PART 1: Dimensions of the God-Question
“God” as a “Symbol” of the Human Effort to Wrestle with Life
As humans, we wrestle with life and its many apparent absurdities. I have come to conclude after many years of studying religion that, seen from a humanistic standpoint, “god” is primarily a symbol of the human effort to wrestle with life’s difficult questions … such as the “why” of natural calamities or epidemics (very relevant to us in now 2020-21 as I write!). In other words, when humans try to make sense especially of great suffering (such as the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic), many of them have and continue to invoke “god,” imagining a supernatural and powerful Being with the ability to stop disasters from happening or to turn things around when the situation becomes quite bad. Again, analyzed from a humanistic standpoint, a god who might directly intervene to alleviate the world’s suffering primarily seems to be a symbol of the trust and hope that continue to live on in our hearts, which in turn give us the strength and courage to go on with the struggle as we face the different painful challenges that beset us in life. I understand and respect that. However, I also want to acknowledge its severe limitations.
On the positive side, “god” is also a symbol of the human effort to dance with the glorious aspects of life. This has to be kept in mind too although here we will deal with the connection between “god” and dealing with suffering.
Now, as we have seen, Christianity (and, as far as I know, any other religious tradition) has no easy and conclusive answers to the question of <why do life’s sufferings happen?>. To expand on that by rephrasing it, let me say unambiguously that the “God” invoked by Christianity usually does not have answers to the big “Why” question of calamities such as chaos-generating and deadly epidemics. It’s enough to look at God’s answer to the fabled Old Testament character Job when he requests some answers to the question of his undeserved suffering. God in the book (Job 38-39) proclaims that human wisdom just cannot plumb the mysteriousness of God’s ways (recall “limit experiences”) and so it (human knowledge-wisdom) amounts to nothing before God. That is another way to say that all our human efforts to understand the wherefore and whither, the why and the <to what end?> of suffering are practically pointless in a sense, because we will never get any satisfactory answers.
Even Jesus in the New Testament gospels does not make an effort to answer these questions. Rather, what the Christian tradition (embodied especially in Jesus) presents is an invitation and a summons (and this is very important), first, to refrain from judging, because we really do not know everything; second, to be compassionate for the sufferings that all of us have to endure; and, third, to act resolutely and lovingly to alleviate suffering.
But the plot thickens with regard to the god-question. If that is so, what use is there for “god” then? Is it any good to have faith in a god who seemingly cannot even supply us with adequate answers to our questions about the apparent random suffering that is visited upon us in life (such as COVID-19)?
I think that this question is crucially important especially for people who consider themselves religious believers. Some will simply choose to ignore it for fear of rocking the boat too much and losing their “simple, childhood” faith. As a scholar of religion and theology, I have wrestled with this question through the years and I’ve realized that unless one faces this gnawing question squarely in the face and attempts to give some response to it, I’m afraid one will never shed a childish faith and advance to a more mature stage of being a believer. So let me share my two cents’ worth coming from some of my efforts over a long time to make sense of the God-question.
“God” as a Hypothesis about Reality
God’s existence and nature that I’ve come upon thus far has been the Catholic theologian Hans Küng’s Does God Exist? An Answer for Today . There Küng uses a good amount of space to survey and analyze the many efforts to prove, be agnostic about, or deny the existence of God through the centuries. When he comes at last to stating his major conclusions about God’s existence and nature, he starts by positing God as a human hypothesis. God as a hypothesis, Küng proposes, would be the answer to humanity’s most ultimate questions. Apropos that, we can say that these three following questions are probably the most important and consistent “ultimate” questions that human beings have asked: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?
Küng points out that if God does exist (hypothetically!) there would be meaningful answers to those questions. Therefore, in answer to ‘Who are we?’, God would be the ultimate ground of being that defines our identity: We (and all of reality) are all grounded in God; we carry in ourselves—as the Bible says—the divine image (Imago Dei). Thus, God is the “primal ground” for all life and reality.
In answer to ‘Where do we come from?’, God would be the source, the creator and sustainer of all human and natural existence. God is then the “primal support” of everything. Finally, in answer to ‘Where are we going?’, God would be the (primal) goal in whom everyone and everything will ultimately find their fulfillment.
Therefore, the ideal hypothetical situation is that all human and natural life takes on a deeper meaning with this awesome “God” as the ground, support, and goal of everything that is. And that would make life definitely worth living to the full, despite the acute menace of fate and death, apparent emptiness and meaninglessness, sin and suffering. This, I can say, is a rather sophisticated way of expressing the traditional God-believer’s ultimate reasons for having belief in God.
The Unprovability of God - Revelation
Let me underline that in the reflections above, God, we can say, is a hypothesis that humans have and continue to put forward in order to make sense of life. However, there is one big problem that is seldom stated in a straightforward way: It is commonly acknowledged in the discipline called the philosophy of religion that, despite the best efforts of many brilliant minds throughout history, there is actually no definitive way to prove conclusively this hypothesis that God exists. What Küng has stated above is merely that, if the hypothesis of God were true, then all life and existence would take on a deeper and fuller meaning.
Meanwhile, religious traditions (such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have emphasized the notion of divine revelation: that God has—it is believed—revealed to some chosen humans the very nature of the Divine and also certain firm truths about God and about life which are trustworthy and reliable.
Well, I don’t like to enter too deeply into this line of discussion here. Let me just state my personal and very honest opinion on the notion of revelation. I may sound like an agnostic here but bear with me: I honestly think that the concept of revelation just does not speak anymore to many people in our contemporary world—especially people who have not been raised to believe that there is a God. Moreover, a detailed historical study of, say, Christianity and of its different supposedly firm and solid revelations (as I have done professionally for practically my whole life as a scholar of religion) will reveal instead that these grandiose claims about “revealed truths” should always be taken more modestly because all so-called “truths” (that not only Christianity but practically any religion proclaims) actually bear the tell-tale marks that they are all too human (more than divine!)—that is, these “truths” are anthropologically, historically, and culturally conditioned in a radical way.
It is seldom acknowledged that these very “human” truths have been imbued with an aura of sacredness and infallibility by some authority in the tradition’s history more than anything else for the purpose of forging a given community’s identity through a common belief in supposedly “revealed truths” rather than as a witness to conclusively demonstrable truths. Despite that, I continue to be a person of faith-trust for reasons I cannot explain sufficiently here but let me just say now that I am a very, very “modest” believer (hoping that I will have to explain my reasons for being so on another occasion). For these reasons, I do not usually like to take the path of “divine revelation” when attempting to speak about “God” to present-day people (to myself first and foremost!) who are on the whole historically conscious and are trained to think critically through things.
The more fruitful path to take for me when we attempt to study religion and the idea of God (or gods) nowadays, especially when it is done in the context of a growing number of people in my (Western) context who consider themselves SBNR (Spiritual but not Religious), “Dones” (We’re “done” with religion!), or “Nones” (We have NO religion!), is rather to understand religion and the idea that there might be a God as first and foremost a human endeavour to search for meaning. “God” functions then as a way that humans have made use of in order to add meaning to life or to make some sense of life—life which many times can be very mysterious indeed.
Can there be other ways of making life meaningful other than positing the God hypothesis? Of course there are! This is by no means the only way to “create meaning.” But it is probably the way by which most people have tried to make sense of life and reality throughout human history. That is why it is still important that we study the God-question if we are to understand humans and everything connected with them.
Agnosticism and Atheism Compared with Faith in God
But let’s get back to Hans Küng. Toward the end of his tome on God, Küng, who at this point has already surveyed and analyzed the many efforts to prove, be agnostic about, or deny the existence of God through the centuries, draws a stark conclusion. He states bluntly that, in front of life and its utter mysteriousness (recall again “limit experiences”), both a denial and an affirmation of God are actually rationally possible as choices that humans could make (p. 568).
Let’s expand on that. First, atheism then is definitely a possible and, in many ways, a rational option in front of life’s mysteries. There is no way to refute or eliminate it rationally. For some people, the dominant experience of reality is that it is radically uncertain and even absurd. There is simply no way to “be certain” that there exists a primal source and a primal support of, let alone a primal goal for everything. Hence, for them, an agnosticism (“I just don’t know about ultimate realities and I prefer not to discuss them” attitude) that often tends toward atheism is the option that makes the most sense. This is very common nowadays and it is not always bad despite what religious people usually say. In fact, agnosticism could be a sign of a healthy humility and that the agnostic person has transcended some simplistic, naïve, and childish images of God.
For some others, the dominant factors in their experience of reality are darker: radical chaos, irreparable hurt and damage, illusion, meaningless suffering, absurdity, and nonbeing. For them then an atheism that tends toward nihilism is the position that makes the most sense (p. 569).
Küng asserts however that there is another possible choice that is not irrational by any means and hence also deserves respect and legitimacy even in our secular age. This position is perfectly justifiable even in a rational way – it is the position of the person of faith-trust (note that “faith-trust” might be the best description of “religious belief”) who, despite the radical uncertainty and even the seemingly meaningless suffering and absurdity that characterize reality (life), still decides to have faith and trust in a primal ground, support, and goal of life and all reality – a Being commonly known as “God.”
Of course, this rationally justifiable “God” should be nuanced well and explained more at length. (And that is not my aim here. I will save it for another occasion.) What we can say is that it is definitely not the “god” of earlier and more naïve stages of faith that could not hold up against the deconstructive critiques of contemporary agnosticism and atheism (such as from the “New Atheists”). Many crude and heavily anthropomorphic ideas of god espoused by a great many religious believers are what modern skepticism about God can arguably attack and refute, and perhaps rightly so. This, we can say, is the “god” that the philosopher Nietzsche proclaimed as dead and, again, perhaps rightly so. The rationally justifiable God is a more robust and mature idea of what Küng refers to as faith-trust in a primal source, support and goal of all life and reality.
PART 2: What is it
to have “Faith in God”?
Faith-Trust in God is a Decision to Trust Reality & Life
What I would most like to highlight here though is an aspect of faith-trust in God (which Hans Küng emphasizes above all else in his book Does God Exist?). Küng points out that both belief or unbelief in God has actually to do mostly with a decision on the part of humans (individually or collectively) to adopt either a fundamental attitude of trust in reality (or life) or its opposite – a fundamental attitude of skepticism and/or pessimism about reality. In light of that, having faith in God is—I would like to propose—a matter of having an attitude of “trust in the fundamental goodness of reality.”
Let me further qualify that description to the following: What is called “faith in God” (in the monotheistic religions) is actually the decision to trust that reality (or life) is fundamentally good despite all the uncertainty, suffering, absurdity that are part of it. You can call this by whatever name you want. But this is what FAITH-TRUST in God actually means. Moreover, this trust in the fundamental goodness of life should necessarily translate into an active commitment to action, that is, to respect and honour and, if needed, to fight for LIFE (taken in a holistic sense that involves positively struggling for justice, peace, equality, freedom, etc.; or [in the negative sense] struggling against injustice, oppression, destruction, calamities, etc.).
Atheism/Agnosticism as “Unexamined” Trust in Life?
Many people continue to live life believing it is worth living and they even do heroic things in order to uphold life (such as healthcare workers in the frontlines of the fight against a pandemic). Although living with such a “fundamental trust in reality,” many of them do not explicitly believe in an Ultimate Reality such as God. They just believe that all life is good and sacred and has to be upheld. However, if one were to dig deeper and ask “what is the deeper or ultimate reason why life is sacred?”, many people would not be able to answer that. They would simply stop at level of “the goodness & sacredness of life itself” as the reason why they continue to uphold, defend, and honour life.
For Hans Küng, if one does not believe or one actively rejects a belief in—what he calls—“a primal ground, source, and goal” of life and reality (in short, “God”), then one does not really know the deeper reason why one believes and trusts in the fundamental goodness of life—the reason that makes it worth struggling and even dying for. It is as if your trust in reality is “unexamined” (to use the philosopher Socrates’ words: “The unexamined life is not worthy living”). Küng suggests, as it were, that if you are going to trust that life is worth living and even worthy of struggling and dying for, then, it’s better for you to know the deeper reason why you believe … And that reason lies with the Ultimate Ground, Source, and Goal of everything (in short, “God”). Therefore, it would be better if you can properly “label” the source of your belief in the fundamental goodness of reality. Of course, he means that the proper label is “God.”
Is “Labelling” <Our Fundamental Trust in Life> as “God” the Best Thing?
Truth be told, I do not entirely agree with Küng here. In other words, I DO NOT think that <“labelling” our ultimate reason for believing and trusting in the fundamental goodness of life and reality as “God”> is always the best thing to do. My reasons for that can be summarized as follows: Many meanings that the word “God” has acquired over the centuries and now prevalent in the popular imagination are just unhelpful and even dysfunctional because they are naïve, childish, too anthropomorphic, and, most importantly, too simplistic. These popular images of "God" do not respect the fundamental fact that “God” is first and foremost an unfathomable mystery and that “God” should be treated more as a summons to action, i.e., a verb rather than a static noun. A summons to do what?, one may ask. "God" is an action word to summon us to help realize the kingdom of justice and peace that God, we trust, dreams of. I therefore generally agree with theologians who have proposed that the word (and many popular ideas about) “God” might need a kind of moratorium until we can truly learn what the proper, more grown-up meaning of “God” is.
It is obvious that, unfortunately, “God” and “religion” have been associated with many negative things throughout history in western societies. Much of it, again unfortunately, is institutionalized religion’s own fault. When many come in contact with those notions in the West today, they cannot help but link religious believers and religion itself with awful things such as irrationality, bigotry, narrow-mindedness, arrogance, self-righteousness, racism, elitism, lust for power, abuse of many kinds, and so on and so forth. Even if people as individuals have not experienced personally the dark sides of religion, it is quite possible and arguable that society as a whole (in western contexts) has just become so sick and tired of “religion,” “God,” or “religious believers” that many quarters of the society as a whole have just explicitly or implicitly (such as Quebec’s “quiet revolution”) rejected or walked away from religion.
This distancing from religion on the part of many westerners is not necessarily a bad thing. (If I sound like a hopeless optimist, I am guilty as charged!) It does not necessarily mean that non-religious people are immoral and depraved, as some religious people are wont to believe. Philosopher of religion Don Cupitt has proposed constructively that “we should learn to see our belieflessness not as a state of being derelict and damned but as a clean sheet and a challenge to be creative” (Cupitt, 2015, 48-49). Creative about what? It is remarkable that for all the massive loss of interest in religion in Western societies, interest in “spirituality” remains at an all-time high. So, this contemporary context of disillusionment in religion but heightened thirst for spirituality could be an excellent opportunity to be creative about paths that could lead people into a deeper spirituality, which is, after all, the heart of all religion.
Because of that, the attitude of <trust in life and reality as good and worthy to be struggled for> without explicit reference to God can still be a very good thing. It might be called the “religion of life” which, I would say, is a spirituality that is dominant now in the West (as proposed for example by the same Don Cupitt [Cupitt 1999]). If some people can still label that trust in the goodness of life with the term “God” in a wholesome way, then, well and good. If not (as in many cases nowadays in the West), it’s still good and wholesome. If I may speak as a theologian, I have this firm belief that God (as I believe God to be) is definitely not a narcissist and does not mind at all not being explicitly acknowledged as long the “order” that God is passionate about (Jesus called it “the Kingdom of God”) is more firmly established on earth.
God is “Secondary”
The God-question can be divisive. If we insist, like I think Küng is doing, that the best way to label our fundamental trust in the goodness of reality is “God,” that could alienate a lot of people who do not think so or may have severe reservations about God and religion that are justified. I think that the best way forward is to prioritize instead “the religion of life” or, to borrow Küng’s term, the “fundamental trust in [the goodness of] reality.” This is something that could be common among all humans living in a fragile world. Küng has rightly (I think) identified this as the essence of faith (including religious faith). “Faith in God” is just one way of labelling it. As long as that fundamental trust is there, it need not be explicitly linked to God. And, if there is indeed a God, I don’t think this Gracious Being will even mind.
This is why I think that “God” as a theme is actually secondary in importance; in other words, “God” is too often overrated. Trusting in the goodness of reality and life instead, even without explicit recourse to God, is PRIMARY! This strategy is to emphasize what can unite us all as humans in our common humanity. And one of the common traits among us humans includes the continual effort to go deeper and to transcend ourselves. That, by the way, is my working definition of spirituality, the heart of religion. I consider the labelling of that effort (such as seeking for “God”) as secondary.
When we pursue the journey to go deeper within ourselves and to grow by transcending ourselves (by different concrete means and teachings which many religious traditions are so rich in), then along the way, we will hopefully realize experientially why our ancestors in the past had to use an all-encompassing term called “God” in order to name the fundamental goodness of reality. “God” cannot be just thought of in our minds. “God” can only be experienced as we walk on the path of life.
As we go along and try to do our part for our personal and for the common good (especially during this Covid pandemic of 2020-21), I hope we can find it in ourselves to continue to decide every single day to trust in the fundamental goodness of life and reality and commit ourselves to action in order to realize it in ways possible to us. Let’s not pursue useless questions that will yield no fruitful answers. Rather, it is this—the reality in which we are thrown into and immersed in—which counts. We decide to trust that IT (life) is still fundamentally good and that we can do something in order to uphold that goodness and to make it flourish more.
In the past, our ancestors (who were almost never atheists) believed that the whole of reality finds its ground in a Being they often referred to as God. Many of us (such as myself) still trust that it is so. But that is not the most important thing. If for some reason, “God” cannot be linked anymore to the effort to choose to trust that life is worth living and worth struggling for, then LET IT BE … because, through that, even without any explicit reference to “God” or “religion,” we are still living our fundamental and noble human drive to “go deeper and beyond ourselves” which is, I am getting more and more convinced, lies at the heart of all genuine humanity, as well as all religion and spirituality.
Conclusion: Encountering the “Greater Reality” without Meaning to
And, if there is really a God, this Gracious Being who does not have an ounce of narcissism within, will definitely not mind at all “being forgotten” in the process. But here comes the strange thing about this business. When people transcend their narrow and selfish egos by living concretely the effort to “go deeper and beyond themselves” (the quest for depth and transcendence), they oftentimes encounter SOMETHING deeper and bigger than themselves; they then find that in the quest to seek depth and transcendence, they actually experience that they are not alone, that they are being inspired, supported, carried, led-on, and even finally progressively absorbed by this gracious Mystery that they have decided to trust and commit themselves to. As we know, many of our ancestors labeled that deep and bigger reality as God. Many of us still do. Many nowadays just prefer to rest in the Mystery without naming it. As long as the effort to uphold and increase integral human flourishing in our fragile earthly location continues (and at times at the cost of great sacrifice), all will be well, I trust.
Cited Works and Others Works for Further Study
Cupitt, Don (2015). Creative Faith: Religion as a Way of Worldmaking. Salem, OR: Polebridge.
______ (1999). The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech. London: SCM.
Gregg, Carl (2012). “Do We Need a Moratorium on ‘God’?” Patheos, Published October 8, 2012. Accessed April 22, 2010. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/10/do-we-need-a-moratorium-on-the-word-god/.
Johnson, Elizabeth (2007). Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God. London: Bloombsury.
Küng, Hans (1981). Does God Exist? An Answer for Today. New York: Vintage.
School of Life (2020). “Albert Camus – The Plague.” YouTube Video, April 1, 2020. Accessed April 20, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSYPwX4NPg4&t=62s.
N.T. Wright (2020). “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It's Not Supposed To.” Time, March 29, 2020. Accessed April 12, 2020. https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity/.