There’s an old saying that “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” For me, that also describes what talking about God is like. Nothing exposes the arbitrary and ambiguous nature of our language better than the topic of God, and I find myself wanting to blow up the dictionary and create a new language. It’s frustrating to realize that in the 21st Century we still haven’t come up with a better, clearer vocabulary for such an important topic.
The word “God” comes from the Proto-Germanic word guthan, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European word ghut, which likely comes from the root gheu, which means “to call” or “to invoke”. So, the etymology of the word “God” suggests that its original definition was “something or someone that is called upon or invoked”.
Of course, as various religions and churches have arisen over millennia, each has taken a crack at defining “God” in its own way. As a result, unless you’re among your fellow congregants, whenever you talk about “God” you can seldom be certain that the meaning you intend and the meaning your listener hears are the same.
And because we’re dealing with the English language, which was immersed in Western monotheism in its development, we get some bizarre results whenever English-speakers attempt to classify and discuss Eastern religions. For example, English-speaking scholars often refer to Buddhism as a “non-theistic (i.e., atheistic) religion”. That’s right, a religion without God, which of course seems nonsensical because every definition of the word “religion” in the English language presumes the existence of God. (See here.)
When it comes to the topic of God, I often feel like I’m in a linguistic mine field whether I’m talking to a devout Evangelical Christian or a devout atheist. If a devout Evangelical Christian were to ask me, “Do you believe in God?”, I’d assume he was referring to his particular version of God, in which case I’d have to say “No.” But if a devout atheist were to ask me, “Don’t you find the notion of God absolutely preposterous?”, I’d likely say something like, “Well, it depends on which notion of God you’re talking about, because there are some notions of God that I not only don’t find preposterous, but that I regard as undeniable fact.” And so the Evangelical Christian labels me an atheist, while the atheist labels me a theist.
But being mislabeled isn’t what primarily concerns me. What concerns me is that we can and should be capable of having more intelligent discussions about the topic of God, but we can’t seem to be able to do so because our vocabulary is so mucked up.
We have to go all the way back to ancient Greece to find a better word to use when talking about the big, important questions that both religion and science have long been asking. That word is Logos, which the philosopher Heraclitus used to refer to the “principles of order”, or “laws” or “logic” behind the Universe and everything within it.
Logos is a non-controversial, neutral term that gets to the heart of what both scientists and theologians have long been trying to understand: the laws that govern the Universe–from the scientific Holy Grail of a “Theory of Everything”, all the way down to the ethical (moral) laws of daily living that create safe and stable societies.
For example, the “laws of motion” that Sir Isaac Newton formulated were his attempt to articulate the Logos (laws) of matter and the forces that act upon it. In the realm of ethics, the Ten Commandments were an effort to articulate the Logos (laws) of human behavior that make for safe and stable societies. With historical hindsight, we can say that both Newton’s laws and the Ten Commandments appear sound in most respects but less-so in others. Yet few would dispute that both Newton and the author(s) of the Ten Commandments made valuable contributions to humanity’s understanding of the Logos in their respective fields (physics and ethics).
One advantage of the term Logos is that it’s self-evident that there’s an intrinsic order or set of laws governing the Universe. It’s not a matter of faith or belief; it’s a scientific certainty. We and everything in the Universe are beholden to these “higher powers” whether we believe in them or not. Disbelieving the theory of gravity won’t enable you to jump off a high cliff without severe consequences.
And the Logos concept is perfectly compatible with religion as well. In fact, the author of the Gospel of St. John adopted and used the term Logos to explain the Christian view of who Jesus was: “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” (John 1:1 – in the English translation, Logos is translated as “the Word”.)
Now there’s an idea! God is the Logos–the observable order, law, or logic in the Universe. Even Richard Dawkins could proclaim his devotion to such a God!
The Logos can be observed in the long arcs of human history. For example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accurately observed: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” We’re missing something big if we don’t stop and wonder: why has that long arc ultimately bent toward justice rather than injustice?
We see the same long arc in human history when it comes to the ethical values of love and compassion. In primitive and ancient societies, you had a duty to treat your fellow tribe members with love and compassion, but that duty did not extend to those outside one’s tribe. You could rob, enslave, and kill those outside your tribe and still be considered a “moral person” within your tribe. The parable of the Good Samaritan challenged that old idea, and re-defined the meaning of one’s “neighbor” (as in, “love thy neighbor as thyself”) to include every human being. And some authors of scripture went so far as to proclaim that “God is love”. (1 John 4:8.) Today, we have global relief organizations that enable compassionate people on one side of the world to ship tons of food to strangers in need on the other side of the globe. That’s a beautiful arc in human history. Thank you, Logos.
What’s more, the Logos is embedded in each of us. Charles Darwin is remembered for observing that living things are engaged in a struggle for “survival of the fittest”, but that was only part of what he said. Darwin also observed that humans have instincts for love, compassion, and self-sacrificing altruism. So it appears life is not just a struggle for survival of the fittest, but also, survival of the kindest. (Thanks again, Logos.)
What are we to make of the fact that the instincts scientists have observed in humanity have resulted in long arcs in human history bending toward the ethical values encouraged by authors of ancient scripture? To me, it shows that authors of ancient scripture and scientists who study human nature discovered the same thing: the Logos.
Appreciating the mind-blowing reality of the Logos is far more important than getting hung up on semantic disagreements about what to call it. We’re sentient creatures made of star dust living on the surface of a giant spinning rock that is orbiting a star, and we are embedded with instincts that have resulted in our forming societies that have gradually trended toward greater justice and greater love. For me, that’s a scientific observation that inspires what you might call religious awe or spiritual feelings.
So what do we make of this Logos that we’ve stumbled onto? Is it God? Is it the benevolent operating system of a material machine that has made our existence possible? Is there any reason to assume those concepts must be mutually exclusive?
To be clear, I don’t mean to downplay or dismiss the conflict between religion and science. Religion is a vestige of our primitive and ancient ancestors who were searching for the Logos but lacked our modern scientific methods and tools. Lacking those, they were left to rely on what little they had: reason and speculation. Sometimes they hit the bull’s eye, but sometimes unfounded speculations were canonized as divine truths. And unfortunately, too many leaders of today’s religious institutions are willing to protect the public perception of their scriptures’ accuracy at all costs, even if that means attacking the very thing that has improved and extended the lives of human beings far more than anything else in recent centuries–modern science. Fighting science is a losing battle that anyone with eyes to see can see.
But at the same time, the assertion that “God doesn’t exist” will never resonate with the lived experience of billions of people because there is in fact an observable Logos in the Universe and within ourselves. And whether people realize it or not, that’s what they call “God”. And these people cannot deny the existence of what they call God (the Logos) because they see it all around them and within themselves; it’s hard-wired in their DNA. We humans have instincts for love, kindness, and compassion. In times of crisis, we discover hidden inner reserves of strength, courage, and perseverance. We have creative impulses that generate masterpieces of art, literature, architecture, and music. We have inquisitive minds with great capacity for abstract thought and reasoning that enable us to land robots on distant planets. So when you tell religious people that God doesn’t exist, you might as well be asking them to deny what they’re observing all around and within themselves–the Logos.
Maybe someday we’ll come up with a better way of talking about the Logos so we can stop talking past each other. Until then, we’re stuck arguing about God. And dancing about architecture.
My recent readings have included a biography of Richard Feynman titled “Genius.” The author describes Einstein’s careful use of the term “God,” and that he managed to use it in ways that his largely atheist professional colleagues understood to be a stand-in for “the rules that order existence,” but which his theist readers and discussants could also use from their own perspectives. I’m ambivalent about using the term, as I surmise that my usage of it might create misunderstanding.
All that said, I am impressed by the beginning few verses of the Gospel of John. They feel a bit like an add-on (rather like the framing of the early parts of the Book of Job), but even so, they seem to me to point the meaning of the book in an entirely different sort of direction than the other three. More like: “look at how incarnation of consciousness can be!” than “see here these cool stories about a powerful mage/diviner (Mark) or what you have to do to avoid hellfire (Luke) or being left behind in the next revolution (Matthew).” (Yes, I’m exaggerating about the themes of the synoptic gospels, but you get the point: John is up to something almost completely different.)
And while I’m non-theist in my approach to life, I remain delighted and mystified by consciousness. Existence doesn’t surprise me. That awareness of existence occurs surprises me. Not exactly God, by most definitions. But not senseless dirt, either. Maybe sense-ful dirt? 😉
God is good.