A few days ago I had a lunch meeting where I finally received the response to my last post that I was waiting for. As we wrapped up a pleasant lunch, my friend turned to me in clear frustration and said:
“If God is only in our heads, then what makes God any different than Santa Claus? It can be something that just disappears if we decide to think differently!”
My friend Joan has also, more gently, pushed me to explain how this conception of God is not too limited. Thanks for the challenges – this is exactly what I needed, because it shows where I need to clarify my thinking and writing.
The most crucial point I want to make is that when I write of ‘God in my head’ – I do not mean that God is something that humanity has made up – I do not believe God is a mental construct. But I do believe (at least at this early point in my explorations) that the best evidence we have for God’s existence is from our own personal experience of the divine. When I speak of my head or mind, I do not mean my rational, left-brain capabilities. Rather, I mean my consciousness, my awareness, my self, my soul.
Here is the logic of why it seems most probable to me that God “exists” mostly within our consciousness:
1. In spending the last few years reading logical arguments for and against the existence of God, I always end up falling back on my own personal spiritual experience of the divine, and the fact that I know many others who have similar experiences. To liberally paraphrase Descartes – I feel God’s presence ergo I believe in God. In contrast – I have had no personal experience of Santa Claus (I should confess that once as a child I thought I saw movement in my fireplace on Christmas Eve, but I am pretty sure it was just a bat).
2. Anyway, the fact that personal experience seems to me the most compelling type of evidence, it would seem to follow that God’s existence is most likely to reside within my consciousness. My experiences of God may be stimulated by the world around me – natural beauty, communal prayer, etc – but the subsequent personal experience of God occurs within me. I do not willfully manufacture this experience of the divine. This experience of God is not the result of intellectual exercises or overt expressions of belief. It is triggered by other parts of my consciousness and then encountered as something separate from myself, but within me.
3. Finally – in viewing God as a presence within my consciousness, this seems to best tie in to the fundamental reason I can not embrace a fully materialistic worldview:
If indeed everything in the universe consists of matter (this is the key idea of Materialism), this means that all aspects of our consciousness also consist of matter. This means that every aspect of my consciousness could in theory be observed, measured, understood, and most importantly – predicted, because my materially-based consciousness should follow natural laws just as all physical material follows natural laws. It seems to me that this conception of consciousness negates free will – because it says that all that I think, feel and do is ultimately driven by a system of variables and processes (albeit an extraordinarily complex one). I am nothing more than a computer program, where if you enter a set of inputs you will invariably get a given output. In this model there is no longer room for any “I” to modify the computer code and independently choose a different output.
I can not accept this view of my own consciousness. I believe that our individual identity and free will is actually the greatest mystery of all – the locus of what we typically would call our ‘soul’. Given my belief in the independent existence of free will and soul – it seems to me to make sense that this is where God resides. Perhaps God exists outside of our consciousness as well – but to date I simply have found more logic and evidence for a ‘God in me’.
The last point I want to make for this post is that I realize another key danger of saying ‘God is in my head’ is that it would seem to support the idea that we should all just start worshipping ourselves. Here is why that is a false conclusion:
The path to experiencing the divine occurs in those moments when we manage to get beyond ourselves – when we push away our daily cares and concerns and open our minds. Karen Armstrong describes this process as ‘ekstasis’ (and let’s face it, everything sounds more impressive when you use the Greek word for it). Interestingly, Sam Harris, one of the ‘New Atheist’ authors, devotes the last chapter of his book ‘The End of Faith’ (which is mostly a terrible ode to Muslim bashing) to the spirituality/mysticism that occurs when we “..break the spell of thought, and the duality of subject and object…vanish”(p.218).
So we have here a fascinating paradox: that the divinity in our consciousness can only be reached when we push our ‘selves’ to the side. Worshiping ourselves as ourselves would be about the worst thing we could do – because in the process we would lose sight of the divine completely.
I’d like to conclude by quoting Kierkegaard, who describes this paradox beautifully:
“Ah! so much is spoken about human need and misery; I try to understand it, have even been closely acquainted with not a little of it. So much is spoken about wasting one’s life. But the only life wasted is the life of one who so lived it, deceived by life’s pleasures or its sorrows, that he never became decisively, eternally, conscious of himself as spirit, as self, or, what is the same, he never became aware – and gained in the deepest sense the impression – that there is a God there and that ‘he’, himself, his self, exists before this God….”(p. 57, The Sickness Unto Death).
On that note – I wish you all a good night.