A Brief History of God

A response to A Universe from Nothing: Why is there Something Rather than Nothing

by Lawrence Krauss

© Richard Hodges, December 2012

Krauss, one of the leading theoretical cosmologists of the last two decades, introduces his excellent and readable book by an attack on the idea that the universe was created by God. But Krauss’ “attacks” seem not attacks on God himself, about which Krauss does not seem to care very much, but on “Godism” as it is found in contemporary culture, a term which I hereby coin as the obverse side of the coin of “scientism.” Both are highly suspect. Krauss’ attacks are clearly peripheral to his main purpose which is to paint a trustworthy picture of what is going on in cosmological physics. In this respect Krauss is similar to Hawking who in his book A Brief History of Time uses the word “God” numerous times but apparently without any real reference to religious ideas one way or the other (this was confirmed by a private exchange of letters with Hawking).

But Krauss’ point is well taken. Many traditional accounts of the World begin with some sort of Creation of it by God. For centuries it has seemed almost compulsory to read such accounts rather literallyas if the “physical universe,” the world we know and live in, was created at some definite time by a certain unique Creator God, that Man was created either along with the universe itself or at a later time by the same God, and was given a special function unique in the Universe having to do with a Commandment to have or create a special Relationship between the Universe and God. The weak point in this reading is the question of what is meant by “the world.” Before science knew much about the physical world, it was not so necessary to differentiate between so to say appearance and reality, between our subjective experience of the world and its objective nature. In this situation, one has to adopt a great deal of humility about what man can know about the world. To accept a received version of some “revealed” truth as interpreted by religious authorities seemed as good an idea as any.

But over the last several hundred years it has become clearer that there are knowable, mathematical laws that reveal how the physical universe works. As Krauss shows, recent scientific thought even approaches in a serious and revealing way questions about the origin and fate of the physical universe. There is indeed little place in such a universe for a Creator God. To get out of the increasing tension between science and religion, it became more and more necessary for official religion to insist upon a literalistic reading of “Creation,” which led to absurd convolutions about the question of how and when God “Created” such a world. Among other consequences, the validity of religion itself is called into doubt, to the point that among educated people today the belief in God and the practice of religion has declined to a minority. On the other hand, there are some serious thinkers who decry science as “scientism” and who say, perversely, that science is something we ought not to believe in. But as as scientific knowledge becomes more exact and comprehensive, it becomes very difficult to legitimately dispute that the physical universe actually exists and that its underlying nature is accessible to science and that scientific observations and conclusions about it are largely correct, though of course subject to revision from future observations and more insightful theories.

Yet perhaps we ought not to throw out God. Where can we put Him in our conceptual model if not in the physical world? We could have, perhaps, a purely transcendental God who has nothing to do with the world. But this throws out the immanent aspect of God, the possibility of a personal relationship with Him, and probably also the moral content of religion. I would propose that another option exists which is much more interesting. It may actually be an enormous gift to religion from modern science to exorcise God from the physical universe. Where then is God? Perhaps science is forcing religious thought to restore Him to his real place, which is man’s inner world. It should not be, then, surprising that contemporary religious and philosophical thought is rediscovering that such a view is not alien to an older kind of religious understanding. Its traces can be discovered, albeit obscurely in some cases, in serious texts all the way from ancient times at least up to pre-modern times (i.e. pre-Renaissance).

What does the “transcendental” aspect of such an inner God amount to? It is clear that even an inner God may have an aspect remote from man’s everyday inner world, perhaps infinitely remote. But there are indubitable experiences that we would like to regard as Theophanies, literally appearances of God. These experiences constitute at least part of the immanent aspect, constitute the substrate for a personal relationship with God, and may contain compelling moral force.

Where in the inner world do these take place, and how? An approach to this question is offered by the work of Henry Corbin, who first detected such an idea in the 12th century religious philosophers Suhrawardi and Ibn Arabi, and who for many years intensively studied their writings and those of their sources and teachers and spiritual descendants. His idea can be stated simply: between man’s subjective world and the “Divine” world, the world in which God proper exists, there is an intermediate world which he called “Imaginal” in order to recognize that it was in man’s imagination that true symbols and theophanies take place, and yet that these experiences are not “imaginary” in the modern sense of being unreal.

He further observes that the prejudice against religious imagination which characterized modern thought left a gap in man’s inner cosmos that is a destructive consequence of the tension between science and religion. He proposed to rectify this by re-introducing to our inner world a sense of respect and valuation for his imaginal world and for the images and events and encounters that can take place in it. But as he understood, undisciplined imagination leads to the kind of inner and outer chaos and violence that characterize what Camille Paglia called “decadent” eras, in her groundbreaking book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Our own era, like the Renaissance, Imperial Rome, and other eras that Paglia studies, is rife with decadent imagination, which dominates contemporary cinema, theater, art, music, literature, politics, and, yes, religion. Much of the horror of the 20th century can be understood as an enactment of our decadent imagination in a new and particularly dangerous kind of war drama.

For an imaginal approach to have its right effect, a serious discipline of the imagination is required. Corbin proposed that the necessary discipline be based on study and conformance to the imaginal worlds revealed in traditional texts. This is a difficult task. Corbin’s own works offer too steep a gradient to be essayed by more than a small minority of dedicated, educated people capable of intellectual sophistication. We would like to suggest that Gurdjieff’s book Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson belongs to the same impulse of restoring a valid imaginal life to people, but in his case decisively separated from previous traditional systems, though often borrowing obscurely from them. Gurdjieff also left a “teaching,” a community of people initiated by him in a method that can initiate others and that may be able to gradually spread a real beneficial force in the world, even among those who are not intellectual.

So, where is God just now? In a famous image in Gurdjieff’s second book Meetings with Remarkable Men just this question was proposed in a kind of playful intellectual-spiritual exchange. The answer that was given we can now understand in a new way: He is in [the Imaginal] making double ladders, so that people and nations can go up and down. Up and down between quotidian understanding and feeling and bodily sensation, and those reflecting the glory of a much higher realm

Finally, we would like to suggest that modern cosmological physics is imaginal also, but an incomplete imaginal. The sympathetic reader of Krauss or Hawking or many other works of modern physics, mathematics, and other sciences, feels indubitably in the presence of profound mystery. A kind of post-modern theophany. But is it a decadent mystery, without God, a tour de force of applied curiosity without moral content? Yet we wonderhow can we read modern science, that “innocent” marvel of the 20th century, and also ancient scripture, without rejecting either, and go up and down our own double ladders?