Conjecture: If God can be okay with doubt, then so can we.

“A God who let us prove His existence would be an idol.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Tim Palmer, in closing out his extraordinary book The Primacy of Doubt, takes readers into the realm of the spiritual, contemplating what that primacy might tell us about God’s nature, about free will vs. determinism, or even about God’s existence or non-existence.

Virtually everyone who’s ever lived has pondered such questions, although at varying levels of depth. But even those who have been the most thoughtful – have expended the greatest effort – have concluded questions of God’s existence or nature will never be resolved.

Early in his exploration of this topic, Palmer makes this statement: “From spirituality comes the concept of a caring god, a supreme and yet personal creator. Many of those who believe in such a god do so because they seek a purpose in life…”

He goes on a bit later to say “As scientists we can mock such views for their naivety or for the quaint anthropomorphic character (God as a wise old man with a white beard, for example). However, the fact of the matter is that there are many profound uncertainties about the nature of physical reality. We have discussed some of them here. How can scientists dismiss such views about religion and spirituality when their own theories are riddled with such deep uncertainties?” [Emphasis added.][1]

This strikes a responsive chord. It seems miraculous in a way that physics works so accurately on a practical level when the universe is largely dark matter or dark energy. An (admittedly irresponsible? Tongue-in-cheek?) analogy: Suppose you had an auto mechanic replace a faulty muffler on your car. You’re expecting a bill for $800. Instead your mechanic presents you with a bill for five or six times that much. When you question the cost, he says, “well, the $800 charge is a small fraction of the ‘dark’ charges, which can’t be measured or detected in terms of their results on the car or its performance, but are in reality 85% of the total. You’re actually lucky I didn’t charge you additionally for the dark energy I expended in labor.” And you say, “Of course! How silly of me to forget that! Thanks for that free dark labor! And did I fail to mention? I admire your 700-pound brain and profound research so much!”

Yeah, right.

But let’s turn now to brief conjecture on God’s view of doubt. Start with Palmer’s statement  that many believe in a caring god who is a supreme and personal creator because we seek a purpose in life. In a sense, that’s tantamount to inventing god (some say that’s indeed what we’ve done). But if God exists separate from our imagination, it might better be said that we merely discover God. In fact, it seems more likely a Creator God would actually take the initiative, and that what is happening is that we encounter or experience God. Some (many? most?) theologians conclude that God’s purpose for Creation is to be in loving relationship (there’s a lot more to this notion than space here allows us to pursue). From there it’s a small step to say that same God wants us to have free will; otherwise the relationship is not particularly meaningful – no more than that between Pygmalion and his statue. (A brief aside: allowing free will does not limit God’s power if He retains the power to redeem any and all events and circumstances for His purposes.)

In our day-to-day experience, relationships based on inequality tend to be one-sided, unhealthy. That’s why speaking truth to power is a thing. The challenge increases the larger the inequality. The higher leaders climb in an organization, the gentler, the more open and transparent they must be if they are to foster the best possible outcomes from those reporting to them. This becomes the greatest challenge they face: how to foster creativity, innovation, risk-taking, equity, inclusion in the face of the hierarchy. Most leaders fail, too-often finding themselves surrounded by sycophants telling them only what they want to hear.

Back to a creator god: since the inequality in the god-creation relationship is truly vast, mere gentleness and unselfish love no longer suffice. Only if that god introduces fundamental doubt with respect to his very existence does he stand a chance that his creation can fully develop, and the resulting god-creation relationship be truly meaningful and worthwhile. Thus it seems likely that fundamental doubt about His existence is something God intentionally introduces, versus something that merely happens to Him by virtue of some transcendent necessity.

So… doubt does seem indeed to have primacy, reinforcing Palmer’s thesis[2].

[1] It should be noted that in addition to Palmer many scientists, including several notable ones (e.g., Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Francis Collins), have expended some thought on these subjects, reaching various conclusions, and changing their views over their lifetimes.

[2] A bit of an apology. Blog posts – necessarily brief, and written in haste – don’t really lend themselves well to big thoughts. This post conatins a lot of shorthand. In addition, it’s at best incomplete, rough around the edges, and very possibly, even deeply flawed.

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