A BLACK CAT IN A DARK ROOM—Ian Harris

Arguments about the reality of God are mostly misconceived or obsolete, says Ian Harris. It’s time for a change in perspective.

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A black cat in a dark room has sparked an amusing set of images on questions of faith and reason in the modern world.

Philosophy, it contends, is looking in a dark room for a black cat. Metaphysics is looking in a dark room for a black cat that isn’t there. Theology is looking in a dark room for a black cat that isn’t there and shouting “I’ve found it!” Science, however, is looking in a dark room for a black cat using a flashlight.

Ah science, we are meant to conclude. The shining path to enlightenment! The hope of misguided humanity! Rational, methodical, our only chance of finding that black cat! But the room is still dark. Maybe that elusive cat isn’t there to be found after all. Maybe –and this is what I think – it’s the wrong search in the wrong place. So much of the argument about science and religion, on both sides of the debate, is misconceived or obsolete.

An ODT correspondent presented the atheist misconception: “I have never encountered one shred of evidence for such a being (i.e. God), let alone one who prevents disasters, wars, disease and misery.” But what if God is not a being at all? True, the churches build their rituals on the conviction that “God” has to refer to a someone or something, real, active, existing, unique, or the whole doctrinal edifice will totter and fall. But leading-edge Christian thinkers left that notion behind years ago.

There’s clearly a problem of interpretation, and it lies with that word “real”. Trying to prove God is real in a physical sense is a waste of time. So is trying to disprove it. For ideas of God don’t depend on that physical world. They are generated in the world of human thought – the same world that gives rise to language and the creativity of the novelist, dramatist, composer, artist. Is that thought-world not real?

In short, the physical world does not encompass the whole of what we know to be real. Many things that are real in human experience can never be subjected to mathematical formulae, laboratory testing or microscopic analysis – whether you love your husband or wife, for example, your response to a movie or concerto, a war or a disaster. Those responses flow from your thought-world and the values you live by, not science. Would anyone argue they’re not real?

That is the order of reality to which God-talk belongs. As English novelist Iris Murdoch neatly sums up: “God does not and cannot exist” (that is, as a separate, objective being). “But what led us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured. What we need is a theology that can continue without God” (again, as a separate, objective being). In other words, God happens in our heads (or not, as the case may be). And when God happens in our heads, that experience becomes part of our subjective reality. Hence God is best conceived these days as Presence, a presence that becomes real in the lives of those who are conscious of it, nurture it, and then live it out in their daily lives. When that happens, God (or Godness) is real in the world through them – but it is not the reality of cosmology or physics.

Such an understanding offers Christians, humanists and atheists (at least those who are not hamstrung by their respective fundamentalisms) an opportunity to seek common ground on questions of life, meaning and purpose. It would shift the conversation out of the world of the physical sciences and into the human thought-world, which is where religion and the arts belong. The question is not whether God exists, but how the idea of God functions in that thought-world.

There, as Sir Lloyd Geering reminds us, God symbolically embodies the supreme values that people feel bound to respond to in their actions. In Christianity, the highest value is love.

God functions as a poetic symbol for the awe-inspiring mystery of life. The apostle Paul captures this in the phrase “in God we live and move and have our being” – again, Presence. God is in us, in our neighbours, even in our enemies. God is also the supreme symbol of connection between ourselves and all humanity, all planetary life, the universe itself. As such, God provides a pivotal reference point for our whole experience of life.

Reality of that order is a world away from – and infinitely vaster than – the search for that elusive black cat.

Ian Harris,  “Faith and Reason”—Otago Daily Times

12 February 2016

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