God: The Ghost Writer Who Isn’t There?

At Slate this month, Jesse Bering reflects on the human inclination to project mental properties (such as beliefs and purposes), not only onto people, but animals, inanimate objects, and God:

When others violate our expectations for normalcy or stump us with surprising behaviors, our tendency to mind-read goes into overdrive. We literally “theorize” about the minds that are causing ostensible behavior.

This strikes me as true of all acts of literature reading as well: we theorize about what the characters in fiction are thinking and why they are doing the things that they are.

And, of course, when we read literature we also attempt to read the mind of the author: what (for example) was the story creator’s purposes in starting and ending the story as she did?

And this brings us to the ultimate author: God.

Of God Jesse Bering writes this:

[O]nce we get under God’s skin, isn’t He really just another mind—one with emotions, beliefs, knowledge, understanding, and, perhaps above all else, intentions? Aren’t theologians really just playing the role of God’s translators, and isn’t every holy book ever written a detailed psychoanalysis of God? That strangely sticky sense that God “willfully” created us as individuals, “wants” us to behave in particular ways, “observes” and “knows” about our otherwise private actions, “communicates” messages to us in code through natural events, and “intends” to meet us after we die would have also been felt, in some form, by our Pleistocene ancestors.

In this sense, a theologian is a literature professor with a theory of the author—the ultimate author.

But what if the ultimate author is a phantom and the universe wrote itself?

This possibility recalls for me philosopher AC Grayling’s review of Christian apologist John Polkinghorne’s book, Questions of Truth (which can be read here). In it, Grayling had an observation that was quite novel and worth reflecting on:

[T]he painful experience of wading through this book gave me an epiphany: that religious faith is extremely similar to the kind of conspiracy theory that sufferers from paranoid delusions can hold: the faithful see a purposive hand in everything, plotting and controlling and guiding – and interpret all their experience accordingly.

Seeing the invisible authorial hand of God or Satan behind all phenomena is, indeed, when you think about it, akin to conspiratorial thinking. I think that AC Grayling has had an astounding epiphany here. It also suggests why so many religious fundamentalist are End Times conspiracy enthusiasts. The human inclination to attribute hidden mental purposes behind things—and to ignore or downplay the role of contingency (chance, accident) in why things occur—or reject outright even the notion that contingency exists—is to set the whole universe into a plot to be deciphered by the creative reader of plots.

This makes God the ultimate author—the ultimate ghost writer—who might not even be there.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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