Is There a God?
Is there a God, and if so, what kind of God is She? This is the question people of great and little faith ask, but that people of no faith treat only as a mind experiment, or as idle table chat. This essay treats the question as worthy of being asked.
I pose the question because most curious people with open minds cannot but ask the question. The mathematician-philosopher Bertrand Russell, an atheist, was asked what one question would he ask of God in the afterlife should he discover that his conclusion that God did not exist was wrong. Russell’s reply: “Why didn’t you provide more information?” In this I agree with Russell. But in still another respect I disagree: God is not answerable to us for Her methods.
Nobel Physicist Frank Wilczek in his book “A Beautiful Question” examines the artistic nature of the Universe at its subatomic and cosmic levels. He makes the case that nearly every ancient and modern thinker of consequence has proceeded with an assumption: the material world has order and symmetry resulting from laws of nature — laws that themselves express a sort of personality suggested by the structure and operation of the physical world. This personality would be one, if it exists, that has a certain artistic style: one that is prefers economy of elements, elegance in design, and a penchant for diversity and variety. In my own view, this creative being is also someone with a lot of time on Her hands. She has no compulsion to accelerate her processes to meet our own hurried mortal agendas.
This question of whether God exists is one that would never be considered unanswerable in a court of law. For example, a criminal conviction can be supported by circumstantial evidence that leaves twelve persons with no reasonable doubt the Defendant committed the crime. It seems the skeptics impose a unique burden of proof for the existence of God: direct irrefutable eyewitness testimony, preferably one’s own. But I suspect even that would not be enough, for the witness, otherwise known to be credible, would be dismissed as hallucinatory or temporarily insane. Yet, I am dumbfounded that skeptics do not find the circumstantial evidence the presence of universal laws in science’s “standard model” or “core theory.” A “model” implies a set of mathematical relations describing what the model represents. What we find expressed in the model is symmetry, simplicity, and functional efficiency. In other words, evidence of a Mind that creates with an obvious intelligence and purpose, though no one in this world can comprehend the ultimate purposes of such a Mind.
If a God, What Kind of God?
So, the question ‘Does God exist?’ if answered in the affirmative leads to a more tangled question: “What sort of God is She?” When we encounter a person, our social instincts kick in immediately to size up what sort of person is before us: friendly or hostile? kind or cruel? intelligent or stupid? generous or miserly? humble or narcissistic? trustworthy or treacherous? Over time, we assemble a sense of the personality and adjust our interactions accordingly. It is no different with God. We usually either form some anthropomorphic image based on a parent or authority figure, or we simply don’t give God much thought.
Most of us ignore God I suspect because don’t have enough sensory information by which to we feel He’s relevant. Things just hum along, and anything of consequence it seems is the result of the decisions we make independently of His involvement. But we return to this inner compulsion: there really is not reason or purpose to living in any particular way if there is no God. We come from nothing and return to nothing, and amount to nothing in between. We simply cannot confer meaning and purpose upon ourselves. The question what kind person is God is important because the meaning of our lives depends directly on His purpose in creating us.
I wonder: if God is sadistic and arbitrary, what sort of people ought we to be? Alternatively, if God is loving and nurturing, what sort of people ought we to be? If God created suffering, and injected evil into the world, how are we to relate to that God, and to one another? An evil God would presumably expect evil of His creation. A God who created both good and evil, and set them at odds with one another in a great continuing battle would be a God of another kind. Just who is this God? More particularly, what is the purpose of evil and suffering in this world, and what do those realities tell us about our Creator?
A God Who Allows Evil and Suffering?
I offer no comforting conclusion, but I start with an interview I heard this week [5-27-16] between Howard Stern and Joseph Sciambra, who wrote a book entitled “Swallowed by Satan.” See http://josephsciambra.com. Here’s the set up of the interview, typical of Stern: some raw references to graphic gay sex practices in the gay underworld, in which Sciambra participated in his late teens and twenties several decades ago, and somehow miraculously avoided an early death by AIDS. Sciambra managed to remain on message and non-defensive, answering all questions directly, quickly, and simply. His repeated point however was that the gay lifestyle was inherently self-destructive. Of course, this was a call to arms for Stern, who trivialized Sciabra’s convictions by stating, ‘You just never found a good gay partner to love.’ Sciambra’s response was radical: the impulse for gay sex is unnatural and contrary to God’s will for sexual expression. Stern then peppered Sciambra with questions about whether Scimabra ever missed gay sex, and did he ever find himself turned on when he thought of those wild days, etc. Sciambra explained that he had undergone an exorcism, that he had been freed of the power of sexual compulsion, and that he was living a celibate lifestyle after having been a gay porn “star.” His purpose now he said was to reach the gay community with a message that God loved them, and offered them a new freedom and fulfillment.
My purpose in providing this crazy story is to provide the context for one of the most fascinating statements I heard in the interview. Stern asked Sciambra: If there is a God, why do you think He let you go through so much suffering? Sciambra’s reply was that that suffering, as it brings us closer to Jesus, and Jesus closer to us, is a beautiful thing. Let me say, Sciambra is completely sincere, as far as I can tell, and is completely convicted in his assumption about the purpose of suffering in this world. But that the answer is good enough for him does not mean its good enough for the rest of us. Sciambra was in a dark place of evil, by his own description, and the question cannot be evaded: why is there suffering and evil in this world? If this a world is created by God, and subject to his will, then He also wills evil and suffering. How can this be? How can God be both “good” and allow evil and suffering?
The theological bromide often heard in Christian circles is that God is a God of love, and love is possible only through the expression of being loved in return by a being of free will. Free will implies the freedom not to love and in fact the freedom to disdain and deny the one who offers love. Freedom of will of course is not freedom at all if divorced of the consequences of free choices, either good or ill. But it is those wrong choices that produce destructive outcomes that are “evil” and bring suffering into the human experience. So Sciambra’s reasoning would go something like this, I suppose: God loves us. God mourns at seeing us make unloving choices. God does not stop loving us, but to the contrary, he draws closer to us in our suffering. If we are spiritually awake, we sense this presence, and draw closer to God, allowing Her to comfort us. We trust that this time of suffering is not the full and final story of our human existence. Rather, the love of God is unchanging, and ultimately our suffering will end as our choices improve. Eventually, we will be enlightened lovers of God, doing Her will, and living in some form of “paradise.” To the extent we exercise our free will with love and intelligence, we even experience something of the paradise to come right here on earth.
Welcome to the Lab?
I see our human condition as one occurring in a great cosmic laboratory. It is as if God created us, then sat back to see how we would handle this thing called “free will.” The experiment could result in the destruction of the entire human race, and perhaps irreversible damage to the planet for all other life forms as well. Or, it could be that we create a true paradise where knowledge and wisdom embrace in a holy union to allow increasing advancement of human potential and happiness to levels unimaginable to us now. This idea of the experiment in progress appeals to me at two levels: it explains the “free will” factor and it accounts for the inscrutable God who seems to us to be busy elsewhere. There are positive signs things may turn out well for the human race. There are also signs that suffering and evil will reach levels never before experienced. Is it any wonder all cultures, and many religions, share some idea of ‘end times’ as the forces of darkness and light collide? Eventually, God will assess the data, and bring the experiment to a close.