Last spring semester at St. John’s University, I taught three philosophy courses that in one way or another dealt with the mystery of God.
One was entitled “The Problem of God,” which I think is a terrible title. It dealt with well-known theists such as Saints Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, the most influential atheists of the 19th- and 20th-century such as Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Sartre and also some new ways of thinking about God drawn from thinkers such as Paul Tillich, Alfred North Whitehead, Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan.
Another course dealt with famous personalist thinkers such as Martin Buber, Emmanuel Mounier and Gabriel Marcel.
The third was on film and the goal of the course was to explore whether film can reveal the mystery of God and if so how is that done.
I greatly enjoyed teaching all courses and was delighted by the response and evaluations I received from the students.
What I found in teaching the three courses was that I often would use material from one course to illuminate some material in another. All the atheists whom the students and I read in the “Problem of God” course presented the view that God was nothing but a human projection created in order to fulfill some need that people had. The view of the atheists was that there is no God but people believe there is because of some human weakness.
All the personalists whom the students and I read believed that there is a God who fulfills our deepest needs but they were concerned that we should not substitute a self-created illusion, a projection made up by us and imposed on our image of God.
One personalist, Gabriel Marcel, thought that when we speak of God it is not God about whom we speak. He seemed to think that the only valid God-talk was talk to God, in other words prayer.
Marcel’s view seemed to be that whenever we speak about God we necessarily reduce God to an object, and we necessarily use images that are not accurate depictions of God but rather reductions of God to something less than God.
I sympathize with Marcel’s view but I cannot accept it completely. If we embrace Marcel’s view completely, I think this would be the end of theology. We would have to cease speaking about God.
In thinking and speaking about God perhaps some projection of images onto God is inevitable. John Haught in his book, “What Is God: How to Think about the Divine,” is quite good on this topic.
He writes the following: “Where does our sense of God come from? It seems on the surface that there are only two conceivable answers to this most important question: either it comes from God by way of some kind of direct revelation, or it emanates from us human beings who by force of our imaginations have ourselves created the powerful impression of God’s reality out of what is in fact an illusion.
“These two positions initially seem to exhaust the possible answers… However, there is a third option that we may also entertain: it is possible in principle that if God is really God, namely, transcendent and ultimate in being, then both of the above alternatives can be combined into a single, and more plausible, ‘hypothesis’ concerning the origin of our ‘sense of God.’
It is possible that the origin of our sense of God may be explained in part as the product of our desire while at the same time being explained also as the result of our consciousness being taken hold of by the actuality of the divine. Both imaginative human longing and divine reality may together constitute our sense of God.”
What strikes me as very important is that we constantly try to improve our images of God. If we allow our images to be corrected and challenged by the images that Jesus offers us in the Gospel or that St. Paul and other authors offer us in Scripture, then we might avoid creating images of a God whom we control and who asks nothing of us instead of Scripture’s God of love who challenges us to allow our relations with God to deepen and broaden so that we see that our love of God also calls us to love our brothers and sisters.
The image of the God who appears in Scripture can serve as a critique of our images and help us to improve them and deepen them. Improving our images of God is probably a lifetime task but what task could be more important?
In all love relationships, our image of the beloved should deepen. Why should this not happen in our relationship with God?
Father Robert Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).