Monday, October 22, 2012

Perceiving Divinity

A picture of this tattoo (see right) was floating about on Facebook and sparked a theistic debate on whether or not people can perceive divinity. There was also a discussion on whether or not the message preached intolerance, but that will be a post for another day.

My friend Jim Royal stated that he did not believe that any "any human anywhere perceives divinity" and went on to say:
The reason is that there is absolutely no agreement on any aspect of it. Get a hundred theologians in a room and ask them what is god, and you'll get a hundred different answers. If people were perceiving something real, there would be at least *some* commonalities. Instead, all we see are the needs and fears of individuals projected onto the universe. No, people do not have any perception of divinity, any more than they have ESP or the ability to tell the future.
I countered with the suggestion that not only could people perceive divinity, but that Jim himself perceives divinity all the time and that I could prove it. Here is my reply (the "you" in this is directed at Jim):

The term "divinity" or "divine" has a multitude of meanings, although many people associated it with God or a spiritual being. However, the nature of divinity is that it transcends human capacity. When atheists cry out "Oh my God!", they haven't suddenly found faith, but rather the statement indicates that something has occurred that transcends the moment (Oh my God, that's horrible! Oh my God, that's beautiful! Oh my God, I wasn't expecting that!).
Copyright 2012 Jim Royal (
Used with permission

When people perceive divinity, it's not that they are perceiving God per se (although some might insist that they do), but that they are perceiving something that transcends the surface of what they are experiencing.

The proof that I have that you perceive divinity (although I'm sure you would never label it that way) is through your photography. I've always loved your photos: you have an awesome eye to frame a shot. But when you take a picture of a bench in the woods, what makes it a good shot is that there is a quality that transcends the surface. It's more than just a bench in the woods: there is a level of meaning to it that is implied, but not overtly stated.

When you took that picture of the bench in the woods, the image of it spoke to you and suggested something beyond the surface. Maybe it speaks to the isolation of nature, or the juxtaposition of a dead human construction amid the natural life. There might be a thousand layers of meaning hidden in this picture and you may only be aware of a few, but only you know how you felt when you decided to take a picture of it.

But when I look at it, all I see is a bench in the woods and I perceive nothing special about it. You can tell me what you perceived when you took the picture, but if I don't see that, does it mean that there is nothing to perceive? Can you prove to me what was special about that shot? If 1000 people look at that picture and see many different layers to it that you never envisioned, does this mean your perception is false? Does it make the picture any less beautiful?

Of course not, because photography is art and the meaning that transcends the picture can only be experience by the observer. I would suggest that spirituality is also artistic because it expresses the beauty of relationship between the practitioners and the world they live in. Just like the photo, there may be no deeper meaning behind it beyond just being a bench, but the relationship the observer has with the photo is very real.

When people perceive the Divine, they are experiencing something that transcends the human capacity to express it. When you hold your newborn child in your hands, the experience is more than just holding a tiny human and it is very, very real and very unique to you. Just because the experience cannot be replicated empirically, this does not make the transcendent experience any less real.

The problem arises when people (usually fanatics) try to impose this transcendental experience on other people and demand that they all have the same interpretation of the experience. A similar crime is committed when others insist that there is no Divinity to be experienced and whatever you have perceived is non-existent.

You saw something beyond the bench in the woods when you took that picture, which is why it is special to you. No one has the right to take that away from you, and at the same time, everyone is allowed to perceive what they will when they look at your picture. Or not.


Jim's reply:
Einstein famously wrote, "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." And to his utter frustration, he was forever misinterpreted.

You would have to read his entire essay, published in "Ideas and Opinions," to fully grasp what he was trying to get at. Einstein had a great dislike of organized religion. He wrote in a letter, "If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it." For Einstein, religion was a sense of awe and wonder, an appreciation for order and beauty, and an aspiration toward truth and understanding.

Yet perhaps he should have expected to be misinterpreted. The definition of the word "religion" involves the supernatural. It is not the sole defining characteristic of religion, but it is the key element that distinguishes it from those things that Einstein genuinely admired.

Hobbes, everything you said about beauty and transcendence was bang on. The only point I quibble about is the term you used to describe it.

The word "divine" has, at its root, the supernatural. I know you hand-waved away that aspect of the word by saying that it has many definitions. But like Einstein, you're using the word in a non-standard way. When people speak about the divinity of Jesus, they don't mean he was just this great guy. They mean that he was a supernatural entity. There's no ambiguity there.

I deeply appreciate that what you are talking about is not merely beauty, but those moments where knowledge and intuition collide with emotion and aesthetics to produce an experience that transcends our day-to-day lives. It is very difficult to characterize this kind of experience outside of a religious context, and I don't think that's by accident.

Philhellenes said, "There's no word for such experiences that come though scientific and not mystical revelation. The reason for that is every time someone has such as mindgasm... religion steals it, simply by saying, 'Ah, you had a religious experience.'" I think that religions have deliberately co-opted the vocabulary of these kinds of experiences, leaving people like you and me with an impoverished lexicon, arguing over semantics.

So when I said that no human can perceive the divine, I was referring to the supernatural. Your reply was not to my statement, but to make a point about transcendent experiences, which people have whether they believe in the supernatural or not.

So what do we call it instead? The word "sublime" is close, but not quite right, as you're trying to describe the very subjective aspect of not only appreciating beauty, but creating the experience in the first place. Perhaps we should together invent our own word and start a Wikipedia article.

(Incidentally, when I say "Oh my god" in surprise, I'm not making a comment about a transcendent moment, I'm saying it because I speak English, and the phrase is a habituated reflex. The words have no meaning to me. If I natively spoke a different language, I'd say something different. But if it pleases you, I'll use the phrase "Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster" for my excited utterances from this point on.)
My reply:

As I stated previously, the words OMG do not mean you've found faith, but rather indicate a situation that is greater than you were expecting. Even if you use PGGB, it's still describing the same experience, but using a different label. It's all window dressing.

I would argue that there is no such thing as the supernatural because nothing exists outside of nature. Paranormal would be closer to the right word, assuming you can define what Normal is, which is subjective to the extreme.

I would then argue that religion does not involve the supernatural since nothing exists outside of nature. Therefore, Einstein had it right: religion attempts to celebrate the beauty of our relationship with the world and expresses that spiritual relationship using myths that, while on their surface are false, carry truths that cannot be fully expressed in logical terms. Where religion and atheism goes wrong is when they attempt to take these myths at face value, then jump to wild conclusions based on the premise they are trying to prove.

When people speak of divinity of Jesus, they are not speaking about how popular he was at the beach because he didn't need a floatation device to get to the other side. It was his message that mattered, and his supposed supernatural powers (which are mythic in design, not meant to be taken literally) indicate to the reader/listener that the message transcends our understanding of the world and how it works. What that story means is way more important than whether Jesus could defy the laws of physics or not.

When I speak of divinity, I am not relating to it from a Christian perspective. Instead, I am taking a more global view of it so that it applies to as many faiths as possible. This may dilute its meaning, but a certain amount of uncertainty and ambiguity is key to be able to approach spiritual expression in the right way. Science can explain how an eco-system works, but to be able to perceive a divine presence is a forest is to express your own personal appreciation for your relationship with that forest.

Scientific expression describes the surface, while spiritual expression describes the personal meaning beyond the surface. Both forms of expression can be telling the truth, but from their own unique perspectives which are unique because they have different jobs to do.

Sensing a divine presence in the bench in the woods photography is a very personal experience and describes the relationship between the observer and the observed. Whether a divine presence truly exists or not empirically (without the observer) is irrelevant. Without the observer having a relationship with the photography to give it meaning, it has no meaning. So to the question: Did Man create God, or did God create Man? The answer is Yes.

I think I may be off topic now (it's getting late), but my original point was that even if God (the Divine) is imaginary, that does not make it any less real because the relationship we have with the Divine is very real. The relationship is so real, in fact, that it makes the independent, empirically provable existence of that Divine being irrelevant.

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