Pens, Some varieties of Theism, and the Essence of My Religion (part 1)

In this post, I attempted to explain (to myself) the reasons why I’m only occasionally interested in doing philosophy of religion. I concluded that one of the main reasons was the pretty radical belief vacillation that occurs when I begin thinking about God. I then used one Heidegger’s concepts in this post to think about the causes of effects of this kind of belief vacillation.

In both posts, I was concerned with whether this indeterminacy of my beliefs was effecting my ability to walk with the Divine. After thinking some more about my situation via Heidegger’s concepts, I concluded that it did not matter whether I knew the ontological status of the Divine. This was a mistaken conclusion.

Recording that mistake is the first reason I’m writing this post. There is a second reason I’m interested in recording this mistake: it was an instructive one. That is, although the conclusion I ultimately drew was mistaken, it was based on a line of reasoning that, when applied correctly, led me to finding the essence of my religion. And now that I think about it, I’ve been on a quest for this “essence” in some way or another for at least 4 years now.

It does not matter what the ontological status of God is. This was the (radical?) and mistaken conclusion I drew. Basically, I was saying, it does not matter whether God exists as a being or as Being (in some kind of pantheistic sense of the word) or as that in which we live and move have our being (in some kind of panentheistic sense of the word). It does not even matter, on this mistaken conclusion, if God does not exist at all. It could be the case that God is simply the personifying or the metaphorizing of our ultimate concern.

The conclusion was reached by considering a Heideggerrian analogy. As I mentioned in the aforementioned previous post, Heidegger has two concepts called “ready-to-hand” and “present-to-hand.” (I’m not going to explain those concepts here. See the link in the previous sentence.) My line of reasoning was this: we only consider, for example, a pen as a theoretical object when it falls to perform its function. In Heideggerrian terminology, we only consider the pen as present-to-hand when it fails to satisfy its in-order-to.

I have never thought about what a pen is made of while I was using it. Moreover, there is a sense in which it does not even matter what the pen is made of. The pen could be made of plastic or it could be one of those cardboard pens or it could be made of metal. More radically, the pen could not exist at all as a mind-independent object. Rather, if we were idealists, it could merely be an immaterial idea in my mind and the mind of God. Whatever the pen is made out of, I don’t care as long as I can write with it. We only ask questions about the pen when it stops working.

The same can be said about God. The theological questions that trouble the common man are questions that arise when God appears to fail to satisfy Its function. The question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Arises because believe that the function of good God is to ensure justice. Moreover, the question, “How is it that I can be aware of God communicating to me?” arises because we we believe that it is the function of God to guide us. These are the enduring and important theological questions.

Just as most folk do not consider a pen as a theoretical object (nor do they consider ontological status of a pen) unless it fails to satisfy its function (or if they are doing science or philosophy), they also do not even consider God as a theoretical being/entity unless God fails to do what It is supposed to do. This, then, was the first premise of my thinking about whether the ontological status of God matters: Ontological status only matters when the object in question fails to perform some desired or expected function.

(A parenthetical parrying of an objection: It is no objection to this line of reasoning that there are some folk who do exhibit an above-average concern for proper theology. Pardon the armchair psychology of religion here but I suspect that their above-average concern for proper theology arises at least in part because they think that somehow “getting it right” is eternally important, and if that’s the case, then they are concerned about God because they are worried about securing some benefit from having the correct theology. If this is the case, then pointing to these folk counts in favor of the premise I am currently articulating.)

Here’s the second premise: in whatever form God exists, It satisfies the function that I understand God to have in my life. To return to pen example, I don’t care what the pen is made out of as long as I can write with it. This premise, in my case, is pretty serious. I am essentially saying here that it does not matter that much if God exists or not. In other words, I do not need a “flesh and bones” God, in order to make sense of the function God plays in my life. If an atheist definitively proved that God did not exist, I would still go to church, I would still pray, I would still read the bible, I would still hang out with homeless folk. (This is actually true regardless of the mistaken conclusion I drew.)

God is that which I worship. It is that which I love. It is that which I seek to organize my life around. God gives me a sense of purpose. It gives me a sense of identity, a sense of self. I don’t need God to ensure my safety. In fact, as I noted in this post (echoing De Bouivoir), that might defeat the whole point of living anyway. I should not need God in order to feel like there’s a heaven after all this, for I am working on conquering my fear of death.

The list of things I don’t need could go on for a bit. But the point is that as I understand God, I’m not sure I need anything beyond an ultimate concern kind of God. Obviously, a God who looks out for me on occasion and who would ensure eternal life would be freaking fantastic, but that is just icing on the cake. A bare-bones metaphoric “God” that “provides” my life with meaning and purpose and “gives” me a sense of identity is already pretty freaking awesome.

And we’re now at the place where we can see the mistake in my reasoning. The mistake becomes visible if we set our eyes of Jesus for a sec. For Jesus, God is not merely that which gives his life meaning and purpose. It is not merely that which directs his steps. It is not merely that which ensures his (and others’) eternal well-being. God is, for Jesus, “Abba Father.”

And so we can see the mistake I made in my thinking: God can not essentially be a practical or existential or even an explanatory tool. God must essentially be a dear friend. Without this, there really is no necessary pragmatic difference between theism, pantheism, panentheism, and atheism (or non-realism). What this means is that I should make a choice. It means that it should choose among the different ways of understanding God because it actually does matter.

Now, it might still be the case that non-realism is the way I should go, and I could live with that. The question, however, is whether I want that. The question is whether a Divine Being is something that I want to hang on to and fight for. And when I finally got to this point where I realized the essential difference between a-being-theism and all the other varieties of theism, I felt very strongly that a Divine friend is worth hanging on to.

I say “hold on to” because it is going to take some (philosophical) work and/or some faith to hang on to a-being-theism. Conceiving of God as a being is, I think, very problematic. In fact, many of the philosophical problems that arise in thinking of God in this way are precisely what led me to consider God in other ways in the first place. Regardless, the Divine is pretty freaking boss, so I’m down to wrestle.

This “essence” that I’ve discovered is actually embarrassingly obvious. How could it be the case that its taken me this long to understand this? That, in think, is an interesting question, but it is a question that I will have to explore on another occasion.

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