Is God Necessary? NO! and YES!
By Herbert F. Vetter
Is God necessary? As this question has customarily been stated throughout long centuries of philosophical and theological debate, I am compelled to answer in the negative: God is not necessary!
There are several reasons why the answer is negative, and they stem from the fact that the classical idea of God is both an intellectual error and an illusion. God, in this conception, is understood to be outside of space, outside of time, outside of the events which constitute our daily and enduring life. If there were such a God, he/she/it would be utterly unknown and unknowable, for the only intelligible assumption for modern people, who live in a world of time-space events, is that any supposed reality outside of actual and possible events in space-time is sheer nothingness. And even if we assume that there is such a reality, it can be of no significance to us earth dwellers, us time- and space- bound creatures, for the simple, common sense reason that we are so constituted as to have no means of apprehending such an other-world ly, utterly static deity. Such a God is, at best, an oblong blur—hardly the appropriate object of our complete devotion.
Instead of holding the eternally contrasting poles within our lives and world in creative, complementary togetherness, orthodox theol ogy dogmatically accepts that strand of Greek thought which asserts that the static is superior to the dynamic, order to change, cause to effect, the eternal to the temporal, the passive to the active, the one to the many. This unwarranted dogma, which has been an uneasy and disruptive cornerstone in the structure of both Eastern and Western civilization throughout the centuries, may fairly be adjudged the su preme intellectual error of our common life, the central fallacy that has plagued, and that continues to plague, the growth of culture, society, and personality.
It is precisely this dogma which directs the orthodox toward their dilemma. According to their theology God dwells outside the world of common life; yet they know first-hand in their religious living that a vital, working, healing God must be found within the world. Thus the orthodox take refuge in the idolatrous deification of a person such as the historic Jesus. The illusion and intellectual errors may now be seen for what they are in truth: the helpless allies of desperate idolatry, the foes of freedom, the enemies of faith in humanity, in life, and in God. The orthodox swing from pole to pole in underlying conflict: from the negative pole of despair regarding the actual world and its future possibilities to the demonic pole of idolatrous authoritarianism. These are the fateful consequences of their dilemma. This is not to say that orthodoxies of whatever sort, “religious” or “secular,” are without their virtues; but it is to say that they stand, in essence, on the side of disrup tion and despair, hierarchical repression of human growth, imbalance, intolerance, and slavery.
For all who adore the holy ground of freedom, the classical idea of God is a snare and a delusion. Its hopeless oscillation between life’s eternally necessary poles provides no adequate basis for the integra tion of our personal religious living, our changing social structures, our culture, our civilization, our world, our God. Such integration stems from a divine dynamic within our lives and beyond, as a pattern of potentialities not yet realized.
Is God necessary? Not if we mean the classical conception of God! David Hume, in his Dialogues on Natural Religion , destroyed once and for all this stubbornly persistent and destructive notion. Who can re fute his argument? —that if there were a God who had both absolute power and absolute goodness (and this is just what the classical theists assert) then God would have to be the source of the evil which we find within our lives and in our world.
If God has absolute power and absolute goodness, we have no re sponsibility, cannot be held accountable for any evil that we do, and have no power either to sin or to create the structures of enduring goodness. If God has absolute power and absolute goodness, then our lives—even at their very best—can contribute nothing whatsoever to the divine life, for, already God has everything needful. Our choices can mean nothing to One who remotely dwells apart from us, contain ing every whit of unshared power and every trace of goodness. Our suffering can never stir a God who has no passion, no pain, no tragic aspect—only bliss. This is the logic of classical theism, the logic of be nevolent despotism. Its God is a tyrant, its kingdom a supremely rigid paternalistic theocracy. Is this God necessary? Not for free, rational people! Yet how pervasive is this root ideological fallacy.
How prevalent, even today, is the tragedy of this error, and the religious depth of this tragedy discloses the sickness of soul. This hol low notion divides the soul in many different ways. It brings continu ing clashes between the sciences, philosophy, theology—providing no principle of integration that is consistent with our advancing knowl edge of the concrete world in which we live and move and have our be ing. It creates conflicts of feeling, promoting not only intellectual and emotional discord with the world of fact but also deep attachment for the oblong blur and idols. It seeks, consciously and unconsciously, to destroy our freedom, our choice between alternatives, and our strength of will. Because—with self-righteous piety—it assumes that the stan dards by which we discern, select, and act are immutably decreed by this absolutely perfect Being and it allows for no variation as life and time advance upon their way. Here is the fallacious logic laid bare: God cannot change in any sense: the altogether changeless One has disclosed (through some deified mediator and some sacrosanct priestly caste) the eternal patterns of perfection which are to determine our choices in particular situations; therefore, all we must do is to submit, and then we will be rewarded, personally, in a beatific world beyond the grave.
These enduring conflicts in the modern soul must be healed if we would move toward health and growth. For long periods, in ancient, medieval, and modern times, Western civilization has been able to function, sometimes with astonishing success, within this essentially clashing framework—much the same as it has been able to endure and to create amidst dreaded outward wars and revolutions. Yet conflict has its breaking point; and oftentimes, at this mid-point in the twentieth century C.E., strife—both outward in the universal war and inward in universal turmoil—is tending toward the goal of sheer annihilation, unless the wounds are healed, the conflicts moderated, and the grace of God restored to humanity in living, sympathetic wholeness.
We must face this fact: neither the orthodox religionists, who must confront the fateful consequences of the classical idea of God which they would promulgate, nor the orthodox secularists who would reject all gods and place their fundamental trust in some new or established social order, can truly meet the demands upon us for redemption. Their souls, now torn, must find a healing touch before they have the truth and power to lead us to a destination other than the City of Destruc tion. Therefore in terms of the classical idea of God, the answer must be negative: God is not necessary.
But let us ask the question again, this time rephrasing it. Instead of asking, “Is God necessary?” why not ask, “What kind of God is neces sary—for adequate human living, for our common task of reconstruc tion, for the integration of life’s poles in persons, peoples, cultures, worlds?” We have a choice: to live or not to live for whatsoever God is True and Beautiful, Just and Whole. In fact, each person must choose, and each must meet the consequence of that decision. We live upon a boundary of choice and consequence. No one escapes—not really! God’s balance-wheel is true, precise, and powerful; it is the wheel of Justice and of Law. But what is, who is, this God whom we adore—else we perish? God is that Reality which is truly of ultimate and of sov ereign worth, the inescapable Power standing in solemn, sympathetic majesty above the petty gods we fashion with our hands, our hearts, our minds, and our souls. Here is the God above gods, mightier than the mightiest—and yet with limitations on divine powers, providing us with freedom. Here is the God who, with firmness, seeks the inte grated growth of life. Here is the Reality each of us meets in all of our experience. Beneath these symbols of divinity lies the reality: dim but unmistakable, distant throughout all time and space but present in each act of every creature. Unclear though our vision be, we still can see that God has a double face, displaying the tortured mask of tragedy as well as the laughing mask of sheer delight. God, with this double face, stands under and above our shells, our walls that hide us from our deeper selves. Living and feeling with our suffering, the weakness and divisiveness within the total person and the total culture, having a crav ing for togetherness, for growing synthesis of life with life, God—so understood—is the sovereign reality within and behind and yet be yond all our experience. Robert Frost seems to have met this unifying Strength while “mending wall” and has offered a fresh reflection upon the discovery in a poem of that name:
Something there is that doest love a wall That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast….
I am convinced that the “Something that doesn’t love a wall” is God, God the Perennial Destroyer of our patterns of exclusive preten tiousness, our insulating, isolating apathy, our rigid impositions: our demand for conformity to our values, our preferences, our way of do ing things. That “Something” is God the Wall Destroyer, the Breaker of restrictive boundaries between groups; the Puncturer of our damn ing, desperate, proud idolatries of race and nation, sect and self. The true God, even the God of Love, is the Leveler of pretensions, the Overturner of our lust for sacred idols of infallibility. This working is one piece with God’s creative passion: the fascination for the growing process, the ever-present push toward health and wholeness, the sacred lure toward distant goals—as yet unrealized.
God is that reality which is of ultimate, integral, sovereign worth; and whether it be the creative, sustaining, redeeming or leveling work within our lives and times, this universal Becoming Being is operative. This reality is the God of the scientist, who frames, corrects, rejects hypotheses about the ways of people and things, seeking always for the exact equation between what is in fact and the theory about the fact. This is the God of the sculptor, the architect, the poet, the composer, the dancer; the artists who are given inspiration to fashion forms of beauty for delight, for expression of their new found meanings, and for relating self and others to that which matters most. This is the God of the mother, who expresses in her fond maternal care the genuine con cern of God for all the creatures, and who, with her partner, joins the sacred common quest for joy, for liberation, for life in more abundance; who establishes and maintains ordered ways of living. This is the God of the business leader, known as wrath in the pursuit of money first and foremost; yet also known as love when freely serving a common good inclusive of self-interest, yet stretching far beyond it. This is the God of the engineer, who builds out of concrete, stone, iron, wood, configura tions of security and comfort according to our need and nature’s laws. This is the God of the teacher, for reality is the teacher of us all; and the one who best teaches youth, teaches both facts and meanings of the facts—stimulating thought, imagination and prompt decision for the better ways, whatever they may be. This is the God of the priest, the rabbi, the minister, when they are faithful to the solemn trust in their possession of making clear to us the working power of God in all we do and feel and think. This is the God of the philosopher and theologian if they truly, freshly seek to comprehend the broader and the broad est factors in our existence, making intelligible these wider generalities through the discipline of reason. Then they disclose the nature of real ity, the world, the truly worthful and worshipful. They help us grasp these elemental meanings in the drama of our daily lives.
This is the God that people have loved throughout the ages. This is the God of free faith. Here is the valid object of our reverent search for truth and beauty, justice and integrity. This is the Power of Wholeness we love when we will to live and will to grow. This is the God we dread when we will to thwart the growth of value in the world. Here is the God of all religious experience; that is to say, of all our experience that stretches toward fulfillment, toward deeper harmony of life with life. For the most part it has not been the conceptual God of the philoso phers and theologians, but is becoming somewhat more so today. The Einstein of religious thought is the internationally esteemed philoso pher and scientist, Charles Hartshorne. Hartshorne opens vistas of the new theism which draws directly upon and squares well with immedi ate experience, with the methods and findings of the contemporary natural and social sciences, with the insights into reality by our more discerning artists, with the wisdom of reformers, statesmen, prophets, seers—and with the calm demands of common sense. The logic of the new theism is a logic growing out of life and returning back unto the same. It is not the logic of divine despotism but the logic of love. The new theism provides a firm, dynamic center for both stability and change in our ever constant quest for merging life with life at greater height and depth and breadth and in greater strength.
What we have been asserting is that there are two types of belief in God one explicit, the other implicit. Our quarrel here is with the explicit classical idea of God but not with the authentic implicit faith and devotion of people in all periods of human existence when they have perceived that which is truly of sovereign worth. Religious expe rience is one thing, theology another; just as life and thought are, to some extent, capable of separation. Even so, life cannot be lived with joy and adequacy unless its rudder finds its guide in correct ideas; and thought is meaningless unless it ascends from life and descends unto its source.
Part of the genius of liberal religion is that it does not require intel lectual assent to any proposition, even the proposition that God is nec essary. For this reason there are within our ranks many noble women and men who justifiably reject the dominant classical idea of God and who are alert to the havoc wrought by this idea. Such folks are citadels of free community, of free religious community. We need them! They are gadflies who sting our indolence and force profound, precise think ing. They adore with their lives the very God whom we adore, even if they choose not to affirm God’s name. Words are important—but not essential! Integrity of faith is important—and essential!
Let us now as our question once again, “Is God necessary?” Or shall we ask, “Is Life necessary” The questions are ultimately one and the same.