog, in my limited way, I know a little bit about love For one thing, I know love manifests in different ways: there are acts of love, there is the sensation of love, and there are things which are loveable – they cause love or are worthy of love. I would say all these, to a greater or lesser degree, are manifestations of God. When I enjoy chocolate pie, when I kiss my wife, when I stop to jump off a stranger’s battery though I have somewhere else to go, when seeing Orion in the early morning sky fills me with sudden joy – all of these are manifestations of God for me.

So now that we’ve gotten this far together, do you want to go up to the High Dive? It’s pretty scary up there and the ladder is a long way up and the fall is a long way down, so I won’t blame you if you want to stay behind.  But I'm not going to push you off; I just think it might be interesting to go up there and see what the view is be like. You can turn back if you want, though, and I won’t think worse of you.

So here goes.

Let’s suppose we’ve decided God is Love, and let’s suppose, just for the sake of the argument, that a person was born who was the pure embodiment of love. (We’re on the ladder of the high dive now, hold on to the rails.) And this hypothetical person didn’t just embody love the way my dog does, which is mere canine love, but perfect fulfilled love not diminished by, but enhanced by, reason and knowledge. But imagine, if you can, a human, fully human, who was as filled with perfect love as a dog is with doggy love, only more so. (Don’t look down, we’re almost there.) If you believe God is Love, and if a person were pure love – and it wouldn’t matter how it happened: whether he got bumped on the head, a genetic mutation, or intervention by space aliens (We’re at the top, let’s step out on the board.) that person would be God incarnate. (We’re on the high dive now, and it’s ok if you’re ready to head down again.) Of course of all the ways a person could come to embody pure love, the coolest and most appropriate way would be that this embodiment was itself an act of pure love, but again, it wouldn’t really matter how it happened: if you have decided God is Love, and if a person were Love, you’d be compelled to say, “That’s God over there, him, that guy, and I’m going to worship him.”

You can head back down now, and I don’t blame you a minute if you do. Please, in fact, go on down the ladder and I’ll probably join you shortly. I’m just going to stand here a moment longer looking down at the trembling blue water waiting expectantly for me below.

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