A God I Could Believe In

April 23, 2011

Isn’t it funny that most of us here are about to celebrate Easter, but this here will be a post about the Epiphany?

…ok, maybe not. I dually apologize for my lateness as well as for any offense I may commit.

Anyway, several months ago, a friend asked in a Facebook status:

So this question will probably get a lot of people very angry and probably provoke passionate responses as to why it is a bad question to be asking, but I’m going to ask it anyway. What if Christ’s mission wasn’t to bring /us/ closer to /God/, but to bring /God/ closer to /us/?

Indeed, this post was controversial, although I was pleased with how that acquaintance defended his position. From the discussion, another friend linked to a post at the Slacktivist about the Epiphany (again, I know…wrong holiday for this weekend!) From it:

…the epiphany that unfolds from this freaky incarnation works both ways. If the person and the life of Jesus Christ taught us humans everything we need to know about God, that life also taught God what it is like to be one of us.

Some Christians balk at this notion of God learning. An almighty and omniscient being, they say, doesn’t need to learn. But this is part of the story. The story tells us this happened too.

“Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house,” the messenger tells Job. “And suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”

When Job learned that his children had died, he wept. But God did not weep.

Jesus wept.

…Lazarus got sick and then, like Job’s children, Lazarus died. And when Jesus saw Lazarus’ sisters weeping, “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” And then God Almighty — God who laid the foundation of the earth, who determined its measurements when the morning stars sang together, God who commands the morning and causes the dawn to know its place, God who bound the chains of the Pleiades and loosed the cords of Orion — wept.

That’s an epiphany. That’s the Epiphany we celebrate on Thursday.

One commenter remarked:

Honestly Fred you are the first – VERY FIRST – Christian person of any persuasion who has ever suggested to me that God can learn. I’m honestly a little… is shocked the right word? Not because it’s a bad thing, I don’t think it is, but it’s just so outside the realm of my experience I’m definitely not sure what exactly to say to it.

But I can honestly say that I like it. If I still had my faith I think I might be offended at the notion; but I don’t, and instead find it… kind of awesome (in the original sense of the word).

Of course, Mormons, (depending on whom you listen to), should be well aware of the idea of God learning. It’s eternal progression.

Another commenter, Hashmir, wrote (I really wish the link would work…it’s on the 2nd page of comments) [P.S. sorry for his language]:

…when you think about it, it’s fairly obvious why a god would want to create humanity. I mean, if humans got the technology to create a universe and/or sentient life, wouldn’t we jump at the chance? Maybe not every individual, but as a species, we will create just about anything imaginable if given the tools; and if we don’t have the tools, we’ll create those.

…Moreover, knowing humans, it’s reasonable to say that we would like the beings that inhabit the universe we created to know of our existence. And hell, we’d like to keep them from warring with each other and suffering natural disasters and being sick. And we might even try to set something up where all of that would be nonexistent.

But when you get down to it, shit’s complicated. And I bet you anything that no matter how enlightened we may be by then, we won’t have figured out how to make a universe with constants such that sentient life can develop without anything happening in the universe that could be dangerous to them. And we won’t have figured out how to set up a stable biosphere without predators and bugs and diseases that make people’s lives both unpleasant and considerably shorter. And we won’t have figured out how to externally influence a society so that they don’t form tribes and cliques and develop prejudices and bigotry and so on.

So you may have gathered by this point that there is one thing I’ve implied but never yet stated: God is neither omnipotent nor omniscient. (And yes, I make this claim as an atheist.)

Seriously, though. There is so much invested in the idea that God is literally perfect. Bullshit. Nobody’s perfect. And when you’re making an entire goddamn universe, I guarantee you that you fucked something up. Maybe the speed of light is off, and it’s all gonna fall apart 80 quadrillion years earlier than it needed to; maybe you ended up with two species too close together, and one annihilated the other’s planet.

Point is, if God isn’t perfect, then there’s a lot more room to cut him some slack. Maybe he tried to fix some bad stuff earlier and it backfired, because shit’s complicated. Maybe that made him reluctant to try again, and maybe he was wrong and missed a chance where he could have actually fixed it. Maybe he tried to get his message through as best he could, and so we got Jesus and the Bible. And maybe the Bible got sort of written, and then there were a couple other guys who wrote stuff God didn’t really want in the Bible, and it got in anyway, and some important stuff got dropped because it was humans who decided what was canon, and at that point, what’s he gonna do, make another human avatar and do all that again?

So — again, as an atheist — I would say that I could actually probably get behind that god. I mean, I don’t believe he exists, but that’s a god where I can say, if he does exist, I’m cool with him. Because that’s a religious view that acknowledges that any deity out there needs our forgiveness and understanding as much as we supposedly have his.

I’ve probably chased away 70% of my audience. Depending on whom you read, maybe the idea of God lacking either in omniscience or in omnipotence makes you antsy. Especially when atheists find these god concepts more appealing, as in the couple of comments I’ve pasted here. Especially on Easter weekend!

Alternatively, maybe these modifications to the classical formulation of God seem superior to other formulations. This would be consistent with the Mormon transhumanist New God Argument as well(which was addressed by Sam Harris with a bit of a Mormon twist, actually).

…For me, I find that, like the commenters above, I could sympathize and identify with such a god. If I had traditional faith, I recognize I might be offended by these notions, but I don’t, and so I find these notions to be awesome — in the original sense of the word.

I guess, one of my “hangups” with formulations of deity that are more popularly espoused (especially the kinds in non-LDS Christianity — or even the LDS Christian kind) is that they don’t seem to fit with reality — at least as I experience it. And so theodicies and goyologies seem like a way to mash the complexities of reality into unsatisfactory worldview boxes. A traditional Easter story or traditional Epiphany doesn’t speak to me. Real life just doesn’t seem that wonderful.

Perhaps when people insist that the church is true, but people aren’t (with its attendant problems) or something similar, we might instead argue that maybe the reason why God allows certain things to happen is because he’s learning too.

Or maybe you can just go back to your Easter celebration…

Easter Cross

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30 Responses to A God I Could Believe In

  1. sabio on April 23, 2011 at 5:17 AM

    Superb! Touch and refreshing. Thank you

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  2. Eric Nielson on April 23, 2011 at 7:10 AM

    There is wording in the Book of Mormon about Christ’s atonement allowing Him to know how to succor his people (Alma 7), and the atonement of Christ being done so that a righteous judgement might come to the children of men (Mosiah 3). A non-absolute God is not really new to Mormonism, and is eventually an inevitability with an embodied, weeping God.

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  3. Lincoln Cannon on April 23, 2011 at 7:36 AM

    Enjoyed the post! Thanks, Andrew.

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  4. Andrew S on April 23, 2011 at 8:03 AM

    Thanks for the comments so far, everyone (especially your scriptural confirmations, Eric). I was worried this post wouldn’t go over so well.

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  5. [...] I have my latest post, A God I Could Believe In, over at Wheat and Tares. [...]

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  6. John Gustav-Wrathall on April 23, 2011 at 11:39 AM

    Andrew, it’s not that you shouldn’t want to believe in a God that is understandable, or that you shouldn’t try to understand God. It’s just that you… won’t succeed. Whatever God you manage to believe in, when you finally encounter God — and that you will I am certain, whether this side of the veil or the other side — you’ll simply be amazed and awed by how incomprehensibly better the truth is than what you thought.

    I guess that’s the good thing about trying to understand God. It makes the surprise that much better!

    I couldn’t possibly get “antsy” about anything you choose to post about God because, well, God’s honor is not for me to defend. That’s between you and him…

    Do I think it’s blasphemous to suggest that Christ learned things by becoming flesh? That God grows through his creations? No… I think those statements do capture some of the truth of God. Medieval hair-splitters (and their latter-day successors) would be appalled, but that’s because they too were all about creating a (humanly) logical construct of God based on certain Platonic notions…

    But do I believe that the existence of natural and/or human evil is the result divine incompetence? The answer to that would also be a big No. I have gained some of my perspective on this from my own personal experience with God. There are eminently good reasons why God needs to let me try stuff and fail, even if he has all the know-how he needs to ensure that everything is done perfectly. And what Christ has revealed to me of myself leaves me confident that everything is in his hands, all power in the most perfect, complete sense of that word. And when the final work is ready to be accomplished, he will do it in a most incredible way.

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  7. mh on April 23, 2011 at 11:43 AM

    andrew, you are correct that mormons believe God can eternally progress. while some of your quotes are a bit irreverent, I think your atheist friends would accept the mormon concept of god more readily than traditional christianity’s god. what problems do you have with the mormon conception of god?

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  8. Bishop Rick on April 23, 2011 at 12:23 PM

    For me the LDS concept of God is no more believable, but it is more acceptable. The concept of eternal progression is a good one.

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  9. Jared on April 23, 2011 at 3:20 PM

    Christ, though a God, wasn’t perfected until He finished the atonement.

    The Savior may have known all things pertaining to creation but he hadn’t experienced all things until He descended below all things.

    I believe those who have done as Christ, have reached perfection in knowledge and experience, therefore they can increase in “glory” but not in knowledge and experience.

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  10. Andrew S on April 23, 2011 at 3:21 PM

    re 6:

    John,

    Thanks for the comment. I guess one thing I feel is that despite the “eminently good reasons” there may be for you to be allowed to try stuff and fail, this doesn’t account for “failings” that are not the result of human choices and which seem to cause extravagant suffering in contrast to the “character building” or “soul building” potential.

    re 7:

    MH,

    To wit, to the extent that Mormons still want to cling to “perfect” (even if “perfect” is modified), then even Mormonism’s conception of god seems unreal. To the extent that the goal in Mormonism is still to seek *our* forgiveness from a God who does not require forgiveness — as opposed to both us and God requiring mutual reconciliation toward each other — it just seems unreal.

    I guess it’s not so much about “problems” but about “believability.” So, I suppose, if I understand what he’s saying, I’d agree with Bishop Rick re 8.

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  11. Andrew S on April 23, 2011 at 3:36 PM

    re 9:

    Jared,

    That indeed is the other “explanation” of eternal progression for God that I have heard (progression in glory, but not intelligence or experience).

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  12. Jared on April 23, 2011 at 4:28 PM

    Imagine the implications of this idea:

    If Christ himself was uniquely begotten and was the firstborn in the spirit, and if he was the Christ not only of this earth but also, as the Prophet taught later, of the galaxy, so before him the Father himself was a Redeemer, having worked out the salvation of souls of whom he was a brother, not a father. This is deep water. The conclusion is drawn by Joseph Smith in his King Follett discourse. Whatever else it may mean, and it is mind-boggling, it at least means this: The Father, by experience, knows exactly what his Son has been through. And the Son, by experience, knows exactly what the Father has been through. Therefore, when he says “I and my Father are one,” he is not expressing a metaphysical identity. He is speaking of oneness of spirit, harmonic throbbings of love and insight that can come only in the patterns of eternal redemption. Joseph Smith the Prophet by Truman G. Madsen, P. 12-13

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  13. mh on April 23, 2011 at 4:33 PM

    that is an interesting point regarding perfect andrew. is sunday school, there seems to be an emphasis that perfect used in matt 5:48 really means ‘complete’, rather than never makes a mistake. so that should be a god you can get behind.

    I think traditional christianity bristles at such a notion. mormon desires to be under the tent of christianity causes them to not stray too far from the ‘never makes a mistake’ definition so there is a bit of tension between the 2 definitions. I think if most mormons were forced to choose between the perfect and complete definitions would choose complete.

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  14. Andrew S on April 23, 2011 at 5:23 PM

    re 12:

    Jared,

    I get that.

    But it just seems to me that neither of these imply a “perfect knowledge of creation”. At what point does one have such a perfect knowledge?

    re 13:

    mh,

    But I think this only applies to people. When referring to God (notwithstanding the Mormon idea that as man is, God once was, etc.,) I don’t think most members would say, “Yeah, God sometimes makes mistakes” or even “God has in the past made mistakes.”

    I have little inclination to be on the fringe, trying to push ideas that will be considered apostate by most people in the church.

    I think that even if Mormons chose the complete definition, if you asked point-blank, “Has God made mistakes?” or especially, “Has God made mistakes with this universe?” most would be extremely disinclined to say anything resembling yes.

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  15. mh on April 23, 2011 at 7:09 PM

    yeah, you are right andrew. I can’t see any mormons admitting god has made mistakes during or after the creation of the earth.

    the idea of eternal progression seems to imply eternal learning. I can’t imagine learning without making mistakes.

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  16. Bored in Vernal on April 23, 2011 at 7:13 PM

    When Job learned that his children had died, he wept. But God did not weep.
    Jesus wept.

    Remember, Mormons also have a weeping God

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  17. hawkgrrrl on April 23, 2011 at 7:49 PM

    This is one thing I find appealing and unique about Mormonism. I too find the concept of a learning God valuable and more likely. However, I don’t think protecting your creations from harm is the ideal, maybe some harm, but generally I prefer a God with ADHD who builds something interesting and then gets distracted and moves on. Benign neglect is more appealing to me than interference and protectionism.

    I’ve always cringed a little at the notion of God being omniscient. It doesn’t quite square with our unique Mormon theology.

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  18. Andrew S on April 23, 2011 at 8:12 PM

    re 15:

    MH,

    Although, ironically, I’ve seen evangelical blog articles where they essentially use this as a bludgeon against Mormonism. They say, “Mormon theology allows that God *could have* made mistakes or have sinned.”

    So, even if most Mormons would say they don’t believe God has sinned or has made mistakes, some blogging Evs certainly think that a difference between Mormon doctrine and theirs is that potential.

    Anyway, Eternal Progression doesn’t have to imply eternal learning. It can easily, as Jared mentioned, imply eternal increase (in glory, etc.,)

    re 16,

    BiV,

    And yet, God weeps at man’s misuse of agency. Why not weep at problems with the universe unrelated to agency? Unless you think there are passages for that too?

    re 17:

    hawgrrrl,

    “Benign neglect” — especially if the person who has such neglect has “moved on” doesn’t give me much reason to worship. But I see a lot more reason to sympathize with someone who’s trying to make things right, even if things don’t always go according to plan.

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  19. [...] the holiday spirit, it has been a great week for theology and doctrine! Andrew describes the kind of God he could believe in, and Daniel explains that it’s not Jesus. Which does God [...]

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  20. hawkgrrrl on April 24, 2011 at 5:12 AM

    Well, I see the neglect as benign, while some may see the benign as neglect . . . Neglect to me equals respect in a way, like autonomy.

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  21. [...] my post about an imperfect God at Wheat and Tares, I revisited the New God Argument (summarized here), which essentially states that if we will not [...]

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  22. jmb275 on April 26, 2011 at 11:56 AM

    Re Andrew
    Wish I had read your post sooner and participated in the discussion. I really like what you’ve written here.

    I guess, one of my “hangups” with formulations of deity that are more popularly espoused (especially the kinds in non-LDS Christianity — or even the LDS Christian kind) is that they don’t seem to fit with reality — at least as I experience it. And so theodicies and goyologies seem like a way to mash the complexities of reality into unsatisfactory worldview boxes. A traditional Easter story or traditional Epiphany doesn’t speak to me. Real life just doesn’t seem that wonderful.

    My only qualm with it is that this presupposes, I think, that the multiverse behaves like our universe. Or that God thinks, feels, acts, like us. In other words, to me, though I like the epiphany, and what you’ve written, I have to acknowledge that like all other gods of which I’m aware, they are really projections of people, more than they are descriptions of God. God is created in our image.

    Like Hawkgrrrl, I’m fairly open to the idea that God did some stuff, hit the start button, then walked away. Nevertheless, I recognize this notion, much like the epiphany you’re presenting doesn’t jibe too well with modern Mormon thought. Perhaps the Mormonism in Joseph’s day would have been more open to such notions.

    Nevertheless, like you’ve said, I prefer a God, a theology, and ideology that acknowledges that the world is messy and unpredictable, not fitting nicely in compartmentalized world views.

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  23. Mike S on April 26, 2011 at 1:25 PM

    Andrew, I like the post. It made me think, which is pretty much my standard for a “good” post.

    Regarding God, the more I know, the less I “know”. I grew up and have always been LDS, so I approach things from that background. When younger, I suppose I had the more simplistic idea of God as a good and perfect and benevolent person with a white beard. My viewpoint now is much more complex.

    I still believe in God, but I don’t understand Him. I don’t know what to make of that fact that someone might find their car keys because of a prayer, but someone else might have absolutely disturbing things done to them despite their prayers. I don’t know what to make of the fact that priesthood blessings involving absolutely faithful people fail, yet people who don’t believe in God at all have miraculous things happen. I don’t see much logic in how God relates to His people. Yet, I still believe in God.

    We have the standard teachings that “Our ways are not God’s ways”, and that we’ll never understand Him. And perhaps this is true. Perhaps God IS unknowable.

    In that case, is this much different from Buddhism. Despite many misconceptions, Buddhism doesn’t necessarily say there is NO God. It merely states that it is an unanswerable question, so we shouldn’t waste any time on it. We should instead focus on things we CAN control and understand. How should we develop self-discipline? How should we treat our fellow humans? What will make us better people? What is best for the world and the universe?

    So, perhaps I’ll know more about God in this life. Perhaps not. I still believe in God. But since His ways are unknowable to me in most instances, I tend to focus my life on the NOW. What can I do in this moment to bring about good?

    And when all is said and done, I hope that’s enough.

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  24. Brad Carmack on April 26, 2011 at 2:01 PM

    Bob Burt, a Yale scholar, came to BYU a month ago and delivered a speech about several instances in the Old Testament where God behaves in demonstrably fallible, learning ways (e.g. asking a mortal about the morality of his conduct respecting Job and whether or not to obliterate the Jews he had just delivered from Egypt). That God would set up a rainbow to remind His forgetful self that the flood was kind of a bad idea and to not be so harsh doesn’t square with our typical conception.

    Anyway, thanks for the post.

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  25. Andrew S. on April 27, 2011 at 5:06 AM

    re 22:

    jmb,

    Whose god is more like a projection of people (literally) than Mormonism’s God? To say man is created in God’s image, men are that God once was, etc., is just the flip side of alternatively stating that God was created in our image. This really cannot be resolved until we know who came first. If humans came first, then all this godtalk really doesn’t matter.

    I wouldn’t normally have problems with the “hit-the-start-button-and-walk-away” idea, but again, Mormonism is committed to an active, engaged, personal god. Gods who hit the start button and walk away can’t then be around to make surprise visits in the grove.

    I think the issue for me is something like this. I think that people often want to assume perfection and whatnot because they want to say, “God deserves to be worshiped.” If he’s not perfect or whatever, then why bother?

    I don’t think this argument is necessarily sound, but for a deistic construction, maybe it applies more. If God is set-and-forget, then what impact does worship have? Do we “worship” initial big bang conditions that set up the rest of the universe’s physical laws?

    The distinction between set-and-forget and what I’m proposing, which I think is meaningful but, who knows, maybe I’m not thinking this through, is that maybe God is still TRYING, but just doesn’t always get his way. In this case, the reason for worship is to sympathize with the goals and intentions. Contrast the parent who is trying to make ends meet but doesn’t have all the resources they would like — or has adverse environmental constraints — to the “benignantly neglectful” parent.

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  26. Andrew S. on April 27, 2011 at 5:18 AM

    re 23:

    Mike,

    I don’t know what to make of the fact that priesthood blessings involving absolutely faithful people fail, yet people who don’t believe in God at all have miraculous things happen.

    One thing that I’ve thought for a while regarding this is that people oddly want to associate certain blessings to *believing in the right thing*. So, “absolutely faithful” people should have different results than those who don’t believe.

    But what if the criteria isn’t about belief, but as you said, about actions?

    I’d still say, though, that this is unrealistic. You can be a good person and help people in the world, and still have terrible things go your way. “It rains on the just and the unjust alike.”

    I have been trying to compare several religions for a while now, to try to find commonality. Although I too only REALLY have knowledge of Mormonism, I’ve dabbled into trying to read more about Buddhism and Islam because of exposure to people who are into these things. And I’ve seen some hints of commonality — despite different implementations — that I can’t quite tease out.

    I guess, the commonality is something like: each religion/philosophy/whatever is trying to get a person to give up something.

    The Muslim surrenders to Allah.

    The Mormon (or any Christian) gives his life to gain it anew in Christ.

    The Buddhist realizes that many things are not the self, not permanent, etc.,

    In each case, the “ego” is under indictment, whether for being evil, or being natural and base, or being illusory/fictitious. In each case, if we are able to give up this thing that holds us back, we will literally be free. But in each case, we fear and resist freedom because it looks quite unfree.

    …I don’t know where to go from here. I just don’t know. I feel on the cusp of something but I don’t know.

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  27. Andrew S. on April 27, 2011 at 5:20 AM

    re 24,

    Brad,

    Indeed, the OT poses some big points of uncertainty/learning for God, as I see it.

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  28. Mike S on April 27, 2011 at 7:31 AM

    Andrew S:

    I’ve studied quite a lot about Buddhism, and some about Hinduism and Islam (including reading the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Qu’ran).

    I’ve also been trying to articulate it, but at their core, they all have the same message. There are different instantiations of the truth, but they are MUCH more alike than the commonly exaggerated differences.

    There are also amazing things about each religion where they do things MUCH better than we do. Muslims praying to God 5 times a day refocuses their minds. They have giving to the poor as a FUNDAMENTAL part of their religion. Hindus see the Lord in literally every action they do. They can consecrate peeling potatoes to God if they do it single-mindedly. And Buddhism is a very calming religion. I have discovered more about myself through Buddhism and become a better person much more than anything I learned in Primary. It cuts to the core and focuses on what is truly important.

    When we read in the scriptures that God speaks to all of His people across all ages, I firmly believe that it is through these different religions. I also believe that a good Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu has an equally good chance of returning to the highest reward as I do. This attitude is obviously incompatible with the missionary program, which is based on the premise that good people NEED to be LDS, but so be it.

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  29. jmb275 on April 27, 2011 at 8:26 AM

    Re Andrew S

    Whose god is more like a projection of people (literally) than Mormonism’s God?…I wouldn’t normally have problems with the “hit-the-start-button-and-walk-away” idea, but again, Mormonism is committed to an active, engaged, personal god.

    Indeed, I agree. I hope you don’t think I was contradicting that point. I’m not pitting your epiphany against Mormonism.

    I think the issue for me is something like this. I think that people often want to assume perfection and whatnot because they want to say, “God deserves to be worshiped.” If he’s not perfect or whatever, then why bother?

    My only point is that just like everyone else, so too, the epiphany attempts to create a god from your purview. After all, you would likely be the first to admit there is little external evidence for God’s characteristics. There’s nothing wrong with that, I’m just pointing it out.

    To put my question another way: despite the fact that I happen to like your idea as is meshes with my own proclivities, why should I think this view is actually more likely than any other view? I recognize you’re just throwing out an idea, and that’s cool. I’m just wondering if there is more to the idea than just being an idea based on your observations and obvious dislike for the contrasting perfect God.

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  30. Andrew S on April 27, 2011 at 11:44 PM

    re 28:

    Mike,

    I think it would be interesting to see how effective various religions are at doing what (especially taking into consideration side effects that religions may be causing in behavior or attitude).

    re 29:

    jmb275,

    Interesting question.

    I guess, the thing to say is, being completely fair, there is some kind of evidence for some kind of phenomenon that some people call “spiritual.” Maybe people who call it “spiritual” are mislabeling it or whatever, but there it is.

    However, there is also some kind of perception for an extent of suffering that is greater than that required for character or soul building, and which is not necessarily related to free will issues.

    These two issues lay the ground for a view of some sort of spiritual force (whether it be God or something else) that nevertheless is not operating in an “optimal” manner (however that works). So, that is why I could see why this view might be more likely than any other view.

    I guess, the deal is…contrasting with others’ proclivities or images…you have to really look at how people actually see the universe. When people posit a perfect God, is it because they are inclined to believe in a best-of-all-possible worlds situation? Generally not. Instead, they attach “mystery” or “incomprehensibility” into their God concept. Maybe the extent to which someone is willing to say God is “mysterious” or “incomprehensible” is the extent to which their view is less likely than another view.

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