January 1, 2015

It Depends On What You Mean By "Is"

When someone asks me if I believe that God exists I am likely to get a faraway look in my eyes because I’m wishing I were far away. I’ve given up on the smart-aleck approach of saying, “I’m not even sure I exist, let alone God,” and am more likely to say something about trying not to think about God as a thing, even the best and most powerful thing, but rather as the underlying reason that all things exist. Problem with this is that it gets an equally glassy-eyed stare in response, as the interlocutor begins to wish that they were somewhere far away as well. That’s one solution to the problem.

But it struck me today (after a nap) that it might be useful to ask, “What is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?” Is it the sequence of thoughts and procedures that bubbled up in the particular brain of Beethoven many years ago? Is it that precious autograph manuscript in the Berlin State Library, the first musical score to be added to the United Nations World Heritage List? (And what does it mean to be added to the list? — physically attached to it with staples? in a box with the other documents with a label on front? or simply virtually included by the mere act of being listed?) Or is it the activity of scraping upon, pumping air through, and beating things with sticks, undertaken by a small army of people watching a man waving his hands to coordinate their activity? Just that once, when the deaf Beethoven did it with a group of focused musicians, or at every performance since by varying conductors and ensembles in many different places and times? Or is it the vibrations in the air made by all that scraping, pumping and beating? Or the results of those vibrations hitting my eardrums (and lots of other people’s eardrums) and producing nervous sensations that my brain finds pleasing (but some other brains may find humdrum or boring)? Is it these sensations? Or is it the grooves on the vinyl disk or the pocks on the metalized plastic disc, or the codes that generate them, or the unpacking and interpretation of the codes or grooves into air vibrations again? Or is it all of these things? If any is lacking, does that change its isness? Did it exist eternally in some platonic realm only read off and interpreted by the mind of Beethoven? Or does it only come to be when someone is listening or performing, like that sorry tree in a forest that only makes a sound if someone hears it?

And ultimately, are these something like the kind of questions we need to ask if we are to get even the slightest touch of the hem of the garment of Who God Is?

Happy New Year.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


10 comments:

JCF said...

“I’m not even sure I exist, let alone God”

The explicit response likely to be "A-HA, so you DON'T believe God exists!", and the (anti-theist's) all-but-explicit subtext, "....so admit I'M RIGHT already! And admit you're entire 'religious' life has been a waste and a FRAUD!!!1!1!"

Anti-theists are sooooooo boring...

johnieb said...

What is a new year,
exactly? You may start with either "new" or "year"; I'm easy.

June Butler said...

Bill Clinton said it first. Just curious to know if you've decided whether you exist. :-)

Tobias Haller said...

JCF, I find some anti-theists to be about as bad as some fundamentalist theists. I think I actually prefer honest agnosticism to the belief in a primitive God (Blake's Nobodadddy) who is simply a "supreme being" coercing the world.

johnieb... solar, lunar, or a bit of both?

June, I always like to fall back on our mutually admired Teilhard: "I am not the part of the universe that I control completely; I am the whole of the universe that I influence in part..."

John-Julian Swanson, OJN said...

Well, you spent a productive nap, I'd say—I certainly enjoy the results!

I've occasionally tried:

"Do you believe that God exists?"

"Oh, my, no! Simply 'existing' is not good enough for God. God does much more than merely 'exist'! God is much more real than that."

Tobias Haller said...

Fr John-Julian, as the quote from Teilhard indicates, I think the issue in the long run is that there is more to existence than most people think. Cue Whitehead... ;-)

Richard Edward Helmer said...

Perfect! Our questions too often betray our reductionist bent...

Tobias Haller said...

Especially, RE, when we think we already know the answers. There is an old saying I love: To any complex problem there are solutions that are simple, clear and wrong. Not that I want to see God as the problem... ;-)

Marshall Scott said...

My wife and I have been known to discuss this over breakfast (Really! Some folks say they want to hear what we talk about. Others are certain they don't!). With her background in philosophy, and her current Zen practice, we find a good bit to talk about.

That said, I've been considering whether the appropriate verb is that "God is or that "God does. That is, even what we think about God's God-ness is always speculative. We know more about what God does, about what God reveals - and not nearly as much as we think, even about that.

Tobias Haller said...

God question, Marshall. I do think it helpful to think of God more as verb than as noun ;-)