A Personal God

Albert Einstein believed in God, just not in a personal one. By “personal God,” I mean an entity that is addressed as “you” rather than “it,” one that is concerned with the fate of humanity and one presumably that is actively involved in everyday human affairs. For Einstein, God was an impersonal intelligence in a universe that was deeply mysterious. He was struck by the wonder of it all, which to my mind is the foundation of true spirituality, as opposed to any kind of religious practice or dogmatic belief.

Einstein once said he believed in “Spinoza’s God,” referring to the 18th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza was something of a panenthiest, believing our world was contained within an infinite and indivisible “substance” he identified with God. Spinoza’s God incorporated various attributes we associate with the mind -- but a mind that functioned without purpose or conscious awareness.

The physicist and writer Alan Lightman has also addressed the question of a personal God. Like Einstein, Lightman has given serious thought to spiritual matters but is skeptical about the existence of a personal God who cares about us as individuals. He cites recent astronomical discoveries suggesting there may be billions of habitable planets in our galaxy alone, never mind in the hundred billion other galaxies in the observable universe. “There’s no plausible reason why our particular civilization on planet earth should be more of less worthy of attention that the billion trillion others,” he writes. “A personal God would be extraordinarily busy with such a huge congregation and so many souls to attend.”

Lightman’s point is well taken. But perhaps his objection goes away if we rethink who --or what -- God is and who we are.

A thousand years before Christ, the Psalmist wrote:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;·what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet…

The ancient Hebrews tended to think of their God as a kind of Middle Eastern potentate with the power of life and death over his subjects. Yet even then they regarded themselves as enlarged rather than dwarfed by the vastness of God’s realm, reckoning themselves to be a little lower than God. They, of course, had no clue as to how vast the cosmos really was. But even so, if God were paying any attention to them at all, they must be pretty special.

Three thousand years later, we still think of God as some kind of Middle Eastern potentate sitting on his celestial throne. But what if God operates more like the queen in a honeybee hive? We might assume the queen bee makes all the important decisions, and the worker bees are mere drones that exist to do her bidding. But not so. The queen makes no decisions, and the workers work things out among themselves. With a brain the size of a sesame seed, honeybees might seem poorly equipped for the smooth running of a hive. But they manage just fine, mainly because the decision-making is not up to any individual or group of individuals but to the colony as a whole. Entomologists call this “hive mind.”

In computer terms, hive mind is more a distributed processing system rather than a mainframe computer. Traditionally we think of God as a kind of souped-up sixties-era mainframe, like the Hal 9000 computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hal controlled all the systems on board the Discovery One spacecraft and even kept the astronauts company on their long journey to Jupiter. Hive mind operates more like the Internet, in which processing power is distributed throughout an entire network that now extends around the globe.

If the mind of God operates more like the Internet rather than some gigantic mainframe computer, Lightman’s objections to a personal God are at least partly addressed. The Psalmist’s assumptions about humanity’s place in the universe had assumed planet Earth was at the center of it all. No wonder the ancient Hebrews concluded they were only a little lower than God. So where exactly is the center of the universe now? Everywhere and nowhere, as it turns out. But it no longer matters that there are souls from a billion trillion habitable planets to keep track of, since the network is decentralized and infinitely scalable. As the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Empedocles put it, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.”

Einstein saw abundant evidence of intelligence at work in the universe. Even his colleague Paul Dirac, a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist who was a militant atheist, grudgingly acknowledged that the God he didn’t believe in was a “mathematician of a very high order.” However, neither Einstein nor Dirac believed there was actually a sentient being doing the math. Which raises the question: Can there be a higher intelligence in the universe if it is wholly impersonal, addressed not as “you” but as “it?”

Impersonal intelligence would appear to be a contradiction in terms. Hal 9000 was a machine, and yet even he (not it) was a person, at least in his own estimation. He described himself in Kubrick’s film as a “conscious entity” — something that no computer in the real world has been able to claim more than 50 years after the movie was made and decades after it was supposed to have taken place. There are computers now that can defeat the world chess champion and beat the top contestants in Jeopardy. But they would fail miserably short in tasks that a child has mastered by the age of three. Would we expect less of a God that had given rise to the works of Shakespeare, much less the Shakespeares on a billion trillion other worlds?

The scientific view is that if you give enough monkeys enough typewriters, they will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare. In other words, the brute workings of natural laws alone are enough to explain the presence of intelligent life in the universe, even though those natural laws themselves show evidence of the work of a mathematician of a very high order.

According to the biblical creation story, God made human beings in his own image. The 19th-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach suggested we got that backwards: we project our own image onto the cosmos and call it God. This, of course, would explain why we have such a difficult time conceiving of God in anything other than personal terms. However, the two may not be mutually exclusive. If Empedocles is correct it believing God is a circle whose center is everywhere, then he is also at the center of our own being. We don’t have to look outside ourselves to find God, and the qualities we find in ourselves would also apply to him.

Once God is discovered at the core of one’s being, there are necessarily adjustments that must be made. For one thing, it no longer makes sense to address this entity as “you,” since this “you” seems to occupy the same ground as the entity we commonly think of as “me.” Needless to say, this is not the same “me” I normally think of as myself but Me with a capital “M,” God in the first person, who first revealed himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai as I AM. We find ourselves in that place where, as St. Catherine of Genoa described it, “my Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me except my God Himself."

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