Saturday, July 19, 2008


Seven words Socrates spoke to the Athenian jury in the year 399 BCE still reign as the most important words in the history of philosophy. Immortalized in Plato’s Apology, they represent the rallying cry for all who decide to enroll in Philosophy 101 – or more to the point, Philosophy 202 – and for all who choose to spend their vacations reading Heidegger or Hegel, rather than snorkeling or scuba diving.

I can repeat these words, I can claim to believe them, and yet I recognize how little I can ever do to honor them. Honoring the example of Socrates requires a lifetime of effort, and even then you can’t really do it justice. I sure don’t. I practice law (ugh!), listen to rock n’ roll, and watch football, baseball, basketball, tennis … and today, I am intermittently watching golf (even though Tiger isn’t playing).

To be fully human is to have ample appetites for sex, food and frivolity. What time could possibly be left for anything else? Still, when our animalistic urges have received at least a measure of satisfaction, our minds can occasionally come to the fore. And that is when we can remember the great teachings. Teachings like “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

I take Socrates’ teaching as a fundamental truth. Even before I was exposed to the phrase in college, I intuited its meaning. As a child, I reflected a fair amount about God, moral values and political theory. But when I went to college and was exposed to philosophy as an academic discipline, Socrates’ phrase took on an additional meaning. No longer was it OK for me simply to reflect here and there about philosophy as some sort of pastime. By the time I graduated with a BA degree, I thirsted to come up with my own personal religion or philosophy – an internally consistent, reasonable, and hopefully compelling set of ideas that form a foundation for resolving the ultimate issues of ethics and metaphysics.

There. That shouldn’t be hard, right? No seriously, of course it’s hard. In fact it’s impossible. But Socrates demands nothing less. The search, you see, is what philosophy is all about – or as they say in golf, it’s the “grinding” that has value, not the scoring.

I’m thinking about this stuff these days because, blissfully, this is the beginning of my summer vacation. Like last year, I’ll be heading down to Blacksburg to lead a workshop on Spinoza at the Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute – the second largest collection of UUs in America. They give me the opportunity to resist my temptation to travel or relax, and instead examine life, God, Spinoza, Unitarian Universalism, and whatever other topics can be addressed philosophically. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to the trip.

Like everything else in life, though, thinking philosophically has its drawbacks. Lately, I’ve been realizing that among the biggest drawbacks is having to listen to religion-speak when you’re at the same time demanding logical coherence regarding the concept of God.

Clergymen. Parishioners. Muslims. Jews. Christians. With few exceptions, the people I’ve met lately who speak well of God all seem to be talking in harmony with one another. They call themselves monotheists, and claim that their deity is not merely a concept but something that truly has substance outside of our minds. This God is both transcendent and immanent. He alone is responsible for creating the world and need not vie for power with other gods (as in a polytheist pantheon), and yet he is ever present and ever relevant. This God is largely inscrutable, but recognizable enough that we can see the beauty and harmony in the world as expressions of God.

So far so good, I say. But the portrait continues. The God worshippers I’ve encountered lately attribute everything wonderful in life to God and His will. And yet while they also recognize the existence in life of such horrors as the Holocaust and the Great Lisbon Earthquake, they are unwilling to attribute these horrors to the will of their deity. Perhaps, they figure, that’s where God’s inscrutability feature most comes in handy.

So far, I have been discussing God as an object of study – as a “He” that we speak about in the third person. But just as often, I hear God discussed in the second person, as a “you” or a “Thou.” If anything, that is the dominant way people encounter God during religious services. “Dear God …” begin the pious, before thanking their Lord for whatever it is they’re thankful for, or before they ask for something they dearly desire, whether it’s world peace or an “A” on a P-Chem final.

Who is this ultimate being … this inscrutable one, who has graced us with beauty and harmony since the beginning of creation and who enriches us still further whenever we speak His praises or ask for his beneficence? The more religious services I attend, the more God-worshippers I meet, the more convinced I am that the answer is clear. The favorite God of today is certainly not an old-fashioned idol, like the Golden Calf. Nor is He the God of the Hebrews who first entered the Promised Land – historians tell us that my ancestors who left Moses in the wilderness were still sufficiently polytheistic to take note of the existence of multiple gods, even if they recognized their own Hebrew God as supreme in power.

No, the God I’ve been encountering at churches, synagogues and mosques is a more refined, modern conception. It dates as far back as the ancient Greeks. Indeed, it was made popular by the same men who gave us the cult of Socrates – Plato and his followers.

Philosophers debate what exactly Plato meant by God, but there is no debating that for many of the so-called “Platonists” who thrived from the time of Alexander the Great until roughly 400 or 500 ACE, the meaning of God was clear. They borrowed the name of God from their master and his classic work of philosophy, The Republic. Stated simply, they view God as “the Good.” Plato, you see, called the Form of the Good the highest form of knowledge, and said that the other Platonic Forms depended on the Good for their existence. You can hardly blame those of his followers who took such teachings and decided that they had found their God.

Little did they know that they’d be such trendsetters. People these days don’t like to get too specific when they talk about God, or “His” will. Instead, they offer generalities. God represents power. God represents goodness. God represents love. God represents the ideal. We speak about God in human terms, and then we justify the anthropomorphisms because they supposedly help us relate to “Him.” Sometimes we even call God a “Her” as if to suggest that God transcends gender. But our God never transcends goodness. And our God never transcends its offspring -- beauty and justice.

We don’t question God’s power, at least openly. But we don’t dare question God’s goodness – not even inwardly.

Hitler? Earthquakes? Those are not in God, nor would God intentionally countenance them -- at least not the God I’ve been hearing about as of late.

I look at this new-age deity – whatever age we’re in is quite literally the new age -- and I can’t help shaking my head. How is this conception internally consistent? It made a modicum of sense for the ancient Platonists to talk of “the Good” as supreme, because they lived in a polytheist society, and this “Good” was battling with other transcendent powers in a world fueled by supernatural forces. As we all know, however, those powers do not exist in today’s monotheist subcultures. So where do we get off talking about God’s omnibenevolence and omnipotence in the same breath?

Pick one, I say. Polytheism and “goodness” worship. Or monotheism, and the recognition that any God who is potent enough to be worthy of being the God, and not merely the greatest of the gods, can’t possibly be identified with omnibenevolence – at least not the way we understand that concept. Too many people have been gassed, too many have been buried alive. “The Good” and “the one God” just don’t go together.

When I shared some of these ideas with a friend and linked them to the principle of Socrates, I received a simple response. The idea of equating God with “the Good” works well for people. And one reason it does is that few of us are philosophers. Few of us believe that the thoroughly unexamined life is worth living, but there’s examination and there’s EXAMINATION. We don’t need to examine life so much that we’re constantly, restlessly searching for a single coherent, overarching set of philosophical views. That’s taking philosophy too far. We only need a simple set of ideas to live by – a set of ideas that fulfill us and give us meaning. If those ideas conflict with one another at some deep level, so be it. After all, it’s not like we can know the ultimate truths about life anyway, so why not go for what we can attain – happiness!

Why not indeed? Perhaps the hedonists are correct. Perhaps philosophers are making themselves neurotic for little benefit. But all that I can say is this – when you’re bitten by the bug of philosophy, you’ve got to scratch that itch. And when you’re a student of philosophy who finds yourself contemplating the monotheistic worship of “the Good” … you’re going to scratch that itch until it bleeds. Hell, you don’t even have to be a philosopher to get turned off by the idea. There are millions upon millions of rationalists throughout the world whose atheism can be traced to hearing about “God” and “the Good” in the same breath … if not in those precise terms.

As someone who has the honor this week of teaching about Spinoza, let me grant myself one wish – both for those who attend my workshop and for those who are merely reading this blog. May you all recognize that no matter whom we encounter – be it an animal, a person, or a god – it is most respectful not to approach the other with an eye toward utilizing it for our own selfish purposes, but rather to appreciate the other honestly in its profound uniqueness. In the case of the Eternal One, if you wish to join me in believing that such a One exists, let us please take time to think through who it is we are speaking of.

We might indeed find personal fulfillment in saying the Sh’ma to the Good, but I’d ask instead that we find another prayer. “Hear Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” deserves to be said in reference to a God that is ultimate, that is absolute, that has no conceivable rivals. If you want to worship Plato’s Form of the Good, I’d suggest changing the Sh’ma to “Hear Oh Israel, the Good [is] our God, for That is the Facet of Being I Like to Deify.” That formulation doesn’t move me, but it at least has integrity.

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