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Stop trying to put God in a box

I remember reading an article a while ago in which an economist predicted that economic growth going forward would be limited. The reason for this prediction was based upon his argument that all the major inventions had already been thought of — there were no paradigm shifts coming up to drive future economic growth.

This analysis bothered me for two reasons. First, I tend to be an optimist. I remember sitting in a Congressional hearing in the early 1990s where business leaders testified that the United States was falling behind Japan and there was nothing we could do about it. That was right before the go-go internet boom of the 1990s in the U.S., and right before Japan started its long economic nightmare. Now, nobody would say that the U.S. has to fear Japan’s ascendancy. So when I choose optimism, it is based upon real world experience.

Secondly, in my opinion, this analysis is fundamentally flawed because as people, we cannot know what is coming. We are limited in our thinking by our constrained minds. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, nobody could anticipate the rise of the internet. Nobody could imagine Japan’s economy slumping into deflation. But the fact that we couldn’t imagine it didn’t make it reality. Saying that all the inventions have been done reveals a lack of humility, an arrogant belief that there is no incredible invention just around the corner that is about to change all our lives. You know, like the internet did.

You might ask what this story has to do with God. Now I’ll tell you.

Last week, Peter Atterton wrote a column in the New York Times arguing that we westerners have a “God problem.” According to Atterton, a professor of Philosophy at San Diego State, the idea that we westerners talk about when we talk about God, all-knowing and all-powerful, is logically flawed. After all, if God is all powerful, why does God allow evil? Why does God allow suffering?

This question has challenged Western philosophers almost since Jesus’s time. Saint Jerome argued in the fourth century that God was too important to be bothered with trivial information. Blaise Pascal abandoned logic to focus on faith, and indeed, when I questioned my faith in my teens and early 20s, a number of friends and family-members suggested that I needed to understand God with my heart, not my head. That suggestion always bothered me. After all, why would God have given me reason if God didn’t want me to use it?

Indeed, an entire branch of philosophy has developed to resolve this conundrum. Called theodicy, its founder, Michigan philosopher Alvin Pantinga argued that “[t]o create creatures capable of moral good, [God] must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so.”

This is the standard approach most philosophers use to explain the existence of evil: to be good, we need to be able to choose good. If we can choose good, then we must also be able to choose evil. Thus God must allow evil to give us the opportunity to choose good.

By the way, Eastern philosophy does not struggle with this problem. To them, the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful, person-like God is absurd. The Buddhists, for example, speak little of God, focusing instead on the nature of suffering. The Hindus have a complex array of spiritual forces in constant competition. Overall, however, most Eastern philosophy focuses on getting in touch with the unseeable, unknowable universal power that connects us all. That’s the basis for meditation, for example. Easterners don’t bother to try to anthropomorphize God the way we do.

Like the economists predicting arrogantly that no new life-changing inventions are imminent, western philosophers who try to put God in the box of our limited language are guilty of the same hubris. As the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 2 (verse 11), “ [f]or who knows a person’s thoughts within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.”

Inherently, we are creatures of our culture. Logic, like math and language, are all creations of our limited human mind. All of us have experienced the problem of having a thought we had trouble expressing with words. Imagine how much harder it must be to express the unknowable Almighty? Our capabilities are simply not up to the task.

Rather than argue that the logical conundrums of philosophical inquiry suggest there is a God problem, perhaps we should instead consider that there might be a people problem. Perhaps we need to consider the possibility that our minds are simply not up to the task. Maybe we need to approach the idea of God with a little humility.

Perhaps the description we have of God as an all-knowing, all-powerful father (or mother) figure is nothing more than an analogy to help us understand the incomprehensible. I believe that after we die we will be reconnected with the Infinite, that which connects us all. We may call it God, others may call it Karma, or Yahweh, or something else entirely. But these are just human names for something that is completely beyond our experience.

All scholars have had the experience of realizing how little you know. Indeed, the more you learn, the more you realize how limited your knowledge is. Astronomers see no conflict between making scientific observations of the universe while harboring a sense of wonder at its power and beauty and a sense of humility before its infinite nature. Perhaps philosophers seeking to explain God with our limited human tools need an injection of the astronomers’ senses of wonder and humility. They are certainly appropriate in any consideration of the Almighty.

By the way, Ecclesiastes Chapter 8 verse 7 says “[s]ince no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come?” This is a verse the economists predicting the end of innovation should keep in mind.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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