An Ethical God does not Exist (but a metaphysical one might)
It is customary to juxtapose the moral and the metaphysical, as opposed to the ethical and the existential, but here I am going to rewind to Aristotle’s distinction, novel in his own time; that of the ethical and the metaphysical. His attempt to separate them is one of the history of thought’s famous failures, kindred with Husserl’s half-hearted manufacturing of otherness or even the Cartesian pseudo-problem of the doubting of other minds. But such a failure is not a necessary outcome if we recast another proverbial reflective question; that of the existence or non-existence of God or the Gods.
In general, this is seen as an 18th century question, and one that was resolved in the negative well before that century drew to a Napoleonic close. But I think within the framing of that question there has been a conflation of Aristotle’s contrasting conceptions, or, in his day, one a customary conception, metaphysics, the other a mere conceptualization, ethics. For the latter idea truly was brand new, and its Western advent, some three centuries after that in the East with the appearance of Buddhism, was at first rejected as a kind of too-private perception, akin to the ‘idiot’; or purely private ‘citizen’. Just as the one who flouted custom was the ‘moron’, surely the one who turned aside from morality and into his own self-aggrandized sense of justice had more in common with idiocy than anything else. Indeed, this was perhaps the most challenging issue Aristotle faced, when trying to cut ethics loose from an overarching morality ensconced in metaphysical perambulations and emblazoned across mythic banners. But he was in august, if yet contemporary, company. Antigone is faced with an originally moral dilemma, the loyalty between family versus the State, which she attempts to solve in an ethical manner. Does the playwright intend for us to consider her ultimate and abysmal failure a model that says to everyone, ‘all like attempts must fail’? Or is there something else to be gleaned from the action?
If the ethical job of the artist is to bring out the chiaroscuro of the human heart by rendering it askew from the mundane life, that of the thinker is to question it quite directly. The parallax employed by the artist would be seen as disingenuous if utilized by the philosopher. And so we are left with an ongoing puzzle, even today, and one that is underscored by the continued insistence upon revisiting the question of Godhead, something that was supposedly put to rest during, and because of, the Enlightenment. Here, the artist can no longer help us, simply since the society into which that question was originally placed no longer exists. Indeed, the question of the existence of God was foreshadowed in Hellenic times, as the Greeks shifted their discursive loyalties away from mythos and toward logos. This shift was, in fact, something far more radical than even the much vaunted ‘death of God’, as it not only foregrounded its occurrence but presented it as a future inevitability. For once people stopped believing in the article of mythic imagination and turned both their worldly and self perceptions toward the project of human reason, consciousness itself was irrevocably altered.
One might suggest that divinity was unseated by this much earlier shift, though it maintained a precarious existence until perhaps the 17th century say, with the firmer advent of scientific explanation and the ongoing and intensifying encounter the European mind was having with other cultures as well as with itself. But though this makes eminent sense historically, I would like to nominally add the idea that it was the further shift from metaphysics to ethics that hastened the demise of divinity; in the East, Buddhism rejected not only the Karmic system as it had been and thus its associated earthly castes, but also the very idea that the cosmos was originally and itself alien to human consciousness. Instead, the ethic of forbearance – to be morphed into forgiveness in the West – suggested rather that one’s actions in the world made an instant difference to human life while it was being lived. It was this sensibility that generated the idea of the neighbor, an ethical force outside of both historical custom and social role.
If Aristotle could not identify the logical device by which to fully separate ethics from metaphysics, here was now an historical one acting in the world. With Christianity, this historical force began to gain a further revolutionary impetus; that all human beings were to be treated as ends in themselves. No longer could the person who acted outside of the normative be considered a mere idiot or moron. Here instead was an alternative that was not only free from the customary but also was presenting a new politics of action – ‘go and do likewise’ – that made no metaphysical claims about itself. Turn this novel lens upon the question of God’s existence and things begin to look a little different than what has itself become customary to the history of modern thought. Instead of the death of the ‘old god of morals’, we can say resolutely that an ethical god cannot, and has never, existed. The former due to the assumption of ethical competence in the evangelical statement that ‘God is in control of everything’ – by definition, such a God cannot be ethical given the state of the world, no matter if one places all of the blame upon human folly; an ethical God would act instantly as the archetype of the neighbor ‘action-figure’ – and the latter more simply because ethics did itself not exist in the human imagination before Buddhism.
But in saying all of that, one cannot then also have it that a God does not, in principle, exist, or yet exist, or did once exist. This is so because we can easily imagine another kind of divinity who, though possessed with a human interest and thus also being possessed by an historical self-apperception, acts only as a metaphysical entity; as a creator and an orderer, for instance. In all honesty, even the atheist would be forced to admit that she could not answer such a question either way, and so the real response to the question of God’s existence is a twofold one; the usual ‘No’, if God is presumed to be an ethical figure, but also an ‘I don’t know’, in response to the idea of God in general. It is the same conflation that harried Aristotle which also muddies our current understanding of what may still be a relevant question for our own times. A metaphysical God is in fact quite thinkable, even by contemporary standards, and thus the evangelical sensibility comes back into more serious play, for on this side of the ‘cultural’ conflict, statements exhorting the unqualified existence of God can yet be heard, loud and clear. As with the rest of us, the faithful have also conflated these two kinds of Godhead with one another, and are thus as desperate to insist upon God’s existence as the ‘secular’ person is to deny it.
For the thinker, all of this calumniation, to borrow Nietzsche’s term, suggests that we have not, or are unwilling to, make that self-same separation in and for our human action in the world. That is, we are hampered in our ethical action because we still desire a metaphysical reward for so acting. But I think the message of new ethics is quite clear: the neighbor figure acts without custom and outside of history, and does so not even for the sake of virtue but rather because this figure knows that within such action, the entirety of our human existence is both encapsulated and exonerated. In placing oneself in contrast to social role and cultural norm, we are expressing our most authentic selfhood, one freed from both the moral and the metaphysical not by adding a discursive ethics to the roll call of philosophical departments, but rather by performing that ethic in the world and in real time. In doing so we not only change the world but also the very character of time itself. Both are made more fully real, engendering a kind of timeless reality that is the human equivalent of cosmic time, which appears to us as infinite and undifferentiated. It is this ethical reality which turns action into act, being into community, passion into compassion, and abstract time into presence. Thus if one wants to see a certain transformation of human ‘nature’ in our shared world about which we cannot say in certain terms that a creator and cosmic God exists or doesn’t, simply heed the original ethical mandate and go and do likewise.
G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty-five books in ethics, education, religion, social theory aesthetics and health, as well as more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.