Saturday, February 25, 2012

When God Is Gone -- a Saturday reprise

(This post originally appeared in June 2008.)

Having seen the announcement for my new book, When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy, my friend the theologian Greg Shaw shared with me some remarks of his addressed to the question "Is God a Projection of the Human Mind?"

He first considers the answers of the early Church Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa, who explicitly recognized the dangers of projection. Clement says: "Most people are enclosed in their mortal bodies like a snail in its shell, curled up in their obsessions after the manner of hedgehogs. They form their notion of God's blessedness taking themselves for a model." And Gregory: "Every concept formed by the intellect in an attempt to comprehend the divine nature can succeed only in fashioning an idol, not in making God known." The Fathers were theists, but their God resides in mystery.

For the Platonists of antiquity, even this was too much. For them, God is not a supreme being, but the One that precedes being. We understand the One by seeking the unity within ourselves.

Greg summarizes: "Is God a projection?"
Yes, in two ways. First, there is the God that we invent to satisfy our need for security and with whom we set up a commercial exchange: we give him obedience and prayers, and we give money to his representatives, and in return we receive a sense of righteousness and a guarantee of eternal life. This is the invented God projected by the mind, the idol described by Gregory of Nyssa that reflects our shallowness and insecurity. The other God is also a projection, but it arises from a mysterious depth within us and is an expression of our deepest longing. The manifestations of this "god" change as we change, its imagery deepens as we deepen. This latter god is not an entity or a being of any kind and its "appearances" allow us to enter the mystery of our deepest yearning, moving us back and forth between positive and negative ways of experiencing god.
The scientific skeptic might reasonably ask if even this second Platonic notion of God is a step too far. The G-word -- upper or lower case -- carries so much anthropomorphic baggage it might seem best to avoid it altogether.

But still, I think, Greg's second notion of projection deserves respect, and certainly not the scorn heaped upon any idea of God by the "new atheists." It is something close to this second notion that I am reaching for in When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy. I would not look for divinity only within the self, but in the self in interaction with the world. The more we learn about the universe of the galaxies and the DNA, the more we become aware of the depth of our ignorance. We face the universe in silent awe, refusing to give any name to the source of our awe. Knowledge -- reliable scientific knowledge of the world -- is a portal through which we enter "the mystery of our deepest yearning."