Tag Archives: impersonal god

“I’m Spiritual but Not Religious”

How often have you heard it? “I’m spiritual but not religious.” More than a few times, I suspect. And it’s hard to know what to say to this self-designation. So, let’s think about it.

We’ve been discussing the issue of an impersonal God for the past two weeks from a theoretical point of view. Today provides an opportunity to look at it from practical angle. Increasingly in recent years, more and more people claim to be “spiritual” but not “religious.” I’ve wanted to subject this idea to analysis for some time, and I am happy that it fits in the series at this point.

It’s not easy to specify what people mean when they affirm the importance of spirituality but deny their need for religion. In many cases I get the impression that the person making the distinction doesn’t have a clear idea either. Perhaps their negation of religion is stronger and clearer in their minds than their affirmation of spirituality. Popular culture has largely succeeded in portraying religion and highly religious people as narrow-minded, ignorant, intolerant, judgmental, exclusive, and more than a little neurotic. When people deny being religious their main concern may be to make a statement about their own character by differentiating themselves from the cultural image of the religious person. For some people, the “spiritual but not religious” claim is simply a less obviously self-commending way of saying “I am a good person, tolerant and welcoming, unlike those bad people, who are judgmental and reactionary. You will like me.” They use the self-designation “spiritual” because the culture has settled on this term to designate an open, welcoming, tolerant, inclusive, progressive, sensitive, and slightly mystical attitude. You can be spiritual even if you are somewhat agnostic or incline toward atheism, as long as you possess those soft and sensitive qualities listed above. Popular culture rejects harsh and militant atheism for the same reason it rejects judgmental religion.

Why use the term “spiritual”? Popular use of this term derives ultimately from the New Testament’s teaching about the Holy Spirit. From its beginning, Christianity has understood God’s presence and action in the world as Trinitarian in form. Father, Son, and Spirit are one in being and their action is always united, but each is especially associated with certain activities: the Father with creation, the Son with salvation and the Spirit with transformation of the inner life of the believer. Because the Spirit’s work always points to the Father and the Son, the Spirit has been called the anonymous member of the Trinity. Perhaps more importantly for the subject we are discussing, the Spirit’s work is mysterious, internal, and experiential.

In Christian history, the Spirit is identified with the inner divine presence that is often manifested in wordless mystical experience of union with the divine, euphoric feelings joy, or loss of control of the body. The writings of Christian mystics are often called “spiritual writings” and the study of these writings is called “spiritual theology.” Spiritual authors record experiences of visions of Christ, overwhelming feelings of divine presence, inspirations from the Spirit, and other intense experiences of the divine. Sometimes mystics strayed outside the bounds of orthodox Christian doctrine, but mostly they were able to thrive alongside traditional teaching. But during the modern era, especially with the help of the Romantic Movement of the late 18th and the early 19th centuries, Christian spirituality and pietism were for some people de-Christianized and assimilated to pantheism or vague nature mysticism.

When contemporary people say “I’m spiritual but not religious” they are unknowingly continuing this romantic tradition and its dislike of responsibility to the personal God of Christian faith. Christian religious practice focuses on a personal God, the God whose identity is delineated in the biblical narratives and in the life of Jesus Christ. In the Bible, the character and will of God are clear and determinate. God is not “whatever you understand him to be.” God demands our loyalty, love, and obedience. The first command of the Decalogue is “You shall have no other gods before me.” Jesus said, “You cannot serve two masters.” And one of the earliest Christian confessions of faith is “Jesus in Lord.” Not a vague spirituality!

The contemporary move into “spirituality” attempts to escape the perceived negative aspects of belief in a personal God without giving up its positive aspects. Such concepts as truth, law, responsibility, discipleship, obedience, and other restrictive concepts strike many of our contemporaries as exclusive, judgmental, and harsh. And adopting a “spiritual” philosophy allows one to root one’s life in a mysterious universe friendly to human life and values without the drawback of responsibility to a personal God. Ultimately, however, such spirituality, apart from belief in a personal God, is merely divinization of the human spirit or even of the individual self. “Spirituality” resonates perfectly with contemporary therapeutic culture, which makes not salvation and truth but the momentary feeling of wellbeing its highest aspiration.

An Impersonal God?

Last week we pursued the question of whether it makes sense to think of the mind that gives the world its intelligible order as impersonal. Can we reasonably think of that mind as a primitive urge, a logical necessity, or the goal of evolution? We ended that post by observing the counterintuitive nature of belief in an impersonal god. How can we believe that the universal mind that gives the world its intelligible order and that produced human beings does not itself possess the qualities that make human beings personal: self-consciousness, reason, freedom, and the ability to relate to other persons?

Today I want to make a bit more explicit our intuitive belief that the mind that produced the world is much greater and better than we are. Let’s remember our earlier argument for the irreducibility of the intelligible aspect of nature and for a universal mind that is the explanation for that intelligibility. We argued from our own experience of ourselves as free causes and originators of information that mind is a better explanation for the intelligible order in nature than chance is. The decision for a universal mind was prompted by our intuition that information always originates from the free act of an intelligent agent. And free acts always involve self-awareness and are always enacted to achieve ends. Hence the assertion that the universal mind is impersonal contradicts the original reason for rejecting materialism and accepting the irreducible reality of mind. To deny that the power that forms the world into an intelligible order is free, reasonable, self-aware, and able to relate to others is to retreat from our first decision point and to fall back into materialism and chance.

To think of the universal mind as impersonal is to confuse mind with ideas or concepts. Indeed, ideas and concepts are not intelligent and free. They are objects the mind creates and thinks. My previous argument for the irreducible nature of the intelligibility in the world did not contend that the intelligible order is itself personal. It contended, rather, that the universal, intelligible order is the product an active, universal mind. And the mind responsible for creating the intelligible order of the universe must be free, reasonable, and self-aware to a degree far beyond human beings. If that “mind” were impersonal, it could not produce anything; instead, it would itself need to be produced. And we would simply be mistaken in using the word “mind” to designate the impersonal order that evolved by chance.

To think of god as impersonal sees God as in some way embedded in or limited by matter, perhaps, in analogy to the way we are embodied. Our bodies carry on many of their organic functions independent of our will or even our awareness. Many of our feelings and urges arise in us involuntarily. But again, refer to my original argument for the universal mind. The universal mind must be responsible for the entire intelligible order or the argument fails. But asserting that the universal mind is embodied in matter denies that that mind is responsible for all the intelligible order; for it could not be responsible for itself, its own embodiment, or the laws that govern that relationship. We would have to face again the prospect of materialism and chance as the explanation for everything, that is, underneath the intelligible aspects of nature rests a non-intelligible cause working by blind processes to produce all natural phenomena.

The intuitive assumption that drives our argument is an ancient one clearly articulated by Aristotle and used in theology by Thomas Aquinas: actuality is prior in being to potentiality. It is intuitive because we experience it in ourselves and in our observations of the world: Only actual, living minds produce information. A cause imposes its (actual) likeness on the effect to make it actual. Order produces order. True chaos never changes. The intuition that actuality is prior to potentiality makes it impossible to believe that the amazing intelligible order in the universe arose from absolute disorder by chance. The mind that orders the world must itself be purely actual, possessing maximum order.

The most reasonable conclusion available to us at this point—given our assumption that a universal mind is the cause of the totality of the intelligible order of nature—is that God is pure, active mind completely independent of matter. But if God is pure, active mind, God must be maximally free, self-aware, rational, and able to relate; that is, personal to the highest degree.

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!