Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Gods of the Imagination

In a recent post over on Miss Atomic Bomb, nuclear.kelly offers reflections on the doctrine of hell in which she refers to a passage from Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, a passage in which Huxley bemoans “the dreadful theology that arises when the eternal Godhead is removed, by our own devices, from eternity and placed into the causal reality of the natural world.”

One reader of her post quickly retorts with the following: “Sorry, but these are one and the same—all gods, headed or not, arise from our imaginations, whether positive of negative. I agree that trying to make sense of these constructions in any logical, physical way leads us grievously astray. But that is simply a comment on the overall concept, which can not be reconciled with any sensible system.”

This exchange got me thinking about gods of the imagination, and I was promptly reminded of some of Simone Weil’s comments in Gravity and Grace, in which she sees atheism as “a purification” insofar as it cast off gods of the imagination, and hence makes it possible for us to experience that which cannot be imagined.

Weil is not a fan of the imagination. She says, “The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.” She calls it “essentially a liar.” What has value, for Weil, is the immediate experience of a God who cannot be imagined. And we can experience that God only if we make a space within us into which a transcendent reality might flow. But our imagination keeps filling up these spaces.

So how do we distinguish between gods of the imagination and the experience of “the true God” (if there is such a thing)? For Weil, making this distinction is a matter of rejecting all gods that we can imagine, but being open to the experience of loving relatedness to that which defies imagining. And so Weil says, “I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure my love is not illusory. I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be anything like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word. But that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.”

Nuclear.kelly’s (and Huxley’s) call for resisting “the dreadful theology that arises when the eternal Godhead is removed…from eternity” appears to be of the same sort as Weil’s: an insistence that true religious consciousness needs to reach beyond the limits of our empirically-defined imaginations, to adopt a posture of openness to that which transcends our ordinary concepts. And nuclear.kelly’s critic responds with a quick dismissal of that call, a dismissal premised on the assumption that there simply is nothing beyond these limits, or at least nothing that could justify the appellation “God.”

Both agree that there is something seriously wrong with gods of the imagination. The question is whether it is even possible for religion to be a response to anything other than a god of the imagination.

Here, it may be helpful to reflect for a moment on the empirical philosophy of David Hume. Hume pointed out that our imagination—at least in the most common sense of that term—is bounded by empirical experience. In other words, what we imagine is always a construct built up from elements derived from experience. The one-eyed purple monster with razor teeth and antlers and weeping pustules all over its body is not itself an object of experience, but each element of which it is made is derived from experience.

Empirical experience is always temporal and spatial. As such, any construct of the imagination is bounded by space and time. In other words, no construct of the imagination can be what orthodox Christianity takes God to be: eternal, self-existent, infinite. These are not spatio-temporal properties, but the properties of that which transcends the limits of space and time.

To believe in God in this sense is therefore to think that there is something which defies imagining. No construct of the imagination can correspond with God, and so any such construct is a false God. When one begins to make such an imagined construct the object of one’s devotion, one has become an idolater.

But to say that God cannot be imagined is not to say that God cannot be thought or conceptualized in any way. It is, rather, to say that God cannot be univocally conceptualized through depiction. If God is conceptualized at all, it will be in terms of non-empirical concepts.

Where Hume went seriously wrong, in my judgment, is in denying the existence of such non-empirical concepts. In so doing, he set the stage for logical positivism and its various spiritual children. (My reasons for opposing Hume and the logical positivists on this point are sketched out in an earlier post).

In any event, if there are non-empirical concepts (and I think the concept of “goodness” is one), then there may be ways to conceptualize God without being able to “imagine” God—an issue I touch on in Chapter 6 of Is God a Delusion? This is not to say that we can expect to have a fully adequate understanding of the divine, but only that we have the conceptual resources to make “God” a meaningful concept, one which points beyond the empirical world to a referent that defies imagination. And so the statements “God exists” and “God doesn’t exist” can be meaningful ones. They say something, even if what they say is not something empirical or empirically testable.

What Huxley and Weil and others are claiming is that when “God” is defined in terms amenable to human imagination, the object thus defined is something that does not exist and which does not deserve the kind of devotion or worship that God supposedly warrants—in fact, when devotion becomes directed to these spatio-temporally bounded artifacts of our imagination, the results can be very bad indeed.

In this they agree with most of the new atheists. But unlike them, they do not stop there. There is another way to understand the meaning of “God,” a more profound way, an understanding of the divine that casts off the limits of the imagination and points beyond the empirical surface of the world.

And when it comes to the question of whether God in that sense exists, dogmatic assertions to the effect that every concept of God is a product of the imagination shouldn’t be confused with a compelling answer. In fact, it is just about the only answer that must be rejected on the facts. For the fact is that people have had and continue to have encounters with what Rudolf Otto dubbed “the numinous”—that is, experiences which defy imagination, which feel like a direct relational connection to something that cannot be depicted, which cannot be represented in terms of the categories derived from our engagement with the natural world.

The gods of the imagination don’t fit with this experience but are, instead, driven out by it. They are rendered trite. In their place is a sense that there exists something vast, mysterious, and fundamental…but also something capable of love, love unlike any love one could ever hope to feel—and so something that warrants the label “God.”

It is a fact that for people like Otto, and Weil, and Martin Luther King, Jr., “God” does not name a product of the imagination, but the object of an experience which is characterized, among other things, by being unimaginable. Call it a delusion if you will, but don’t call it a product of the imagination. It’s not that.

Of course, it might still be a false notion. Perhaps this sort of experience is just a side effect of a sudden upsurge of DMT production in the pineal gland. But to believe this is to dismiss the significance of the experience. While one can, perhaps, enjoy such an experience of encountering the numinous while believing it’s nothing more than a side effect of chemical surges, one cannot treat it as the profoundly important and transformative event which it immediately seems to be.

And it is better—morally better, I think—to do the latter: to dwell in that experience fully, to immerse oneself in the sense of union with a deeper truth, in short, to respond to and relate to the experience as if it were veridical. It is better, first of all, because of the substance of the experience itself, because it would be better if the world were as this experience represents it as being; and secondly, because living as if the world is like this is a better way to live.

In short, my reasons for endorsing the decision to respond to the numinous affirmatively are moral ones—because no other reasons are decisive. When all the philosophizing and empirical study is done, the existence of the transcendent God who conforms with numinous experience (as opposed to the various gods of the imagination) is neither decisively refuted nor positively established. I think philosophy can show that belief in the transcendent is reasonable (as I argue in my book)—but not in the sense that reason demands such belief.

And so, when one’s life brushes up against the numinous, when vistas of joyful possibility seem to open up (if only for a moment) to kindle our deepest yearnings and inspire our capacity for compassion and forgiveness—when we encounter a God Who puts all our idolatrous imaginings to shame, we have a choice to make. It won’t be made for us by a knock-down argument or a decisive bit of empirical evidence. I think the best way to make that choice is to tap into the very consideration that, at their best, motivates the New Atheists’ outrage against the great sea of imaginary gods: Love for the good.

Were there such a thing as a diabolical mystical experience (an experience that cannot be adequately conceptualized, that seems to be of something fundamental and ultimate, but which feels like an encounter with something unremittingly horrific), the very same reasoning would apply in reverse: to dwell in such an experience fully, to immerse oneself in it, to respond and relate to it as if it were the ultimate transcendent truth about the nature of reality—well, that would be a terrible thing to do, because it would be better if the world were not like this; because it would be better to live as if the world were not like this.

My own sense, however, is that while there are experiences of evil that defy imagination or ready conceptualization, they don’t resonate with what I’m inclined to call the flavor of the Absolute. They don’t feel like an encounter with the root of all being, but feel instead like an encounter with something that exists in opposition to being. And for me, what is most telling is the fact that those who have had the most profound sense of the reality of evil and who then come to have an encounter with the numinous are transformed by the latter, as if the latter puts the former into perspective rather than the reverse. This, it seems, is one of the chief lessons of William James’ study of the religion of so-called “sick souls.”

Love for the good, then, cries out against the diabolical theology that traps the Godhead within the sphere of empirically-defined imagination. And it cries out against deifying our quasi-mystical experiences of evil. But when it comes to the numinous, and the question of whether we should embrace it as veridical or dismiss it as “a bit of undigested beef,” that same love for the good cries out for embrace.


  1. Hi, Professor Reitan. I've been following your blog for a couple of months and appreciate what you write a lot.

    I see how the "god of fear and awe" could emerge from a "de-transcendalization" (for lack of a better word) of God, but I also think the "god of fear" can emerge from a "transcendalization" of God in the wrong way.

    I know many people who love God and who see the transcendental beauty in God who nevertheless believe in eternal conscious torment for the vast majority of humanity. As someone who has drifted from the "traditional" view of Hell to conditionalism to a tentative universalism, I have a bit of insight into how these people try to reconcile their loving God with such a terrible Hell. As far as I can tell, they accomplish this mainly by "transcendentalizing" God's justice into something beyond our grasp or understanding - saying that God's ways are higher than our ways rather than asking, "Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"

    For me, the universalist God is more transcendent in some ways, but He is also much more imaginable. He is more humane and personal; His plan makes more sense. So I think there are two sides to imagining God.

    (I don't know if that makes sense. I'm running on two hours of sleep.)

  2. Speaker, that makes sense to me. I have seen this happen with one of my Calvinist friends. Like me, she is a creative writer, and so perhaps mistrusts her imagination in the religious realm because of its skill at producing potential idols. This is a real danger, as Eric says, but you're also right that we can overshoot in the other direction.

    Jesus became incarnate as an individual in a particular time period, with a particular race, class, gender, etc. -- maybe, among other reasons, to teach us not to be too paranoid about putting a face on God. It's important to retain an awareness that God can't be contained by our concepts, but on the other hand, without some specifics, we can't get much guidance, moral or otherwise, from the numinous mystical experience.

    Why is idolatry bad, anyhow? Is it because God cares so much about us having *accurate* ideas? In a religion based on grace, I don't think that's the issue. Idolatry is distorted love -- wrong priority, wrong way of expression, obsessive craving instead of unselfish giving. A certain over-insistence on God's total otherness can make us unloving to our fellow humans (I think that's what Speaker is saying) because we defend a notion of "God's will" that bears no relation to human standards of compassion and fairness. Isn't that also idolatry, in the sense of loving our concept of God more than loving our neighbor? It takes the humanity out of the Godhead.

  3. Speaker for the Dead:

    You raise in your comment an important issue: the fact that if one takes God to be entirely outside the sphere of rational conceptualization, we’re afforded no basis for being critical of claims that are made about God.

    This is why I think it is crucial to distinguish between the claim that God is unimaginable—in the sense that no adequate picture of God can be constructed in terms of empirically-derived concepts—and the claim that God falls entirely outside the sphere of rational (especially moral) conceptualization.

    But this response is really just a promissory note. I’ve already started working on a follow-up post in which I address this issue in greater detail. So stay tuned for that.

    In the meantime, I think Jendi's remarks are really helpful. They highlight, I think, the centrality of our moral sense for relating to the God that transcends our conceptual grasp. This will be the focus of my next post.

  4. Eric, et al: I think this is an instance where science can actually help the "conceptualization" of God, instead of hinder. In physics, one has a basic, empirical understanding of the nature of the universe - I kick the ball and it recoils, the arrow flies this trajectory, moving electrons in wires produce heat and light, gases distribute from areas of higher concentration to lower, etc. But our theoretical understanding of the nature of the universe is something entirely different, something completely without tangible or "imaginable" constructs. Quantum mechanics is almost purely mathematical, and is unquestionably non-intuitive. And yet, QM (well, QCD) is the best description of the true nature of the universe that we have to date. It was so revolutionary, so counterintuitive, that even Einstein refused to accept it. This is how one can "picture the picturing of God," if you will. The gods we know, the gods we dream up of our own accord, are like the worldly, intuitive, non-fundamental physics: mechanics, magnetism, thermodynamics. The God we cannot "know" is like this elegant mathematical descriptor, quantum mechanics: it cannot be "pictured" or "imagined" by means of drumming up some mental image, but it is there, and correct, nonetheless. There is something rather pleasing to me, in that sense, "imagining" this numinous God as I would a Grand Unified Theory, whereas the gods of "causal reality" are like those subjects (kinematics, thermo, etc) which are merely approximations to the true nature of things.
    I hope this makes sense! Thanks again for a great post, and for the shout out.