I’ve recently been asked by several friends about my conception of the divine, and how I maintain my faith in God as a theist, philosopher, and intellectual.
Many of my Mormon friends who experience a faith crisis or faith transition often turn to atheism. There’s a saying among the post-Mormon community, “No one makes atheists the way Mormonism makes atheists.” It makes me smile. For better or worse, Mormons tend to make such strong binary truth claims that when any aspect of the proposition becomes questionable, the whole shelf collapses. It shouldn’t be surprising that binary claims often lead to binary conclusions, but here we are.
Truth propositions can be somewhat ambiguous. Sometimes things are true, and sometimes things are false. Sometimes things are true and false, and sometimes things are neither true nor false. The lines between existence and non-existence are fuzzy. The distinction between fiction and reality may blur. We live in a strange, paradoxical world where things aren’t always what they seem. Intuition saves us and fails us. Any claims about theism and atheism should be accompanied with a healthy dose of epistemic humility. I trust there is far more that we don’t know than what we do know.
Here are some of my thoughts concerning theism and God.
Esthetics refers to how things appear. You and I might both be looking at a red cup, but I see the cup as magenta and you see it as maroon. The color of the cup depends on perception, which is subject to a host of factors: biology, light, bias, culture, environment, conditioning, etc. Similarly, esthetics depend on perception. How something appears to you will depend on your subjective existence.
I often refer to the esthetics of God as a way of putting emphasis on the cultural, biased, subjective perceptions we project onto God. For example, Heavenly Father is one esthetic of God—the most common esthetic of God in the LDS tradition. In my theistic view, Heavenly Father is not God. Heavenly Father is just how most LDS Mormons talk about God. God goes by many names. This idea can also be seen in the Book of Mormon when King Lamoni and Ammon use different esthetics from their different religious traditions; God is referred to as “The Great Spirit.”
Esthetics matter. For me, when I couldn’t see past the patriarchal and androcentric esthetic of God the Father that dominated most Christian discourse, I turned to atheism and apathy. Esthetics have the power to make to break a person’s connection with the Divine. On the other hand, Heavenly Mother is an esthetic of God that I have taken comfort in on more than one occasion, even though She is incomplete. Esthetics are not simply illusions, but they change the way we perceive and understand the referent of God. Our biases effect our perceptions of esthetics, but esthetics also symbiotically shape our perceptions.
The esthetic of Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father tell us far more about ourselves, our communities, our policies, and our worship more than it does of any God. The rise of Heavenly Mother in the LDS tradition is not simply a matter of Heavenly Mother revealing Herself in any superstitious sense, but it is a product of the daughters of Mormonism reaching out for a feminine esthetic of God who they can identify with. The daughters of Mormonism cannot see themselves in Heavenly Father’s image, and if all children are made in the image of God, the story’s consistency is in question. I am made in Her likeness, not His. Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father are reflections of our congregations. In this sense, the esthetics of God function as a Rorschach test.
Also, esthetics may have little to do with how things actually are. For example, Heavenly Father as an esthetic tells us a lot about patriarchal and androcentric projections of divinity and godhood. This also affects our rituals and policies. It makes sense women aren’t ordained to the priesthood. That power is the power to act in the name of God Himself, so why would a woman be an equitable part of a masculine priesthood power? Masculine projections that dominate the discourse of Gods are not telling us anything about any actual existing God, it’s telling us about ourselves and the Gods we are creating.
Many Gods who are created under a patriarchal, androcentric, white, cisgender, heterosexual lens have been found wanting. Likewise, in my experience, the numinal, immaterial, unreachable, untouchable God has been found wanting. New esthetics and projections usher in a new, emerging theism.
I’m skeptical of those who claim knowledge of truth or God. It’s a claim often made in epistemic arrogance, escapism, or cowardice. As a philosopher, I have a hard time taking truth claims about God seriously. As a queer feminist, I have an even harder time taking patriarchal and androcentric truth claims about God seriously. The way I see it, as a religious transhumanist, to know God is to become God. In short, theosis. God must move from the numinal to the phenomenological category if we are going to examine God with any epistemic seriousness.
One way to know if God exists is to assign God a set of particulars, test the hypothesis, and become said God. Mystery solved. Easy enough. Well, not really. The trick is assigning our visionary projections of God the right sets of particulars that are significant, yet also measurable. If your God is a God who exists outside space and time, that’s fine, but there is no meaningful way to understand such a being when humans testing this hypothesis exist inside space and time. If we are aspiring toward a figment of the imagination, we should be very cautious and thoughtful about what particulars we assign to God. In a very real sense, be careful what you wish for because it might come true.
I see religion is a mishmash of legend, myth, truth, desires, fiction, ritual, and community. Some people claim that engaging in religion as an inspired piece of fiction would diminish its power, but I disagree. As a transhumanist, I think it is imperative that we move away from superstitious interpretations of salvation and into a pragmatic engagement of salvation. If we want to exist in any sort of heaven, it will be a heaven of our creation which requires faith, works, and grace, just like other theistic traditions.
I am somewhat of a fictionalist, instrumentalist, and certainly a pragmatist. As a fictionalist, I think we should cautiously embrace the power of fiction. For example, let’s posit there is no God. Even so, it cannot be denied that the fiction of Gods have inspired some of the greatest, most beautiful, and most terrible acts in the history of our species. Even if God doesn’t exist, the idea of God alone manifests tangible realities. We act, create, sacrifice, baptize, build, recite, pray, kill, kiss, govern, breathe, love, live, and die all in the name of GOD! Living in a fiction of our own creation is one of the most human things we do, whether your fiction includes Gods or not. Even atheism, as the rejection of the Gods being worshiped, still functions within a system of creating and destroying Gods. No one escapes the material effects of fiction.
I will admit, fictionalism is dangerous. The most powerful tools we have are dangerous. One way to increase the success of our fictionalist manifestations is to be honest about what we are doing through awareness and to incorporate diverse perspectives. Ignorance will be the death of us. It’s imperative that our imaginations direct us toward useful, benevolent, and intelligent fictions.
As an instrumentalist, I see our projections and esthetics of Gods as instruments. We ought to use these projections to reflect what it is we want, what we are, and what we desire. Godly esthetics as a tool of instrumentalism have the potential to manifest truly sublime, even godly, vistas. We live in a beautiful world, and much of that was birthed in the imagination and manifested through instruments of our making. Granted, the world is beautiful, but surely, we can and should do better.
As a religious transhumanist, the idea of instrumentalism could also be seen as technological—not in a primitive sense, but a philosophical sense. I define technology as a tool or piece of knowledge applied for a practical purpose. This is far beyond iPhones, laptops, cameras, electricity, printing presses, or even spectacles. Fictionalism itself becomes a piece of technology created and used by humans to achieve a specific goal. In this view, religion becomes a social technology to inspire, motivate, and direct us toward great acts. Priesthood power becomes a psychological technology used by those doing God’s work.
I suspect that in the future we will create much more sophisticated technologies to improve the human condition. One such instrument is God, or better put, our esthetics of God. Without a benevolent trajectory on the horizon, I fear we would steer off course, even igniting our own extinction. With that in mind, this harkens back to previous issues concerning esthetics and fiction. We must imagine better Gods, futures, and visions which amplify the most compassionate and loving aspirations of the human experience. This requires diverse participation and reconciliation, which is one reason I really like the stories of Jesus, atonement, and all-inclusive participation.
Our perceptions of the Gods we worship are constantly changing. What I speculate about God today will change in the future, and that’s how it should be. Our projections of God should evolve upon further light and knowledge, and no God should be exempt from thoughtful criticism and scrutiny.
As a Mormon, I see evolution as something exciting and faith-affirming, rather than antithetical to theism. In Mormonism, our aspirations are not simply to be like God, but to join God, live in God’s presence, and be Gods ourselves. For me, this is one of the most profoundly beautiful doctrines in Mormon theology. God isn’t this unknowable, immaterial, supernatural epiphany. God is a product of evolution, just like you. God was once a human, like us, and we can become Gods too. As the story goes, there are Gods who continually evolve in worlds without end in a process of eternal progression. In this sense, the Mormon esthetic of God is not only compatible with evolution, but dependent on evolution. This Mormon God is not an “omni” God. Terms like omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence cannot be applied in a strict sense to the Mormon God, otherwise there would be no eternal progression and eternal increase.
Rationality and logic have limits. There are limits to our physical, biological, and cognitive abilities. This is not to say we should abandon reason, but recognize reason alone is insufficient. We don’t just think, we feel.
Some will mock me for maintaining any faith in theism, but even so, I maintain. For me, faith is the only thing that makes sense after secularism, atheism, and nihilism. Proof in the miraculous only comes after belief that proof is possible. But in the journals of academia, how do I cite a feeling? How do I cite faith? They say my feelings, my faith, are unreliable confirmation biases, but to me, what I feel is the only thing I really know. All other knowledge I might gain depends on my subjectivity, biases, and feelings. I cannot deny my feelings any more than I can deny my logic. I have a feeling that tells me there is more to my existence than I currently understand, and it comes by a power greater than myself. Perhaps it is faith in those feelings which will be the pathway to proof.
I choose theism because it brings me hope. My projection of God inspires me to be my best self. When my finite reasoning has reached its limits, I trust in my God, my feelings, and even my biases. My biases are not something to be condemned, but something to be reconciled with other intersubjective realities. It is my hope and aspiration that this is possible.
My atheist friends will often joke with me that they just believe in one less God than I do, which is true, but their atheism will always be limited by my imagination. So long as I can keep imagining, reworking, and creating Gods, you’ll have to keep disproving them. We create new Gods, predicated on old Gods in a symbiotic cycle of becoming—it’s almost compulsive. As William James said, “Religion will drive irreligion to the wall.” I agree, the religious drive should not be casually dismissed. Even atheists engage in religious behaviors toward an objective reality they have faith in. The existential angst which persists within humanity calls out for a God to worship, a trajectory to aspire to, a point of objectivity that we can touch, taste, and know. What that feeling is and where it comes from I cannot say with any certainty, but I’m confident it is a drive which will persist beyond atheism, nihilism, and apathy.
Instead of trying to rid ourselves of our godly desires, let’s harness that passion and direct it toward godly goals. You might ask, what is a useful, godly goal? Good question. I’m not entirely certain, but I suspect usefulness and rightness have a lot to do with love. Our imagination, collective consciousness, will lead the way. Although this begs us to consider, what is it we really want? What lurks within the human heart and mind? What do we want to want, and for better or worse, what will we do to get what we want? The answers to these questions will help us imagine the kinds of Gods who are worthy of our worship and emulation.
Some might be inclined to contend that I’m not a “real theist”—that theism must necessarily include superstitious or even epistemically unknowable truth claims about a supernatural, immaterial being. If that is the case, we’ll have to simply disagree. That sort of theism is losing its usefulness. If being a theist means I must throw out logic and rationality in favor of superstition, then you are perpetuating a destructive view of theism.
However, despite this intellectual and pragmatic approach to theism and God, I still believe in Gods, and that is the definition of theism. You may not like or agree with how, why, and what I believe in, but that doesn’t make me any less theistic as the next person who believes in Gods.
The next question is, what is God?
I will answer that question in a subsequent post which describes an esthetic of God through the lens of a Queer Mormon Transhumanist within the Mormon theistic tradition. Stay tuned!
*See also, Concerning God