Sunday, September 09, 2007

How the Existence of God is No Match for the Experience of God

Unless you are trying to pass a class in metaphysics, whether god ontologically exists or not is trivial at best and more likely irrelevant. It's true that discussing the issue can, if done well, exercise the brain and sharpen one's thinking, but so can many other issues exercise the brain and sharpen one's thinking. Overall, wondering whether god exists or not is nearly pointless -- except perhaps as a way of distracting ourselves from dealing with more authentic challenges of living.

Underlying the mistaken notion that god's existence or non-existence is vitally important are the assumptions that god, merely by god's ontological existence, saves us from meaninglessness, makes sense of our suffering, preserves us from eternal death, is with us in times of need, and so on and so forth. Yet, not one of those things can be demonstrated -- not to you, not to me, not to anyone.

The mere ontological existence of god implies almost nothing about the nature of god or god's relationship to us. For instance, suppose that tomorrow someone finally proves the universe must necessarily have a creator, and therefore god must ontologically exist. Fine. But would it necessarily mean anything to us? Would it mean there was salvation from eternal death? Would it mean god in any way cares for us? Would it tell us a thing about whether god has a purpose for us or not? On what grounds could anyone answer "yes" to those questions?

Yet, it is crucial to point out here that some people experience god. To be precise, they have an experience of something they choose to name "god". Other people, having similar experiences, choose to say they experienced the Tao, the Buddha-Nature, the Great Spirit, the Void, the Ultimate Weirdness, or some other placeholder. It doesn't much matter what people call their experiences experiences of. That seems to be more determined by what society, religious tradition, or culture they come from than by anything else. What matters is those experiences are so often transformative.

They are transformative in ways the mere ontological existence of god is not. For instance, someone who has had such experiences might find they no longer fear dying. Not because they now believe in a life after death, nor because they now have a reassuring theology, but simply because they have changed, been transformed, into someone who doesn't fear death. Likewise, someone who has had such experiences might find they are now capable of much greater love. Again, not because they believe god ontologically exists and has commanded them to love, but simply because they have been transformed into someone who is more loving. While the ontological existence of god (or the Tao, or whatever) is at best trivial, the experience of god is often profoundly transformative.

The question of whether god exists or not is insignificant compared to the transformation that can occur when one experiences god. Moreover, that transformative experience does not come about from believing in god. You can believe in god to your heart's content, but all your hours of belief will do nothing to bring about a transformative experience of god. Why is that?

"God" is just a symbol -- no more, no less. To say you believe in god is quite the same -- and just as trivial -- as saying you believe in the star that represents Paris on a map of France. It is just as insignificant -- and just as trivial -- as saying you believe in your wife's name. Nor does it matter in the least how elaborate, sophisticated and complex your notion of god is. For does it matter whether you say you believe in the star that represents Paris on one map, or you say that you believe in the more detailed street map that represents Paris on a different map? In both cases, your mere belief will not be the same thing as an actual experience of Paris -- regardless of how passionately or fervently you believe.

For those reasons, belief in god is quite often mere escapism. It is like reading a map of Paris rather than visiting Paris. It can be no more than a longed for daydream.

At Andersonville during the American civil war, the Union soldiers who were held prisoner there by the Confederates lacked salt. When you go without salt, you begin to crave it, and the craving of some of those soldiers became so intense that they would cut the world "salt" from their Bibles and chew the word. It did nothing to preserve their lives -- they starved for salt anyway. But it had a psychological effect on some of those who ate the word. It comforted them.

For many people belief in god is just such a comfort. It does nothing to really nourish them spiritually, it is by no means as transformative as experiencing god, but it does give them a morale boost -- just as eating the word "salt" comforted some of the soldiers who did it at Andersonville. Perhaps ironically, I think most of us would prefer the comfort of believing in god to the experience of god. That might be why we place so much emphasis on whether we believe or not.

1 comment:

ordinarygirl said...

Your post is really interesting and I can understand what you're saying.

I don't think most religions (at least Western religions) can accommodate that belief because they are concerned with the afterlife and their "truth" is how you reach it. Whether or not transformation occurs is secondary to reaching salvation in the afterlife.