When the World Is Burning
As I write this, forest fires in California, Oregon, and Washington are destroying vegetation and property, displacing families, and killing animals and people. Although this is just one more hit in an ongoing attack by a warming world, just one more season of worsts, these fires have sent hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. In areas that aren’t burning, smoke hangs like a thick and acrid fog, making our eyes sting, leaving grit in our mouths. Many people are suffering.
When the world is burning, we flee, or we fight. In the face of immediate danger, we’re unlikely to wonder if the god we believe in is sentient or not. We might pray, and if we do, we hope someone’s there to hear our cries, but we don’t try to figure out who that god is or if that deity sees us and knows us and cares. We hope it does, and for the moment, that’s good enough.
After all, when our lives are spinning out of control, when natural disasters strike or our health fails or the world as we know it is falling apart, we tend to seek hope outside ourselves. We long for a deity who has a plan, who has insight far beyond our puny frame of reference, and whose choices are always right. Far from wondering if God exists and is sentient, we simply believe.
Is There a Sentient God?
When life settles down, however, and we have leisure to wonder why the earthquake struck our village or the forest fire burned our home, we might wonder if there is a god, and if so, what the nature of that god is. We might ask if a personal, creator god exists, one whose awareness is conscious and who develops plans and influences events.
This question has come up in our recovery church circles. Did a deity create the universe, or did it arise on its own, like a quark popping into existence out of sheer exuberance? Everything we see, everything we can imagine, has a beginning and ending. Who started it all? Is someone going to end it? Whether we posit a world egg cracked open by the force of life within it, or a goddess who gave birth, or a deity whose breath contained a life-giving essence, we humans try to figure out how it all began.
Of course, the question can’t really be answered. As far as I know, no one has devised a proof of God, at least not one that cannot be disproved. So we each come up with our own ideas, which is why there are so many religions. Is one of them the right one? Did one community of humans on this planet stumble on the correct answer to the age-old question of who or what is God?
I doubt it. If there is a sentient Creator, I suspect its reality is far different from anything we can imagine. So why bother trying to figure it out? Or, as one of our recovery church members asked, “Why study this conundrum that has no answers?”
Why Bother to Ask?
They say puzzles are good for your brain, and this is certainly a puzzle. Many thinkers have written treatises and published books, poems, and blogs in an attempt to find an answer and convince others of their belief. Some of their writings are complex and logical. Clearly, they have exercised their brains trying to figure out whether or not a sentient god exists. So this question might help us stave off memory loss.
But some people prefer more concrete or definitive puzzles, like crosswords and math problems. Isn’t there a better reason to consider the existence and nature of God than an attempt to keep our minds healthy? What difference does it make if God is sentient?
Maybe that’s not the best question. Obviously the nature of god makes a difference in the universe. If a sentient creator started it all, if life didn’t start as a series of random events, the reality of this creator would have a significant effect on planets, and atoms, and plants, and other life. Thus, it matters if God exists, and it matters what the nature of this god is, but our belief does not cause it to exist and do what it does.
Why do we need to know? Does it change our life if we believe? And if we figure out the right answer, do we win some prize?
God As a Comfort in Hard Times
Many people depend on their faith in a personal God to keep them going. Patients I meet with, for instance, will ask, “What do people do if they don’t believe in God?”
Few of them are really looking for an answer to that question, at least not one from me. Generally, they say this to express gratitude for their own faith, for the way they see God acting in their lives, for the relationship they have with their god. When they think of people who don’t have this, they feel bad for them. Their faith helps them during hard times.
But people who don’t believe in a sentient deity find comfort, as well. They look to other people, or to mindfulness, or to a sense of rightness in the universe.
Besides, not everyone who believes in a god finds comfort in that belief. Some think God is punishing them or has abandoned them. Our capacity to find peace in our faith has less to do with God than in our relationships with our parents, with friends, and with ourselves. Who do we think we are? Are we essentially beloved, or are we shameful? How we answer these questions has little to do with whether or not we think the universe was created by a God who has awareness.
The Evolution of Belief
As adults, many of us believe what we were taught at our parents’ knees. According to the Pew Research Center, this is especially true if our parents were strong in their faith, practicing their religion regularly and discussing it with the family. About 62% of children raised by two Catholic parents grow into Catholic adults, which is about how many people raised without religion at all grow into disbelieving adults. The same report notes that people raised in interfaith homes often end up claiming the beliefs of their mothers, perhaps because mothers often spend more time with their children.  We tend to embrace what we are exposed to.
This isn’t exclusively true, though. Even if we carry on the faith of those who raise us, we may develop different interpretations of that faith. After all, beliefs evolve. As we grow up, we adopt the values of our culture. We come to understand the deity and the rituals of our chosen religion in a new way. Our understanding of who God is and how God interacts in our life changes with time and experience. Unless we isolate ourselves from the world, we will be exposed to new ideas. We will ask new questions. This can cause a crisis of faith. As we work through that crisis, we will come to a faith that is more mature. It might reflect that of our parents or be something else entirely, but it will be ours. Even then, however, we learn and grow and our beliefs evolve.
So do we think God is sentient? One year, we might say “yes”; another year, “no.”
The Importance of Relationship
There are thousands of ways to understand the divine. The religions of the book see God as a humanoid being who, though he himself has no beginning or end, creates a universe bound by time. In some Eastern faiths, there might be a sense of some awareness in the universe, but if so, we are part of that, as is everything. There is no separate deity who made things happen. Some religions believe in multiple representations of a divine force, all these beings existing in relationship with humans. Others see god as synonymous with nature. In process theology, God is not sentient, exactly, but God does evolve as we evolve.
This is a small sampling of ways we have come to understand divinity. Given this, how could we possibly think we know what God is?
Few of us form our beliefs through rigorous testing and analysis. Perhaps we adopt what we were taught when we were young, but many of us develop our understanding of God as adults. We may take classes that influence our thinking, or feel convicted by a preacher, or feel drawn to some exotic teaching.
But I suspect that what we believe about God is influenced less by what we are taught than by the relationship we develop with that god.
When Relationship Fails
For instance, when we pray, do we feel God with us, or does it seem we are talking to the air? Have we had mystical experiences full of ecstasy and angels, or does the world seem mundane and predictable? Have we heard God speak to us, or have we never experienced such intimacy?
If we have a personal relationship with a deity who feels close to us, who cares about us and comforts us, we will probably believe in a sentient god. If not, we probably won’t. Even if our faith teaches us that God is a being with thoughts and language like ours, one who is both omnipotent and compassionate, if we don’t experience God that way, it is hard to make sense of such a being.
One Christian I worked with in my counseling practice, for instance, could understand the idea that God revealed godself through other people, yet when he tried to experience a direct connection to the divine, he failed. He felt lost and had trouble believing in God. Some days this brought him to despair. Though he wanted to believe in a god who acted in his life, who saw him and knew him and loved him as he was, he couldn’t. He couldn’t invent such a relationship.
Sometimes it comes; sometimes it doesn’t.
Relationships with Other People
Over time, however, that man learned to take in the love of people around him. He learned to love himself, and that helped him accept that others cared for him. In this way, he began to heal some of the pain he experienced when it seemed God wasn’t there. He began to see, in the love others felt for him, a reflection of God’s love. It wasn’t a personal relationship with God, exactly, but it brought him the comfort longed for. It made him feel beloved and whole. That was what mattered.
Was God sentient for him? I would imagine so. He loved theology and could explore such questions for hours, so surely, as a Christian, he would espouse a belief in a sentient creator.
But it wasn’t the answer to the question that helped him find peace in his life. He found peace because he found relationships. The real reason it matters whether we think God is sentient or not is because, if we believe in a sentient God, we are more likely to develop a relationship with that God. It’s our relationship with the divine is what matters. If we find that relationship in nature or in other people, that can be as comforting and meaningful as if we find it in a personal deity.
When our world is burning, we need something to hold onto. For some, that is a personal God. For others, it is the people around them. Often, it is both. If we develop relationships that soothe us, that hold us and protect us, we will be okay, whether we believe in a sentient God or not.
In faith and fondness,
- “Links Between Childhood Religious Upbringing and Current Religious Identity,” Pew Research Center, October 26, 2016, https://www.pewforum.org/2016/10/26/links-between-childhood-religious-upbringing-and-current-religious-identity/, accessed 9/12/20.
Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved