God as Figment of Our Imagination

In my last post I introduced Zizek’s radical interpretation of the incarnation. This view could be summarized by saying that the the death of Jesus on the cross represented the death of God as a transcendent other and the event which allowed for the subsequent coming of the Spirit, signaling God’s move to fully empty himself into the world. This emptying of God’s self or kenosis means that now God exists only as a subjective presupposition for those who believe in him and act accordingly. In other words, God has so fully emptied himself into the world that he has no being outside the material world. In a lot of ways I find this reading pretty compelling. Perhaps it’s just the season of life I find myself in, one that’s been characterized by more than enough existential angst and a preoccupation with the fact that I’m going to die and that everything I do in my life will more than likely be forgotten in less than a few generations, but I’ve come to find that God, however we imagine him/her/it, may only exist as a figment of my imagination. However, I want to quickly qualify that statement by saying that I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

Think of one of the examples that Zizek gives in the quote from my last post: Nation. The concept of Nation is one that is so deeply ingrained in our imaginations that it’s difficult to imagine what the world would be like without nations. We sing songs about our nations and learn our nation’s history. We vote and take part in other civic duties that insure the maintenance and continued existence of our nations. We enlist and fight in wars to defend our nation’s inviolable borders. Given the way we enact our allegiance to and make sacrifices for the ideological cause of Nation it’s easy to begin to think that we’re dealing withing something eternal or something God-given. But we’re not. The whole idea of the modern nation-state is a product of the Enlightenment. We made it up. Humans developed this idea, this ideological cause of Nation and it has since captured our imaginations. What’s more, what we call a nation is nothing more than an incredibly complex system of organization, a group of people who share a territory and a desire for unity under a government. In other words, “Nation” describes a certain type of behavior, a certain way of living in the world. Without this certain collective behavior, there is no Nation.

But here’s the kicker: just because the concept of Nation is a man made concept, it doesn’t make its effect on our world any less profound.

Could we not, then, imagine God in the same way? What we call “God” has no actual, ontological existence outside the minds of human beings who talk or think about God. God, as the anthropologists tell us, is a human construct, something we have made up. To use’s Zizek’s language, God has become so fully incarnate in the world that he has no substantial existence outside of it. This doesn’t negate, however, the profound ways in which God (that is, the concept of God as it exists in our imagination) affects our world. One doesn’t need to look far to see the important role that religious devotion plays for the majority of humans living in today’s world.

Just as Nation as a concept represents a certain kind of collective behavior in the world, so God is a symbol that represents our deepest desires concerning our world, desires having to do with peace and justice and companionship and love. All of these desires are summed up in the word ‘God’ and to believe in God is then to orient oneself towards the coming of a future in which these values are more imminently present among us. To believe in God is thus a certain mode of being in the world.

I follow Zizek here because it’s difficult for me to imagine what it would mean to say that God exists in some other-worldly reality. I suppose you could say that I’m a materialist who, in the words of John Caputo, believes that the only metaphysics we’re going to get is what physics itself gives us. I don’t think anything exists but material reality so if God exists then he must do so within the matrix of material reality. Zizek’s idea that God exists only as a subjective presupposition in the minds of humans gives us a way to talk about what it might mean for God to “exist” within material reality, a way that helps us avoid having to resort to metaphysical speculation about a divine realm alongside this earthly realm or any other kind of spiritual obscurantism.

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6 responses to “God as Figment of Our Imagination

  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I believe about God’s existence lately and I’ve been coming to similar conclusions. If ‘God’ chose to create this world, how can he/she/it then choose not to be defined within the material and understood by the human mind?

  2. I feel that you and I are very much so on the same page, but I want to offer some pushback just for the fun of it. Here are a few issues I had (or could imagine some else having) with what Zizek says.

    1) Why bother talking about kenosis at all if God is simply a figment of the imagination? While some find it a beautiful or poetic way to speak about materialism, it seems unnecessarily confusing and might be well replaced with the phrase “Christians were wrong”, at least if one is a materialist.

    2) Do anthropologists really tell us God is something that we have made up? Or do they simply study human behaviours and thoughts about God, without making any metaphysical conclusions? Presumably it would be bad practice to claim “I know that beliefs about God are figments of the imagination because beliefs about God are just beliefs” because all our beliefs about everything would be subject to the same criticism.

    3) Do you have to be committed to materialism before you can accept Zizeks argument, or does his view serve as a critique to non-materialism? It seems perfectly consistent for one to accept the claim that “belief in god is a certain mode of being in the world” while still holding all sorts of non-materialist beliefs. After all, could belief in God be anything but a mode of being in the world?

    4) Are the views of Zizek and Caputo worth adhering to if we don’t even know what matter is?

    I’ve phrased this all polemically and put spins on it which I don’t believe you intended in order to make the conversation more interesting. Part of the reason I’ve done this is because I’ve encountered many of the same arguments from people more conservative than myself (including heavy-weight philosophers like Alvin Plantinga) and I think both you and I are interested learning how to make the liberal/conservative conversation more fluid and empathic.

    • Hey Josh. Thanks for the pushback. I’ll try to tackle each one of your questions in order.

      1) I think Zizek chooses to dabble in Christian theology for pragmatic reasons rather than actually believing any of it himself. If I’m understanding him correctly, I would say he recognizes that it’s not realistic to expect everyone to reject Christianity in favor of materialist atheism so he chooses to offer up a radical reading of Christianity that highlights the resources within Christianity that would allow for a more materialist/atheistic worldview. So I guess in short, Zizek’s talk of kenosis is more of a concession. I think he would say if you insist on talking about some sort of transcendent other then Zizek would want to talk about how this transcendent other has fully emptied himself into the world such that he no longer has any ontological existence outside of material reality. However, if he had his way I think he would prefer to focus on the event of the crucifixion and Jesus’ existential atheism on the cross as evidence of the fact that there is now and never has been a transcendent other. If I remember correctly, in ‘The Insistence of God’ one of Caputo’s critiques of both ZIzek and Milbank in ‘The Monstrosity of Christ’ is that neither of them actually believe very much of what they’re saying. So you’re definitely not alone in offering up this criticism.

      2) I think what I was trying to get at with that line is the fact that the work of anthropologists can give us a way of understanding the development of religion in fully materialist terms without any appeal to some sort of actual divine intervention in history. I guess I wrote that with more conservative folks in mind who want to say we know God exists because he has revealed himself in history or whatever. I just think it’s important to point out that appealing to divine intervention in history isn’t at all necessary to explain the concept of God or religion in general, an idea that I think many Christians don’t want to admit.

      3) My hunch is that most Christians hold to a non-materialist worldview in order to make room for God who is conceived as existing outside of material reality somehow. Once you accept Zizek’s claim that God doesn’t exist outside of material reality then it’s hard for me to imagine how one would still find use for a non-materialist understanding of things. I sort of imagine things like this: if God, who previously existed at the top of the food chain, the pinnacle of my non-materialist cosmology, and then I decide that God is actually a part of material reality then everything that was previously ‘under’ God must also somehow exist only in material reality.

      In response to your last question in #3, I would say that belief in God in conservative Christianity is understood as not having very much to do with how one exists in the world but as rather assenting to a number of metaphysical claims. How one exists in the world, I would argue, is secondary in conservative Christianity.

      4) Caputo has an entire section in ‘The Insistence of God’ titled something like ‘Physics is the only metaphysics we’re going to get’ in which I think he addresses this although I can’t really double check since I no longer have access to the book on my kindle. But I’ll venture a response anyway. I don’t think Caputo is naive about how quantum physics has sort of problematized our understanding of matter. I would say, more than anything, that when thinkers like Caputo and Zizek say they are materialists they are basically saying that they are not dualists, that this world, even as it’s described by quantum physics, is all we have which is to say that their understanding of things can incorporate any sort of critique of our traditional understanding of matter that fields like quantum physics might offer us.

      Tons more could be said but I’ll leave it at that for now. Thanks for the conversation!

  3. Great responses! The only one I want to niggle with is your response to my third question, which I I didn’t state clearly enough in the first place.

    I’ve personally grown dissatisfied by the “mode of being vs assent to propositions” dichotomy that I’ve seen permeate liberal discourse for several reasons. Before I say why, it is important for me to say what I mean by mode of being. When Descartes developed his dualism he often used this phrase in regards to both physical and mental substances, although in different ways for each. Descartes conceived of matter as anything that is extended (i.e. extension is the chief characteristic of physical matter) and observed that things could be extended in as many different ways as there are different physical objects. Each different physical object, then, is a different mode of existing or mode of being in the world specifically in regards to extension.

    The non-material soul, on the other hand, had no extension. Instead, its defining characteristic was thinking itself (Cogito ergo sum!). In other words, any particular soul exists insofar as it thinks. It was possible for this non-material mind to exist in different ways simply by thinking differently. There are plenty of examples of this; making a decision about whether or not to get a coffee is different than doing a math problem, etc etc. As such, willing and pure computation are different modes of existence for the non material soul.

    I am no dualist, but I find this characterization of “mode of being” to be helpful. For instance, we might apply it to the behavior of religious people rather than to substances (which neither of us believe in). One mode of religious being might be a Zizekian kenotic materialist, while another is that of a conservative Christian. These are two different ways of behaving that come along with respective propositional content that one is expected to believe if they want to remain in the in-group (e.g. Zizek will exclude you if you believe in non-material reality). My original point was to try to point out that anyone who believes anything has a corresponding mode of being they actively engage in, and that it seems strange to say that a conservative Christian’s belief in God is not involved in a a way of being in the world. Surely a Conservative Christian could turn around a accuse someone like Zizek, who sits inside reading and writing books all day, as having a conception of God which is driven proposition rather than behaviorally. In short, I have issues with this:

    “All of these desires are summed up in the word ‘God’ and to believe in God is then to orient oneself towards the coming of a future in which these values are more imminently present among us. To believe in God is thus a certain mode of being in the world.”

    It seems to me to be a category mistake. Both Zizek and John Piper have propositional beliefs about God, and both of them behave in different ways. It seems to me that to believe in God is to have a belief, which is simply one element of the individuals way of existing – which at its broadest encompasses all their behavior and beliefs. I know many conservative Christians who think that being a Christian directly entails behaving in a certain way, and Zizek’s formula seems to gloss over that, in my opinion.

    • Josh,

      As I read your comment I couldn’t help but agree with your assessment of how beliefs and behaviors are intrinsically connected on both sides of the conservative/progressive divide (or any divide, really). Everyone believes something about the world and behaves accordingly (although sometimes our actions don’t always line up with our beliefs, which is a different conversation). I think it would be helpful, then, for me to elaborate a bit on what I mean when I use the phrase ‘mode of being in the world’ since it seems that we’re using it a bit differently.

      When I say that belief in God is a certain mode of being in the world I do not mean that belief in God translates into a specific type of behavior. For me, ‘mode of being in the world’ is something that’s going on at a much deeper level than our outward behavior, having to do more with how we inhabit our traditions rather than the concrete actions that we carry out as a result of being a part of our traditions (although I admit that we’re dealing with a fine line here). Rollins has helped me here as he often discusses the difference between WHAT we believe and HOW we believe, the latter being the more important of the two. For example, it’s possible for both a conservative Christian and a progressive Christian to be uncompromising and rigid in their dialogue with people who disagree with them, each of them expressing a certain lack of generosity and grace towards their detractors. Although the content of their beliefs are very different, both the conservative and the liberal have a more fundamental agreement in the way they exist in the world. In the flip side,I think it’s possible for, say, both a Christian and an atheist to engage with one another and with the larger world with generosity and understanding which I see as evidence of the fact that their modes of existing in the world are actually quite similar despite there being a disparity between the specific content of their beliefs or the concrete actions that they carry out in the world as a result of their beliefs. So in short, when I say belief in God is about a mode of being in the world I mean to say that it’s a way of inhabiting one’s tradition (whether it’s theistic, atheistic or whatever) with a bit of ironic distance, knowing that you believe what you believe because of an accident of birth, and then letting this knowledge inspire a humility in you that allows you to engage the world with a respect for diversity.

      All that being said, I think this conversation has strayed a bit from what I was attempting to communicate in my original post. In comparing the concept of God to the concept of Nation I was trying to highlight the fact that both exist only insofar as we act as if they exist. The only existence God has is the existence we give him in our beliefs (whether conservative or progressive) and in our accompanying behavior. My digression into the ‘mode of being in the world’ comment I think may have been more of a distraction than anything else although I’m glad that this conversation came as a result!

  4. That time when you’d rather be discussing this than trying to understand your Philosophy of Biology paper (while at grad school).

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