A Presumptuous Proposal

Kevin Sharpe

Science & Spirit 8(1) Spring 1997

We think the Divine resembles us. We impulsively ask about the Divine's character in terms of what we experience. We understand by supposing the Divine displays at least some characteristics of humans. The spiritually inclined often associate purpose, a human quality, with the Divine. Questions and limits face this natural process of projection.

"My purpose in writing this column is to make a million bucks." An airhead idea. But the choice of the word "purpose" is appropriate here. What about, "The purpose of the earth is to make Kevin Sharpe a million bucks"? That's still airhead and it misuses the word "purpose." The earth doesn't set itself purposes. Does the Divine?

From the creation of the universe depicted in Genesis to the judgment of the last days described in Revelation, the Divine acts intentionally. We traditionally understand the Divine in human terms.

We think the Divine resembles us. We impulsively ask about the Divine's character in terms of what we experience. We understand by supposing the Divine displays at least some characteristics of humans. The spiritually inclined often associate purpose, a human quality, with the Divine.

Questions and limits face this natural process of projection.

Should we project only human qualities onto the Divine? Many people consider the personal qualities and experiences of humans the highest possible for beings and organisms, or for anything for that matter. They think we have reached the foremost form of existence in the universe. Therefore, they say we should understand the Divine in our terms. But current science neither supports nor counters the belief in humanity as the supreme form of existence. The Divine isn't a person; we just assume the human likeness. The Divine may more resemble a chipmunk or a quartz crystal than a human.

Second, matter models mind through evolution. Our subjective and personal as well as our objective features evolved. Purpose belongs to a system such as the human brain and it emerges with the evolution of a neural complex. It (or a property that produces it incidentally) is adaptive: it enhances the survival of the species against its natural enemies and rivals. Purpose links inseparably to biochemicals and genes.

Confusion ensues if I seek to understand divine purpose in terms of our adaptive purpose. I stumble around in the logic of this because, unlike the Divine, the evolutionary process involves time. Divine purpose can't evolve. The Divine didn't evolve.

If the Divine has a purpose for the universe as we have purposes for our activities, would we clearly notice it? We find it difficult to know the purposes intended in works from cultures and times other than our own, much less the Divine's. La Mouthe Cave in the Dordogne, France, contains prehistoric markings, some of animals, and some "enigmatic" lines and symbols. But it seems impossible to read the artists' purposes off them. We can only guess at this stage. What then of the Divine about whom we know little, not even--unlike the Cro-Magnon artists with whom we at least share a common specieshood--what we possess in common? The chances of our reading divine purpose are negligibly slim. If we can't recognize a divine purpose, even in part, it makes little sense to say the Divine has a purpose for the universe.

The Divine creates the universe by giving it existence, but the Divine need not intend something with this process. A stone doesn't sense purpose; the Divine may be more stone-like than purpose-directed.

Lastly, does the Divine sleep and eat? Does the Divine make mistakes? Does the Divine meet moral ambiguity? No. Why not? No basis exists for choosing which personal properties not to apply to the Divine. We can in principle project any traits onto the Divine, and all may apply to some extent. The question asks why we should apply some and avoid others. Spiritual thinkers should carefully ponder the range of possible projections and decide why to apply this property rather than that one before they--and us following them--start projecting.

Because humans can swim doesn't make us fish. Similarly, familiar terms may ill-suit the nature of the Divine. We currently know little about the divine version of a human trait. Human qualities, therefore, fail to anchor an adequate understanding of the Divine; divine traits may look like nothing we would recognize in ourselves.

But humans must understand. We want and need to explain something of the Divine. So we automatically project. No quality automatically applies to the Divine, however: each needs justifying and its limits found. To know more of the Divine follows a reflective process of trial and error. It requires hard study and solid evidence, and it means trying out our imaginatively created hypotheses against reality. Do they have any truth? Does a suggested trait of the Divine match what we experience both in what we observe of the universe and in our personal experience? Does it fit with the wholistic nature of the Divine? Does it further our intentions for projecting? We should explore empirically. And projections create social implications from images of law and order to those of revolution, from maleness to femaleness; we need care when we project.

Anthropologist Stuart Guthrie considers the process of projecting human-like images onto the universe and labelling them the Divine. He says we have the clothes--the images--but no emperor. I suggest we do have an emperor--a divinity--only the clothes are inappropriate. We need better garb for the Divine.

Copyright 1997 by Kevin Sharpe.