Saturday, August 13, 2011

Charged with the Grandeur of God: Some Preliminary Thoughts

These words appear in a sentence I've always admired, in a poem I've always liked.  "The world is charged with the grandeur of God."  Hopkins' reference here is presumably electricity, the only characteristic of the real world through which he could make his point; there is a charge running through the world, a force which as Dylan Thomas wrote (meaning something different, one would think) drives through the green fuse of the universe, which is caused by God's grandeur or perhaps is God's grandeur.  It "flames out" at us, "like shining from shook foil"--these are magnificent words.  Magnificent words for a magnificent idea.

Though he was a Catholic, there are times when I suspect based on his poetry that Hopkins was a pantheist or had pantheist leanings, and I wonder sometimes whether intelligent believers in God must necessarily be pantheists if any kind of believer at all.  We can say we believe in a transcendent God, but we cannot know of what we speak when we do so.  Too often the transcendent God we refer to seems to have disturbingly human characteristics, or at least characteristics which are all too present in the universe God supposedly transcends.  So we are left with asserting God transcends the universe because he created it, an assertion which seems at best unsatisfying.

Ascribing human characteristics to God seems to impose limits which immediately strike one as absurd.  We know the universe to be almost unimaginably vast, and that we exist on one planet in one solar system that is an almost unimaginably tiny part of the universe.  It seems a laughable conceit to think of God as merely a kind of super-human.  The Church was right to fear the death of the Earth-centered view of the cosmos.

A super-human may inspire fear and dread, may even inspire love, as that is a fundamentally human emotion.  But the universe itself rightly inspires awe and wonder; it has grandeur, and may be said to be charged with grandeur.  Why long for something more, why insist the God must be more than that grandeur, particularly when one does not know and can't even begin to say what that "more" must be?

I'm content to follow the Stoics in this as well in other things; a God immanent in the universe is good enough for me, so to speak. 

Of course, an immanent God is one that need not be proved to exist in the sense that the universe need not be proved to exist (except, of course, to such as those unfortunates who purport to believe it necessary to prove the existence of the universe, other minds, themselves, etc.).  However, it can legitimately be argued that if an immanent God is "merely" the universe, why insist there is a God in the first place?  Why isn't the universe "just" the universe?  Where does God come into the picture?

If you are someone like me, you find yourself inclined to reply God is the grandeur Hopkins refers to in his poem.  That is nothing like a proof of course, and I think the honest believer, not to say the reasonable believer, must acknowledge that there is no proof.  Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas.  Seeking to prove God's existence as one would prove the Earth is roughly a sphere, or that light travels at a certain speed, is essentially a vain exercise.  At best one can be persuaded, or may suspect, or feel. 

Perhaps that grandeur has always been there, or perhaps Peirce's "guess at the riddle" was a good one, and what started out, if it started at some point, as chaos has become progressively more organized and rational and will continue to do so.  I wonder whether it matters.  The universe is what it is even as we are what we are, and we are parts of a universe charged with grandeur, and as parts of the universe we share in its grandeur.

This is a kind of mysticism, but it is what may be called an informed mysticism.  It has its basis in what we can observe and test and experience; it does not pretend to manufacture a transcendent entity nor is it conditioned on anthropomorphism in the blatant sense needed to support the idea of a personal God.  It allows for a certain kind of communion, though not of the kind relied on by Christianity and its various predecessors which it would rather not acknowledge, and even a kind of existence after death.  I suppose it may be said to provide comfort of a sort, and we are creatures in need of comfort.  Our needs always take precedence over our reason, and this way of looking at God may merely be less objectionable to atheists than others. 

Ultimately, though, the issue of God is one that cannot usefully be debated (note the qualification).  It's like taste in that respect.  Nonetheless, we speak of good taste and poor taste, and I think there are senses is which certain ideas of God may be said to be preferable to others.  Here is one version.


  1. "It seems a laughable conceit to think of God as merely a kind of super-human."

    And Xenophanes laughed too and all "people of quality" in the Graeco-Roman world came to laugh with him. Yet one could argue that gods in human form were an important step in human self-comprehension: a sort of liberation from the arbitrary vagaries of animism.

    I recall a scientist on the PBS program "Origins" asserting that once life is discovered elsewhere in the cosmos (for he considered it inevitable), the final claim of the earth as any kind of center will be destroyed (happily, he thought).

    Such strange times are these when Oprah Winfrey can tell her female audience that they are their own goddesses while professors declare a dogmatic hostility to any type of anthrocentrism!

  2. Well, some of us still do accept gods in human form, or at least still contend God at one point had a human form.

    The more "enlightened" pagans of ancient times, e.g. the Emperor Julian, considered the pagan gods, rites, myths and folklore as honored and revered vehicles by which aspects of the divine were communicated to humanity and could be shared by mortals. They didn't feel such things should be taken literally, but thought it appropriate that the rites should be followed as they were time-honored means by which the divine was worshipped by mortals. In some ways, they were more sophisticated that some are now.

  3. Hi, Charles Myro here,
    Here is a different view:
    I too indeed start with my experience of things--the world, the universe.
    And what is clear to me is that existence is.
    This is the most obvious thing, it seems to me. But one needs no concept "being" to know it.
    After all whatever one is, something is. We each know what being is; being existent ourselves we know existence. This seems obvious to me. What else could we be but some form of existence?
    Seems to me that existence never diminishes.
    If a thought or a sense comes and goes, existence generally is unaffected; in other words, being is wider than particular existences.
    If thought goes and sense goes and the body goes and all goes--the world goes. What is left then? What is left is whatever is left. It is
    whatever is when all our world is gone. But whatever it is ---it is! In other words--if all things go, all specific things all general notions, even transcendence; If all that goes then whatever is, is.
    In other words, is is.
    There is no shortage of being, nor will there be---even if the world suddenly blinks out into nought.
    This is the most obvious thing to me---and this is what I would call god.
    On transcendence: The transcendent can be talked about--but its conception is a negative conception. That is, it is transcendent for the very reason that it is prior to any thought or thing or world. We necessarily talk in words and concepts. If the world, sense and thought--if the whole world goes, there will not be any such thing as god, nor transcendence nor existence nor non-existence, nor perception.
    This is what transcendence means--- that which is prior to the world's birth and which is still extant and will be when the universe is gone.
    And for each of us the universe will be gone when we die; dying in effect means that the body and sense and the mind and world go. But what is prior to all that remains.
    But really, this is all conceptual fantasy, the whole world is a kind of fantasy that comes and goes, and finally ends.
    But being does not end. And this is what immortality is. The mistake in life is ignoring this wider being that is and focusing only upon the narrow self with all its stuff.
    What proof is needed to see that is is?
    What is more obvious than is?
    Again, this is all words---But try this: drop all notions of is or not is or of anything whatsoever--drop it all just for a bit. There! that's it!