What is the meaning of “God”?
The main question about God isn’t whether He exists. A better, and prior question is: what do we mean by “God”?
I think of God this way: the energy of the world which guides me to live with the cosmic awareness of how small I and all humans are in the world.
Call this a pragmatic definition of God, because it defines God in terms of His practical influence on the world, and in particular on me.
Some points about this.
First, this definition of God is entirely compatible with scientific naturalism. There is nothing unnatural about it. Cosmic awareness is a mental state. I struggle with holding on to that mental state. God is the energy that helps me hold on to that state. Nothing here that conflicts with physics, biology or psychology.
Second, this definition is entirely compatible with atheism, understood as the view of a person who doesn’t believe in God. An atheist is someone who either doesn’t care to cultivate cosmic awareness (I doubt this), or someone who doesn’t seek or need any help involving the concept of God for him to cultivate cosmic awarness (which is entirely possible).
Third, this definition is entirely compatible with any religion. It doesn’t say what God’s name has to be, which building he resides in or doesn’t, how one has to pray to be in touch with Him, etc.
Fourth, the above three points are made possible by the essentially self-referential nature of the characterization of God. “Self-referential” as in, with essential reference to the believer who is speaking of God.
Here are some non self-referential statements in this sense:
- 2 + 2 = 4
- WWI began in 1914.
- I am 5’9″.
These statements do not depend for their truth on the speaker’s belief or awareness. They can be true no matter what the speaker believes or doesn’t believe about them. And their truth doesn’t relate to the speaker’s mental situation.
Some self-referential statements in the sense I mean here:
- My wife is the most beautiful woman in the world
- I like the Beatles
- 49ers are the greatest football team of all time.
In these statements, the meaning and so truth of the claim is mainly tracking the speaker’s mental states. If in response to the first statement, someone responded, “No, my wife is the most beautiful,” something has gone wrong. This kind of thing does go wrong often, and leads to mindless fighting.
This is also what debates between theists and atheists, and between people of different religions are like. The self-referential nature of God statements are forgotten, or not noticed, and people argue about God the way they might over what is the best color or the best tasting cereal or the best sports team.
Actually, the reason they debate with such passion isn’t because they forget the nature of the statements. It is because of a historical fact which covers over the nature of such statements.
In early human life, say 5,000 years ago, self-referential statements were first and foremost communal statements. They were self-referential not to an individual I, but to a communal We.
Priests following Vedic rituals 3,000 years ago said things like: “May we, the pious, win much food by prayer, may Agni with fair light pervade each act.”(Rig Veda, from which I randomly chose this sentence.)
A statement like this is self-referential in that it essentially concerns Agni the Fire God orienting the life of community. That is, Agni is the energy which aids the mental states of all the members of the community, which in turn will aid their physical and material needs. Ancient religion was in effect a way for people to align their mind appropriately: align towards their shared well being rather than towards individual, selfish well being.
Transcendence is the experience of cosmic awareness. And before the axial age, transcendence was first and foremost a communal experience. In earliest times it was experienced in group activities such as dancing, chanting and in general getting lost in the euphoria of group consciousness. These activities were not simply fun activities. They were essential for the people to get beyond their own natural selfish instincts and rise up in consciousness to a communal perspective. These communities experienced God or the Divine mainly and essentially as a communal achievement.
This changed with the axial age.
Compared to the hunter gatherer tribes or the rituals of the Vedas, what is striking about Moses, Christ or Arjuna in the Gita is that they don’t need ritual to have transcendent experience of the Divine. They relate to God individually, within themselves.
Why and how did this change occur?
Simple: because socio-economically people of diverse communal religious backgrounds and rituals started to live together. So not all of one’s neighbors were people with whom one could dance or chant together. You couldn’t ignore them nor experience transcendence communally with them.
This left only two options.
The path of war: kill the other groups or atleast subjugate them, so that one’s own rituals are supreme in the civilization.
Or the path of peace: kill not other groups but kill the habits of communal based ritual as essential for experience of transcendence. Kill the hate in one’s own heart, and that is the path to cosmic awareness.
The path of war is essentially contradictory. You cannot fight with people you are socially and economically entwined with so that you can gain transcendence just through your group ritual. The rituals which used to be for transcendence when communities were small became modes of group selfishness when communities started getting into the hundreds of thousands.
Like the move from reading out loud to reading internally, the axial age marked the move from experiencing transcendence as a group phenomenon to it being an individual phenomenon. With this move, being with God involved not mainly outward dance, song or action but, more essentially, inward cleansing of one’s own psyche, and seeking and trusting God’s help during that process.
This essentially inner dimension of the religious life is why now statements about God are self-referential.
We tend to forget it when seek an experience of transcendence through the communal act of having shared beliefs. When we imagine that prior to experiencing transcendence we need to first do the communal ritual of shared, group avowal of same beliefs. Which are either of this or that religion, or religion or atheism.
But the axial age revolution was meant precisely to move beyond such group avowal as a mode of transcendence. In this, Christ and Socrates are alike, as are Arjuna and the Buddha.
For all these figures, metaphysical debates about God’s existence are not as prerequisite to attaining cosmic awareness. Those debates have their place, just as group chanting, dancing and rituals have theirs. But they are not the foundation for experiencing transcendence. Rather, transcendence requires seeing the limits of such debates and doing the inner work of freeing oneself of deep seated and natural communalistic impulses. To do that while one is a creature of this world, with the particular, local bonds one outwardly inevitably has.