Someone wrote to me and I gave them a quick though unsatisfactory answer. This is what I wrote:
About the word “agnostic,” I know what you mean. Can I believe in some personal entity that is supposed to be all powerful, all knowing, etc., who is also paying close attention to me and my private affairs? An atheist says there is no such being. Put in those terms I would probably concede that I too am an atheist. Of course I do not consider myself such, but it requires that I radically redefine the terms (and by doing so I join the orthodox who actually know what they’re talking about). For example, for obvious reasons, God cannot be an entity.
I think of a real atheist as a complete materialist. If something can’t be—that is, is not able to be—detected by physical senses with or without their extension by some sort of physical instruments, or mathematically (or metrically) extrapolated, then it doesn’t exist. Even consciousness doesn’t exist; all there is is the electrical activity of the brain cells. I should hope that this nihilistic reductionism is intellectually unacceptable to you. You should also feel that it is existentially unacceptable. If we really believe that that is all that is going on, it all becomes rather pointless, even the attempt to understand whether it is pointless. Things just are, and not even that matters.
I find that most people who call themselves agnostics or atheists, though, actually have a problem with the word “God” and especially with how it functions socially and culturally. It is a linguistic marker for an idea that only has an objective existence apart in terms of how it functions—which is as a tool to manipulate others (or one’s own feelings) or as a rationalization or justification to explain to oneself what one feels for other reasons, whether they be psychological, cultural, social or biological.
I could say that this is a distortion or abuse of the word “God,” except that it is almost universal. To avoid it completely, however, because what we want to refer to cannot even be conceived, as some Orthodox Jews do, means we end up with a substitute. They say HaShem, which means, “The Name,” for the One who can only name him/herself.
Some of us believe that goodness (and evil) actually exist apart from our imputing it to things. We mean that there is some sort of objectivity to Meaning, that it is not only true that we create meaning but that sometimes we actually perceive what is there apart from us (that would be there even if we were not around to perceive it). Meaning includes not only goodness, but also perhaps beauty and truth (as reality). From Kant’s point of view, there is something that is (the thing-in-itself), but the mind can only perceive it using categories of its own creation. It can never perceive anything as-it-is. For Kant, if what we mean by God defies all categories, it is impossible for the mind to know God as God is, all we can know is something—a mental image—we create in our minds. I follow this argument and agree, but I am not a Kantian. Kant believed that God could be known ethically as the Good, but not mentally as any sort of thing.
But this might be a good starting point. The Buddhist argue the same thing – that reality cannot be known. However, they go further and dissect the mind until all that is left is pure nothingness, the nothingness of everything, that is, everything without the mind grasping at anything. What they are left with is pure consciousness, pure awareness, without thought, without any “handles”—as it were, the eye itself rather than what it sees. And of course, apart from a mirror, the eye cannot perceive itself. This is not exactly right, for rather than the eye, what they mean (if I may speak metaphorically) is Seeing itself, not apart from subject and object but inclusive of them, but where the distinction between them has disappeared. They would say that there is no self, only Nothing (the All).
Thus we come to the “process philosophers” of the West. Nothing exists in the universe (or rather, the multi-verse) that is not aware: awareness is a necessary corollary of being—everything that exists has thus an inside (awareness) and an outside (it’s material or energetic, etc. form), everything, that is, defined as a “holon,” from every subatomic particle to the universe itself. An actual awareness of reality itself, however, would perceive that there is no dualism of the inside and the outside; they cannot be teased apart—in a way, if we could only perceive it, they are one and the same. But here is the thing, we can only know our own awareness directly. We can only know the awareness of something else indirectly—for humans, it is through dialogue. Moreover, while we can know that we are aware, our awareness cannot perceive itself, like the eye, it can only perceive what is before it.
In a way, no awareness is actually separate from the awareness of everything else, every awareness is each only an instance of the awareness of the whole. Not my ego but what is aware of my ego (and my id, for that matter). Our sense of separateness is simply the limitation of the form in which we exists. For that matter, we experience distance and the stream of time but neither of these actually exist as we perceive them. What is is all connected so that each thing is ubiquitous and eternal—existing in a present in which there is only here, and past and future are now.
So, what do we call that? Physicists call it a singularity, a theologian would call it God. Time and space are merely the unfolding and enfolding of the singularity; from a more philosophical perspective, they are the whole (in which awareness and being are one and the same) coming to know itself, spreading itself out and collecting itself back together again, so that the end is identical (homo, not homoi) to the beginning—it is a point that is one and the same, a point from which the unfolding and enfolding were never separate.
So, from our own perspective there seems to be two things: “creation,” that is, ourselves in an ever changing spatial relation to everything else existing in a flow of time, always in the present but with the past ever receding behind us and the future ever coming to meet us, AND, the “eternal,” in which we exist but which we can only perceive mentally by the renunciation of our categories—by the way of unknowing, by apophasis—but which we can be aware in the present moment in our own awareness (within our selves but also in our awareness of all that is around us, though not in the categories that we use or the thoughts we form of them).
That “eternal” which the mind cannot apprehend (but which I just attempted to do) is God. This is a beginning.
From here we can go further, but not in a few words, and come to realize that God is not only aware, but that God gives each thing at every moment its haecceity, its “this-mess,” its particular and unique presence, in an outgoing and free act of love, and indeed, that God’s “being” is this free act of outgoing love, that this is the key to what awareness ultimately is, and therefore what God is, inseparable from the reality of all things but also of each thing.
This is a Christian (specifically a Trinitarian) perspective. The Christian goes even further and sees that God’s love is God identifying with (even being) the lowest, with us in our suffering and alienation and anguish, even experiencing them. A Christian also sees that salvation comes when “creation” participates fully in what God is (free outgoing love), time participates in eternity, space in ubiquity, and matter/energy becomes fully aware of itself and of every and each thing. Not at once but in a cosmic evolution in which the capacity of our form ever increases until our form becomes everything and we are aware of each thing, its beauty and goodness (what physicists have dubbed the “Big Crunch”).
Of course, the awareness that God has and is is as inconceivable to us as our own awareness would be to a mountain. Yet that comparison can be analogous to how intense God’s own awareness of each thing can be, an awareness that all other awareness participates in.
So about prayer: of course, prayer is a psychological exercise, and lots of things are going on, but it is also a function of our awareness with which we are in some way reaching out to God with our desires. Absolutely God hears because it is God who is praying when we pray. The question is what is God praying when we pray. Prayer is thus a form of cooperating with God, of working with God, of loving what God loves with our love, which is God’s own love for each and everything.
Our desires can be very diluted and even (often) misguided. We want things. This, however, is not what God prays for within us or what God hears. God hears our longing as it is interpreted. Unfortunately, much of our mental activity is wasted in frivolous pursuits, and our so-called prayers never really become prayers.
Are our prayers narcissistic? Do we engage in grandiose magical thinking? Yes, this is natural, but then we grow up. It will not always be like that. The more aware we are, the more our grandiose narcissism is overcome, the more our magical thinking is outgrown. We begin to pray according to how things are. Even at our most mature, however, we are still like children compared to what we will be.
I’ve given you the most optimistic version. There is a shadow side to all this, something that we humans create in our collective thinking that works counter to—even in defiance of—reality, the spirit/bodily reality that we don’t perceive. That complicates things, for this delusion of a “reality” takes on gestalts that wreck havoc on our world and our lives. But in the long run, only temporarily. Even if we drive ourselves to extinction, it is only here. This is not the whole picture, even for us. You are not limited to what you perceive yourself to me, not by a long shot.