There’s a federally- funded public opinion poll called the General Social Survey (GSS) and it has been in existence since 1972. It’s designed to “take the pulse of America”. (For those inclined to distrust anything originating in the federal government, the GSS is the product of the University of Chicago. If you doubt the integrity of UC because it’s probably liberal, I can’t help you.) The results of the poll are gloomy. It seems Americans are predicting a downhill slide for our country until 2050. I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2050 to turn it around, but that’s what the poll says.
Among the topics explored in the poll is Americans’ belief in God, a subject that always interests me because I believe the issue of church vs. state is an ongoing conflict in American life and because, in my opinion, organized religion is currently and has historically been a major obstacle to peace and human progress.
The problem with polls about God and religion is that thinking people might have highly nuanced ideas and poll questions are highly simplistic. Anyone with less than blind faith in religious doctrine might hesitate when asked, “Do you believe in God or some higher power?” They might ask, “What do you mean by God? Is this the monotheistic god of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims? Is this a personal god with human characteristics who possesses a will and acts in the world? Is this a creator of the universe responsible for all of the phenomena that mathematicians, astronomers, and physicists have discovered in the past century? Does ‘higher power’ include Fate? the Tao? Nature? Brahman? The Great Spirit?”
Despite the imprecision of the questions, the finding of the GSS poll is that the vast majority of Americans believe in God or some higher power, with fewer than 1 in 10 saying there is no God or no way to know. Beyond this, other studies of current attitudes toward religion, not necessarily belief in God, suggest that as much as 15-20% of the American people have no affiliation with organized religion.
I know I am not alone in my reluctance to answer when questioned about my theistic views. For the same reasons I object to the method used in the GSS survey, I am instantly uncomfortable when asked by acquaintances or friends in a social setting. Not that I don’t want to engage in the discourse; it’s probably my favorite topic of conversation. After all, what could be more important to consider than our origin, our purpose, our moral lives, and our future after death? But if someone wants to know what I think, I’d like them to be prepared for a lengthy and complex response. The question simply requires nuance. You’re not going to get a yes or no from me and that’s a problem when trying to maintain a polite dinner table.
But if, after our entrée is finished and someone were to ask me my religious views, and were interested and polite enough to hear me out, this is what I would say:
There is much about scripture that I find irrational, unjust, and barbaric, but not the first words of the Gospel of St. John. These, I believe, speak the truth, the most important truth of all.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Generations of theologians, philosophers and linguists have commented on the meaning of this sentence. Its significance is so great that all people, regardless of religious beliefs and academic training ought to consider its meaning. A full understanding could go a long way toward bridging the chasm which appears to separate believers from non-believers.
The Bible was originally written in Greek and so “the Word” which is synonymous with “God” is the word logos. Hence,
“In the beginning was Logos and Logos was God.”
Logos is arguably the most powerful and important word in all of language. For the Greeks, it had a variety of meanings, from the prosaic (“word”, “speech” , “mind”, “reason”, “opinion”, “order”, “knowledge”) to the philosophically abstract. In its less subtle, logos can mean intellect, the business of the human mind which can only be expressed through words, a language. (To date, this is the best argument for man’s superiority to the rest of the living world since only humans have developed language.) Without the symbols of language, we lack the means of thought. All intelligence, all knowledge, all reason, all order in the world comes from the word, Logos, which John says is God.
In its slightly more philosophical translation, Logos has been called “reasoned discourse” and “universal divine reason”. Stoicism, a philosophy I personally endorse, calls Logos “the divine animating principle pervading the universe”. Think on this. Logos is “divine”. Instead of theism’s claim that there is a necessary separation between the natural and the supernatural, the temporal and the eternal, all living things are infused with divinity. Humans, animals, plants are “animated”, given life, through Logos, universal intelligence. We all function, human and non-human living things, not solely through our will, but through an internal governance, our Nature, which pervades all living things, thereby making it transcendent. Divinity is all around us in nature (albeit on different levels of consciousness) and thus we have the beginning of a system of morality and law: our obligation to honor and respect the divine nature of man, animal, and planet.
In the beginning was Universal Intelligence, and Reason
was with God, and God was the Natural Order of Things.
So here we are. Reason, order, intelligence, mind are synonymous with God. They are God. The chasm between believers and non-believers is diminishing. If these two realities are interchangeable, then there is no need for disagreement. Given a footnote or two, theists and atheists may well be of the same mind.
So, if Logos and God are synonymous, why do I believe in Logos and not in God? Simple. He’s not necessary. The word, Logos, is sufficient. God is an unnecessary invention of man, a personification of Logos, a philosophical concept that illiterate and superstitious humans were unable to grasp for a millennia. (Made even more difficult for two thousand years by a new ruling class, the clergy and its church, which claimed that they alone were the means to understanding these ideas and ought to, by means of their powers, govern the people, which it did through fear, superstition, and constant war.) I, on the other hand, am like you, a beneficiary of centuries of literacy and learned methods of scientific inquiry. I am capable, through both rational and intuitive means, of discerning the presence of order, intelligence, and divinity in the living universe. Through technology, I can witness the functioning of the cosmos and strive to understand its operations.
But why not go along with theists since we are essentially honoring the same transcendent power? Also simple. It’s too dangerous. The God depicted in scripture, in addition to being misogynistic, barbaric and vengeful, possesses human characteristics which necessarily and severely limit him. The God of the middle-Eastern desert, let’s call him by its given names, Yahweh / Allah, apparently possesses a will and chooses to act in the world, in some cases healing and in others causing disease, destruction, and death. He allegedly controls the gates of eternal salvation but regularly refuses admittance to moral, intelligent, just, and loving human beings who chose to honor reason, intelligence, and order rather than their imagined human incarnation, Joshua bar Joseph, son of Mary who, while remaining sexually unsullied gave birth to the child in the village of Bethlehem in the presence of angels and gift-bearing oriental kings who found the location by following a new star in the sky. Later in life, Joshua regularly performed acts which required the temporary suspension of natural law and, once dead for 36 hours, returned to life. In short, belief in an anthropomorphic god requires intentional denial of our very nature, reason.
Christian theologians refer to Jesus Christ as “the incarnate word”, meaning the physical embodiment of reason, intelligence, and order. I agree with this New Testament claim: “and the word became flesh.” Where I differ is in its scope. The “word becoming flesh” is not limited to one Jewish male born and raised in a middle-Eastern desert. We, all human beings, have all become flesh. In reality, we are all “the incarnate word” in that we are the physical embodiment of universal intelligence.
I was once gratified when a minister / friend wrote to me, “Jesus is no more the son of God than I am.” This makes perfect sense to me. (I only wish he’d argue this point with the hierarchy of his church so we can all move on to a rational understanding of the nature of things.) That it took the Catholic Church three centuries to decide that Jesus was God might indicate that the special divinity of Christ is fair game for reasoned debate. The historical Jesus was a unique philosopher / teacher / activist whose wisdom might still prove to be the salvation of the human species, but as my friend said, he was no more divine than you and me.
We know that something “magical” is going on within us, the animals, and the plants; but we don’t know what “it” is. It is the source of life and consciousness. It is with us while we live and transforms after we die. We can observe once-living beings whose life/consciousness has departed. What is missing in the dead that was present in the living only seconds earlier? I believe it is Logos, the animating principle of the entire universe.
The Roman philosopher Plotinus referred to Logos as “the principle of meditation”, what Eastern mystics have called “the One” or “the Self”. I use the word “consciousness”. It lacks the poetic pop of the aforementioned terms but it works for me, a product of a more scientific age. Call it what we’d like (although if we call it God we get trapped in all of the impossible fictions found in the Bible and the orthodox teachings of the clergy), but Logos and God do appear to be synonymous.
I mentioned earlier my belief that we can “know” by means of both reason and intuition. Our intuitive knowledge can best be activated through meditation. The act of meditation, or falling into stillness, is our most powerful tool for experiencing the divine within ourselves and sensing our commonality with the universe around us. The prolonged, in fact permanent, state of meditation, the separation from the limited human capacity of mind, is known to Eastern philosophers as nirvana, the merging of individual consciousness into universal consciousness, which we have called Logos. Theists would call this joining with God heaven. Not so different after all.
I don’t believe that faith is misspent. It has a psychological value. It enables us, however irrationally, to keep on going. The cruelties and injustices which regularly befall us sap our energies and defy us to overcome. And yet, sometimes over long periods of time, we do. Oftentimes it is faith that helps us maintain through our struggles. In this sense, it has a practical value. I used to ask my students if they believed that they would succeed if they worked hard. They were nearly unanimous in their agreement. When I questioned them further, however, they readily admitted that they knew many people who succeeded without hard work and even many more, themselves included, who worked hard and didn’t succeed. If we see overwhelming evidence that there is little correlation between hard work and success, should we ignore the many adages which encourage belief in the benefits of hard work? We all agreed that we shouldn’t lose faith in the connection because oftentimes that faith is the only thing we can hang onto in moments of despair. Faith most certainly has its value as an illusion, but only as a palliative in the face of a harsh reality.
While the Church offered prayer as its best defense from cruel disease, it was human reason that defeated the Black Death. It was Gutenburg’s mechanical genius that ended world-wide illiteracy, the political and philosophical wisdom of Enlightenment Deists like Jefferson and Madison who conceived the world’s first and longest lasting secular democracy, the creative imagination of Beethoven who drew upon the power and majesty of man in the Ninth Symphony, Ode to Joy; and it was the disciplined, dispassionate scientific method of Charles Darwin who unleashed the knowledge of the origin of life from millenia of dark superstition into the bright fresh air of accepted truth.
In the beginning was the Word, the universal intelligence of Nature,
whose understanding is the eternal quest of magnificent Man.