What is God?

God is love. (1 John 4:8)

According to the Christian account, we can say that God is love (or that God is the good). Yet, what does this mean?

One way to answer it is through theological, abstract language (such an approach is seen in Pope Benedict XVI’s letter titled Deus caritas est, which means ‘God is love’), and this approach could prove useful for certain people.

Yet, all the theological language in the world isn’t going to tell you what this means. Rather, it requires a kind of experience. Once you have the experience, then the theological language (and so on) becomes tangible – you are no longer just dealing with abstract symbols, but have an understanding of that which you are talking about from the inside.

There are kinds of experience that map onto the claim that God is love. It is important to note that this is in part constitutive of what Christians mean by ‘God’. That is, in part, God is that which causes these types of experiences.

We know that these types of experiences are or are correlated with certain kinds of brain states, and neurotheology in large part is about imaging brain activity of this sort. However, the concept ‘God’ contains elements that are incompatible with God being just one’s own brain activity. For example, God is thought to be involved in what in secular terms are called ‘synchronicities’, or in Christian terms could be called ‘providence’ or, in more specific situations, ‘miracles’ (from the Latin ‘miraculum’, meaning object of wonder – synchronicities cause one to wonder at the chances of something occurring the way it did).

If the sorts of experiences of goodness or love that Christians are referring to are just about some activity of the brain, then this doesn’t seem to be able to account for things like synchronicities, and so the concept ‘God’ would have to be broken up, and seen to be in significant ways incorrect. (Or, perhaps, synchronicities don’t point to anything beyond errors in intuitive probabilistic assessments – again in this case, the concept ‘God’ would be shown to be significantly incorrect.)

So, how to test the two hypotheses (God is just in the brain, and God is more than the brain)? Some may say that, if we can recreate these experiences by stimulating the brain in this or that spot, that shows these experiences do not come from God. This is an error in logic. Consider perceiving a house. This correlates with certain brain activity. It is plausible to think we could recreate the experience of seeing a house by directly stimulating certain kinds of brain activity. Yet, it does not follow that, therefore, houses do not exist.

So, the question is whether there is something causing the brain activity, which at least to a significant degree satisfies the main criteria of the Christian concept of God. It seems to me this is a methodologically difficult question (due to the nature of the phenomena attributed to God, such as synchronicities, but also because God is thought to be transcendent of space-time, and so interpreting what is going on requires extra thought), but it can be (and is being) informed by empirical discoveries and various kinds of testing.

Practically speaking, it’s a different matter. Certain Christian practices work to connect to this love (however we ultimately might conceptualize it), and connecting tends to lead to not only the states themselves (which are good) but good acts that follow from the connection to love.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *