"If God is too great for us to truly understand, what is the point of all the conjecture about him/her/It?"

h sofia has left a comment on my last blog which raises a very important question. Thanks for the prod. The question is "If God is too great for us to truly understand, what is the point of all the conjecture about him/her/It?" h sofia concludes by noting - and at times I have concluded likewise myself - "I just don't get it."

All I can do here is offer a couple of reasons why I consider this kind of conjecture to be, in fact, useful.

In the current religious and political climate I'm very concerned to articulate the point that if we can in some way KNOW that God (or Nature) is too great for us to truly understand as a whole (and, as we shall see, know that God is not personal) then we have a powerful counter to the kinds of religion that claim they do know, absolutely, what God wants human beings to do.

Conservative or fundamentalist religions are very keen to offer us extensive lists of what they think God wants which, whilst clearly including things most people would accept as good all too often (nearly always?) include other aggressive and, to my mind, very dangerous and unhealthy things. The call to violence against others for being of another faith, sexuality, gender, colour or race is the most obvious. By doing the kind of theology I am encouraging, although I don't think we'll be able to stop human violence we might be able to help remove one of its key drivers - or perhaps better, excuses. We may not be able to know God (or Nature) in toto but we can come to know that God is not a person and "up there" providentially directing human beings to do X or Y.

Here you need to remember I'm with Spinoza in thinking that God is Nature (Deus sive Natura) and so God can, in certain ways, be known by us. Indeed it seems true that nature is the only thing human beings can really claim to know anything about.

The corollary of this is that by coming to know the natural world better we come to know God better - as Spinoza said "the more we understand particular [or singular] things, the more do we understand God" (Bk 5 Prop. 24). We come to that knowledge primarily through a reflection and meditation upon the results of the natural sciences. In passing, but of vital importance, we need to note that its results are most convincing because they can be verified by us as a community - i.e. they are not simply personal preferences. True, we have to interpret those results, but our interpretation is at least based upon something that is more than just the imaginative preferences of humankind.

The scientific project is helping us see that, for all the clear individuality of particular things, nothing can meaningfully be pulled apart or understood in isolation from anything else. We are slowly being brought to the thought that there is a high degree of probability of an underlying, if often veiled, unity of the whole. And, importantly, that this unity is nothing like a person.

Now this "unity of all things" clearly cannot be known in toto by any of the whole's "parts" (or better "modes" - every individual thing is, in Spinoza's terminology, a mode of God or Nature). The whole as the whole is necessarily veiled to its transient "modes." But an individual (a transient mode) can come to know the reality of the underlying unity which makes its very "individuality" possible; so a person can come to see particular things under the form of eternity; they can come to understand in what consists their own participation in God or Nature. George Santayana (the Spanish-American philosopher) put this thought beautifully in his introduction to Spinoza's "Ethics". I use this a lot in funeral services and replace man with woman when needed. Feel free to do likewise:

To see things under the form of eternity is to see them in their historic and moral truth, not as they seemed when they passed, but as they remain when they are over. When a man’s life is over, it remains true that he has lived; it remains true that he has been one sort of man and not another. In the infinite mosaic of history that bit has its unfading and its perpetual function and effect. A man who understands himself under the form of eternity knows the quality that eternally belongs to him. And knows that he cannot wholly die, even if he would; for when the moment of his life is over, the truth of his life remains. The fact of him is part forever in the infinite context of facts.

I quite understand that all this may seem to be so much more pointless hot-air but even this apparently abstract conjecture has a powerful practical ethical spin-off (which is, after all, why Spinoza called his great book The Ethics). As Cliff Reed (the Unitarian minister in Ipswich, UK) has written:

. . . the God of whom we say, 'God is One’, is the heart, soul, spirit, process and nature of the universe itself, manifest in all Creation and not least in human love and personality. . . . [and] because God is One, Creation is one. Because Creation is one, humanity is one. Because humanity is one, my neighbour and I are one. And, indeed, each of us is one integrated whole participating in one infinitely greater yet still integrated whole.

I hope this offers a few ideas to think on - it is intended to be no more than that. All I'm really interested in is articulating a religious philosophy that helps people know that they belong and fit in the universe and that so does everything else. The consequence being, I hope, a recognition that we should try to walk lightly and joyfully upon the earth and to treat everything in it with genuine love and compassion. Jesus taught us nothing less . . .