By John Corvino
A few weeks ago I was driving through Wisconsin, from Waukesha to Beloit, on my way to a lecture gig. It was a pretty drive through hilly terrain, and the sun streamed through the clouds in a scene typical of motivational postcards. “Oh look,” I said to no one in particular, “it’s God.”
I don’t believe in God, but I’ve seen the divine depicted as sun streaming through clouds enough times that I could think of nothing else. Indeed, if God ever wanted to speak to me directly, that would have been as good a moment as any. “John, my child,” the divine voice would boom from the distance, “watch your speed.” Alas, the voice never came, but I nevertheless spent the next hour pondering some of The Big Questions. Why are we here? How did it all happen? Why does something exist rather than nothing at all?
Long drives (and a job as a professional philosopher) give me the luxury to ponder questions that relatively few people have time or patience for. Outside of philosophy class or Sunday sermons, such questions usually meet with incredulous stares, occasionally followed by “Dude, lay off the drugs.” (Come to think of it, they often meet with such reactions inside philosophy class.) But there are moments when such questions grip us, and those moments should be savored. Human existence – indeed, the existence of anything at all – is a fascinating, mysterious, awe-inspiring thing.
Some people believe that God must exist in order to explain it all. I understand the aspiration, but to me the reasoning makes no sense. Why explain one mystery by appealing to another? If human existence (which we know firsthand) demands an explanation, then surely the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being demands even more of one. Who designed the Designer? Super-God? I prefer to acknowledge the mystery of the existence I know, and to leave it at that.
Still, if by “God” people mean whatever ties it all together – whatever answers the burning questions of existence – I understand the quest for God. Such were the thoughts I pondered on my drive through Wisconsin, before more ephemeral longings intruded and I pulled off the highway to stop at Taco Bell.
When I travel to campuses to speak on homosexuality, people expect me to tell them that Jesus loves gay people. But I don’t believe that Jesus loves gay people, because I don’t believe that Jesus loves anyone: I’m not a Christian. Say that in some audiences, and they’ll look at you like you just said you eat babies for breakfast. To them, atheists are truly menacing creatures, which is why it is harder (and perhaps more important) for me to come out as an atheist than to come out as gay. Myths about us abound.
Recently, during a post-lecture discussion, an audience member told me, “So, you put yourself at the level of God! If you don’t acknowledge God, then you make yourself a God!”
“Actually, no,” I patiently responded. “I’m a human being, fallible like any other, capable of making mistakes…”
“Aha!” she retorted. “Thank you. You just said it: mistakes! You trust your own fallible mind, but you won’t trust the infallible mind of God!”
Interesting. And whose mind, exactly, should I use to trust the infallible mind of God? My own fallible one, or someone else’s? Ultimately, our fallible minds are what we have – all of us. Putting your trust in the “infallible mind of God” doesn’t change the fact that, as a fallible being, you might be misplacing your trust. After all, a lot of sincere, intelligent people have made conflicting claims about what God demands, and they can’t all be right.
It goes without saying that such conflict doesn’t prove that they’re all wrong, either. What it does prove is that those who aspire to know the mind of God ought to be a lot more humble than they typically are. Faith in the infallible doesn’t make one infallible. Complete trust in God – whatever its merits – should not be confused with complete trust in one’s ability to discern God’s voice.
The fight for gay rights is often framed as a fight against religious values. Thankfully, there are religious moderates and progressives who are increasingly speaking up on our behalf. We need them, and I’m grateful for them. But we also need a healthy dose of religious skepticism. One does not need to believe in God to believe that there are truths beyond one’s grasp, that human existence is awesome, or that how we treat one another really matters. Amen to that.