Tag Archives: finite god

Is God Merely the Mind and Conscience of Nature?

For the past three weeks we’ve been considering the second decision point on the road toward Christian faith, that is, the choice between an impersonal and a personal God. As with all the decision points on this journey, here, too, we cannot be compelled to choose the option that moves us closer to Christianity. Nor can I claim to have proved the existence of a personal God beyond any doubt. As I have insisted all along, our judgments in these areas are fallible and we cannot exclude all risk from our decisions. Nevertheless, I argue that this judgment is reasonable and the decision responsible.

Before we move into the third decision point, I’d like to clear up a possible misunderstanding. I am not arguing that this path and these exact decision points must be followed in the order I outline before one can legitimately accept Christianity as true. This path treats the background beliefs that must be true if Christianity is true. It follows an order in which philosophers often treat these questions, an order of priority in being that moves from things that seem basic and necessary to those that appear derivative and contingent. One need not examine these beliefs or even become aware of them to come to Christian faith. People have moved from atheism to belief in God by encountering the beauty and wonder of the universe or the depths of human love. One can be moved from atheism to Christian faith simply by listening to the gospel of Jesus Christ. You don’t need to work your way out of materialism by reason alone or get beyond the idea of an impersonal god solely by intellectual means. But if you do come to believe in God and Jesus Christ by hearing the gospel or experiencing love, it still remains true that you implicitly accept all the background beliefs that cohere with this decision. You cannot believe in a personal God and believe that matter is the ultimate explanation for all reality. Nor can you believe in gospel of Jesus Christ and believe in an impersonal god.

My hope is that thinking through this series in order will help non-believers by showing that the background beliefs that make atheism plausible are questionable, if not simply false. If I can show that materialism is flawed or false, atheism is undermined even if the immediate motive for denying God’s existence is the presence of evil in the world. Showing that the idea of an impersonal god is incoherent may motivate the “spiritual but not religious” group to seek a relationship with the personal God and, hence, be open to full Christian faith. Believers can also benefit from following the path I’m tracing. Making explicit and seeing the truth of Christianity’s background beliefs may strengthen the believer’s conviction that judgments in favor of Christianity’s truth can be reasonable and decisions to follow the Christian way can be responsible.

The Third Decision Point

The third decision point confronts us with the choice between thinking of God as the highest aspect of nature or as transcending nature. Is God supernatural or natural? Is the world God’s creation or God’s body? The issue can also be framed as a decision between theism or panentheism. (Panentheism is the theory that God and the world of our experience are two aspects the one ultimate reality.). Before we go into this discussion, perhaps I ought to say that we are getting close the limits of what we can achieve by reasoning from our experience of the natural world and our own minds. If God really transcends the world and our minds as their Creator, there can be no natural continuity between us and God. Our reasoning can at best take us to the limits of nature and to the limits of what is given with our minds. It cannot take us beyond them. Reason can follow natural law to its limits, but if there is a reality not subject to natural law, we cannot find it in this way.

Nevertheless, there is work for reason to do even at this point. If we begin with the presumption that God is intelligent, personal, and free—a conclusion we reached in the first two decision points—we can examine the reasonableness of thinking of God as a part of nature, subject to basic natural law. If we find this view of God incoherent or inadequate to experience or intuitively unsatisfying, we may find the alternative of a transcendent Creator attractive. And even though we cannot reason directly from our experience of nature and our minds to a transcendent God, we may be willing to consider other ways in which we can achieve such knowledge. If we cannot ascend to God on the ladder of reason, perhaps God can descend to us. If God transcends the laws of the natural world God has created, why should we think the limits nature places on us apply also to God?

Next week we will examine the idea that God is the higher aspect of nature. Does it make sense to think of God as only partially transcending nature, as finite and limited in power, presence, and knowledge, and as developing and growing? Or does it make more sense to remove from our thinking about God all limits and presume that God is infinite and perfect?

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Is God or Humanity The Supreme Being?

Today we leave behind the first decision point on the path to Christian faith. Having made a reasonable and responsible decision to affirm the irreducible reality of mind and attribute the intelligible order of the physical world to an active and universal mind, we now need to consider the nature of that mind. In the most general sense, the issue can be stated as follows: “Is the mind that is evident in the intelligible order of the world impersonal or personal?” More specifically, is the mental aspect of reality an unconscious, primitive urge that drives evolution toward higher and higher order culminating in self-conscious human beings? Or, in another impersonal option, is the universal mind a kind of logical necessity, impersonal in itself, that develops automatically into a world that contains finite, self-conscious minds like ours? Or, in a third option on the impersonal side of the second decision point, does the universal mind possess a primitive consciousness—not yet self-conscious, personal, and free—that itself evolves into god. In this theory, God was not always as great as God is now and did not create the world in a sovereign and free decision; instead, God grows and becomes greater in a world process that includes God and matter evolving together according to impersonal laws not subject to God’s choice.

Or, to consider the personal alternative in the second decision point, is God always and forever personal? Obviously the term “personal” is derived from our experience in ourselves and other human beings of those qualities that distinguish us from nonliving things and life on a lower level. In contrast to other things, we possess self-consciousness, knowledge, freedom, and capacity for interpersonal relationships. Only if God possesses these qualities may we think of God as powerful, loving, merciful, communicative, responsive, and purposive. Only a personal God can create the world and accompany it to God’s intended destination. Only a personal God can hear our prayers, know our names, exercise providence in our lives, and guarantee that we will reach our God-given destination. Only a personal God can root our personal identity in an eternal reality and ground our worth in divine love.

But which alternative conception of God makes the most sense, an impersonal god or a personal God? I have conversed with people who deny being atheists, claim to believe in God, but insist that they cannot believe in “a personal God.” My first reaction to such a qualification is a bit flippant: isn’t the notion of an impersonal god a contradiction? Why would you call an impersonal process “God”? Isn’t this a rather confusing use of the word God? Why not say that you do not believe in God at all? Sometimes, I get the impression that people who claim not to believe in a personal God are not expressing the conclusion of a serious thought project; rather, they are expressing their feelings of discomfort with the idea of God. But let’s assume that those who think of god as impersonal believe something like one of the three alternatives I described above: God is an urge, a logical necessity, or the goal of evolution.

Consider the following implications of the assertion that god is impersonal. To think of god as impersonal in one of these three senses is to insinuate that the god that produced us exists on a lower level of being than we do. Human beings, not god, occupy the highest level of being the world has yet attained. The implications of such a claim are rather eye opening. If god is impersonal, we know more than god does. We understand ourselves better than god understands “his” being. Indeed, we understand god better than god does. We are freer than god. We possess every noble, powerful, and desirable quality to a higher degree than god does. God doesn’t even know that “he” exists. Let me put it bluntly. We deserve the title “god” much more than an impersonal process does, however ancient, primitive, and productive that process may be. And, the deification of human self-consciousness may be the secret within the idea of an impersonal god. Humanity is the highest manifestation to date of the world process, and “God” is our imaginary image of the end stage of the world process.

The choice between a personal and an impersonal god, we can now see, is a choice between believing that there exists something infinitely greater and better than us or believing that we are the greatest and best existing beings. My intuition is that human beings possess an inner tendency to believe that there must exist something much greater and better than us, since that “Something” produced beings as amazing as us. How disappointing it would be to discover that we are the Supreme Being, that this is as good as it gets!