Defining the divine

144Here is a big question:

Is anything divine?

It’s easiest simply to assume (for now) that there is a natural world, and that this world is pretty much what it appears to be (with corrections supplied through scientific inquiry, of course). The question then is whether that assumption will be sufficient for our knowledge and experience, or whether there is anything in our lives urging us to think of something in the world, or out of it, or maybe the world itself, as divine.

What is divinity? I would like to explore this definition: divinity is the quality of intrinsic meaningfulness. A divine thing is not meaningful because of our own ends and expectations. It is not meaningful in virtue of any other thing. It is meaningful only in virtue of itself. When we encounter it, there can be no denying its significance. That’s what divinity would be, anyway.

Obviously, this is not the common way of understanding the term “divinity” – but I think it is a useful way, since it immediately cuts away many things we may be taught to think of as divine that are in fact not so special. Take God, for example. If God is supposed to be some powerful being, with vast plans and occasional responses to prayer, and the ability to dispense the biggest rewards and punishments, then God is no more than an extraordinary mundane being, like a cosmic tyrant or king. God in this case is no more divine than a Nero of time and space. No being is divine just by having extraordinary mundane powers.

But suppose there is a mystic who recognizes a certain experience – perhaps “the experience of God’s love” – as divine. When having that experience, the mystic cannot deny its significance. The experience electrifies his whole being. Obviously, the meaningfulness of the experience has nothing to do with what it will yield for the mystic, nor does it advance the mystic’s own aims and ambitions. The experience itself is pure meaningfulness, and the mystic rightly identifies the experience as divine – according to the above definition, at any rate.

Those of us who are not the mystic are not compelled to see the experience as divine. We might see the mystic’s happy face or other physical symptoms, but none of these are especially meaningful to us. We might skeptically regard the mystic’s experience as only apparently meaningful to the mystic. And if we regard it so, and carry through our thought with consistency, then when we are offered the chance to be the mystic ourselves, and enjoy the experience of God’s love for ourselves, then we ought to similarly conclude that the experience is only apparently meaningful to us.

No one can deny the existence of apparently meaningful things. The question we are asking, though, is whether anything really is genuinely meaningful, and intrinsically meaningful at that.

To remain within the secure confines of skepticism, admitting only the existence of apparently divine things, is to be a secularist. A secularist sees only relational meaningfulness. A thing or event is meaningful to a person, or within a context. Nothing is point-blank meaningful. And this means that nothing is divine (according to the proposed definition), and nothing is sacred. It must be noted, though, that this does not mean that a secularist values nothing. A secularist values many things. But the secularist values things because of those things’ relations to people or projects. It is true that for the secularist there is no final, fixed source of value or meaningfulness. But this does not make everything value-less. It only makes all valuable things of relative value.

A short dialogue may make this clearer. Suppose I say, Being kind to others is a good thing.

You: Why is it good?

Me: Because it builds a social bond.

You: But why is that good?

Me: Because it will lead us to have stable, secure, flourishing lives.

You: But why is that good?

Me: Because that is the sort of life we want to have.

You: Why?

Me: Because we have evolved in such a way as to want that kind of life.

You: But why should our evolutionary history make that kind of life valuable?

Me: It doesn’t; it only makes us the kind of beings who value that kind of life.

You: So then being kind to others is not in itself a good thing?

Me: Right. It’s not valuable “in itself,” as you say.  It’s valuable because we value it. Had we evolved to value some other kind of life, then we would value that life, and then it would be valuable for us.

In this way a secularist can value things without insisting that anything is intrinsically valuable. By analogy, just because there is no such thing as “big in itself” does not mean we cannot regard some things as big and other things as small.

Okay: so now what would it be to know something as intrinsically meaningful, or divine? Beyond the acknowledgement that some human experience sure seems like experience of the divine, it is the affirmation that this experience is not merely apparent. In short: something truly is divine. This affirmation has to be held despite the fact that any religious experience, of whatever kind, can always be explained away, and understood as merely apparent. No matter how meaningful or significance or terrifying or sublime an experience is, it can always be called merely “apparent” and reduced to the mundane. A believer who does not acknowledge this fact is deluded. What then can lift a believer beyond acknowledging the apparent and into affirming the divine?

Two things, I think. The first is the “I can do no other”. This is an admission of one’s own inability to regard something as fully mundane. We try as we might to see some valuable thing as only relationally valuable and not intrinsically meaningful, and we fail. Suppose, for example, we see the very existence of consciousness as unaccountably and beautifully meaningful. We study its conditions and causes, and we begin to see how consciousness might develop out of the natural order of things. And yet our sense of wonder over it is not diminished. We even come to the point where we can manufacture consciousness artificially; and even so our admiration of its very existence does not weaken. Indeed, perhaps our admiration grows as we understand how some segment of existence manages to become aware of other segments. In this case, though we have tried to render consciousness perfectly mundane, our wonder over it and value we find in it leaves us with the belief that it is divine.

This example, by the way, shows that the line between mundane and divine is not the same as the line between what can be explained naturally and what cannot. Divinity has nothing to do with explicability. It has rather to do with intrinsic significance or meaningfulness. It has to do with value.

The second thing that might lift us to affirm the divine is the “bleak alternative”. If all is mundane and nothing divine, then anything with value has value only because it pleases or helps somebody in some way that is merely factual. As it turns out, for example, many of us rejoice in seeing kindness, and decry wanton acts of cruelty. If all is mundane, then our feelings in this regard are merely the result of conditioning and evolution. We can imagine another world with a different evolutionary history in which we would rejoice in cruelty and despise kindness. Of course, as we are now, we prefer our world to that one. But our fellows in that other world feel just the opposite. And each of us is right; or, at any rate, neither of us is wrong. Neither world is intrinsically better or more meaningful than the other. Now we might find this conclusion impossible to believe, or impossible to live with. And, if so, we find ourselves pushed into accepting something as divine, because the alternative is so bleak.

This second example shows something else as well. Belief in divinity may not be belief in something ghostly or miraculous or transcendent, in the usual sense of those terms. It is the affirmation of something that is point-blank meaningful, and that something might just be the value of human kindness, or the beauty we find in music and poetry. If the mundane accounts of these things leave us wanting, we are affirming something divine.

A natural response at this point would be to complain that I am distorting the usual sense of “divine”. Indeed, I am. But, again, this notion is useful because it clears away irrelevant debates. Any argument over religion must focus on the nature and source of value if it is not to degenerate into a squabble over what science can or cannot explain or fruitless debate over mythologies. When we ask whether anything is divine, we ask whether anything has value beyond being merely valuable-for-us. Or so I suggest. On the other hand, if you like having those other arguments, go have fun with that.

This way of looking at divinity has the further feature of pressing the defender of the divine to identify just what is being asserted as divine. Too often we advertise heaven or enlightenment or sanctity or morality as things that are evidently valuable without taking seriously the need to explain why they are valuable. If they end up being valuable only because they make us happy in some way, then we are not talking about divine things after all. We are arguing only about relational or mundane values. Not that that’s nothing, of course.

Moreover, this way of framing the question forces us to come clean about what moves us. Some of us have found something in our experience that is an intrinsic source of value. We should be able to identify it and see whether others feel the same. Others among us are quite content with every value being, in the end, some result of our own factual condition. Figuring out which group we belong to is a central task of living an examined life, and discussing our differences should result in each of us understanding the other side and feeling at least some attraction toward it. For that is the telltale sign that we are engaging with a real question and not just something to bicker about.


About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Defining the divine

  1. eyemjt2 says:

    “When we ask whether anything is divine, we ask whether anything has value beyond being merely valuable-for-us.” I love that sentence!


  2. Mike says:

    Daydreaming is divine and also the only activity in life that’s intrinsically valuable. Clearly.


    • Huenemann says:

      I need to work on my daydreams – they usually end in self-recriminations!


      • Mike says:

        The pursuit of the divine still requires spiritual practice. Perhaps mindfulness meditation in this case, get rid of those impure thoughts!

        I’m not sure if this means daydreaming is doing ok as a candidate for divinity or not.


    • Huenemann says:

      I like daydreaming – well, no I don’t, but I understand that some people do – but I think its value lies purely in the fact that the daydreamers enjoy doing it. So it’s value is relational to the person.


      • Mike says:

        Wait so 100% of people have to agree that something has intrinsic value for it to be intrinsically valuable?

        I think it’s intrinsically valuable because it’s one of the occasions where we’re least limited. That its valuable to the daydreamer doesn’t mean it’s not intrinsically valuable. I value it not because it brings me pleasure so much as that it’s not part of the group of captive thoughts that bombard our psyches in the pursuit of food/shelter/clothing/ambition/wealth/etc. I value it in others as much as I value it in myself.

        If you prefer, it’s really the set of least fettered creative thoughts that I’m into (and think others should find valuable and cultivate in others too). I don’t value it instrumentally afaik, even as a “secularist” (who actually sounds like a reductionist concerning value and a fairly strong narrativist in the post above).

        The more I think about this the more “When we encounter it, there can be no denying its significance.” seems like an impossible standard. The significance of anything can be denied in one sense or another.


      • Huenemann says:

        Mike – no, it’s not that everyone has to agree it’s intrinsically valuable. Only you: if you can’t help but believe this thing (daydreaming) is intrinsically valuable, it’s divine. We can add “so far as you’re concerned,” if you like – but if you’re *that* convinced of its value, you’re not likely to want to add that! And if you do believe that the significance of anything can be denied in some (real) sense, then I’m guessing you don’t find anything to be divine (according to my definition, that is). I’m pretty sure I don’t think anything is divine – haven’t met one yet!


      • Mike says:

        I suppose Good, Evil, Meaning “are to be found not within things, but in the value judgments which people bring to bear upon things”. But maybe there is something that’s inescapably meaningful to me, consciousness perhaps. That might be the only thing I can’t deny the value of without feeling dishonest though I’m not sure it’s what I value the most from the point of view of deliberate value assent (the things I want to cheer for).

        Incidentally, I don’t think this is what ancient philosophy has in mind when they’re talking about the divine.

        “What is the divine?” “That which has neither beginning nor end.” (Thales)


      • Alex says:

        A doughnut?


      • Mike says:

        Donuts, race tracks, circles of all kinds, we couldn’t keep young Thales away from them.


      • Alex says:

        STREPSIADES: And why do people still admire Thales? Good god, what kind of creatures have we here?
        PUPIL: What’s the matter? Do these philosophers look strange to you?
        S: Why are they peering at the ground like that?
        P: Investigating subterranean phenomena.
        S: I see, they’re after truffles. But you needn’t bother with that: I know where you can find big, tasty ones. But why are these pupils bent over so?
        P: They’re scrutinizing the gloomy realms below.
        S: Then why are their assholes pointing toward the sky?
        P: Their assholes are learning astronomy on their own!
        -Clouds, 185 (Henderson)


  3. Howard says:

    Do not people in love bequeath their beloved with intrinsic meaningfulness? What more love can feel mystical, and I’d add that which is intrinsically meaningful overflows to all things near


  4. Alex says:

    Isn’t philosophy divine? For what you call a secularist, in a world of relational value, the only thing that seems to be meaningful in itself is the capacity to wonder. If the world came from nothing, and we’ve evolved from vibrating mud crystals or something into cunning chimpanzees, and there is no divinity to be found, only matters of fact, natural causes and effects, and so forth, there may still be a way to save this – the most boring of all universes – from itself: the fact that one creature, at least, has some sort of imperative to *search* for the truth, and goes on searching, never satisfied, both a comedy and a tragedy at the same time (Symposium, 223d). What’s wrong with naturalism is that nobody can actually live as if it’s true – we’re too human. In that case, your blog is proof of the divine, or even itself divine! So there!


    • Huenemann says:

      It is hard not to slip from “I really dig this!” to “This has intrinsic value!”. But so far I *think* I’ve resisted that particular slippage.


  5. You could also argue that valuing certain things may contribute to humanity’s survival as a species. It probably isn’t true that valuing cruelty and violence is as conducive to human flourishing as valuing kindness and compassion. That would mean that we value the things we value at least in part because they contribute to our survival and flourishing. Think of it as the anthropic principle applied to human ethics and morality.

    Once this is acknowledged, the question of whether or not something is intrinsically meaningful becomes more complex. Are we attributing meaning to this thing in part because our thoughts about it are evolutionarily beneficial?


    • Carl Youngblood says:

      Let me hasten to add that of course, you touch on this question earlier in this post, but I felt there was still something missing. You talk about the bleak alternative, but of course the bleak alternative is one that is NOT conducive to human flourishing and probably would get weeded out by evolution, thus one that could probably not ever be contemplated by some other cruel race of beings.


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