Sounds heady, right? Maybe it even is a little heady. What I want to look at are four propositions about the existence of God and God’s nature, very generally stated, say a bit about who I see espousing the first three propositions, and then present as a fourth one an interesting option that I almost never hear espoused. It’ll be a bit weird, but I just want to say, maybe we don’t reject proposition 4 out of hand.
Prolegomenon: I’m not using philosophical jargon, nor theological jargon, here. When I say “God” I mean all the various things that English-speaking Westerners mean when they say God. When I say “real”, I mean real like a hangnail or a pickup truck or the force of gravity as it relates to mass and distance. When I say “monster” I mean a scary being that makes babies cry and reasonable people run away. When I say “awesome” I mean both ‘awe-inspiring’ and ‘hey that’s really interesting’ and ‘what an exciting thing.’ When I say “Prolegomenon” I mean it paradoxically – simultaneously ironic and non-ironic usage. Anyway.
Proposition 1: God is real, and is a monster.
This is the proposition put forward by most Christian apologists, conservative evangelicals, fundamentalists of all stripes, radical Calvinists and similar folks. God is real, and hates you, or God is real, and is totally OK with you being consciously tortured forever, or God is real, and will force you to be happy and worshipful for eternity in heaven, etc. God is real, and what God does is good no matter what because the definition of “good” is “stuff God does for any reason, so shaddup about it.” Shorthand – scratch out “God” and substitute with “Dear Leader” or “Lord Ruler” and you get the idea.
Proposition 2: God is real, and is awesome.
This proposition is most often put forward by moderate and liberal evangelicals, emergents, many mainline denominations, and a lot of the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church, at least in everyday conversation and use. God exists, and is a loving being who likes a lot of the things we like, and likes us too, at least mostly. God is on the right side of history, social-justice-wise – the liberator, the lover, the nonviolent redeemer, etc. This view of God is almost never represented in the news, almost never onstage during a “debate” on the existence of God. It’s the view of God that is quietly in the background of many people’s lives as they try to be good people, with wildly varying degrees of success.
Proposition 3: God is imaginary, and is a monster.
This is the overwhelming report of New Atheism and much activist Atheism in the last decade or so. Not only is God made up, but God is a horrible guy. New Atheism reacts against the monstrous premises of fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism by first accepting one and then rejecting the other – they swallow whole the “God is a monster” part above but reject the “God exists” part. It isn’t the case that they wish God existed but God simply does not, nor that God was an interesting idea for a while but has outlasted its purpose. Nope. There’s no God, and we’re better off without even the idea.
Proposition 4: God is imaginary, and is awesome.
From a practical perspective, God obviously exists (stolen from Bo Sanders, though I can’t find the podcast episode where he said it). I mean, we can’t discuss something that doesn’t exist in some form, right? God exists as an idea, an ideal, a reality in people’s lived and subjective experience; a real influence on how real people live real lives (to paraphrase Bo’s buddy Tripp), regardless of God’s ontological status. (Sorry, jargon there) Regardless of whether God exists the way gravity and mustaches exist.
LOTS of things that govern our everyday lives are imaginary. Money. The economy. Laws. Justice. Love. Grammar. Plot. Music. On and on and on. Money is merely the agreement we have all made to pretend that money is a thing. Absent that pretending, you can’t even burn money to make a very good fire to keep you warm at night. Given that most money is digital at this point anyway, it is even less useful. Money is electrons that we agree to pretend are a thing; that we agree to trade for real things and imaginary things both.
The economy is a total act of the imagination. It is a way of measuring our behaviors as we behave as if the economy existed. There’s no “economy” out there. The moment we all decide there is no economy, there is no economy. The moment we decide that the economy is a completely different imaginary thing (like Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness) then it is a completely different thing. Here’s how made up the idea of the economy is – parenthood, possibly the single most important human endeavor from a species-wide and societal perspective, doesn’t count. Check the Wall Street Journal if you don’t believe me.
Laws are imaginary. They exist because people choose to enforce them, and because other people accept, or at least don’t violently resist, that enforcement. If laws were a real thing, how could they instantly and arbitrarily change when you cross a border (yet another imaginary thing)? Don’t laws functionally disappear when there is no one to enforce them? No one enforces gravity. Gravity is a real law that’s there whether we want it to be or not. Other, civic laws – we make those up.
I’ll skip to love. Now, we can look at a person’s brain, or endocrine system, take a blood sample, measure pupil dilation, or just look at their behavior, and have a good idea of whether they are loving a particular person or not. But let’s say we could inject someone with a chemical coctail that would force all of those conditions upon them against their will. Would we call that love? Of course not. No more than we would say that a robot programmed for certain behaviors was being ‘lawful.’ Love is an idea that makes those neurological and endocrine processes meaningful to us, but it isn’t love if the meaning, the idea, isn’t there.
We can go out into the world and measure parts of what we mean when we say economy, or money, or laws, or love. We can do exactly the same thing when we talk about God. We can go out and measure how God affects people’s behavior and consumption (as economics ), how God is used as leverage between people in exchanges (as money), how ideas about God are enacted as laws, or not, and how someone’s brain and body respond to their reported experiences of God (as love). We can do all of these things, easily.
What I’m saying is that God exists, inasmuch as the economy exists; inasmuch as money exists; inasmuch as laws and justice and love and grammar and plot and music exist. God exists, at bare minimum, as much as those things exist (to say nothing of more).
And from a certain point of view, maybe even my own point of view, who cares if there is a transcendent ‘reality’ behind the economy, or our laws, or music, or love? Whethere there is a Platonic ideal, or a very subtle natural law at work? Maybe there is. Maybe these things I’m calling imaginary are emergent properties of groups of humans. That has little bearing, possibly no bearing at all, on whether they exists or not, and certainly little or no bearing on whether they are important.
Similarly, if one’s reductive materialism, or philosophical naturalism, etc., demands that they reject the existence of God, it seems to also demand the rejection of the economy, money, laws, justice, love, grammar, plot, music, and so on. Which is fine – some people will go there. But I’m not sure most will.
In the context of “God is imaginary, and is awesome” our conversation becomes, both inside the life of religious practice and outside of it, what kind of God do we want? What does God mean, and what should God mean? Entirely in the subjective, imaginary realm of things that definitely exist, but not in the way that gravity and mustaches exist. That’s a really big damn realm of things. And God might be just one more of those many, profoundly important things that are both imaginary and also obviously exist.