Why I believe in God but not Santa Claus

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.

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8 Responses to Why I believe in God but not Santa Claus

  1. Harold says:

    I’m enjoying your thoughts a great deal. I’m no philospher but your post reminds me of the immanence/transcendence dichotomy, that God may manifest himself in the material, but he also transcends it. While I also often experience God via my mind, I would assume that God is also experienced by those with cognitive impairment, and in the body. The capacity for reflection is not necessary is it? Our existence (as opposed to non-existence) is constantly, miraculously, sustained by God, though the vast majority of the time, like stones, we are not mindful of it.

    • seeingfaith says:

      Harold – really interesting points – I particularly love your question about how God is experienced by people with cognitive impairment. Are you aware of any studies on that subject? If not I will dig around and see what I can find- that is a fascinating question.

      After I wrote this last post I read a book review that, in conjunction with your and Joan’s posts, has made me realize how I need to modify my thinking and language. The book review was by Eleanor Rosch, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley who has recently focused on the connection between Buddhism and psychology. She reviewed the book “Zen and the Brain” by James Austin, a neurologist who attempts to document his own neurological processes as he learns a Japanese form of Buddhist meditation. In her review she points out how this assumption that all key processes are tied to the brain is a Western bias, and that Eastern medical and spiritual practices show how this is too narrow a conception. She emphasizes how both the entire body and also the porous divisions between our bodies and the world around us point to a broader way of looking at the spiritual experience. I think this is what both you and Joan are talking about. (This book review was in Psychological Science, May 1999 – I just got access to JSTOR through my alma mater so have access to old articles – not newer unfortunately!).

      What I am struggling with is the war being waged between the new atheist authors (Dawkins, Stenger, etc) and fundamentalists where both view God as an objective reality in the world that can be proven to exist (if you are a fundamentalist) or not to exist (if you are an atheist). I agree with Paul Tillich, Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg and the like that this is the wrong way to think of God – and I feel this conviction strongly because of my own new personal awareness of the spiritual. But this personal awareness is not the same as an active mental processing – it is something else – ‘immanent’ in that it is with me, but ‘transcendent’ in that it is outside of my own self. In both cases I would argue that it is non-material. I am not a philosopher either so I will keep struggling to figure out how to describe it! 🙂 Anyway – thanks for your thoughtful comments!

  2. Love the Soren K. comment – I understand the notion of consciousness and soul as part of “in the head”. I just think that many modern people are such literal thinkers (secular literalists as well as others!) that “God in our head” is a confusing thing. God is, as I think you are saying, way beyond and in our head at the same time – am I clear? What a JOY to be a part of all this. Thank you for doing it so thoughtfully and seriously.

    • seeingfaith says:

      Joan, this is an excellent point. I agree with you – I think in an effort to come up with catchy titles for my previous posting (and concise labels for post categories) I ended up using imprecise terms that confuse rather than clarify. I am going to play around with re-labelling at least the category I have used for these posts – also see my response to Harold below. Thanks for the thoughtful suggestion! FYI – in looking back through the Kierkegaard book I realized that he also talks about how it is as ludicrous to try to ‘give reasons’ for faith as it is to ‘give reasons’ for being in love with someone (a theme I brought up in the previous post). I didn’t even remember this passage but it obviously influenced my thinking….(see pp. 135-136 in The Sickness unto Death).

  3. Brian Carlson says:

    Great post, Louise. I particularly loved your Kierkegaard citation, as he’s had by far the greatest influence on my own relgious/philosophical thinking. His argument that attempting to “prove” the existence of God through logical reasoning is not only impossible but completely off the point hit me like a jolt of electricity when I was in college. If you’re interested in digging deeply into his writings, you might want to check out “Concluding Unscientific Postscript.”

    I think that God can manifest himself to people in a variety of ways — for some, it might seem to be totally or mostly in the mind; others I’ve talked to have spoken of feeling almost a physical presence. So I don’t think it necessarily has to be one way (which makes sense, since we’re talking about the divinity!).

    • seeingfaith says:

      Hi Brian – thanks so much for posting and for your reading recommendations – I am always looking for those! Joan has already pointed out to me that using the word ‘mind’ in my posts has really thrown people off. What I am speaking about is our personal experiences of God being the best ‘proof’ of God’s existence – and those experiences could be intellectual, aesthetic, physical, what have you – but they all involve our personal consciousness. More to come soon – once the kids are in school again!

  4. Jack Fink says:

    I am an artist friend of Joan Michie who told me of your blog.

    I respond positively to your references
    • God residing in the soul.
    • Getting beyond ourselves,
    • pushing ourselves aside to reach the divine.

    The paragraphs below are excerpts from a more lengthy page (Creativity, God and Art) on my website http://www.johnfinkart.com ,

    God may be experienced, felt through all our senses, seen in the order of life and experienced in our creative work. Like a modern cell phone, we are hard-wired to be connected to God, however, providing we have our “set” turned-on. You can receive “calls” or dial Him up, you know. This “Way”, the creative thinking and doing Way, the accessing the mystery of the Holy Spirit, is available to everyone. . . .

    . . Mindful souls at work. The creative process is a Way we artists connect with our intentions through forming images in clay, paint etc. Ultimately this process is a search for balance, for wholeness,and ultimately for God. Does God only exist in our head? We connect with him through all our senses, seen everywhere if we are paying attention. We experience and connect with Him most deeply when we are working at it. The work may be quiet meditation, or through a transformation in a more active activity. Most often, the deeper connection comes through intention, mindful souls at “work”, be it in the art studio, in the garden, poetry, parenting, etc. When you “connect”, you have the feeling of wholeness, at peace, on balance, discovering a kind of truth in the experience, an epiphany. . .

    . . . Doing and Being. It is extraordinary, as an artist you work hard over time to develop a level of skill that allows you have the experience of moving from the initial activity of “doing” with the material, with the process and then, before you realize it, slipping into just a state of ” being”. When you are able to achieve this state, when you are totally present, where there is no past, no future – just the immediacy of “now.” (a right-brain experience) It is then you are feeling your natural, authentic, unencumbered Self. It is a life-affirming experience! At any stage, immersed in the creative activity, you know you are on the right track when you lose track of time; you are much less aware of the sounds around you and are usually free of thinking of “what’s next” on your “to do” list. In that regard, many people describe the experience of creating art as being therapeutic, having a healing nature, a Way, some describing it as connecting with God. . .

    . . .The creative person is one who surrenders himself to the creative process, to the risk taking with no expectations – it is a supreme act of “faith,” of trust, an intuitive leap in the dark. It is an attitude, an act of “not knowing” . . . not knowing where you will end up on your creative journey, but recognizing its completion when all the elements come together into a balanced whole.. It is risk-taking of sorts, immersed in the creative way of thinking and doing, where any “mistakes” that materialize are forgiven, paid for by the revelations and the lessons learned. It is through this way of working logically and intuitively through learned hands, that if you are lucky, you’ll reach one of those peaks in some kind of meaningful, if not supreme revelation. That is what keeps us going in the creative work . . reaching for those peaks, reaching for that sacred God-experience.

    • seeingfaith says:

      Jack – thank you so much for sharing your comments – I am particularly fascinated by the relationship between creativity and spirituality – so your comments, and your full post on your site – are really fascinating. I look forward to reading more on your site about this.

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