Belief in God – April 2010

Question: Whitehead’s philosophy shows that a panentheistic view of God fits well into a richly developed cosmology. But this seems quite remote from immediate human experience. Are there aspects of common experience that support belief in God?

Publication Month: April 2010

One way of approaching this question is to bring again to the fore the ancient triad of the true, the good, and the beautiful. People everywhere make judgments about truth, goodness, and beauty. Obviously, such judgments are made by people who do not connect them to God, even by people who strongly deny the reality of God. For some, one of them serves as an alternative focus of commitment and devotion. Devotion to truth may lead one to emphatic atheism. Devotion to goodness may lead to harsh criticism of accepted religious teachings. Devotion to beauty may lead to the complaint that religious moralism blocks its pursuit.

Despite the disconnect between the true, the good, and the beautiful, on the one side, and what many people have understood by God, on the other, there are also deep connections. Panentheism accents these connections while largely overcoming the disconnect. This encourages us to attend to our actual experience of these three overarching values to see how they connect that experience with God.

For many people the difference between truth and falsity seems so evident that they feel no need to reflect more deeply. But the history of modern philosophy shows that matters are not quite that simple. Indeed, sophisticated thinkers today typically oppose Truth with a capital T. That would be a final truth, a claim to state the way things really are. Most of them now reject the “correspondence theory” of truth, which means that they deny that there can be any correspondence between our statements, or the meanings in our minds, and the way that some objective situation really is.

This denial of correspondence between language and any nonlinguistic reality is, in one sense, self-evident. No bit of language can be identical with any bit of the physical world. “Grass is green” is a bit of language. But the physical grass is not the word “grass” and the visual experience of green is not the word “green.” Serious defenders of correspondence never thought anything so crude as this. But they did think that in a community of discourse the use of the word “grass” generally led the hearer to consider much the same entities that the speaker intended by the word, and that this word in this sense corresponded to that entity. The word “green” corresponded in a similar way to a quality of experience that in this simple statement is said to arise in the beholder under certain conditions of light, etc., when visual attention is directed to what has been designated as grass.

This defense of the correspondence theory of truth corresponds to my sense of truth. But it is now rarely accepted by philosophers. It depends on a realistic view of the world, that is, the view that there really exist entities independent of our thought and language to which our language can refer. This is now typically rejected as naïve realism. The mainstream of philosophy has taken what is called the “linguistic turn.” Once no claim is allowed as to the existence or nonexistence of an “external world,” a bit of language can refer only to other bits of language. One may then have a “coherence” view of truth, that is that one bit of language fits well with other bits of language. Or one can say that the truth is whatever the experts say.

I confess that I cannot take these views existentially with seriousness. I understand how certain lines of reflection following on the basic direction given to philosophy by Descartes, lead philosophers to speak in this way. But I know that what I mean by truth is quite different. And I notice that those who reject the correspondence theory of truth repeatedly relapse into assuming it. That one idea fits with other ideas coherently gives me more confidence that it is likely to be true, but that means for me that it is more likely to correspond to objective reality. The truth is something we seek. We hope that our ideas do have some approximate correspondence to it, and sometimes we have considerable confidence about this. But the truth does not depend on what any of us or all of us collectively think.

There is much more to be said about truth, but here I will only say that this conviction that there is truth beyond all human knowing, that we should seek it diligently but never claim certainty that we have attained it, is almost another way of saying that there is God. For a panentheist the truth exists in God’s experiential knowledge of all that has happened and is happening. The intuition that there is truth objective to all human opinion is the intuition of God.

The deep conviction that some things are truly and ultimately better than others is analogous to the conviction that truth radically transcends human opinions. It is also extremely widespread. It has given rise to many massive historical evils when God is said to have revealed that particular patterns of behavior are always good or bad. We Christians claim to follow two great Jews, Jesus and Paul, who protested against this transformation of the sense of goodness into legalism. Yet we have produced some of the worst legalisms in all of human history particularly around sex and gender. Those who are truly committed to the good have rightly attacked us for our faithlessness, sometimes attacking the very idea of God in the process.

The deeper intuition about the good is that in every moment we have better and worse ways of actualizing ourselves. It is that whatever practical use there is in established moral codes, the best response in each moment may be not to follow them. Whitehead affirmed that there is a deep awareness among human beings generally that there is a “rightness in things,” partly realized and partly missed. Often we sense that we could have done better, but also that we could have done worse. More rarely we are aware of having emphatically rejected a great opportunity or taken action that even at the time we knew to be wrong. Sometimes we have the sense that we did better than we knew, that we were carried forward by intuitions or inspirations beyond our own understanding.

One possibility is to view all this in terms of childhood conditioning in the family and the wider society. There is no doubt about its importance. But my own conviction is that at some level we know that the real good transcends any formulations given to it by our society. This awareness became important in human societies only when societies with different teachings came into contact. This contact can lead to absolutizing what one has been taught. But I believe that there is a deeper intuition that the true good is not defined by what one has been taught, that there is more to be learned. In Whitehead’s philosophy, this conviction arises through the initial aim of each occasion, which is God’s immanence within us. But however it is understood, the belief that the good transcends all that we have been socialized to think of as good is, or can readily be understood as, belief in God.

Although truth and goodness are of immense importance, my own deep conviction is that they are not the comprehensive goal of life. That goal is the broad attainment of value of experience in myself and in my contribution to others. Truth and goodness contribute greatly to this, but they do not exhaust it. Value lies fundamentally in emotional depths. I have often used the term “richness of experience” to name that toward which I feel called to aim in myself and in others. The word “love” points to these depths, but Whitehead may be right to name the highest measure of the value of experience as beauty. If we think of the goal of the whole order of reality in terms of truth and goodness, we end up with an extreme anthropocentrism. But I cannot believe that human beings are that important in the vast scheme of things. The quest for beauty is more inclusive. Whitehead sees God’s telos in all things and in the divine existence itself, from which is derived God’s telos for us in each moment, as beauty. To aim to increase beauty in the world is to aim to contribute beauty to the inclusive reality that is God.

To feel deeply that truth, goodness, and beauty belong together, that, in fact, in their fullest realization, they are together, is another way of saying that one believes in God. To experience what little we can do as persons as still important is a form of belief in God. To sense that we are known and valued even when other human beings do not know or value us, is to believe in God.

None of this proves God’s existence. But I personally cannot doubt the reality and value of truth, beauty, and goodness. For me the affirmation of these is inextricable from the affirmation of God.