Friday, 17 August 2007

The Unnecessary God

One of the claims made consistently by theologians and philosophers over the centuries is that God is a necessary being. That is, for any kind of universe that you can imagine, God must exist (or have being... your choice). There is no possible universe that you or I can imagine that does not have God somewhere - whether inside the universe or outside the universe. At least, that's the fairly consistent claim.

Now, these claims often conjure images in our minds of the activities of God that might make God necessary. The big one is creation. Lots of people believe that God created the cosmos and that without God there would be no cosmos at all. Ultimately, it sounds as though one cannot believe that God is real if one ascribes to theories about evolution, or theories about the creation of the universe as the consequence of our theories about quantum mechanics.

But is that the extent of the necessary aspect of God? I think that if this is the only reason that God is necessary, then we have done a poor job of representing God. The debates over the mechanisms of creation will go on for a little longer yet without much effect on our ordinary lives. What we have at the moment are people who posit that God is a necessary part of the process because we don't have any other way to explain it. This is a weak argument. For a long time we didn't have any other way to explain how people got sick, and then we discovered viruses and bacteria. For a long time we didn't have any other way to explain how the weather worked and now we have meteorology. God is not merely the mortar that fills in between the bricks of discovery.

I put it to you that God is not necessary at all. The universe could probably have come into existence without help from beyond. The weather certainly doesn't need God behind the curtain, exhaling in order to get a good gale going. No, I think that we need to think about God as unnecessary.

One of the great Christian claims is that God is love (and by love I mean the kind of love that is unconditional and self-sacrificing, not the kind that we use to describe how amazing is ice-cream, or even the kind of love we experience we we are in love with a romantic partner) . And what is love? Love is not required to keep the species in existence. In fact, we could continue to exist if we were united by fear. Look at Hussein's Iraq, for example. People could start the day with the reasonable assumption that they could buy food for their bellies, and fuel for their cars. They could reasonably expect to go to work and then come home. They could walk the streets at night to visit a neighbour. Of course, they weren't allowed to express anti-Hussein sentiments or any pro-western ideas, but the society continue nonetheless. There was no need for love there, just fear.

Some have claimed that fear is what unites the people of America together also, but this is not my argument. You'll have to watch Bowling for Columbine for that one.

My point is that a successful propagation of humanity does not require love. The successful continued existence of the universe does not require love either. The love that is the Christian distinctive is not necessary for the universe and if the Christian claim is also that God is love, then neither is God necessary for the universe.

However, that does not mean that God is not possible. Nor does it mean that God is not real. We are faced with the brute scientific fact that our existence does not necessarily depend on God to kick off the process, nor to keep it going. However, we are most certainly faced with the ongoing challenge that God calls us, not to avoid some kind of fiery damnation, but to positively affect the lives of people around us. We do not need love in the world for it to continue, but we are called to do it.

You don't have to love anyone. But you can, and if you do, you'll be doing something that is not only unnecessary, but utterly, utterly sacred at the same time.
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