On God’s Will

I do not know God’s will but I can (hopefully) spot the logic of an argument about God’s will. That is what I wish to do today.

I have been intrigued by a comment from reader Tahir on a post about Imran Khan. Tahir says: “It is beyond my understanding how Imran is dividing people. As far as religion is concerned, this division has been done by God.”

Where do you go from there if you accept that as a valid starting point?

It seems to me that if God has made the divisions (among and within religions), there must have been some purpose in doing so unless we assume that divine actions were without purpose – which is something we do not want to do.

But if there was a purpose in creating the divisions, I fail to understand why some people are so keen to undo those divisions and create a division-less world. Is that not tantamount to defying God’s will?

A third interpretation is possible – that God created the divisions to provide an opportunity for the “true believers” to undo them and thus prove their devotion to God.

But this is contorted thinking and shows how far some people have to go to rationalize what they are doing. It makes for a strange God. And, in any case, how do the true believers know that they are the true believers and this is what God intended them to do?

These thoughts sent me back to Samuel Butler’s classic satire Erewhon, first published in 1872, in which he characterizes the English church as dealing in a currency nobody believes in but which everyone pretends to value.

Butler has a number of thought-provoking observations on our topic:

When man had grown to the perception that… the world and all it contains, including man, is at the same time both seen and unseen, he felt the need of two rules of life, one for the seen, and the other for the unseen side of things. For the laws affecting the seen world he claimed the sanction of seen powers; for the unseen (of which he knows nothing save that it exists and is powerful) he appealed to the unseen power (of which, again, he knows nothing save that it exists and is powerful) to which he gives the name of God.

Butler then describes the practices he found in the mythical land of Erewhon in order to comment on the practices in England:

The saving feature of the Erewhonian… system… was that while it bore witness to the existence of a kingdom that is not of this world, it made no attempt to pierce the veil that hides it from human eyes. It is here that almost all religions go wrong. The priests try to make us believe that they know more about the unseen world than those whose eyes are still blinded by the seen, can ever know – forgetting that while to deny the existence of an unseen kingdom is bad, to pretend that we know more about it than its bare existence is no better.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was descended from a family of churchmen and was expected to become an Anglican priest so one can understand his feelings in Erewhon:

I always liked and admired these men, and although I could not help deeply regretting their certain ultimate perdition (for they had no sense of a hereafter, and their only religion was that of self-respect and consideration for other people), I never dared to take so great a liberty with them as to attempt to put them in possession of my own religious convictions, in spite of my knowing that they were the only ones which could make them really good and happy, either here or hereafter. I did try sometimes, being impelled to do so by a strong sense of duty, and by my deep regret that so much that was admirable should be doomed to ages if not eternity of torture; but the words stuck in my throat as soon as I began.

Whether a professional missionary might have a better chance I know not; such persons must doubtless know more about the science of conversion: for myself, I could only be thankful that I was in the right path, and was obliged to let others take their chance as yet.

And so, Samuel Butler arrives at a conclusion regarding the divisions created by God: Do not pretend to know more about the unseen than the mere fact that it exists and is powerful. Do not pretend to know more than others. Be thankful that you are on the right path and let others take their chances.

Another of Samuel Butler’s observations is also worth quoting in conclusion:

I have since met with many very godly people who have had a great knowledge of divinity, but no sense of the divine: and again, I have seen a radiance upon the face of those who were worshipping the divine either in art or nature – in picture or statue – in field or cloud or sea – in man, woman, child – which I have never seen kindled by any talking about the nature and attributes of God. Mention but the word divinity, and our sense of the divine is clouded.


  • Hasan Abdullah
    Posted at 04:01h, 09 July Reply

    I am sorry, but I am scarcely able to help erstrain myself from repeating what I have said earlier

    nah thaa kuchh to khudaa thaa, kuchh nah hotaa to khudaa hotaa
    duboyaa mujh ko honey ney, nah hotaa main to kyaa hotaa
    (When nothing were, God were; Had nothing been, God would have been
    Undoing my being has been; had I not been what would have been/happened?)

    To me, the debate needs to be conducted over the concrete issues pertaining to this world.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:09h, 09 July

      Hasan: People try and convert others to the right path. Often they feel they are justified to use coercive methods to do so. This leads to religious conflict in which many people lose their lives. Is this not a concrete issue pertaining to the real world?

  • Vinod
    Posted at 07:49h, 10 July Reply

    The need for something larger than the seen world but with attributes that make living in the seen world not just livable, but meaningful, seems deeply ingrained within us. This need posits an unseen world and some kind of interaction with the seen world. The specific attributes of this ‘divine’ that one looks for is conditioned by our life experiences. Those who have taken an emotional beating in life will look for the attribute of love and mercy. Those who feel the need for justice in the world will look for that in the divine. These individual focusses are also influenced by the empathetic interactions with other members in the society. Quite interestingly, it is these empathetic interactions that can also challenge any dearly held ideas about the divine. It is no surprise that Butler finds missionary words getting stuck in his throat – he seems to struggle to overcome the sense of injustice in the idea that the people of Erewhon would be damned. His being bears testimony to his struggles although his words may state his convictions in his beliefs. The same goes for the adherents of missionary faiths, when questioned closely about the fate of the non-believers around them. They can atbest give the highly unsatisfactory answer that ‘God will do justice’. They cannot even say whether this ‘justice’ includes a chance at paradise equal to theirs. This conflict has its roots in the philosophical truism that ‘Ultimate Truth cannot be put in words. It can only be experienced’. Words only capture aspects of it and never the whole picture. Therein lies the problem with statements of absolute truth on the Ultimate.

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