On the Transcendence of God

Religions that promote the reality, or existence, of the divine generally insist that the divine transcends reality. That very idea is self-contradictory. If the divine exists or is real then it is part of reality and so can’t transcend that which is real.

This conundrum illustrates a difficulty we have in thinking about the world around us. We speak of reality as something all-encompassing. Everything I experience is part of reality. Everything I can imagine is part of reality. Everything I dream or feel is part of reality. Everything that I or anyone else could possibly know or believe or understand is part of reality. So how is it possible for that which is all-encompassing to not include that which is beyond our capability of knowing– namely the divine?

Let us for the moment assume that there is a domain that we shall call “the Divine” that in some yet-to-be-defined sense transcends reality. Why should we expect it to be possible for beings trapped within the confines of reality to perceive or know or comprehend or understand anything that thrives in the realms of the Divine if those realms are truly “beyond” reality? There is in fact no reason to believe that any avenue to such knowledge exists.

But if there were such knowledge– if it were indeed possible for the residents of reality to apprehend the Divine– then that knowledge must be in all respects real or it would not be knowable to beings who dwell in our reality. This means that there must exist some mapping of the Divine onto apprehensions that are fully real. And do we have any certainty that such a mapping is in any sense comprehensive, or even representative? For example, imagine that beings of the Divine inhabit a realm of 100 dimensions, and imagine further that a human living in our four dimensional space-time were to gain knowledge of these Divine beings. Can we be sure that whatever vision the human has is representative of the true complexity of a being that resides in a realm of 100 dimensions?

The Judgment of Paris illustrates this problem perfectly. Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy, was asked by Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera to determine which of them was the most beautiful. But as the three beings whose beauty he was asked to judge were all goddesses, they could make themselves appear to their human judge however they liked. And they could offer him anything he might desire. Hera offered a kingdom. Athena offered him knowledge and skill. Aphrodite offered him possession of the most beautiful woman in the world– Helen, the wife of Menelaus. Rather than judge on the basis of beauty, Paris accepted the gift of Aphrodite and thereby precipitated the Trojan War.

The idea that humans, bound as we are to our four dimensional space-time, can know with certainty the nature of that which is beyond the reality of our four dimensional existence is at best a hypothesis. And it is one for which no proof is possible. We are incapable of perceiving anything in 100 dimensions, though we might be able to imagine it, and we are therefore incapable of measuring the degree to which our perception of a 100 dimensional being deviates from that being’s true nature.

Einstein once said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Regardless of whether it is greater than or less than knowledge, imagination is certainly not the same thing as knowledge. I can imagine a unicorn with blood of liquid gold, but such an imagining does not guarantee its reality.

We have a language that includes a word– transcend– that allows us to describe a state in which a thing or a being is “beyond” our knowledge, our experience, and our reality. The possession of this word doesn’t mean that there is any such thing as a transcendent being.

A religious apologist would argue that we have all the proof we need of the reality of the Divine. A Jew would say that we have the Torah. A Christian would say that we have that and the New Testament. A Muslim would say that we have the Koran. A Mormon would say that we have the Christian Bible and the Book of Mormon. All of these writings are considered by their advocates as proof of the reality of God as each is assumed to have been delivered directly by God.

It is important to note that the followers of these separate faiths view their scriptural writings as being exclusively the Word of God. When a Jew says that the Torah is the Word of God he or she really means that the Torah and only the Torah is the Word of God. The New Testament is not; the Koran is not; the Book of Mormon is not; the Mahabarata is not; and in fact no other religious writing on the planet is the Word of God.

The fact that the followers of these separate religions point to different texts as proof of the reality of their God is evidence that they do not perceive the divine in the same way. Hence we have every reason to reject the notion that humans are inherently able to experience or understand that which transcends reality.

But they can imagine it. A temple or cathedral or mosque or synagogue is a monument to the very human yearning to capture and experience the divine. Salvador Dali’s painting Last Supper conveys the transcendence of Jesus and God through the translucence of their physical forms. Alan Hovhaness’s Fra Angelico portrays the intercessions of angels with a series of trombone glissandos. Art of all forms has long sought to convey the transcendent through media that humans can experience in the real world.

There is an even more radical way in which humans can envision that which is truly transcendent– and that is through science and mathematics. The science of cosmology tells us that the universe was created about 13.8 billion years ago. That event began with a moment of quantum instability. And exactly what gave rise to that instability? We do not know with any certainty, but human imagination has framed a number of possibilities in the language of mathematics. Several of these explanations are based on spaces of more than four dimensions. It is even conceivable that one day these imaginings may be subjected to a test that could prove them either true or false. But until one of these hypotheses passes such a test they remain merely imaginings and cannot be regarded as real.

That, I assert, is the only avenue to the apprehension of the truly transcendent– through imagination, whether expressed in art, architecture, or science. It cannot be characterized as either knowledge or experience of the transcendent. But it may one day lead us to such knowledge.

Copyright (c) 2020, David S. Moore

All rights reserved.

On the Efficacy of Prayer

Many claims have been made for the power of prayer– that it can provide comfort and healing; that it can answer spiritual questions; that it can help with finding one’s way through the challenges of life; and that it can answer questions about the true nature of the universe.

Humans have been praying to gods of many sorts for at least the last 5,000 years. Those many years of history tell us of the limits of prayer. Prayer cannot possibly provide answers to questions about the nature of the universe since if that were true then humans would have learned thousands of years ago that the atomic and molecular theory of matter is true– and they didn’t. Humans would have learned that the heliocentric model of planetary motion is true– and they didn’t. Humans would have learned that the sun is a star and that the other stars of the universe are immensely far away– and they didn’t.

So we know for certain that prayer is never going to provide any answers to questions about the natural world. But is it possible that prayer might be able to answer spiritual questions? Let us consider that possibility.

How would one go about determining whether or not such a claim were true? To answer that question we would need to know generally what constitutes a spiritual truth. And that is unquestionably the province of religion. So we must determine what religious questions can be answered by prayer.

But this poses a problem in that most religions claim exclusive knowledge of spiritual truths. Judaism has one set of spiritual truths; Christianity another; Islam another still; Buddhism yet another. And each of these religions claims that its spiritual truths are more perfect than are those of any other religion. How are we to determine which set of spiritual teachings is true?

The only way to resolve a question of this sort is by way of an experiment. And here is an example of how such an experiment would be conducted:

We get volunteers from 4 religious groups: fundamentalist Jews, fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Muslims, and fundamentalist Mormons. We will ask them 3 yes or no questions, and then we will give them whatever time and space they need to pray to their God to obtain the true and correct answers to these questions. Then we will ask for their answers and compare.

We should note that fundamentalist Jews believe that they pray to the God of Abraham. And that fundamentalist Christians believe that they pray to the God of Abraham. And that fundamentalist Muslims believe that they pray to the God of Abraham. And that fundamentalist Mormons believe that they pray to the God of Abraham. So they all pray to the same God. And they should therefore get the same answers to any spiritual questions we might ask.

What questions should we ask our subjects? The questions we ask must be specific to the spiritual claims of each of the four religions, and they must be definitive in the respect that a given set of answers must tell us unequivocally which of the spiritual messages of the 4 religions is actually true.

Here is my proposed set of questions:

  • Is Jesus the Messiah?
  • Is Mohammed the greatest prophet of God?
  • Is the book of Mormon the word of God?

I think we already know exactly how the experiment I’ve proposed would turn out. The answers I think we’ll get from this experiment are as follows:

  • The fundamentalist Jew will say that No, Jesus is not the Messiah; that No, Mohammed is not the greatest prophet of God; and that No, the book of Mormon is not the word of God
  • The fundamentalist Christian will say that Yes, Jesus is the Messiah; that No, Mohammed is not the greatest prophet of God; and that No, the book of Mormon is not the word of God
  • The fundamentalist Muslim will say that No, Jesus is not the Messiah; that Yes, Mohammed is the greatest prophet of God; and that No, the book of Mormon is not the word of God
  • The fundamentalist Mormon will say that Yes, Jesus is the Messiah; that No, Mohammed is not the greatest prophet of God; and that Yes, the book of Mormon is the word of God

That is to say that we will get 4 completely different sets of answers from our 4 subjects.

How can that be? All 4 of our subjects pray to the same God, so they should get exactly the same answers to each question.

There’s only one possible explanation for this result: Prayer cannot possibly provide true answers to spiritual questions.

This method can be extended to all possible religious groups. We would only have to extend the list of questions to include queries about the most fundamental beliefs of each religion.

This makes sense because prayer is simply talking to yourself. And when you talk to yourself you generally just reinforce whatever thoughts or desires you had in the first place. So there’s really no possibility that prayer is going to answer any questions about the natural world, or about spiritual questions. But it may make you feel good.

Written 2019-06-19.

Copyright (c) 2019 David S. Moore. All rights reserved.

Response from a reader:

sherijkennedyJun 20, 2019·realitywithatwistbooks.wordpress.comUser Info

I’m interested in your experiment for the efficacy of prayer, but I’m confused on why the answers are a foregone conclusion and how, even if your supplied answers were correct it would conclusively prove that prayer was not effective in answering spiritual questions.
Certain the doctrine of each of these fundamentalist religions would dictate those answers, but that’s exactly why prayer is part of what the devotees to each are supposed to practice. Documents and dictates are static, but prayer is meant to be dynamic – to help the person who prays come to understanding of how the writings and traditions apply to them in their circumstances and their time.
In your experiment, if the subjects are truly praying, they must have an open heart to the voice of their God. If they are open to whatever answer is given, it may be quite different from the traditional doctrine and fundamentalist ideas they have been taught to believe.
I know this because I’ve done this experiment in my own life. I found something rather than nothing. I was not talking to myself because I gained deep understanding that I hadn’t had prior to the exercise. I also gave up affiliation with my fundamentalist Christian church and adherence to the traditional doctrines because I reached a different conclusion than their interpretation of the writings central to that religion. But my actions and ‘faith’ if you will are still deeply aligned with the spiritual and moral teachings of that religion, and scholars I’ve spoken with in depth usually try to conclude that I am as much or more in line with Biblical teachings and principles than most Christians.
So my point is, until you try the experiment with people who are willing to listen to and report what they learn and hear instead of reaching foregone conclusions, you can’t reach your foregone conclusion about the efficacy of prayer.
I’m sure you’ve heard the quote of ‘Seek and you shall find…’ I sought and I found, though it wasn’t quite like I would have expected. But part of seeking is setting aside expectation and letting the answer come freely and having an open mind and heart to accept and follow the answer when presented.
Thanks for the provocative topic and for stating your views clearly here. It’s interesting to contemplate and to continue to listen and learn.

My response:

Very well, then let’s add one additional question: “When you pray, do you open your heart to whatever God tells you?” But I’m pretty sure that Michael Ben-Ari, head of Jewish Power, Pat Robertson, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Russell M. Nelson, president of the Mormon church, would all answer “Yes, absolutely!!”

Religion in the U.S. Constitution

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

Amendment 1 to the Constitution of the United States

The First Amendment of the Constitution makes it clear that the United States is never to become a theocracy. The authors of the Constitution were mindful of the hazards posed by state religions of any kind, and they wanted to prevent the United States from suffering their worst effects.

Does the First Amendment protect religious beliefs, or does it protect religious practices? The wording of the Amendment seems to imply that it protects both. The phrase “the free exercise thereof” seems to encompass not just religious beliefs, but religious practices as well.

But that isn’t a plausible interpretation. Consider the following scenario. A judge, who is an ardent and practicing Catholic, is presented with a case involving a Catholic priest who is charged with pederasty. His attorney is a Jesuit who argues that the court has no jurisdiction in the case because the Vatican claims priority involving all Catholic clergy. Because the judge regards himself as a staunch Catholic, he agrees and releases the defendant to the custody of the Vatican.

Article VI of the Constitution says the following:

The Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the Supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

Article VI of the Constitution of the United States

So the judge described in the scenario above would be bound to regard the Constitution as the supreme law of the United States, regardless of whatever claims the Pope might make to the contrary. And the decision to turn the defendant over to the Vatican would be an act that violates the Constitution, regardless of the wording of the First Amendment.

Consider now the case of a judge who, when he is appointed, is an avowed evangelical Christian. And suppose further that after a period of some years he undergoes a spiritual transformation in which he converts to a strident form of Islam that insists on the enforcement of Islamic Law. So when he is brought a case of robbery in which the defendant is found guilty, he sentences the robber to have his right hand and left foot chopped off.

Again, the Islamic judge is bound by his oath of office to follow the Constitution, the laws of the federal government, and the laws of the several states– NOT the teachings of the Koran, or of any other religious writing.

The previous cases involve judges who render opinions in courts of law. What about private citizens? Are their religious practices defended by the First Amendment? Imagine a devout Christian who studies the old testament of the bible and finds to his delight that Jacob had two wives– Leah and Rachel. He also learns that each of these wives had a maidservant, and that Jacob fathered children by both of his wives and by their maidservants– four women in all. Jacob was renamed Israel by God, thereupon identifying him as the patriarch of the Israelites. He thereupon deduces that God must want good Christian men to follow in this practice. So he marries four women in a state that has long since outlawed bigamy.

To consider a more extreme example, suppose that a cult of the Aztec god of war, Huitzilapotchli, takes hold in this country. The Aztecs believed that the god required regular ritual human sacrifices. So the cult leader insists on performing a ritual human sacrifice every new moon in accordance with the ancient practices.

None of these behaviors is protected by the First Amendment. In fact the only religious practices which are protected are those which do not violate the secular laws of the state, and of the nation.

Written 2020-11-25

Copyright (c) 2020 by David S. Moore

All rights reserved