The Phenomenology of God

Theology since the Enlightenment has dedicated itself almost entirely to the problem of reconciling the non-existence of God in the physical world with his necessary existence in the metaphysical world. At face value, these two aspects are logically contradictory, and this is a problem with no solution. Interpreting God not as a physical being but as a phenomenological thing, however, changes the nature of the problem enough that a solution pops out almost automatically. In this phenomenological model, God does not exist, but God is real.

Other than theological logicians, very few people claim, without any ulterior motives, that God exists and that they can prove it. Claims like this are more often a byproduct of the allegorical system which Christian belief compels one to embrace. The most basic component of this allegory is the material façade, which is essentially a set of claims (arranged as a story) about who did what, and when they did it. Into this material façade is encoded the Christian metaphysic, which is the fundamental truth which the text reveals when it one interprets it. This metaphysic, when internalised by an individual, can have profoundly meaningful effects on their life. As a result of this, in order to feel the effects of the Christian structure of being, one has to consciously accept the empirical truth of its material façade; for instance, somebody who wants to follow their moral imperative to imitate Christ — and, in doing so, give themselves a superordinate principle and an incentive to behave morally — must accept what the Bible has to say about the course of Christ’s life (and the miracles, resurrection, and other scientifically impossible happenings therein). Christian principles cannot persist without a common acceptance of what Christianity has constructed to be the physical truth.

When considering it in abstract terms, the main beneficial effect of this construction of Christianity is that its metaphysic (which is something that appears only as it relates to conscious interpretation) takes on more importance than its material truth-claims. Consequently, the whole Christian endeavour, which is represented at bottom by God, does not stand or fall on His physical existence.

Moreover, it is extremely likely, on the balance of probability, that this distinctly Christian God does not physically exist. The nature of all natural change, and even the beginning of our universe, has been traced by modern cosmology to the operation of quantum mechanics. Change, on this extremely low level, is not the operation of an Aristotelian unmoved mover or an omniscient Christian God, but instead the result of the spatio-temporal positions of fundamental particles. Furthermore, as the quantum realm collapses into the physical realm if it is observed by anything, no physical entity can exist which somehow pulls the strings here to effect changes into the physical world. If God does exist, then, He would have to be an semi-immanent God, who has no physical person or conscious operation but instead rigs the laws of the universe to effect an outcome; for instance, he might fiddle the balance of probabilities in the quantum world to cause a dramatic change to the nature of the material world. Other than this God being necessarily not of the Christian sort, these arguments for immanent godhood all fall on the same point. Personifying the forces of nature as a divine entity does nothing for how we understand them: it just aggregates them, calls them God, and inappropriately adds to them a confusing mystical element.

The concept of God, however, is an absolutely necessary part of the human experience. Archetypally, God represents the apotheosis of perfection, which appears in the human consciousness as the personal ideal. The personal ideal is the element which embodies the perfect state of the individual. It represents all the best things which one could be in the future, not in a material sense but in a metaphysical sense, and is consequently the prime motivating factor of all positive conscious personality change. In this sense, God is a profoundly orderly, masculine element. In the more natural (i.e. feminine) sense, God represents the ultimate unknown. The Christian church has traditionally taught that God appears both in the experiences of humans and the makeup of the natural world. All exploration of new territory, under this system, is therefore a deepening of one’s understanding of God. Incorporating this into the aforementioned concept of the personal ideal, Christian allegory instils in its devotees the belief that exploring the world is an act which is necessary for the pursuit of self-knowledge. This principle reaches its apotheosis in Christ, who is the perfect being whom we have a moral responsibility to imitate.

If God does not exist in the physical world but has a profound impact on the workings of the human spirit, then, it is necessary to draw a third category into the traditional concrete/abstract dichotomy. Things exist in terms of of two properties: physical existence and causal effect. Things which are physically extant and causally effective are concretes. Things which are physically inexistent and causally ineffective, similarly, are abstracts. Things cannot be physically extant but causally effective, so no category exists which satisfies these two. Things which are physically inexistent and causally effective, most importantly, are real. To dispel any confusion, this category of reals contains the principles which have directly motivated one’s actions, while the category of abstracts contains principles which exist in the mind without motivating anything at all.

Reality is the category of being which analytic philosophy, on account of it having generally pushed the structure of conscious experience under the rug, has neglected. This category of real things is more real than either of the other categories, as the other two are simply descriptors of types of passive things while this one defines ideas in terms of how consciousness brings them into the physical world. In terms of the previously-mentioned analytic concepts of ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’, then, ‘real’ things exist at the intersection of the abstract (the principles which underlie one’s experience) and the concrete (what one does in the physical world off the back of these principles).

Theology’s first problem, that of God’s physical non-existence vs. His metaphysical necessity, can be resolved by describing Him not in terms of physical being but in terms of phenomenological reality. The second problem, however, emerges from the first and cannot be answered in quite the same terms: why should the pragmatic justification for metaphysical religious belief supersede the manifest untruth of its material façade?

The first, and most evident, answer to this is that the world is interpreted in real, rather than material, terms. Consciousness splits the contents of the world into two categories: what there is, and what we should do about what there is. The process of finding out what there is is analytic, and effectively tells us how much we have to organise. Without a good process of finding out what there is, we live in a social climate which is rooted in myth and superstition, rather than scientific inquiry. As long as this supernatural cultural baseline doesn’t impose unbearable suffering on large swathes of society, as it did for instance in the Spanish Inquisition, this can be a very good state of affairs, as human consciousness is more concerned with pursuing the feeling of meaningfulness than genuinely being in touch with the physical world. The process of finding out what we should do about what there is, by contrast, constructs for us a set of ethical directives which allow us to behave directedly. Without a process of ascertaining what we should do, moral valuation becomes impossible; no action means anything, we have justification for nothing, and abject misery is the norm. In the modern world, which has in some quarters thrown out this process (as in the emergence of postmodernism and similar disciplines), this has had the effect of making happiness something which is predicated upon a meaningless jump from achievement to achievement. For instance, somebody might orient themselves around getting a promotion: when he eventually gets it, he will be overjoyed for a couple of hours, but the base condition of meaninglessness will quickly slip back in, and he will be left no better existentially than he was beforehand. While the Christian faith is certainly not the only way to safeguard this process of moral valuation, the feeling of life as a headlong, morally-motivated charge through suffering towards eternal reward prevents the onset of the meaninglessness described above and more than justifies suspension of disbelief when it comes to its scientifically impossible material claims.

The concept of a Christian God also nicely deals with the problem of phenomenological Geworfenheit (thrownness). Geworfenheit is a Heideggerean concept which denotes the confusion that is imposed on us by the arbitrary and uncontrollable way in which consciousness throws up sadness, happiness, social expectations, and other ties of duty. In the first part, the Christian account of divine creation makes it seem like conscious experience is a story which is predestined to have a happy ending. The result of this is that the frustration of Geworfenheit is eclipsed by the goal of eternal happiness, and consequently fades into insignificance. Secondly, the concept of imago Dei (which leads, further down the line, to the doctrine of sanctity of life) cements in the mind of the Christian believer that their conscious experience is intrinsically and inviolably valuable. If conscious experience itself is intrinsically valuable, the contents of conscious experience (included in which are the arbitrary bits of Geworfenheit) must also be intrinsically valuable. Consequently, the contents of conscious experience are graded not by their ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’, which they are in atheistic models and which leads to existential misery, but by their utility when it comes to realising the higher goal of ‘imitating Christ’ (or whatever else a particular believer has oriented himself around).

Ultimately, however, the most important effect of this phenomenological model of that it privileges the real over the concrete in general. Existence without being able to perceive anything beyond the physical is a bleak prospect, as life without suffering and meaning is no life at all. Existence without being able to perceive anything other than the metaphysical is a similarly grim prospect, as the physical world is the forum within which we act out our values and accrue our experiences. This phenomenological model manages to marry the two; it safeguards the importance of the physical world by rooting the point of a given thing in its material façade, but sets the world as we perceive it (which comprises emotions and feelings as well as metaphysical principles) as the most important component of our conscious experience. In the end, in this model, Being is not only something which is simply tolerated, but something which we have a moral responsibility to enjoy and celebrate.