Well folks, the end of school and the first hazy days of summer have proved most unfriendly to theological ruminations. That’s my fancy way of saying sorry it’s taken me so long to post again. But I figure I can get the ball rolling this time by exploring one of my questions that I’m pretty sure is going to provoke some strong response:
“If God is ‘only in our minds’ – does that make God any less real?”
This question was inspired most recently by a conversation I had with a friend at the dog park (a place I have found surprisingly conducive to deep discussions). I was talking with my friend about my plans to launch a blog about religion and she confided that personally she couldn’t be religious because she believed that God is something that exists “only in our minds”.
Of course, in one sense my friend’s statement is obviously true: any one understanding of God is the creation of a specific faith tradition (or strand within that tradition). Karen Armstrong’s books such as The History of God and The Case for God do an excellent job of showing just how diverse those understandings of God have been over time and across different cultures.
However, what my friend meant when she said “God is only in my mind” is something more fundamental: that any conception of God is man-made – that God ‘exists only in our head’. In this post I would like to explore this claim and ask why it is that the word ‘only’ must be tied with the rest of that statement.
Can you imagine if your spouse declared undying love to you and you replied “you know, those feelings are only in your head”. Or if, upon hearing how your friend was so moved by a musical performance, you replied “Your aesthetic response is just the product of a collection of neural mechanisms in your brain that have evolved to process auditory stimuli as part of our reproductive drive” (see Denis Dutton’s book The Art Instinct, which essentially makes that argument). Your spouse and your friend would think you were crazy (or at least a big dork).
The fact is that much of our existence occurs ‘only in our head’ – all of our emotions, aesthetic responses, our memory – all exist ‘only in our heads’. But all of these mental phenomena are viewed as being ‘real’ – real emotions, real responses to external stimuli. I would argue that God may be something similar – God is the word we give to experiences in our lives where we sense “something more”.
Over the past year I participated in a Bible study where people started off the monthly meeting by sharing their ‘God moments’ – moments where they have experienced the presence of God in their lives. The experiences shared were usually quite mundane – joy in reconnecting with an old friend, gratitude for a positive biopsy result, a sense of peace from helping a homeless person in need – rarely were these experiences the sort of spectacular supernatural moments that are so frequently ridiculed in the New Atheist literature. Yet, despite the everyday nature of these moments, for these women they included a palpable sense of the divine. I regularly experience such God moments as well – interestingly enough they seem to most often occur while washing the dinner dishes and staring at the cherry tree outside the kitchen window.
What I have found most interesting in hearing about these God moments and reflecting on my own is that the emotions and experiences described are ones with which a completely non-religious person would be familiar. An atheist might argue that the universality of these experiences proves that God has nothing to do with it. However I would argue the opposite – that the universality of these transcendent moments proves that they are core to our humanity and that people simply give different names to these experience: “Allah”, “God”, “friggin’ wicked cool” – what have you. Regardless of what name you give the experiences, the fact remains that these are phenomena that exist in our consciousness.
One counter to the argument I’ve made so far is that when we speak of God we usually think we are talking about something that exists outside of our heads. However, Karen Armstrong’s latest book “The Case for God” points out that this idea of an external higher being that objectively exists is just one conception of the divine – and actually not necessarily the most common throughout time. In fact, divinity has frequently been conceived as something that resides within our consciousness, or at least is continuous between us and the universe. For example, according to Armstrong, the ancient Indian Aryans discovered “that the Brahman, being itself, was also the ground of the human psyche. The transcendent was neither external nor alien to humanity, but the two were inextricably connected. This insight would become central to the religious quest in all the major traditions”(p. 19). And, fast forwarding a millenia or two, here’s my favorite quote on the subject, by the great German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “If I thought of God as another being outside myself, only infitely more powerful, then I would regard it as my duty to defy him”.(Armstrong, p. 279) This idea of God with us, within us is also what makes the concept of Emmanuel – God with us – so powerful. As Paul writes in Romans 8.9 “you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you”.
Another key point Armstrong makes, with the help of thinkers such as Paul Tillich, is that to think of God as something that exists as an external fact in our world is to turn God into an idol. As Tillich writes:
“We can no longer speak of God easily to anybody, because he will immediately question: ‘Does God exist?’ Now the very asking of that question signifies that the symbols of God have become meaningless. For God, in the question, has become one of the innumerable objects in time and space which may or may not exist. And this is not the meaning of God at all.”(p. 282)
So what is the meaning of God? The case Armstrong tries to make in her latest book, and with which I completely agree, is that the meaning of God is something transcendent and ineffable that is experienced in our consciousness – triggered through a variety of means. (I should also note that any attempt to fully define the meaning of God will inevitably fail because by this definition above God transcends our ability to talk about him/her/it).
Anyway, there does seem to be sufficient support within a variety of religious traditions for the concept of God as part of our consciousness. However, for many who have been raised on a very different conception of God – one that is perhaps more commonly found in the average Sunday school classroom and in a literal reading of the Bible– saying that God is in our minds may seem horribly reductive, like shrinking God to the tiny recesses of our minds from His exalted locale in the heavens. In response to this critique, I ask you to imagine the following:
Imagine a universe where there was no consciousness capable of perceiving the divine. By this I mean to include not just human consciousness but any being anywhere in the universe that might be able to perceive God. In this scenario, there would be no one whose faith motivated them to great acts of compassion or mundane acts of everyday kindness. No one would express gratitude to God in the face of tremendous beauty or love or joy. No one would find that God helped them find strength to cope with inescapable pain and suffering. Imagine that all of these ways that God becomes manifest on earth – if all of these ways were obliterated because no consciousness could perceive God’s presence. I would argue that in this scenario – God would become utterly irrelevant. So ultimately, to me, I don’t find a God that exists in my head at all reductive. I am rather in awe of the power of this “God perception” on human behavior – both for good and for evil. I can’t imagine any other kind of God that would matter. God’s power in our lives comes from the fact that we have moments where we sense God’s presence, and the ways that this experience influences our behavior and attitudes.
This however is hardly the end of the discussion – it simply opens up many more fascinating paths of inquiry – such as:
- Is there any way to envision a God consciousness that leads only to paths of peace and tolerance rather than the intolerance and violence that have rightly motivated so many to reject religion altogether?
- Has neuroscience made any progress in identifying the locus of this ‘God consciousness’? Is there an actual area of the brain responsible for this perception? What brain functions are intertwined with this type of perception (I would hypothesize that they would be closely intertwined with emotional and aesthetic responses).
- How can a theology of God in our minds avoid devolving into self-worship?
In my next post (which at this rate will probably be produced some time in September) I hope to cover this last question first. Until then, I look forward to hearing from you all about this post.