CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice


A young man climbed a mountain looking for a famous guru who lived there. He found the sage living in a small cave near the summit.

Although he had come seeking the meaning of life, as a warm up, the young man asked, “Oh wise one, I know that the world is a ball, but what keeps it in the heavens?”

After a pause, the guru answered, “My son, the world rests on the back of a great elephant, which we call the world elephant.”

The young man was not satisfied by this answer and said, “Oh wise one, I understand that the world, which is a ball, rests on the back of a great elephant, the world elephant, but what keeps the world elephant in the heavens?”

The guru paused again and then answered, “The world elephant stands on the back of a great turtle, which we call the world turtle.”

Still the young man was not satisfied but as he began to speak again, the guru briskly cut him off, saying, “Don’t ask, it’s turtles all the way down.”

In this story, neither the young man nor the sage are speaking about astronomy or cosmology. The young man is actually inquiring, in a round about way, about the existence of God and the sage is responding concerning belief in the existence of God.

God, the “G” word, is a very difficult concept for UUs. Most UUs come from other faith traditions in which the existence of God is assumed, taken on faith, and questions concerning either existence or belief in the existence of God are, at the best, viewed with distain and at the worst result in punishment or rejection. A very large minority of UUs are humanists who disbelieve even in the necessity of God, let alone his/her existence.

But the idea of God is inescapable. William James, at the conclusion of his monumental work on religious experience, wrote,

“I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist’s attitude and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear the inward monitor…whispering “Bosh!””

What James was writing about is the religious intuition or sentiment described by Parker in religious terms and by Emerson in moral terms: that still, small voice which all humans have within them.
The undeniable fact is that we are endowed with a moral sense, one which intuitively evaluates the moral content of ideas and actions and which provides intimations of the eternal within us. We are not simply what we eat and see and hear and feel. This is not in itself sufficient to explain the ubiquity of the concept of God, of there being a best and highest, in all cultures and apparently in all times. There is, in fact, a much simpler explanation.

Man is a maker, a tool user, a shaper of his environment. From the earliest experience, we are each used to being able to manipulate and alter our environment. From the smallest act of throwing food from a high chair to the erection of mighty buildings, we are used to their being an effect for every cause we choose and, in reverse, a cause for every effect we observe. Thus, we look for a cause for the existence of the physical world and the vast majority of us conclude, as did Thomas Paine, that it is an effect: in religious terms, the true revelation of the divine, which no man can counterfeit.

In answer to both of these questions, does God exist? and can one believe in the existence of God?, Paine’s treatment, now more than two centuries old, seems to me still to make good sense.

To the first question, that of the young man, whether God, as the first cause, exists, Paine answers,

“…(E)everything we behold carries in itself the eternal evidence that it did not make itself. Every man is an evidence to himself that he did not make himself; neither could his father make himself, or his grandfather, nor any of his race; neither could any tree, plant or animal make itself; and it is the conviction arising from this evidence that carries us on, as it were, by necessity to the belief of a first cause eternally existing, of a nature totally different to any material existence we know of, and by the power of which all things exist; and this first cause we call God.”

Paine believed in, that is, he had reasoned his way to, the idea of a first cause, but he was judged a deist, since he did not believe in nor find a necessity for an immanent God, one who is constantly present in the life of the world.

However, it is equally clear, in both Paine’s words and in common sense, that it is irrational; that is, not reasonable, to ask, in scientific terms, for proof of the existence of God. The scientific process is iterative and cyclic: a hypothesis suggests experiments and observations, the data collected either falsify the hypothesis or, synthesized, raise it to the level of thesis or law but that in turn suggests further hypotheses, further experiments, etc., etc.

The common definition of God present in all cultures, is of being the best, the highest, the first cause, etc. We are faced, if we accept this ideal, the conclusion that there can be no rational grounds for test or comparison. For, as it is possible for any man to imagine the world on the back of a elephant, on the back of a turtle, etc. none can imagine the first (or last) turtle – it is always possible, in the mind’s eye, to add one more. It is for this reason that most religious talk and writings make no sense; that is, they are not rational in effect, since they are trying to describe the indescribable, to place in human terms what is necessarily, by definition, outside of possible human experience and understanding.

An illustration of this basic problem can be found in an extension of Abbott’s classic story “Flatland.” In that story, all beings and objects are two dimensional and exist in a plane. Social status amongst people is determined by the number of sides one has: women are straight lines, with two points: low status and very dangerous to run into. Putting aside the misogyny of this concept, the highest status belongs to those who are circular, since a circle is the result, in the limit, when a polygon is permitted to have an ever increasing number of sides.

So, in Flatland, since virtue and status accrue with the number of sides, would a perfect circle be considered God, as the best and the highest? Or at the least, be recognized as a divine prophet? Perhaps so by the inhabitants of a plane but imagine now any three dimensional object with a circular cross-section moving perpendicularly to the plane and passing though it: at an instant, it would appear as a circle but a strange one, for it would appear out of nothing, rather than issuing from a woman, born as a point, and would be subject to variations in diameter unlike a normal pattern of growth from small to large. Such a coming might well appear miraculous. But could one, as a plane inhabitant, understand the true differences between a conical prism, a cylinder and a sphere, all of which would present circular sections as they pass through the plane of existence? Of course not, since it would be impossible to comprehend a third dimension, one which was “perpendicular” to ones own inside!

However, among these three choices, the conical prism, the cylinder and the sphere, if fully apprehended in light of the values of the plane, the sphere would be deemed the best and highest, thus God.

But, the illustration need not stop there, since we can, through mathematical reasoning, if not through intuition, imagine still higher dimensions. In this infinite progression, the first cause must occupy the “highest’ dimension, a concept which we cannot comprehend, as, in our perception, we can always add one more anything to anything: one more egg to a dozen, one more flower to a bouquet, etc.

Therefore, we must, as others have before us, put aside any hope in the rational, logical proof of the existence of God. Doing so is useful: if removes, once and for all any apparent conflict between science and religion. Perhaps the best approach is to adopt a modification of the serenity prayer:

Grant me the power the to understand the knowable, the grace to accept the inexplicable and the wisdom to know the difference.

If it is not possible to prove the existence of God, is it then still reasonable to believe in the existence of a first cause? Here, again, Paine has wise and still timely words concerning a first cause:

“…(I)ncomprehensible and difficult as it is for a man to conceive what a first cause is, he arrives at the belief of it through the tenfold greater difficulty of disbelieving it. It is difficult beyond description to conceive that space has no end; but it is more difficult to conceive an end. It is difficult beyond the power of man to conceive an eternal duration of what we call time; but it is more impossible to conceive a time when there shall be no time.”

Therefore, Paine’s argument is that, while it is difficult to conceive a first cause, it is far more difficult to conceive the absence of a first cause, since we each have the full understanding that, makers all, we did not make ourselves. Paine thus argues that it is possible to believe in God, as a necessary first cause, and to search for God, by study of the one true revelation, the physical creation but that it is impossible to find or know God fully, since his nature must be, by definition, beyond the limited comprehension of mankind.

Is there a message of comfort and hope for the modern UU in this discussion and conclusions? I think so. But first let me summarize the choices:

Firstly, God, understood as the ultimate good and as the first cause, either exists or does not.

Second, irrespective of the first choice, one can either believe or disbelieve in the existence of God or a first cause.

From a functional point of view, in order to lead a good enough life, it seems to me that the best choice to make is to believe that there is a first cause but to accept that it lies outside of human understanding.

Before I proceed to discussing the benefits of such a choice, let me ask, is it reasonable? That is, as rational, thinking beings, does it make sense to take the existence of a first cause, which I have suggested is neither rationally arrived at nor fully knowable, an acceptable action?

For this, I must turn aside from this discussion to relate a still little known event in the history and development of mathematics and logic. In 1931, a young Viennese mathematician, Kurt Gödel, published a brief paper in which he made remarkable claims related to deductive reasoning.

We are all familiar with deduction: we accept that, since 1+1 = 2, then 2+2 = 4. The statement “1+1=2” is an axiom which we accept as true, since it is formally unprovable; we then deduce that the statement “2+2=4” is therefore true. This process is followed throughout mathematics and science; we are familiar with and dependent upon it in our everyday lives.

Gödel proposed, and formally proved, a mathematical theorem which is too complex to deal with here. However his proof has important implications:

First, that axioms cannot be proven within logical systems; they lie outside, must be taken on faith and it is possible to have multiple axioms which, while all are considered to be true, are in, at least, apparent conflict.

Second, that within a logical deductive system, based upon argument from a foundation of axioms accepted as true, not all true statements can be proven and it is possible to derive truths which are not dependent upon the chosen axioms.

With this theorem and its proof, Gödel struck a blow at the center of the deductive process, one which remains unfalsified today. Deduction remains a useful logical tool but it is no longer seen as an absolute, necessary and sufficient, arbiter of truth.

In Gödel’s terms, doing, I hope, not too much injury to his argument, I think we can conclude:

The existence of a first cause, while reasonable, is an axiom whose proof lies outside the system; that is, outside of human comprehension.

Accepting such an axiom is useful in deriving truths about human existence but it can neither lead to all answers nor is it necessary to derive some answers.

Thus, Paine could choose to believe in God as a first cause, and deduce rules for living from observation of the physical creation, the one true revelation. And so can we, for as Robert Fulgrum famously wrote, “All I need to know, I learned in kindergarten.”

But such belief cannot be supported as absolute and total. Therefore, while it is reasonable to believe that the Bible, the Talmud and the Koran contain good rules for life, based upon observation and revelation, it is unreasonable to accept these sources as inerrant and able to answer to any situation. Similarly, when a politician says, “I always ask myself, in such a case, what would Jesus do?”, a reasonable response would be, “Don’t tell me what you think Jesus would do; what do you, as a rational individual, propose to do?”

So, the answer to the young man, is that, whether or not God exists, it is reasonable to believe so and that whether or not God actually exists, we would need to invent the idea as a repository of our highest values. This has been the case throughout recorded history and probably before. Gods physically resemble the strongest forces in people’s experience and imagination and, in anthropomorphic cultures, even the believers themselves. They also incorporate the best and highest values of a society, as a goal even if ordinary mortals, in their limitations, fall short in their efforts at living a good life.

The benefits of such belief are obvious. We find ourselves free to act, endowed with reason and the ability to make moral choices, in a world seeming designed for our happiness, if we so choose, in this life. The universe flows on in, to us, an endless stream, and our place in it seems secure. Echoing Carl Sandburg’s evocative phrase, we come from who God-knows-where and are going to God-knows-where but in the time between we can accept our place in the physical creation, relax and endeavor to live a good enough life, without fear.