Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Come, Let Us Reason Together": Thinking About God

A student in my philosophy of religion class recently asked me, "Do we really need to put this much thought into God?  Is it not okay for me to believe without all the philosophical questions?"

On the one hand, yes, it is okay for you to believe without being a philosopher.  As William James points out, we often decide to believe religious, ethical, and aesthetic propositions on insufficient evidence, and we often do so justly.  Sometimes you've just got to choose, even if you can't prove you've made the right choice.

And I'm sympathetic with this student's position.  Faith can be, as James puts it, passional.  When people question our passions, or put restrictions on them, that can feel like a violation of something very personal and intimate.  In those times we feel that the person telling us we may not believe is a dogmatist and a tyrant.

On the other hand, I think there are some good reasons to spend time thinking philosophically about God. Here are five reasons why I think religious people - and specifically but not exclusively Christians - ought to do so.  

First, if your belief is based in Jewish and Christian scriptures, you might find the commandment to "love the Lord your God with all your...mind" to be sufficient reason.  If you love God, why would you withhold your mind from your worship?  And if you claim to be giving your whole self in worship but withhold your reason, aren't you in danger of committing the error of Ananias and Sapphira?

Second, thinking about God brings us into community with others.  It's a way of putting our beliefs into words, and when we do that, we invite others to consider them with us.  

Third, lots of people have opinions about God, and some opinions about God lead people to do violent things to others.  If we disagree with that violence, and want to stop it, we have two choices: we can oppose it with equal and opposite violence, or we can try to reason with others.  Perhaps more importantly, we can reason with those who might one day become violent and help them form reasonable and peaceable beliefs. It's hard to reason about others' opinions if we aren't able to reason about our own opinions.

Fourth, even if our reasoning about God is inconclusive (as it often is!) it is a kind of exercise for the mind, one that might prepare us for the conversations I just mentioned and also for solving lots of other kinds of problems.

Finally, thinking about God can help us discover idols in our own thinking.  It's a kind of self-examination.  If you take God seriously, then you probably want to make sure you don't worship the wrong thing.  My experience tells me that when I think about very difficult problems, part of me gets tired and wants to settle on any old solution so that I can be done thinking.  But that settling on a workable solution might well get in the way of finding the best solution.  Similarly, settling for an easy theology might get in the way of finding the best theology.  Will I ever find the best theology?  I admit I'm not sanguine about this.  But why should that keep me from longing and trying to make the theology I have better?  At any rate, surely I should try to avoid believing in the wrong thing.  I find Merold Westphal's position to be a helpful one: skeptics of religion are often better idol-detectors than I am.

What do you think?