Wednesday, October 06, 2010

What Is God? -- Part 2

Here's what I like about John Haught's What Is God? as an introduction to religious inquiry.

It clears the deck. It doesn't start with a holy book or revelation. It looks for the divine in human experience. Haught seeks a universal intuition of the divine beyond any formalized religion or sect. What this generously offers is a place from which a student could go in any direction, filling out the story with, say, orthodox Catholic theology, or paring back into agnostism.

Note that the book is called What Is God? not Who Is God?. Haught believes that any transcendent reality that does not possess qualities such as intelligence, feeling, freedom, creativity, etc. will not adequately inspire trust or reverence in human beings. At the same time he recognizes that personality does not fully express what God is either. Perhaps Haught is trying to have his cake and eat it too, but at least he is emphasizing the inadequacy of all metaphors to express the divine. And he admits up front that, because of this, the God of believers is frustratingly elusive, so elusive as to inspire atheists with their disbelief.

Where then do we encounter the divine? Haught suggest five ways we confront the divine in our daily lives: the experiences of depth, future, freedom, beauty, and truth. I'll not comment on each of these thoughtful chapters, except to note the obvious (momentary) absence of love, but here surely are the very kinds of experience for which religions generally have sought a transcendental context.

Haught's conclusion: "To say that God is ultimately mystery is the final word in any proper thinking about the divine…And it is also necessary to evoke in us a cognitive "feeling" of the inexhaustibility we have pointed to by way of our five metaphors." By mystery he does not mean lacunae in our knowledge that can be filled in by science, but rather something that grows larger and more incomprehensible as science advances. "It is the region of the 'known unknown,' the horizon that keeps expanding and receding into the distance the more our knowledge advances." Haught ends his book by asking what justification we might have for calling this mystery "God."

And that, it seems to me, is a pretty good place to begin one's spiritual journey. There is nothing explicitly Catholic in the book, but -- hey, it's by an eminent Catholic theologian. Sounds to me like a fine text for that one required course in Catholic theology.

Of course, it's where one goes from there that matters, and I would like to think each student would then set out on his or her own intellectual adventure. Certainly, Haught and I ended up in different places, and I will comment on the difference tomorrow.