Thursday, September 17, 2009

God is Just Another Word

9/17/2009—Some religious believers have found this headline used by the editors at religion dispatches offensive. I can well understand that. It is not a phrase I would use. Yet, I understand how the editors could read my ideas about church and state and come to this understanding. I’m not complaining. I have suggested that the word God can refer to different kinds of ideas and to some that might mean that God is just a word like any other.

I would say, however, that the reason the word God can refer to the creativity of the universe, for example, and the absolute value of right and wrong is not that God is just another word, but because it is such a large word, with so much in it. I would have preferred a headline that stated, God is the Largest Word We Have.

This is in part why the fact that some religious believers hear the word God in only one way, as an all-powerful being, does not cause me to want to shun the word. Religious believers do not have a monopoly on the word, God.

I am reminded of a story about a conversation that Niels Bohr had with Werner Heisenberg in the early 1920’s. Bohr said that his starting point for the new physics was the inexplicable stability of matter, upon which all life depends, but which is not really justified within classical physics. To try to explain it, Bohr invented the concept of electron “orbits” that you have probably seen in high school science classes.

But Bohr told Heisenberg that he never took literally that an atom is a small-scale planetary system. The image was just meant to be suggestive.

I think it is the same with God. We start with the experience that reality is not coldly indifferent to us and that certain values of goodness have more weight in history than does evil. We then use the image of a god to refer to these experiences. Then someone confuses a helpful image for the thing itself. God as a being is inappropriate concreteness.

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