Today we leave behind the first decision point on the path to Christian faith. Having made a reasonable and responsible decision to affirm the irreducible reality of mind and attribute the intelligible order of the physical world to an active and universal mind, we now need to consider the nature of that mind. In the most general sense, the issue can be stated as follows: “Is the mind that is evident in the intelligible order of the world impersonal or personal?” More specifically, is the mental aspect of reality an unconscious, primitive urge that drives evolution toward higher and higher order culminating in self-conscious human beings? Or, in another impersonal option, is the universal mind a kind of logical necessity, impersonal in itself, that develops automatically into a world that contains finite, self-conscious minds like ours? Or, in a third option on the impersonal side of the second decision point, does the universal mind possess a primitive consciousness—not yet self-conscious, personal, and free—that itself evolves into god. In this theory, God was not always as great as God is now and did not create the world in a sovereign and free decision; instead, God grows and becomes greater in a world process that includes God and matter evolving together according to impersonal laws not subject to God’s choice.
Or, to consider the personal alternative in the second decision point, is God always and forever personal? Obviously the term “personal” is derived from our experience in ourselves and other human beings of those qualities that distinguish us from nonliving things and life on a lower level. In contrast to other things, we possess self-consciousness, knowledge, freedom, and capacity for interpersonal relationships. Only if God possesses these qualities may we think of God as powerful, loving, merciful, communicative, responsive, and purposive. Only a personal God can create the world and accompany it to God’s intended destination. Only a personal God can hear our prayers, know our names, exercise providence in our lives, and guarantee that we will reach our God-given destination. Only a personal God can root our personal identity in an eternal reality and ground our worth in divine love.
But which alternative conception of God makes the most sense, an impersonal god or a personal God? I have conversed with people who deny being atheists, claim to believe in God, but insist that they cannot believe in “a personal God.” My first reaction to such a qualification is a bit flippant: isn’t the notion of an impersonal god a contradiction? Why would you call an impersonal process “God”? Isn’t this a rather confusing use of the word God? Why not say that you do not believe in God at all? Sometimes, I get the impression that people who claim not to believe in a personal God are not expressing the conclusion of a serious thought project; rather, they are expressing their feelings of discomfort with the idea of God. But let’s assume that those who think of god as impersonal believe something like one of the three alternatives I described above: God is an urge, a logical necessity, or the goal of evolution.
Consider the following implications of the assertion that god is impersonal. To think of god as impersonal in one of these three senses is to insinuate that the god that produced us exists on a lower level of being than we do. Human beings, not god, occupy the highest level of being the world has yet attained. The implications of such a claim are rather eye opening. If god is impersonal, we know more than god does. We understand ourselves better than god understands “his” being. Indeed, we understand god better than god does. We are freer than god. We possess every noble, powerful, and desirable quality to a higher degree than god does. God doesn’t even know that “he” exists. Let me put it bluntly. We deserve the title “god” much more than an impersonal process does, however ancient, primitive, and productive that process may be. And, the deification of human self-consciousness may be the secret within the idea of an impersonal god. Humanity is the highest manifestation to date of the world process, and “God” is our imaginary image of the end stage of the world process.
The choice between a personal and an impersonal god, we can now see, is a choice between believing that there exists something infinitely greater and better than us or believing that we are the greatest and best existing beings. My intuition is that human beings possess an inner tendency to believe that there must exist something much greater and better than us, since that “Something” produced beings as amazing as us. How disappointing it would be to discover that we are the Supreme Being, that this is as good as it gets!
It interests me that for many atheists (especially the very scientifically-driven ones), the sum of the processes of the world is in fact the most grandiose and glorious thing that there is. They revel in the idea that man is just an insignificant cog in the machine of the cosmos. One things of Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” speech; indeed, many non-believing cosmologists and physicists today (such as Victor Stenger and Lawrence Krauss) would take it as a scientific datum that human existence is insignificant due to our infinitesimally small size in comparison with the whole cosmos.
But contrast this with Robin Collins’ Teleological Argument about God’s existence from the fine tuning of physics. That argument would place human existence as the pinnacle of the order of the cosmos, thus placing humanity in a very important position (though not as the supreme being). Of course, naturalists will generally deny that the universe is fine tuned for embodied conscious life at all, claiming that the claims of fine tuning are just a result of our observer biases.
I’m just musing more than asking a question per se, but it always fascinates me how much the relative importance (or unimportance) of humanity gets so much attention in the public discourse between theism and atheism. Atheists often seem like they want to have their cake and eat it too—they simultaneously affirm humanity’s insignificance relative to the whole cosmos and the process of evolution, but also extol humanity as the pinnacle of all life (thus far) and thus see it as our duty to define what kind of people we want to be.
It seems to me a difficult thing to be both atheist and a humanist. Sagan and others speak of humanity’s insignificance implying if not saying that we are of no more value than other collections of atoms, but in that same speech they use the language of beauty and grandeur to express our wonder at the universe….and at ourselves. The mind that comprehends, the heart that feels and the voice that expresses the greatness of the universe must also be some great thing. Here we have another example of a reductionist theory whose truth cannot be experienced overriding the direct experience of the human mind and heart of itself and its world. We have a choice: the meaning of the universe is revealed in our being and experience as thinking and moral beings OR the meaning of the universe is revealed in ourselves as material beings subject to physical forces. Either way the universe reveals itself in us and knows itself in us. How can one say that we are insignificant when the “significance” of the universe becomes known only in us? You can’t have it both ways. The idea of thinking matter is a contradiction in terms. The image of a brilliant scientist or philosopher standing in before an intelligent and attentive audience praising the accomplishments of modern science for demonstrating that he and they are merely insignificant collections of stardust, that the humanistic values of beauty, goodness, right and wrong, love and joy, knowledge and truth are but epiphenomenal appearances with no real root in the most fundamental reality of the universe…this picture is, in Kierkegaard’s terms, “comic.” It is laughable and self-refuting. It does not deserve refutation but ridicule.