The Empty Box: The Problem with a Personal God

I don’t dismiss the idea that God is a person. I dismiss the idea that you or I, under normal circumstances, can ever know whether or not God is a person and actually is relating to us, at any given moment, in a personal way.

Take prayer as an example.

When it comes right down to it, there are two ways to pray: the first is for existential comfort; the second is for goodies.

As to the first, if you pray as a way of achieving calm or peace about a situation, who can fault you for doing that? As a creature in a very large and complex Thing that you did not make yourself, there is no shame in hoping that there is some good Mind greater than your own that at least hears your agonies (even if that Mind refrains, in this life, from doing anything about them).

Now, it’s not probable that such a good Mind exists, but it’s understandable that people would hope-against-hope for this, and gesture toward the ontological mystery, and address it as God.

Not everyone, in other words, has the temperament, inner resources, or inclination to live life as a completely independent and unillusioned atheist Sisyphus.

And prayer of this first sort is what faith is: a gesture toward transcendence, hope, and meaning against otherwise bleak appearances. Any nonviolent religious action that leaves worry to a higher Power and places hope in a transcendent future is a reasonable thing to do. It’s reasonable because human beings are conscious, frail, vulnerable, mortal, and subject to fear. It’s a gesture that acknowledges the obvious: we’re often “alone and afraid / In a world we never made.” 

Now, by God belief being reasonable I mean existentially reasonable, not reasonable in the sense that it’s a good bet that you’re right about the existence of a good and all-knowing Mind. You may well be wrong, deluded, and this is what makes the idea of a personal God so problematic:

While an existential choice to pray to God might bring you to profound emotions, relief, and hope, you can never know objectively whether the source of those emotions, relief, and hope are derived from humdrum human psychology or because God is interacting with you personally.

God is always opaque. The gesture is always yours. It’s not clear what’s really coming back to you in return (if anything).

So religious optimism grounded in nothing certain or in particular is a reasonable existential choice, but it must always reside with you and be absent any slam-dunk external validations. This includes inner intuitions and feelings. They cannot validate your hope either. They might well be born in psychology or brain chemistry, not in a genuinely personal encounter with God. You simply cannot know, objectively or with certainty, what is the source (or sources) of your religious experiences.

This state of hoping, but not knowing, is the cross that the person who chooses, existentially, to have religious faith carries. If the Sisyphus futility path of atheism is hard, the religious hope path has its own difficulties (at least to the thoughtful person going into it with eyes wide open). It’s why so many people turn to apologetic literature. Apologetic literature is a cop-out. It’s an epidural. It makes the correctness of religious claims appear (superficially) more plausible than they really are. It eases people’s eyes away from the harsh fact of their true state of knowledge concerning God’s existence, which is this: it’s uncertain.  

As for the second type of praying (goodie praying), I’m less happy about that. If you pray with the object of moving the divine to an action in this world, you are (in my view) engaging in an intellectual error.

Why?

Because you can never know whether a good outcome was, in fact, the result of praying or not. You cannot run your life twice, once with a prayer and once without a prayer. To assume that God has ever answered one of your prayers is a correlation-causation fallacy.

Insofar as you know, every prayer you’ve ever offered to God, even those that came out exactly as you hoped, have had ZERO impact on what actually happened in the world.

Here’s an analogy:

Imagine a woman praying to a closed black box on a table. She has given herself over, by faith, to the following proposition: there is something quite wonderful in the box—something holy—the Holy of Holies. She believes that a great nonmaterial Mind dwells in there, and that the box is its home. She thinks this Mind is deeper and closer to the ontological mystery than her own mind (which she also intuitively experiences as powerful, special, and somehow eternal). She is told that the inside of the box was viewed once, three generations ago, and that it is extraordinarily beautiful inside, with otherworldly jewels on its inner walls that are beyond pricing. The box, however, is no longer openable and there is little evidence that there is anything actually in it. It’s not very heavy and nothing rattles inside when it is moved. Still, the woman places all of her existential burdens on the box and also sometimes asks its (supposedly) indwelling Mind for goodies. Just looking at the box gives her comfort. Objectively, she does not know, and can never know, whether she is praying to a real Mind in the box. She also doesn’t know whether she really has a personal relationship with that Mind. Her inner experiences with the box, while vivid and seeming real to her, might all just be in her head. It might be that she has an empty box before her. This is what her husband and son think.

She prays for them.

This is exactly where the human family of theists and atheists is at, and why you can never know what your real relationship to God is (personal or psychological). Still, you must choose your broad existential path through the world: the way of the cross (nonviolent faith in the teeth of contrary appearances) and the way of Sisyphus (Camus-style atheist rebellion and occupying work in the teeth of futility) are two possibilities. And there are, of course, others.

What have you chosen?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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10 Responses to The Empty Box: The Problem with a Personal God

  1. Let me put my anal-retentive hat on here 😉

    More and more I see people referring to a “personal God” when what they mean is “a God who takes a personal interest in them.” (I wonder if it’s US people that are leading the linguistic charge here? I suspect it was all that born-gain talk of “Jesus as my personal saviour” in the 1980s.) Being a person, and acting personally are different things. Is one use a noun and the other an adverb? You’re the lit prof, not me.

    A “personal” God in my understanding is simply a God that has the features of personhood, whatever they are. (Perhaps, self-consciousness, values, free will, knowledge, emotions… ?) The kind of deistic God that doesn’t give two hoots about ‘lil ole humanity is still (usually) a “personal” God in that sense.

    However, language is fluid and I may have studied philosophy too many years ago. *Turning away from the closed barn door to find the horse has…

    ***

    With that settled, yes, let’s wonder whether g-d does take some kind of active interest in us, personally.

    Love your blog, I totally stole something off it the other day for mine 😉

    • santitafarella says:

      Spritzo,

      You’re right. I’ll fix that first paragraph (and see if I goofed elsewhere in the rest of the post). I should have said, “I don’t dismiss that God is a person.”

      I was thinking of the song, “Your own personal Jesus,” with the lyrics “someone to hear your prayers / someone who’s there.” It was a song used in “Religulous.”

      As for the blog, thanks for the kind words, and when you catch a goof-up in grammar or sense, never be shy about telling me.

      —Santi : )

  2. ozenwoo says:

    About a month ago in Central Park a person asked me a similar question about my belief system and form of prayer. My response…. “I’m an atheist, I pray to myself” :))

  3. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi :

    You suggest, I believe, that a “thoughtful person going into it with their eyes wide open” can follow the religious hope path, (and pray to God), notwithstanding their realising that god’s very existence is uncertain.

    Do you think that more than a tiny percentage of people who describe themselves as believers, pray and attend church/mosque/synagogue would acknowledge so basic an uncertainty?

    It has always seemed to me that no “thoughtful person” could sustain so unstable a stance for any length of time. They will have to stop thinking. Or shift either in the direction of deism/agnosticism/atheism (and stop with the prayer nonsense) or towards blind/unreasoned faith.

    Colin

    • santitafarella says:

      Colin,

      You may be right that most religious believers would express (in public) greater certainty than I present here. But I wonder about their private moments. And I do think of percentages and gaming here.

      My sense is that most believers are taking out “fire insurance”; that is, they declare “belief” in the same way they purchase a lottery ticket (but with an intuition that their odds of “winning” are higher than a lottery ticket, say 50/50).

      There are intellectual believers, I think, who are more realistic about the odds of their religious gaming, and, like Kierkegaard, make the fideist move (faith born of existential need unconcerned with evidence). They live their lives with a drummed-up inner confidence or intuition that God might well exist and then make the existential choice to live “as if” it were definitely true (even as they know it may well not be).

      Were I ever to take on the life of a religious believer, this is about as far as I could go with it. I would try to have an inner confidence that a good and loving God might be real and then enjoy the comfort of living by faith, “as if” (regardless of contrary appearances I might encounter) it were true. It might make it easier to live at times, and to die.

      —Santi

  4. sabepashubbo says:

    Santi,

    I responded to this on the other post. Feel free to re-post it here if you would like. The argument is exactly the same.

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