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The Case for God 
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Post The Case for God
Review of The Case for God - What Religion Really Means by Karen Armstrong

Robert Tulip

‘Apophatic’ is a little-known word that Karen Armstrong would like to make central to the debate over atheism and theism. Her 2009 book, The Case for God - What Religion Really Means explains that the apophatic view considers God a mystery, beyond the ability of any human language to comprehend. Apophasis was central to main ideas of the Bible and of major theologians before the rise of modern science, but features less strongly in current popular concepts of Christian faith. Her argument is that the modern debate has failed to properly engage with the realities behind religious belief. She sees Descartes and Newton as main culprits for making God into an object of proof instead of an article of faith.

Armstrong blames the scientific enlightenment, with its Deist theory of God as a clockwork-winding entity that supports the empirical cosmology of evidence and observation, for putting the scaffolding in place that would be used by later atheism to deny the existence of God as an entity. The implicit question is whether the scaffold the Deists erected to explain God ended up supporting a new building or a noose. Armstrong’s case for God is that by framing the debate in Deist terms, the philosophers of the Enlightenment enabled modern atheism and also encouraged Christians to think of God as only an entity or idol, rather than as the mysterious source of our ultimate faith and loyalty and trust.

Accepting Deism as the basis for rational proof of God had a little-remarked effect on the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy and related movements. Armstrong suggests that Deism, with its scientific theory of God, brought on the response of the new fundamentalist claim that every statement in the Bible is a matter of scientific fact. Fundamentalist ignorance of allegorical symbolism represented a new degraded level of theology, alarming to those of modern mind and easily refuted by science. However, Armstrong observes, faith in the apophatic God of mystery and trust was the real main casualty in the historic conflict between modern science and dogmatic religion.

Armstrong comments that until the 1920s, the fundamentalists’ main enemy was not science, but scientific theology – the German scholarly method known as Higher Criticism, which disproved the historical accuracy of many Bible tales, especially Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Defending Moses and Abraham against Higher Criticism consolidated the pietistic rejection of reason in theology. Darwin’s dangerous idea of evolution only later came to be seen by pastors as the source of destruction of their moral universe, leading to the rejection of scientific biology that broke the shaky alliance between Newtonian physics and much Evangelical Christianity.

Faith, the inner sense of absolute confidence, is defined in the Bible as certainty of things that are not seen, implying an absolute loyalty to God. Armstrong says the original Greek term for faith, ‘pistis’, means ‘trust, loyalty, engagement, commitment’ and was translated into Latin as ‘fides’ or loyalty, and ‘credo’ or ‘gift of the heart’ (90). She says this old idea of faith as gift was corrupted by Christian dogma from an originally valid concept into one that is now held up for ridicule, especially for baseless claims of confidence in the truth of miracles and such like. Richard Dawkins exemplifies the modern contempt for faith through his belief that faith is blind. Rejecting such scorn, Armstrong asks us to see faith as through a glass darkly, presenting a case for faith that acknowledges the unknown nature of God.

The Case for God is divided in two parts, pre- and post- 1500 CE, presenting an immensely rich intellectual history of ideas. From the observation that religious sense of mystery formed the narrative framework for human life over the long pre-history of language, Armstrong sees a hidden continuity from ancient apophatic vision through to the Middle Ages. Inter alia, the thought of Aquinas, in his reconciliation of Christ and Aristotle, and Duns Scotus, who ‘held that it must be possible to arrive at an understanding of God by our natural powers alone’ are staging posts of apophasis, before the breakdown brought by modern rational scientific thought.

My own reading of this material is informed by my MA thesis, The Place of Ethics in Heidegger’s Ontology. Heidegger, who wrote his dissertation on Duns Scotus, also had an apophatic ontology, but one generally seen as atheist. Heidegger’s Being and Time argues that Being is not a being, in that ultimate reality cannot be conceived on the reductive model of existence used to understand entities. Such reductive thinking, as Paul said in Romans 1:25 in an idea similar to Heidegger’s ontology, makes the Creator into a creature. Armstrong notes Heidegger’s call for meditative thinking as a return to the holy, and comments that Heidegger shows that dialogue with atheists is useful, as seen in his exchanges of views with Bultmann, Tillich and Rahner (294).

Armstrong’s apophatic theology slightly loses the thread in my opinion in her comments on science and religion as respectively the realms of logos and mythos. Armstrong speaks kindly of Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of ‘separate magisteria’ between mythos, the realm of religion, and logos, the realm of science. However, Gould’s idea breaks down from both sides of the science-religion divide. Gould relegates Christ to the realm of mythos. Yet the Christian claim that Christ is the incarnate Logos links myth and logic, revelation and abstract reason, in a way not compatible with the scientific confinement of religion to symbol and emotion.

Armstrong’s willingness to cede the terrain of logos to science, together with her insistence that religious ideas only make sense as guiding myths for a community of practice, downplays the rational and conceptual basis of universal religious belief. Her support for relativism, the idea that myths cannot be compared on a common standard, gives insufficient weight to the scientific method, and its belief that the truth content of mythological claims requires an empirical basis in observational logic. By opening the suggestion that mythology has a rival truth status to empirical logic, Armstrong misses the opportunity for an integral ontology, a poetry of physics, that might seek to find how Christology can reconcile myth and logic.

In assessing the absence of apophatic ideas from the atheism debate, Armstrong expresses support for the relativistic thinking of Jacques Derrida in his critique of the objectivity of science. She notes how Derrida’s deconstructive heritage goes back through the atheist philosopher Spinoza of Amsterdam and his Marranos Jewish forebears from Portugal, with their interest in Kabala, to Jewish theologian Maimonides, of whom Armstrong says ‘his apophatic spirituality denied any positive attributes to God, arguing that we could not say that god was good or even existed’ (137).

The challenge of all this is to encourage dialogue between the rival camps of science and religion. Armstrong places apophasis as the bridge. Just as quantum physics sees the mystery of being, she notes that authentic religion follows in the steps of Calvin, who held that ‘if a biblical text appears to contradict current scientific discoveries, the exegete must learn to interpret it differently.’(311)

Richard Dawkins, doyen of atheism, might say that apophasis is atheist because it rejects the concept of God as entity. Armstrong observes that TH Huxley, known as Darwin’s Bulldog, argued that such ‘principled reticence’ about the existence of God is an agnostic view that was shared by Socrates, Paul, Luther, Calvin and Descartes (241). But where Huxley saw scientific agnosticism as the path to a non-religious enlightenment, Armstrong says logos cannot escape its enframing mythos. The case for God rests on recognition of the enframing mystery of religious language, the perception that symbolic imagery in religious practice points to a universal depth of meaning and purpose in life, making religious language an essential partner in dialogue with modern scientific imagination. The next step should be to take religious mystery out of its web of practice, and to engage in dialogue with modern thought to find a common ground of understanding.



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Tue Mar 09, 2010 1:23 am
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Post Re: The Case for God
Robert Tulip wrote:
Review of The Case for God - What Religion Really Means by Karen Armstrong

Robert Tulip

‘Apophatic’ is a little-known word that Karen Armstrong would like to make central to the debate over atheism and theism. Her 2009 book, The Case for God - What Religion Really Means explains that the apophatic view considers God a mystery, beyond the ability of any human language to comprehend. Apophasis was central to main ideas of the Bible and of major theologians before the rise of modern science, but features less strongly in current popular concepts of Christian faith. Her argument is that the modern debate has failed to properly engage with the realities behind religious belief. She sees Descartes and Newton as main culprits for making God into an object of proof instead of an article of faith.
First, thank you, Robert for taking the time to write such a thoughtful essay. I certainly had never heard of 'apophatic.' My Oxford American Dictionary defines it as "of knowledge of God obtained through negation," and contrasts it with 'cataphatic,' or "of knowledge of God obtained through affirmation."
It is again interesting for me to reflect on the partial separation of theological thinking from the practice of popular religion. If we assume that seeing God as a mystery beyond our knowing (something I think of as central to agnosticism, by the way) represents an ancient popular mode of religious expression, we might run up against contrary evidence in the worship of thousands of gods and godesses in the pre-monotheistic age. That the actual source of this reverence (if that's what it was at least sometimes), behind this polytheism coujld be a mysteriousness about God, doesn't seem proven or even provable. It seems more likely that with monotheism we draw closer to the sense of the mystery of God. The Bible gives us, however, probably more formulaic, concrete instructions about what God is than it does open-ended invitations to experience God's mystery. This is obvioulsy less true aobut the NT than the OT.

But I doubt whether religion "on the ground" has ever been much about such apprehension of a divinity. Even Buddhism in its popular forms is jammed with gods that tend to remove elements of mysticism.

Quote:
Armstrong blames the scientific enlightenment, with its Deist theory of God as a clockwork-winding entity that supports the empirical cosmology of evidence and observation, for putting the scaffolding in place that would be used by later atheism to deny the existence of God as an entity. The implicit question is whether the scaffold the Deists erected to explain God ended up supporting a new building or a noose. Armstrong’s case for God is that by framing the debate in Deist terms, the philosophers of the Enlightenment enabled modern atheism and also encouraged Christians to think of God as only an entity or idol, rather than as the mysterious source of our ultimate faith and loyalty and trust.

The problem is that, if with every loss there is a gain, we can't lament the loss without assessing the comparative value of the gain. I read in Sunday's Washington Post a review of a new book by Timothy Ferrris, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature. The reviewer summarizes: "Put bluntly, the tenets of science are principally responsible for today's advanced democracies and the spread of human freedom." Clearly Ferris is a "gain-exceeds-the-loss" type of guy when it comes to the religious worldview. If the idea (yours) is that we need some kind of synthesis of science and religion, well that might be true. But how likely are we to get it? I'm skeptical that we can create it by conscious effort, paradigms being things that shift more or less on their own.

Quote:
Accepting Deism as the basis for rational proof of God had a little-remarked effect on the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy and related movements. Armstrong suggests that Deism, with its scientific theory of God, brought on the response of the new fundamentalist claim that every statement in the Bible is a matter of scientific fact. Fundamentalist ignorance of allegorical symbolism represented a new degraded level of theology, alarming to those of modern mind and easily refuted by science. However, Armstrong observes, faith in the apophatic God of mystery and trust was the real main casualty in the historic conflict between modern science and dogmatic religion.

Again I would have to wonder when the implied Christian thinking of God as source of ultimate faith, etc. ever obtained, except in the minds of theolgians whose works might be cited. It doesn't seem to me, from the admittedly little I know about Christianity, that it ever has been a mystical faith "down in the pews."
Quote:
Armstrong comments that until the 1920s, the fundamentalists’ main enemy was not science, but scientific theology – the German scholarly method known as Higher Criticism, which disproved the historical accuracy of many Bible tales, especially Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Defending Moses and Abraham against Higher Criticism consolidated the pietistic rejection of reason in theology. Darwin’s dangerous idea of evolution only later came to be seen by pastors as the source of destruction of their moral universe, leading to the rejection of scientific biology that broke the shaky alliance between Newtonian physics and much Evangelical Christianity.

Scientific theology was probably as inevitable, though, as scientific discovery itself. It's hard to see it as harmful in any way, though Armstrong might not take that view in her book.



Tue Mar 09, 2010 10:27 am
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Post Re: The Case for God
This book review has just been published at Uniting Church Studies.



Tue Apr 05, 2011 8:16 am
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Post Re: The Case for God
Robert, does Armstrong ever go into detail on a case for why a god exists? It seems she defends the concept of god against many of the reasons a scientist may abandon belief. But she doesn't make the case to believe in god in the first place. It seems an exercise in rationalization, even if it's at a scholarly level.



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Post Re: The Case for God
Interbane wrote:
Robert, does Armstrong ever go into detail on a case for why a god exists? It seems she defends the concept of god against many of the reasons a scientist may abandon belief. But she doesn't make the case to believe in god in the first place. It seems an exercise in rationalization, even if it's at a scholarly level.


As I indicate in my review, Armstrong is a far more sophisticated thinker than the conventional fundamentalist supernatural believers. Her first principle, per Calvin, is that if theology is incompatible with science then the theology is wrong. She argues on this basis that existence is not an attribute that applies simply to God, because it makes God into an entity modelled on existing entities. Richard Dawkins has argued this makes Armstrong an atheist. Armstrong says it gives life to the real allegorical intent of the Bible writers. For example, the commandment not to take the name of God in vain can be read as saying not to confine the nature of God within our limited imagination. Assuming that an impossible ontology, an entity beyond the universe, is the only way to talk about God, closes down the discussion of real meaning before it has even started.



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Post Re: The Case for God
Quote:
She argues on this basis that existence is not an attribute that applies simply to God, because it makes God into an entity modelled on existing entities. Richard Dawkins has argued this makes Armstrong an atheist. Armstrong says it gives life to the real allegorical intent of the Bible writers. For example, the commandment not to take the name of God in vain can be read as saying not to confine the nature of God within our limited imagination.


There are unspoken premises here. Who says god cannot be an entity modelled on existing entities? What if he actually does fit in the same category of existence as us?

Also, we can confine something so ambiguous as "infinity" in our limited imagination. I don't think our imagination is so limited. Why is there is an assumed "greater imagination" possible? I'm not saying there isn't an "imagination" that a living organism could ever achieve, I'm asking why Armstrong assumes there is?

This is deeper than conventional thinkers, but it is still merely redefining god away from error. In the end, it is still a leap of faith to believe, and the god in question would be nothing like depicted in any bible, but more of a deity who created the universe then went to sleep. I'm agnostic towards deism, but still see it as a figment of our imagination that some of us believe.



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Post Re: The Case for God
It seems to me that Ms. (or Mrs.) Armstrong is grasping for the “if you can’t disprove it it’s ok to believe” position… which in my experience is still a very weak foundation… I mean really… to develop rules, laws and even entire institutions based on the foundation of “well you can’t disprove it!” that seems downright irresponsible and even fraudulent to me.

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Post Re: The Case for God
Interbane wrote:
Who says god cannot be an entity modelled on existing entities?
Ockham's Razor. The principle of parsimony, that we should not multiply entities needlessly, and that the simplest explanation conformable with observation is the most elegant, provides no basis to postulate God as an entity.
Quote:
What if he actually does fit in the same category of existence as us?
There is no evidence for that, and abundant evidence that the evolution of the concept of God is explained by psychological and social processes that encourage conversion of fantasy into faith.
Quote:

Also, we can confine something so ambiguous as "infinity" in our limited imagination. I don't think our imagination is so limited. Why is there is an assumed "greater imagination" possible? I'm not saying there isn't an "imagination" that a living organism could ever achieve, I'm asking why Armstrong assumes there is?
The point here is that the usual imagination of God as entity fails to engage with reality, but instead imposes a framework that fits with human understanding. To say for example that 'infinity is God' requires quite a leap of imagination from conventional mythology.
Quote:

This is deeper than conventional thinkers, but it is still merely redefining god away from error. In the end, it is still a leap of faith to believe, and the god in question would be nothing like depicted in any bible, but more of a deity who created the universe then went to sleep. I'm agnostic towards deism, but still see it as a figment of our imagination that some of us believe.

I think Armstrong's description is more of God as equated to nature, along the lines of Spinoza and Einstein. So it is not Deist, which still remains mired in the entity thinking of understanding God by analogy with perceived entities. Armstrong's view actually is more compatible with some of the deep wisdom in the Bible. People are selective in how they read the Bible, and selection on a different basis can readily find a God of mystery whose nature is entirely compatible with scientific knowledge.



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Post Re: The Case for God
Impressive review, Robert. I'm currently reading Armstrong's Buddha. I find her to be a very capable writer, able to explain complex ideas and frame ancient eastern philosophy in a western context. She's very scholarly and materialistic in her approach, never condescending to mystical or non-empirical vagueness. Based on the text of Buddha, I wouldn't be surprised to learn she was an atheist, although I find the distinction between agnostic and atheist to be largely semantic anyway.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Her first principle, per Calvin, is that if theology is incompatible with science then the theology is wrong. She argues on this basis that existence is not an attribute that applies simply to God, because it makes God into an entity modelled on existing entities. Richard Dawkins has argued this makes Armstrong an atheist. Armstrong says it gives life to the real allegorical intent of the Bible writers.


I don't quite understand the purpose of a theology related to the apophatic view which considers God a mystery beyond the ability of any human language to comprehend. If God is an unknowable entity which cannot even be presumed to exist, what exactly are we talking about? Instead of calling it "God," why not call it x, an algebraic notation that stands for the unknown? I guess I'm always suspicious of the notion of "God" even when it's used for allegorical purpose.


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Post Re: The Case for God
Quote:
Ockham's Razor. The principle of parsimony, that we should not multiply entities needlessly, and that the simplest explanation conformable with observation is the most elegant, provides no basis to postulate God as an entity.


It would seem to me to be more complex to postulate god as something real, yet in an entirely category of existence. Then we are at a debt of information greater than we were before, since we do not know anything about this different category of existence. If he were in the same category, at least we wouldn't have an entirely new category of existence to explain.

Postulating an entirely new category of existence is not parsimonious.

Quote:
There is no evidence for that, and abundant evidence that the evolution of the concept of God is explained by psychological and social processes that encourage conversion of fantasy into faith.


There is no evidence for any conceptualization of god. There is only evidence that god is created in man's image. What is the basis for attempting to redefine such a god when we have no reason to believe he is real in the first place? Whether created in our image, or redefined away from our image, there is bias and motive fueling both conceptualizations. It's not based on anything real other than the desire for the idea of god to be real. Why waste the brainpower moving the goalposts further and further back?

Quote:
The point here is that the usual imagination of God as entity fails to engage with reality


There is usually a point in my adherence to an idea where I simply call it quits. I realize my pursuit is fueled by emotion rather than reason. If there is no reason, I stop pursuing the idea. If the usual imagination of god fails, attempting to redefine him is only moving the goalposts to avoid error. It isn't a response to anything real. If the usual imagination of god fails, why do you not abandon the belief that there is anything such as a god? Why do you instead seek redefinition to keep the belief alive? Why rescuscitate the belief if there is no reason?

Quote:
I think Armstrong's description is more of God as equated to nature, along the lines of Spinoza and Einstein. So it is not Deist, which still remains mired in the entity thinking of understanding God by analogy with perceived entities.


You appear to be right. Armstrong comes across more pantheistic than deistic, where deism focuses on an entity. But for all the moving of goalposts, I'm wondering what actual positive defining parameters Armstrong has set. There is much talk of what god is not, but no talk of what god is. No positive information, but rather a redefining away from error.

It's as if Armstrong is conveying an image of god based on what god can't be. This type of rationalization does not only apply to a higher intelligence. It applies to any idea on the fringes of human knowledge. To redefine an idea away from error is not enough. There must also be positive evidence, or it can be thrown in with the multitude of ideas in the same category, ranging from Matrix type scenarios to 111th dimension type ideas.

There is no ontologically positive information here from Armstrong it seems, though it's fun to consider her points. You review is excellent as well, always good fodder for discussion Robert, thank you.



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Post Re: The Case for God
geo wrote:
I don't quite understand the purpose of a theology related to the apophatic view which considers God a mystery beyond the ability of any human language to comprehend. If God is an unknowable entity which cannot even be presumed to exist, what exactly are we talking about? Instead of calling it "God," why not call it x, an algebraic notation that stands for the unknown? I guess I'm always suspicious of the notion of "God" even when it's used for allegorical purpose.


A silly suggestion; right?
X, a variable in an algebraic expression is a totally inappropriate represenation of God who is NOT variable. Further, x is only unknown in a sense. When additional information becomes available, the value of x is quickly revealed and in the set of data provided x has a clearly defined set of values which do not vary. God is most certainly not unknowable, only beyond our comprehension. You would have done better to propose representing God as i (the square root of a negative 1). While it is unsolvable mathematically, it can be represented graphically and used in formulas and therefore is usefull, and can be appreciated if not fully comprehended. But you weren't really serious were you?


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Post Re: The Case for God
Geo:
Quote:
I don't quite understand the purpose of a theology related to the apophatic view which considers God a mystery beyond the ability of any human language to comprehend. If God is an unknowable entity which cannot even be presumed to exist, what exactly are we talking about? Instead of calling it "God," why not call it x, an algebraic notation that stands for the unknown? I guess I'm always suspicious of the notion of "God" even when it's used for allegorical purpose.


Ditto

Interbane:

Quote:
There is usually a point in my adherence to an idea where I simply call it quits. I realize my pursuit is fueled by emotion rather than reason. If there is no reason, I stop pursuing the idea. If the usual imagination of god fails, attempting to redefine him is only moving the goalposts to avoid error. It isn't a response to anything real. If the usual imagination of god fails, why do you not abandon the belief that there is anything such as a god? Why do you instead seek redefinition to keep the belief alive? Why rescuscitate the belief if there is no reason?


Right.


Stahrwe:

Quote:
God is most certainly not unknowable, only beyond our comprehension.


Then he is unknowable. Hence non-existent.



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Post Re: The Case for God
stahrwe wrote:
geo wrote:
I don't quite understand the purpose of a theology related to the apophatic view which considers God a mystery beyond the ability of any human language to comprehend. If God is an unknowable entity which cannot even be presumed to exist, what exactly are we talking about? Instead of calling it "God," why not call it x, an algebraic notation that stands for the unknown? I guess I'm always suspicious of the notion of "God" even when it's used for allegorical purpose.


A silly suggestion; right?
X, a variable in an algebraic expression is a totally inappropriate represenation of God who is NOT variable. Further, x is only unknown in a sense. When additional information becomes available, the value of x is quickly revealed and in the set of data provided x has a clearly defined set of values which do not vary. God is most certainly not unknowable, only beyond our comprehension. You would have done better to propose representing God as i (the square root of a negative 1). While it is unsolvable mathematically, it can be represented graphically and used in formulas and therefore is usefull, and can be appreciated if not fully comprehended. But you weren't really serious were you?


How about this: ?


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Thu Apr 07, 2011 2:05 pm
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Post Re: The Case for God
lady of shallot wrote:
Stahrwe:

Quote:
God is most certainly not unknowable, only beyond our comprehension.


Then he is unknowable. Hence non-existent.


The two are not the same; for example, I have heard many attempts to help us conceptualize $one Tillion - Cover the state of Texas with silver dollars to a depth of 40 feet and you have 1 trillion. Sorry, still doesn't work. 1 trillion exists but I still can't comprehend it. God exists. I can appreciate some of who He is but the totality excapes me.


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Sum n = -1/12
n=1

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Thu Apr 07, 2011 2:31 pm
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Post Re: The Case for God
The question of whether something can exist that is not an entity can be explored by comparison with the concept of beauty.

Beauty exists, but is not an entity, rather it is a quality that people perceive in entities. We say 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder', to indicate that our understanding of beauty is relative to human concern. And yet, beauty has an objectivity, with symmetrical and complex natural shapes regarded as more beautiful than shapes that lack these qualities. Beauty is relational, a human construct perceived in natural shapes.

We can consider God the same way as we understand beauty. Understood as a natural purpose that matches to the ideal purpose of human life, God is inherent in nature, as an underlying direction that indicates the path of human goals. This inherent quality of nature is not an entity, like a material object, but rather a unifying quality that gives all entities their meaning.

This more abstract scientific concept of God matches to an underlying truth in the Bible, but is hidden by the desire to imagine God in a way that can be simplified to match popular ignorant desires.



Sat Apr 09, 2011 10:25 pm
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