Dude, where’s my god?

If you’re trying to give me a proof for the claim (take your pick) that God exists or that God doesn’t exist, and I stop you to say, “You know, your argument really presumes that God is just another object, different in degree but not in kind from everything else that exists,” you’re likely to be surprised and maybe even indignant. When said this baldly, charging someone (especially a God-believer) with thinking of God as an object sounds absurd. Of course we’re not talking about a thing! God by definition is infinite, eternal, nonphysical. And that’s why God is God! says the theist. And that’s why God doesn’t exist! says the atheist.

But here’s the problem. The moment we begin to talk about existence, we implicitly pledge ourselves to follow the existence script, and that script (quite reasonably) limits us to existence discourse. To exist (from exsistere = to stand out) is to be a discrete object or relation, physical or noetic, that can be distinguished (because it “stands out”) from other discrete objects or relations. Within existence discourse, there’s a tried and tested set of standards and methods for testing the truth value of any existence claim to determine whether it corresponds to an actual state of affairs. Those standards and methods are calibrated and refined over time, but all of them, because they fall within existence discourse, are directed (again, quite properly) toward the scrutiny of things which ex-ist and claims about things which ex-ist.

When we try to prove or disprove the existence of God, we misapply the standards and methods of existence discourse. We may not mean to. We may be absolutely persuaded that we’re trying to determine whether or not a limitless, eternal, nonobject Being exists. But if we bring the standards and methods properly used to appraise existence claims into this inquiry, as some theists and most atheists do, then in fact we’re operating as if this hypothetical limitless, eternal, nonobject Being can be investigated in the same way that we investigate limited, temporal, and object beings. When a theist invokes a cosmological or design argument for the existence of God, or when an atheist denies that God exists because faith-claims defy common perception or ordinary logic or scientific testing, they’ve reduced God to the status of object, and hence neither are doing what they think they’re doing. Neither is talking about God. And given that they’re working within existence discourse, they can’t be.

Because God doesn’t exist.

If God is, God doesn’t exist. If God is, God can’t exist. If God is, God isn’t a fact. If God is, God isn’t as things are. If God is real, God isn’t real in the way that an object is. If God is, existence discourse isn’t applicable to God’s isness. If God is, we need a different kind of script to talk about God. Thomas Aquinas’ natural theology doesn’t work (as even Thomas himself recognized toward the end of his life). Richard Dawkins’ scientistic reductionism doesn’t work. Both of them use existence discourse to talk about God. They’re trying to squeeze blood from turnips.

Am I just indulging in wordplay here? Well yeah, of course, but the belittling “just” ought to be dropped. Wordplay is significant. The meaning of words flows from the scripts in which they appear, and no script is applicable across the board. So wordplay, in the sense of carefully scrutinizing the scripts that we bring to the table to see if they’ll do the job we want them to, is important — it’s crucial — if we hope to make sense of both our discourse and the world it tries to express.

So: I don’t think God exists. The Barefoot Bum and others will ask (perhaps impatiently) at this point whether I believe in God. And my answer is yes. I do believe that God is (in fact, I believe that God only is), but not that God exists. And what this means is that I must accept that God is in the realm of the mysterious, and that mystery discourse is necessarily ambiguous, evocative, poetic, stuttering, vague, chthonic, and weakly when compared to its more robust and muscular cousin, existence discourse. That’s just the way things are. Theists may try to put mystery discourse through a steroid regimen in the hope that it’ll grow existence discourse muscles, but the results are artificial.

Aha! the atheist will respond. I knew it all the time! You faithheads (to use a label favored by Dawkins groupies) can’t say anything precise (just give me one stinkin’ fact! thunders Fighting Bob Ingersoll) about your God, so you retreat into mystery! And mystery, to paraphrase Spinoza, is the sanctuary of ignorance!

So be it. I accept the inherent, insurmountable mystery of God talk, and I bow to the fact that it will be dissatisfying to an atheist who insists on applying existence discourse across the board (it’ll also be dissatisfying to a theist who wants to be muscular). I’m okay with both of those. I’m not interested in winning an argument or in proselytizing. But I would like to say three quick things to my atheist pals.

The first is that there’s a longstanding recognition in both Christianity and other faiths that even though divine mystery can’t be articulated very well, it can be experienced. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation, and the practice of virtue can open up one’s native sensitivity to God until one becomes conscious of the reality of God in the poustinia, as the Russian Orthodox mystics say, the “cave of the heart.” This is a self-verifying experience that’s available to everyone — although it’s by no means easy to attain — so no one who hasn’t given it a shot should really feel comfortable trashing the possibility that God is. To deny that God is without taking seriously the spiritual disciplines that claim to open one up to God isn’t unlike the Princes of the Church stubbornly refusing to look through Galileo’s telescope.

Here’s my second point. Before you reject self-verifying but mysterious experiences as subjective nonsense, think about them outside of the context of God discourse. Isn’t love a self-verifying experience? Joy? Despair? Do we really need someone to observe our behavior or measure our adrenal levels or scan our brain waves to know when we love or rejoice or despair? So if we might be willing to admit that some experiences are self-verifying, why not the God experience? The assumptions from which we argue are built up out of the things to which we attend. If we begin attending to experiences that we may’ve previously ignored or rejected, our way of viewing the world and ourselves could realign.

Here’s my last point. Don’t confuse religious culture with the mystery of God. Get as pissed and disgusted at the stupid and hurtful shenanigans of true believers as you want. I’m right there with you. But don’t let your rage turn you into a true believer for the other side.

By a deacon. Originally at the now-defunct blog Subversive Christianity