Thursday, January 6, 2011

Interpreting Reality As World Making

It is fashionable in some circles to say we make our own lives with our attitudes. Whatever we are like inside manifests in our outer circumstances. This morning it snowed in Las Vegas. I suppose according to the “manifest” theory, it was something in my attitude that caused the snow. Oddly enough, it seems a couple million of us fell into the same mood at the same time since it snowed on all of us, “the just and the unjust alike.” Maybe the notion that we create our own reality is a big of an exaggeration. But there is something to it.

Experiences make up our lives and we are constantly interpreting our experiences. So much depends on interpretation. Suppose for example, I am on a multi-lane highway. I turn on my left blinker signaling my intent to change lanes. The car a little behind me in the lane to my left accelerates and passes me. What happened? I might surmise he was a competitive driver who wanted to get ahead of me before I got ahead of him. Possible. But maybe he was concerned he was in my blind spot and was dashing for safety. Or maybe he figured that if he hung back waiting for me, I would hang back waiting for him, and we would both waste time dilly dallying, and by passing me he was actually allowing me to change lanes quicker and more safely. Or maybe he just noticed he was late and sped up without even noticing my blinker. Which interpretation I put on the anonymous driver’s action is up to me and says more about me than it does about him.

Is everything interpretation? No. Some things are facts, or at least direct experiences. But we interpret all of them and the interpretations we give determine the flavor, the texture, the quality of our lives. All of our interpretations flow from one basic interpretation. It is our comprehensive interpretation of reality itself – our understanding of why there is something instead of nothing, of why it is as it is, moves as it moves. Our belief or disbelief in God is the fundamental interpretation on which everything else depends.

I received an e-mail recently from someone trying to decide whether God exists. She may have been inviting me to try to persuade her of God’s existence. But here’s the kicker. The question is wrong to start with. Christian theologians, going back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas (and really much farther back) have not said that God “exists” – not the way anything else in the universe exists. God is not such a thing. Many Christians never get past the children’s Sunday School picture of God as “the man upstairs.” Even if we aren’t so naively anthropomorphic as to think God is a man, we are apt to think he is a being along with the other beings in the universe, only bigger, stronger, smarter, and older. Like the abominable snowman or intelligent aliens, such a being might or might not exist. However, if such a being does exist, he is not God. Orthodox, traditional theology teaches that God is not a being along with all the other beings, just bigger. Our best contemporary theologians agree. As Kathryn Tanner says, “God is not a kind of thing among other kinds of things.”

God is that out of which all being arises and into which all being sinks when it ceases to be. St. Paul said, “From him and through him and to him are all things,” and “In him we live and move and have our being.” In Christian doctrine, God is the source, the destiny, and the meaning of reality itself. St. Augustine saw God as the ultimate object of all our longings. The 20th Century Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, wrote of God as the source and the destiny of reality, “the whence and the whither” – “whence comest thou? whither goest thou?”

Likewise we believe, or at least hope, that there is some deep sense to reality, some order, some meaning. We believe that there is truth and that the truths we know, and the truths we do not yet know, may be ordered within an overarching, comprehensive structure of Truth which we cannot know. We value things. Indeed, we hold that things actually have intrinsic value. And of all that is valuable, there must be that which is most valuable, ultimately valuable, something that finally matters. Just so, we delight in beauty, believing, or at least hoping, that there may be a greatest beauty beyond the reach even of our imagination.

Each of these things – source, destiny, meaning, sense, order, truth, value, beauty – could be its own object of devotion. Each could be regarded as a god. But monotheism rolls all of this, and much more into the unified concept of the one God. Monotheism teaches that there is no final conflict between truth and beauty, that our source, our destiny, and our purpose are all one. All of this is in God. To put a point on it, God is very big – far too big to fit inside the universe. God does not fit inside anything. Everything must fit inside God. So God is not a being among other beings, a value among other values, a power among other powers.

To believe in God is not to believe that a particular thing exists. It is to believe something about all our experiences, to trust, to hope, to risk our fate on something deeply true in reality. To believe in God is to affirm truth, beauty, goodness, that life has meaning and value.

To believe in God is an act of interpretation. Interpretations are not facts. But that does not make them entirely subjective. Some interpretations may be more reasonable than others, more plausible or probable than others, and certainly some are more helpful than others. Philosophers and theologians rarely offer “proofs of God” anymore. Since interpretation always smacks of mystery and God, as the meta-interpretation of everything, is infinitely mysterious – God is not subject to proofs. Instead, philosophers like Alvin Plantinga now speak of “warrants for faith” – meaning reasons to justify believing in God, lines of thought demonstrating that faith is reasonable.

A wonderful example of such a warrant for faith is Anthony Flew’s book, There Is A God. Flew was the leading atheist philosopher of our time – a real philosopher unlike the pop atheists (Dawkins, et al) on the bookshelves today. But Flew ultimately concluded that God is the best explanation for the existence of this universe we experience.

Now back to the power of interpretation: We control some of our experiences – the things we do. We do not control others – the things that happen to us. But we interpret all of them. My assumptions about human nature, or at least Las Vegas drivers, will determine the motives I attribute to the person who zipped around me when I had my blinker on. That interpretation will shape my mood for awhile. My mood will shape my further interpretations of the next events as well as my behavior and indirectly the way people respond to my behavior and then my interpretation of their responses.

So what did I believe about today when I woke up? Did I believe it would be an episode in a Darwinian power struggle or the closely related Marxist class conflict? Or was it to be a random, meaningless exercise in futility acted out in an existentialist void? Or is it the Day the Lord has made for us to rejoice and be glad in it? And what of these people I encounter? Are they my Darwinian rivals for survival, human commodities to be used for some gain, or brothers and sisters in Christ?

Experience is just raw data until we interpret it, and our interpretation is a matter of will – as William James called it “the will to believe” – guided by reason. So let us ask two questions: First, is it plausible, is it reasonable to believe that the universe has a source and a destiny, that all this actually has a raison d’ĂȘtre? The vast majority of people who have lived on this planet have thought so. The greatest philosophers and theologians have thought so. Second, is it helpful to believe such a thing? How will I experience life with God and how will I experience life without God? What difference might faith in God make to my behavior, to the kind of person I become?

There is an objective world. We live in it every day. I cannot pretend the other cars are not on the road except at my extreme peril. But that world affords me only the raw data for interpretation. After that, I have it in my power to create a godless universe or a godly one in which to live this life, “to make a very hell of heaven or heaven of hell.” Such is the power of faith. “Faith” is the foundational interpretation which can make or break a life. That’s why sometimes Jesus did not just zap people with healing energy but rather told them “your faith has made you whole.”


Rick+ said...

     I once had a friend who philosophized that all we experience is just an illusion. I had to reply I couldn't buy that; I'd seen too much real suffering. Things matter; humans matter; the Incarnation matters.

     At least... that's my interpretation.

Bishop Dan said...

Yep. That's the also a fabulous double entndre. Things MATTER. Isn't it interesting that our language links meaning with the flesh and bone of life.

Anonymous said...

WELL, BISHOP DAN - I, too, have driven those Las Vegas freeways --AND frankly, "THOMIST Theology" is customarily NOT THE FIRST THING which comes to mind when another driver 'cuts me off'! ;-) *** WELL DONE! DOZENS of roses, tulips and perhaps a cantaloupe thrown in for good measure, eh? ;-) -30-