On the Non-Necessity of God
For several months, I’ve been reflecting on the place where God might “fit” in our attempts to think about, and ultimately know, ourselves and the world. Consequently, I’ve come to believe that God is formally unnecessary to such attempts. My thesis is that because the world is a finite and contingent thing, God need not be posited in order to make sense of it.
Now, to be honest, I thought I was pretty clever for happening upon this obviously true insight. And yet, sadly, I’ve discovered that our old friend Karl Barth has beaten me to the punch (he has a habit of doing that). So, to give a sense for what I mean, I’m going to begin by letting Karl do the talking. Here’s a quote from the Church Dogmatics:
“…God is before the world in the strictest sense that He is its absolute origin, its purpose, the power which rules it, its Lord….Yet even this aspect of the creation dogma is not self-evident….The question of an external world-cause is pressing, but it is not unavoidable….And if it is desired to regard the question of an external world-cause as unavoidable, the answer that God has created it would again be possible, but not so compelling as to exclude all kinds of other answers, or the assertion of other origins or lords. Even the claim that a wild chance, or the whim of a cosmic monster, has given it existence and made it its own master, cannot be described as a wholly unfounded hypothesis.” (CD III/1, p. 7)
As some of you will know, the larger point Barth is making in this section is that the first article of the creed – “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth” – is fundamentally a statement of faith, and as such, it should not be recommended on the basis of its explanatory power vis-à-vis the world, but rather on the basis of God’s revelation (i.e., “because He Himself has told us”; p. 8). Hence, Christians should not feel threatened if and when they discover that other explanatory models prove to be just as hypothetically adequate as the supposed event of divine creation. As Barth readily admits, a “cosmic monster” could fit just as well as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We might also say materialistic evolution.
Now, what interests me about all this is the following question: what is the significance of the fact that the world is capable of telling such divergent stories about itself? We are often prone to chalk up such divergences to our own epistemological limitations: our powers of perception are finite, our minds are clouded by sin, our intentions are not really to know, but rather to control, etc. These factors all of course play a part, but I think there’s another factor which we may be overlooking, and that is: the world is just there. As far as we are concerned, it confronts us with the same there-ness as a stone on a path. And this is why the world is so bizarre. Christian orthodoxy holds that the world is different from God. Whereas God’s existence is self-affirming, the world’s existence makes no independent sense, that is, the fact that it is, is gratuitous, contingent, and in a certain sense weird. And being weird, the world can be just as easily plunked into one worldview as another. In fact, inquisitive folks that we are, it practically invites us to do this. And depending on our religious predilections, this worldview may or may not include God. As I see it, the world’s very contingency allows for this, because even if all bases were covered by this or that explanatory framework, the world will always retain its oddity as a strangely existing thing.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that the matter of the real story of the world is irrelevant. As a Christian, I believe that God really did create the heavens and the earth, and my belief in this fact testifies to God’s gracious condescension in Christ. Moreover, I think people like me are entirely within their Christian rights when they begin to see the world as a “theater of God’s glory,” perceiving even God’s “invisible qualities” through the mouthpiece of creation (one example: Friedrich Schleiermacher is always getting flack for chucking God into his epistemology where the “reflective self-consciousness” can do the job just fine – yet such critiques often fail to reckon with the fact that Schleiermacher is a believer, and hence capable of integrating insights from Christian self-consciousness into other disciplines where no contradiction in the terms of those disciplines is introduced…though that may be a discussion for another post). What I am claiming is that seeing the world through Christian lenses is not necessary precisely because of what the world is, that is, something which need not have been.
You might say that I’m smuggling in Christian notions of the world’s contingency into my account – and of course, you’d be right. My thesis that God is not necessary to explain the world stems, perhaps paradoxically, from my conviction that God actually did create the world. If the world were necessary and not contingent, then I can’t see how it could tell another story about itself. But if the world actually is contingent, it can tell us a whole host of stories about itself, even stories which involve, for instance, its eternity (i.e., its forever-backwards existence) and/or its non-relation to God.
Postscript: I gather I’m also supposed to be introducing myself with this first post, so in that vein, let me just say: I really don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m completely insecure about most of the claims I make, and I depend on talking with people to sharpen me up. So have at it, dear readers. I covet your devastating critiques.