I speak of God
with good reason
when I awaken trustfully
of an ongoing dialogical relationship
involving the uniquely all-inclusive reality* (God**)
with all less inclusive realities.
These manifestations are moments of varying intensity where this dialogical relationship seems inescapably here. Such moments happen when I engage the story of Jesus as the fully humanized story of God, especially in the Eucharist. They happen when I pray contemplatively. They happen when I engage the Bible, not as an infallible textbook, but as a collection of ancient testimonies to similar moments. They happen when in the same way I engage sacred writings from other faith communities. They happen when I engage other contemplative people past and present, some more philosophical, others more spiritual, many of whom do not ever use the word “God.” They happen when I am caught up in various forms of art, especially (for me) music and poetry. They happen when I and another live into an intimacy beyond control or comprehension. They happen when I am relentlessly drawn to get involved with struggles for justice and reconciliation. They happen when I ask myself, honestly, as I trust I’m doing right now, why I can’t seem to escape speaking of God. All of these are moments of varying intensity—revelatory moments, manifestations—where this dialogical relationship seems inescapably here.
Could these moments be illusions? Yes. In fact I’m sure some of them are, and none of us can completely disentangle what we say we experience from what we’re predisposed to experience. Can anybody prove that these are all no more than illusions? No. People can easily show how they could be illusions, but that’s still “could be.” Getting from “could be illusions” to “definitely are illusions” depends on further “prescientific,” “metaphysical” assumptions about how the world around us works. If I held reductive assumptions that rule out such a dialogical relationship in advance (like, say, Sigmund Freud or Daniel Dennett), I would probably call all of these moments illusions, period. But I don’t hold reductive assumptions like that, which are, in any case, unprovable.*** Anyway, illusions or not, without such revelatory moments I might not bother to speak of God.
Yet because these moments could be illusions, I still might not bother to speak of God if there were not also credible ways of understanding the experienced interactions of the world around us in terms of this dialogical relationship (hence my fascination with process thought). These ways of understanding the world around us do not have to be provable beyond a shadow of doubt, but they do have to be credible, not just to me, but to others who don’t share my theological agenda.
Also, if I were convinced that this ongoing relationship was not dialogical but monological (whether from my side as sheer projection, or from the other side as sheer determinism), I might not bother to speak of God. For me, as for Martin Buber, to speak of God there must be some credible sense in which God responds to me as me, and some sense in which I respond to God as God (hence, again, my fascination with process theism).
And finally, if I did not awaken to manifestations of this dialogical relationship trustfully, I might not bother to speak of God. This trustful awakening is what I and countless others in past centuries mean by “faith,” as I explain elsewhere. I trust this dialogical relationship, manifested in all sorts of ways, to be the ultimate good that enlivens, sustains, and embraces us through all the joys and griefs of living and dying. Again, as one peculiar sort of process theist, I do not expect this relationship to protect us from the sorts of devastation that any of us might suffer, but I do trust it to enliven us, sustain us, and embrace us, come what may. And without that sort of trust I might not bother to speak of God.
But 1) there are moments when this dialogical relationship seems inescapably here, 2) there are credible ways of understanding the interactions of the world around us in terms of this dialogical relationship, 3) nothing convinces me that the relationship is not dialogical, and 4) I do trust this dialogical relationship to be the ultimate good that enlivens us, sustains us, and embraces us through all the joys and griefs of living and dying.
So I have good reason to continue speaking of God. I do not have good reason to browbeat others into speaking of God. But I do have good reason, not only to continue speaking this way, but to commend this way of speaking.
*I am using “reality” in an the everyday sense of what turns out to involve us, like it or not, noticed or not. That’s how we often use the word in everyday parlance, and that’s enough to justify its usage here. This is close to the definition of reality given by pragmatist William James (which he in turn stole from non-pragmatist A. E. Taylor): “anything is real of which we find ourselves obliged to take account in any way”—William James, Some Problems of Philosophy (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1996 ), p. 101. Again, my usage is close, but not identical. How this usage squares or doesn’t square with more exotically provocative usages, like Lacan’s and Zizek’s “the Real,” is a matter better left for another conversation.
**This way of indicating God—the uniquely all-inclusive reality—admittedly doesn’t match every snapshot of God in the Bible, because the Bible portrays God in a variety of ways that don’t even match one another! (More here.) But it fits some really important ones, like these: “From God, through God, and in God are all things” (Romans 11:36). “God is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6). “In God we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). “God is Love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16). And it fits St. Anselm’s highly influential identification of God with “that than which a greater cannot be thought.” (Anselm borrowed this from St. Augustine: “That one God of gods is thought about … in such a way that our thoughts strive to attain to something, than which there is nothing better or more sublime” [De Doctrina Christiana 1.7.7]. Anselm substitutes “greater” for “better” because he believes “greater” includes “better.”)
***I am proceeding here by the “principle of sufficiency” formalized by Immanuel Kant: “the variety of entities should not be rashly diminished”—or as I would phrase it more empirically (i.e., experientially), don’t deny what’s experienced as real without a compelling reason. It’s the flip-side of William of Ockham’s “principle of parsimony” (“Occam’s Razor”): “entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.” The two principles, parsimony and sufficiency, are actually compatible (more here). So we can combine them into one principle: the variety of entities should neither be diminished nor multiplied beyond necessity.