What do you mean God speaks?

S3E1: (re) What do you mean, "There's no God"?

March 31, 2022 Paul Seungoh Chung Season 3 Episode 1
What do you mean God speaks?
S3E1: (re) What do you mean, "There's no God"?
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

What does it mean to say, “There’s no God?” 

What it means for us today, to say, “there’s no God,” is quite different from what it meant for people living just several centuries ago, to say, “there’s no God.” 

That's because people back then did not merely believe that God exists. They perceived God in their world. Then, some time ago, God disappeared from our perception. We forgot what it meant to hear God speak, or see God in our lives, and so, one day, ‘God’ was no longer "there.”

 * Revised on April 3 for greater clarity and flow in the 2nd half.

 3:00       How the ancients perceived their gods        

 10:10       What it means to perceive God        

 20:58      A metaphor made God disappear from the cosmos        

 27:53      A metaphor made God disappear from our lives               

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S3E1: What do you mean, “There’s no God”?

 

[ pendulum ] 

“Do you believe that God exists?” 

Many of us today, perhaps more than any time in human history, would either say “no,” or at least hesitate to say, “yes.” Belief in deities seems to be waning in many of our modern, secular societies, especially here in the West, for good or for ill.

But, what does it mean to believe or say that “there’s no God”? 

A psalm in the Hebrew Bible—the Christian Old Testament—opens with these words: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’” But, then it immediately clarifies what it means to say that. “They are corrupt, and do horrific things.” For the ancient Hebrews, to say that there’s no God was to reject morality, justice, and truth; saying that there’s no God is saying that there’s nothing that’ll stop you from, say, committing war crimes.

However, that’s not what we mean when we say that “there’s no god.” People can be moral—uphold justice, help those in need, or speak the truth, without having to believe in some kind of deity. Some of us may even accuse religious people of being unable to live a moral life without having some divine punisher keeping them in line. 

But, if you’ve been following this series—especially from the beginning—you should be able to guess that such an accusation would be a gross misunderstanding of the idea of God. For this episode though, we’ll just make this rather obvious observation that what we mean by saying, “there’s no god,” seems to be quite different from what the Bible, or Christianity in the past, meant by the same words. So, why this difference?

Well, I’d say that it’s because what it means to say that God ‘exists,’ has changed in some important way from then to now. Those of us raised in our secularized world just think that in the past, people believed in God, and now we simply don’t; but, it’s not that simple. Rather, something else happened. 

Somewhere along the line, God disappeared from our perception. More specifically, we forgot what it meant to see or hear God, because we forgot what we meant by ‘God.’ 

And that’s what has led many of us today to believe that “there’s no God.” 

[ music / ]

So, let’s reach back to examine what we’ve forgotten in…

"What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs. And everyone in between.

I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our first episode of the third season, “What do you mean, there’s no God?” 

[ / music ]

Imagine yourself as a citizen-soldier of one of the Greek city-states about 2500 years ago. You are in the midst of a heated battle; the lines of hoplites in front of your unit are collapsing, and sharp sounds of weapons clashing, screams of the wounded and the dying, are ringing louder and louder. Your side is losing; your enemies weren’t craven cowards, like your leaders told you. And now, you see your countrymen falling in battle, one after another, before you. Panic, like a wave, is washing over you and your fellow soldiers. Some men in your unit are already breaking ranks and fleeing from the field, ignoring the frantic orders from their commanders. Maybe you should run too. But, can you live with the shame back at home? Besides, it’s likely that you’ll be overtaken and slain anyway. As you stand, unable to decide, the enemy hoplites charge toward your line. You grip your spear tightly with your right hand, your shield with your left, as beads of sweat run down your face beneath your helmet. Fear grips you. You don’t want to die. You don’t want to die. Someone beside you goes down with an arrow in his throat. You think you recognize who he is, but, you can hardly think. Everything’s a blur. You don’t want to die. You don’t want to die. Spears flash, and blow after blows batter your shield. No. Your vision goes red. You’ll kill them. You roar in defiance as you thrust your spear at the screaming man in front of you. Or at least, you’ll take them down with you! 

You are in the grip of Ares, the god of war. Ares is moving amidst this battle; his sons, Phobos and Deimos—fear and panic—are running madly before him. 

Let me make this clear. It’s not that you merely believe a god named Ares exists “out there,” somewhere. You do not merely hold an intellectual position that there’s a deity in some divine realm in charge of warfare, overseeing this battle or causing it to happen. Rather, you are experiencing the god of war in this very battle. The clash of arms, terror, violence, valor—all of that’s Ares himself. You see this god in the carnage around you; you hear him in the battle cries of your friends and foes, the screams of the dying; you feel the scourge of his sons, fear and panic. This battle is Ares, the god of war. 

Of course, you also know that this battle is, well, a battle—with men at arms, supplies, tactics, strategies, martial feats, and violence. Your comrade, dead on the ground is not Ares. A spear held in your hand is not Ares. But, at the same time, all of that is Ares. You perceive this god in the battle, because war and carnage is Ares.

People in the past did not merely believe that gods “existed”; they perceived them in their lives, in what happens around them. To go to war is to march with the god of war; to fall in love is to be touched by the goddess of love; to look at the sun is to see the sun-god; to harvest crops is to receive blessing from the goddess of the earth. And if you’re thinking that we now know that these deities do not “really exist,” because we have a rational, scientific understanding of the world around us today you would be completely failing to understand how they thought about these things. 

Again, say, you’re an ancient Greek soldier, and a plague was sweeping through your army camps. You would believe that Apollo, the god of the Sun, music, prophecy, and disease—a rather complicated combination—is shooting his arrows at your countrymen, for whatever reason. Now, if someone from our modern era brought you a microscope and showed you the microbes that are causing this sickness, it wouldn’t change what you believe. Now, let me clarify. I do not mean that you will stubbornly insist that it is Apollo’s arrows, rather than these microbes, that are making people sick. I mean that if you are persuaded to look into the microscope, and you see these tiny things called the “microbes,” you’ll think that these things are Apollo’s arrows. The ancient Greeks knew very well that sick people don’t have literal arrows sticking out of them. Whatever is making people sick are invisible, but somehow “like” an arrow, bringing down people from a distance, and now, you would be seeing these invisible, arrow-like things. 

What may change though is your view on how or why people are “struck down by the arrows of Apollo.” Learning about disease vectors, contagion, and so on, will tell you that there’s a pattern—cause and effect—to things, such as how disease spreads. And we didn’t need modern science for this kind of thinking. In ancient Greece, philosophy, which eventually gave rise to science in the modern day, developed the view that there is a rational principle for everything; there is a rational order and principle underlying the cosmos, from the “nature” of things, to how things happen, or come into being; there is a rational principle defining morality and justice; there are rational principles for social organization, governance, and intellectual inquiry. And our reason can comprehend this rationality, and our language can describe it. ( This, if you remember the first season of this series, is the Greek idea of the Logos—though they used other terms for it too. )

However, none of this made people stop believing in their gods, or perceive them in their lives. Philosophy simply made some of them see their gods in a different way.[1] In their old stories, the gods were humanlike and capricious, sometimes cruel, sometimes benevolent, all depending on their whim. But, with the view that there is a rational order to the cosmos, philosophers perceived the Divine in the rationality and the unity of the cosmos. Not all of them, of course; one group called the Epicureans, thought that the gods were just superhuman beings who were never involved with the world. But, they were a minority. A more prominent group, the Stoics, thought that God is the universal, divine reason, the Logos, that govern the cosmos and determines everything that ever happens; so, they taught that whatever happens in your life, good or bad, you must bear it patiently, and stoically—yes, that’s where the word comes from—because that is your fate that God decreed. Even more influential were the Platonists, who thought that whenever you grasp the order and rationality of the cosmos, you are catching a glimpse of the Mind of God, and whenever you sense the profound unity of all things, and their goodness, you are actually sensing God. 

So, a rational understanding of the cosmos did not mean that you would no longer see gods, or God; it meant that you’d perceive God in a different way.

[ pendulum ] 

You may have noticed that in the last few minutes that I started switching from saying “gods,” to “God,” with a capital ‘G.’ That’s because most of these philosophical schools were making an implicit move away from the belief in many gods, toward the view that everything is ordered is held together by something universal, rational, and One, which points more to the idea of one God, with a capital-G. How the Greek or Roman religions, and their belief in many gods, would have been influenced or changed by these ideas, we can only speculate now, because a new faith arose in the West: Christianity. And it would be the Jews, Christians, and later, the Muslims, who believed that God is One, who would inherit and carry on the philosophical works of their Greek predecessors. 

We’re not going to get into the history of that, at least, not on this episode. What we’re interested in here is what it meant to perceive God in Jewish or Christian thought, when they believed that there is only One God. Remember the episode, “Why ‘God’ is not ‘god’” from the first season? “God” with a capital-G, is not simply a god with special characteristics. ‘God’ is not like Ares, or Aphrodite, or Apollo; God has no particular domain. You experience Ares in war and carnage, Aphrodite in romance and love, Apollo in music, light, as well as sickness, and medicine. You know where to “look for them,” so to speak. But, what of the Jewish, or the Christian God? God that has no name other than, just, ‘God,’ unless you count the name, ‘Yahweh,’ which simply means, “I am that I am”? So, where exactly are you to perceive such God?

For one thing, the Hebrews who wrote the Old Testament portion of the Bible, and their Jewish descendants, perceived their God in the events that unfolded around them. So, the victories or defeat in battles, fortune and ruin of individuals or entire societies, the rise and fall of kingdoms—all of them were something that their God brings about. Now, every other people and nation also attributed these events to their gods; they believed that successes and disasters were due to the favor or disfavor of their gods. So, say, your nation was defeated in a battle; this meant either that you have lost favor of your gods, or that your gods were weaker than the gods of your enemies. 

However, the Hebrews who were trying to make sense of the events unfolding around them went one step further. There was no contest between gods of different nations, as their God is One, and Sovereign over the entire world. For them, not only the rise and fall of their nation, Israel, but that of every nation, was God’s doing. Indeed, everything that happens—all of history—is something that their God ordains and unfolds. The real question was: just what was God doing through these events. How should you interpret and understand what was happening? Their first answer was that all peoples are being judged by God, in regard to their justice, truth, goodness, and so on, and that God in due time will render proper judgment to every nation and people; Israel and Judah may have been laid low now for their wrongs, but time will come for other mighty empires of the world, like Babylon. Their second answer was that all of human history is being directed in some way, toward a certain point, toward a time of a goodness and peace, which God will bring about. They believed that this is what God personally promised—a particular future envisioned by the people who heard God speak. So, if you believe in ‘God,’ you are to perceive God in history, and in what’s happening around you. But, you’d need wrestle and discern what it is that God is really bringing about, where all this was heading, and if it really was heading toward the future God promised. 

But, it wasn’t just the human history where you would perceive God. As the Creator and Ruler of all things, everything that happens in Nature, from rainfall to drought, storms, waves of the sea, earthquakes, the rising of the sun, the movements of the stars—are all commands of God. Now, other nations and peoples saw their gods in these things too. Let’s consider the Canaanites who lived around the ancient Hebrews. The lightning and rain was one god, Baal, while the sea and the waves was another, Yam; the Sun was the goddess Shapash, and the morning star was Astarte, and so on. But, for the Hebrews, all of that pointed to the same God. In the Hebrew portion of the Bible, the word for ‘God,’ is Elohim. In the Canaanite cultures, “Elohim,” meant gods, plural; that is, all the gods. But, whenever the Bible uses this word to speak of the One God of Israel, the plural-“all the gods”-Elohim becomes singular. Simply put, for the Hebrews, every domain, of any and all possible gods, really belongs to One God—“God” that their Bible is trying to describe. 

But, there’s a caveat to all this; because God rules every domain, no single domain represents God; because God is the Creator of all things, nothing in the world—the sun, the stars, the storm, the sea, or anything else—is itself ‘God.’ So, then the question is, how do you perceive God in the world, if nothing in it is “god”? And the answer is: you perceive God in the same way that you do through the events happening around you. Obviously, a historical event is not God. For the Hebrews, history is what God is doing; history is what God is unfolding. Likewise, everything that happens in the entire cosmos, from its very formation, to how everything in it comes to be, or changes, or moves, is what God is “doing.” To be more precise, all of it is what God “speaks.” 

This idea was developed further as the Jewish and Christian thinkers incorporated into their beliefs the Greek philosophical idea of the Logos—the view that there is a rational principle for everything. They identified this rationality, the Logos, as the Thoughts of God, or God speaking. All of reality is like a speech, in that our speech and our reason can describe reality; this is what it means to say that God speaks. The Logos governs and defines the ways in which everything, the entire cosmos, comes into being; this is what it means to say that God creates all things by speaking them into being. There are principles that underlie justice and morality—about how human life and society may flourish or wither away, depending on what we do. All of that is also the Logos—what God is speaking; this is what it means for God to judge all peoples. Thus, for Christians, to understand the rationality of the cosmos was to perceive God; to understand what justice is, or goodness is, was to perceive God. All of that was hearing God speak. 

Then, there is what I’d call the “participatory” aspect to experiencing God. For the ancients, to experience gods of say, war, or love, or wisdom, were to do the things that are identified with their domain. Fighting in battle is to be in the presence of the god of war; to fall in love is to be touched by the goddess of love; to give wise counsel is to manifest the goddess of wisdom. But, what of the Jews and the Christians, for whom, all of history, and all of reality, is what God is speaking and unfolding? It means every truth you take in humbly, and every truth you speak, is hearing God speak. It means that you see God in response to your every action, in that the events around you will then unfold in a certain way; just act, moral act, will unfold history toward the direction God promised. To love people, to uphold justice, to care for the poor, to help those in need, to save lives, is to experience God working with you. Everything that moves you, or inspires you, to greater love, greater good, greater truth, is you being moved by God. 

Let me emphasize yet again. In all of this, you’re not merely positing that there is some deity “out there somewhere,” ordering the cosmos, or ordaining what happens in history. You’re not merely forming a belief that it is some deity that is inspiring you, or moving you to live moral life, and so on. Rather, you are perceiving God. You hear every truth as God speaking. You see events unfolding around you as being unfolded by God. You comprehend the laws of nature that govern the universe as the Logos of God. You feel every inspiration that moves you toward what is good and true, as God inspiring you. You’re not merely making a hypothesis that some deity exists somewhere, that’s doing all this; you’re perceiving God. This is partly what this series was trying to convey in the very first episode, by saying, God is reality. You don’t posit that there is such a thing as reality, which exists somewhere; you’re not making a hypothesis that reality exists. You’re in reality. You see it all around you—in everything around you. You perceive it. 

And people who believed in God, did so because they perceived God. 

[ pendulum ] 

Now, we can go back to what the Bible meant by saying, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’,” and why it differs from what we now mean by those words. 

Say that you perceive God in how the events around you unfold in response to how we act justly or unjustly, truthfully or deceitfully, benevolently or maliciously, to one another. Again, you’re not making a hypothesis that there’s some deity out there that will judge your actions; you’re seeing God in what happens. So, say, you witness a society that is unraveling from its own corruption, disinformation, and violence—which is the Genesis flood narrative; you’d see this as God unfolding what happens in response to the collective moral failure of that society. Then, to say that “there’s no God,” would be to deny that that’s what you’re seeing. It would be to say that justice doesn’t matter; truth doesn’t matter—or that they make no difference—so that it isn’t corruption, or lies, or violence, that’s tearing this society apart. 

In the first episode of this series, I mentioned the traditional Christian formulation of God. God is Being itself; God is Truth itself; God is Goodness itself; God is Love. Part of what that means is that you perceive God whenever you experience those things.  

So, what changed? How can some of us today say, “There’s no God,” without denying that say, there is no such thing as justice, or goodness, or truth, or rational order to the universe, and so on? There’s a book, titled, A Secular Age, by a Canadian philosopher named Charles Taylor, which brilliantly outlines how that happened—though it’s 900 pages. Then, there’s a book by Michael Hanby, No God, no Science?, which focuses this question to its relation to modern science—though it’s very technical, and he clearly takes sides with the theists, which you may disagree, but his historical account is quite excellent. For this episode, I’m just going to briefly cover what I think was crucial. 

So, sometime in the past, we changed what we meant by God—I’d say more or less unconsciously—by changing how we understand the relation between God and the world. So, remember back in the first season, its sixth episode covered how everything we say of God is metaphor and analogy, due to the limitations of our language. So, for example, the metaphor that we’ve been using in throughout this series is that reality is like a speech, and that the entire universe is God speaking. Well, a few hundred years ago, Christians began to use another metaphor; the universe is like a machine, and God is like an engineer, who made this machine.

But, notice what happens in this metaphor. God is no longer present in the universe; we can no longer perceive God. If you look at a machine, you’re not looking at its maker; when you examine its parts, or study how they interact, you’re not engaging the one who made it—not directly; you’re just engaging the machine itself. Now, you may infer that the machine was built by someone; so, you may make a hypothesis that someone, somewhere, made this machine. But, you don’t see the maker. And if you discover that, there is some self-replicating algorithm or a program that put this machine together, you can even say that the machine made itself! Of course, you may still raise the question of where that algorithm came from, but, you can say that your job is to just study the machine, and figure out its algorithm, and not speculate about its origin. 

If the entire universe is God speaking, to explore the universe, to study its workings, or to discover its laws, is to hear God speak; you are perceiving God. But, if the universe is a machine, you are not perceiving God in any of those things; the universe is like an artifact that was left behind, and you can only at most imagine who may have left it behind. Instead, you’ll ask other questions, like what’s the purpose of this machine? Is its design efficient? And if there is no purpose that it’s fulfilling efficiently, we may even question whether it really was designed and built by some intelligent being. And so, in the metaphor for God as the maker of a machine, God disappears from our perception when we look at the natural world. In this metaphor, “there’s no God,” in the universe.

And the thing is, it turns out that this metaphor wasn’t even a good metaphor in the first place. Now, you may ask why not? Isn’t it a good metaphor, at least, for understanding the physical universe—especially if you are a materialist? But, contemporary physics has pushed the boundaries of our understanding of “matter” far beyond this. We used to think that all matter is composed of tiny particles called “atoms.” Then, we found that atoms are made of even smaller particles; those in turn were made up of even smaller ones, until we found that matter is made up of “energy,” or “fields,” formless, invisible, and intangible, defined only in terms of mathematical equations and formulas. And all of this bears little to no resemblance to what we thought of as, “matter,” and much, much more to something like, “information,” or “algorithms,” or… “thoughts.” This is why the proposal that our “physical” universe is a digital simulation, is actually being considered seriously among some scientists, though that just raises the question of what laws of nature—what Logos—governs that world, so that it can operate the computer that’s running this simulation. And what about the point that the entire physical universe, including space and time, came into being, through what Stephen Hawking called, “the ultimate laws of physics”? And if there are multiple universes, it would mean that these laws govern how every physical universe is generated. So, everything we are saying about matter, or the physical universe, is pointing more to the idea of the Logos—that Reality, is less like a machine, and more like information, thoughts, or speech

This machine metaphor does not only affect how we view the universe and its relation to God; it also affects how we view our relation to God. So, the original metaphor was something like: we are living in an unimaginably vast story that God is unfolding. We are part of that story; what we do and how we live, is part of what God is speaking. Now, this does not mean we are somehow mindless characters, following a set story; one way you can tell a good story from the bad is how real its characters and motivations are. In a good story, the people in it have real, genuine life of their own, with their own will, desires, and goals; things that happen, and what they do, are not forced or contrived. Even though someone is unfolding their story, they seem real. In the story that God unfolds, the characters are real. Again, anything we say of God is an analogy; history isn’t literally some novel; it is like a story, because it unfolds as a narrative, and God is like the One weaving together the lives of real people, with their own will, desires, and actions, to unfold a story. In this metaphor, to live your life is at the same time to live in the midst of what God is speaking, so that you perceive God in everything that happens. The question about God then becomes, what story is God unfolding?

However, in a metaphor where the world is like a machine, our world becomes more like a stage, and we are like, self-aware, thinking, automatons moving on that stage. God is then something like the one who made the stage and the automatons. We are on the stage, but God is not there. You hear the storyteller in the story they speak; but, you don’t see the stage-maker by looking at the stage, or the doll-maker, by looking at the dolls. And so, the metaphor removes God from how we perceive our lives. If you want to see the stage-maker, he has to step onto the stage himself, as just another player on that stage. And until God does, God is absent in the world, absent in history, absent in what is happening. The question about God then becomes, is there some being, outside our world, who interfered with the events in our lives? 

And this also pushes God out of our inner life. What do I mean? Well, how do we really think about what it means to hear God speak in our hearts or minds? So say, you feel an urge to reach out to your friend who’s too far gone in their addiction, because you have this thought that this will make a difference—help them break free. And you feel this is God speaking to you. How do you know? We often ask questions like, “How do we know this isn’t just all in my head?” Or, “It’s just a stray thought I had.” Or, “It’s just a dream.” And the basic question underneath it is: if it is God that’s speaking to us, it has to be somehow, from “outside” of us; I think the imagery we have is God speaking to us remotely, by some kind of psychic radio. 

But, remember the episode, “What do you mean God speaks to you?” in the first season? I stated that the primary question of whether the voice speaking to you is God, is whether what it says is true, and leads you to what is good. A miracle is something that proves what it said, even if it seemed impossible to you. So, whether it was God that spoke to you to help your friend, has little to do with whether it was some thought that popped into your head, or it was a dream, or it was someone else’s words that encouraged you, or whatever. It’s about whether your friend really did need you, and whether this helped them break free from their addiction. For Christianity, our own personal, inner life, is also what God may speak; after all, the author of a story is free to speak of inner thoughts and life of the characters in the story. And this means God is neither “outside” of us, nor “inside” of us, any more than the speaker of the story is “outside” or “inside” the character. Instead, you can perceive God in your thoughts, in the words of others, in the events that happen around you. 

The new metaphor made God disappear from our perception, so that when we gazed into the cosmos, or watched what was happening around us, or lived our lives, God was no longer there. Suddenly, “there was no God” that we could perceive. But, this was because this metaphor changed what we meant by ‘God,’ and made us forget what it meant to perceive God. 

However, even for those who perceived God in everything that happens around them, there still is a way they may be led to say that “there is no God.” This is because of how the Jews and the Christians thought about God—specifically, that there was a direction to what God was unfolding through history—one that led to a future that God promised. Then, the question is, is what God unfolding around you really headed there? What if it doesn’t seem like it? What if it you were misled? What if everything you thought God spoke to you, are not turning out to be true?  

Should you continue along this path? Should you wait and see? If so, how long? Or, is there something you should be doing? What if you were part of what God is speaking, to bring forth the future that was promised? Did you fail your part? What if you did do your part? And nothing is happening? What if, God hasn’t been speaking

What if… “there’s no God?”

Not in the sense that there is no reality, or truth, or justice, or goodness, but in the sense that there is no meaning to what is unfolding around us—in the sense that none of those is God reaching out to us, and speaking to us.  

And that’s what leads the people of God, to wrestle with God. And the story of this wrestling, begins with the lives of individuals in Genesis, starting with Abraham. 

[ music/ ]

So, join me next time, as we begin to explore the story of Abraham and its significance, in “What do you mean God speaks?” And please continue to support this series, by following, subscribing, and sharing this series with others. And you can also support this series by buying me coffee! www.buymeacoffee.com/PaulSoC. The link is provided in the episode description. 

How the ancients perceived their gods
What it means to perceive God
A metaphor made God disappear from the cosmos
A metaphor made God disappear from our lives