Monday, December 5, 2016

Stoicism, God and Some Consequences of Belief

The immanent God of the universe which is characteristic of Stoicism would seem to be necessarily different from the anthropomorphic God or gods one finds in most religions of the West. Some contend that two, at least, of the later Stoics--Epictetus and Seneca--conceived of God as more "personal" than other ancient Stoics. While I think it's true that Epictetus refers to God with a kind of fondness which seems suited to a personal God, and even it appears spoke (jokingly I believe) as if God spoke to him, I think fondness isn't at all inconsistent with the reverence for nature which would be induced by belief in an immanent deity. So I doubt the God of the Stoics ever was a personal one.

I'm sure that those who believe in a personal God, concerned with we humans more than anything else, our actions, thoughts, what we want, who we have sex with, what we wear, etc., find this conception comforting and satisfying, that kind of deity is one I find hard to reconcile with the God of the vast universe. The Busybody God, as I've called him, isn't what I would expect one immanent in the universe to be. If there was a lesser God who was peculiarly concerned with Earth, it could well be the Busybody God.

The personal God most believe in now, and who has been worshipped in the past is of course not thought of as a God of the Earth solely. Though certainly a personal God, and one with some disturbingly human characteristics, those who believe think of him as being God of the universe nonetheless. Apparently, though, their God of the universe is particularly concerned with human beings living on a tiny planet in a tiny solar system located in one of billions of galaxies. Some think this God actually became one of us. Sort of.

Just why a God of the universe--one immanent in it or, as it seems many prefer, one immanent in it who nevertheless created it and so is apart from it--would be so concerned is something I think very unclear. But there are other consequences of belief in a personal God which I think create problems for us of a profound nature, and which I think can be avoided if we believed in the Stoic version of God.

The belief in a personal God tends to create conflict among us, because we're the concern of such a God. Though the same in essential respects, we're different in many ways which, though superficial, are emphasized because we have lived in groups which foster certain beliefs and norms regarding dress, food, acceptable conduct, sex, law, religious beliefs. Our personal God is concerned with us, and so approves of us and those like us, naturally enough. Those who aren't like us don't have God's approval, almost as a matter of course, until such time as they become like us. Those who don't believe in our personal God are outsiders, strangers, enemies. They must be; God wouldn't be concerned with us if he didn't approve of us. Though he disapproves of us from time to time, we can get back in his good graces because he's concerned with us when we seek forgiveness and act as we should.

An impersonal God, on the other hand, isn't especially concerned with us and as a God of the universe (in Stoicism, God in the universe) wouldn't be concerned with what we wear, eat, who we have sex with, what days we treat as holy, whether we believe in him; in other words, what is typically the concern of organized religion would be of no consequence to such a God. What is the cause of conflict among us cannot have its basis in the belief in an immanent God of the universe entire.

Such a God would as well have none of the characteristics we find comforting, however. Such a God wouldn't love us, wouldn't watch over us a parent would, wouldn't listen to our pleas, etc. Such a God wouldn't be impressed by our ceremonies or rituals. Such a God would in fact be unfeeling; wouldn't have our feelings, in fact, or be in the least bit troubled by them.

We may be saddened by aspects of an unfeeling, impersonal God, but it doesn't follow that without a personal God our lives have no meaning or we may do whatever we want. Impersonal though such a God may be, as it is immanent all of nature partakes in it; so we and all other creatures do so. This knowledge should have the effect that we treat all others (in fact all of nature) as divine, worthy of reverence and respect. What other people may do will not necessarily be divine and may in fact be wrong or harmful to others. That may well create conflict and require action on our part. Otherwise, though, their conduct to the extent it causes no harm is no cause of concern to us. Why should we cause no harm to others? Why should we prevent them from doing so? Because God is immanent in them and in all else.

The Stoic injunction to be indifferent to what is not in our control, and not to be disturbed by it, fits well within this conception of the deity. It also would minimize the tendency to do wrong to others, because those things which normally motivate us to do harm (desire for wealth, fame, power) would not longer do so. We wouldn't be motivated by concerns for things beyond our control. What would motivate us would be the desire to do the best we can with what we have. To live in accordance with nature, which is to say live reasonably, to do no harm, to benefit to the extent we can the rest of the universe of which we're a part.

It's a very spare, simple view of divinity and the spiritual, and requires no myriad of rules, proscriptions, ceremonies. But if it's accepted it diminishes the adverse consequences of belief in God which have otherwise been encouraged throughout out history, largely due to our own self-regard.

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