Does God exist? Does it matter anyway? This is a question philosophers, theologians and ordinary people have been grappling with for centuries. For some, the notion of ‘God’ feels abstract, archaic or loaded with cultural or political baggage. For others, it simply feels irrelevant, something that only seems to have meaning or significance for those of a religious disposition.
Existentialists take the question seriously, after all, they’re concerned with answering questions such as, who am I, why am I here, what is the purpose of life? Many are atheist and draw bleak conclusions. We’re here purely by chance, a cosmic accident. One day our solar system will die, we will die with it and there will be nobody to remember or care that we even existed.
I believe this is an honest appraisal of life without God. It leads to some startling conclusions. If there is no God, there is no absolute truth, no absolute right or wrong, no absolute meaning to anything. The only meaning is that which we make for ourselves. We create values and worthy causes or bury ourselves in everyday activity to avoid facing the inevitable angst.
I find it difficult to get away from this conclusion, if I hold the view that God doesn’t exist. I can of course do things that feel meaningful, I can do things that others find meaningful too, e.g. I can use my talents to contribute to the wider family, society or world. These things feel culturally important, intuitively right, personally fulfilling, the best way to build a happy world.
The underlying problem persists however, as if nagging in the background of our consciousness. It surfaces occasionally, e.g. with the birth of a new baby, mid-life crisis, the death of a close one, poverty or war. What does all this mean? Why are things as they are? Is there anything more to life than this? I too will face death - what would make my short life worthwhile?
Existentialists pose a stark challenge. Life is meaningless. Our efforts to avoid this reality are defensive, delusional and futile. There is no ultimate point to anything. We can face this reality or deny it. Either way, the facts remain the same. Nevertheless, we can still make choices. We can choose to be, do and become our best, to fulfil our human potential.
This all presupposes, of course, that God does not exist. If God does exist, a very different picture emerges, depending of course on our concept of ‘God’. I experience God first and foremost as an intuitive phenomenon, a deep sense of knowing, an awareness of an inner presence that transcends my own self. My Christian beliefs help me make sense of this existential experience.
If God exists, if the God of Christian theology is the God who is, I exist because he exists. He created me which gives me a profound sense of identity: I am first and foremost a child of God. He created me with an eternal purpose in mind: my life is first and foremost an opportunity to fulfil his designs, plans and intentions in, for and through me.
This paradigm, this way of living in the world, presents fresh challenges. How to exercise faith in an invisible yet somehow discernable God, how to live an authentic life based on his call whist distracted by my own preoccupations, how to live with suffering and injustice with a new vision of what could be, how to work with others to achieve meaningful transformation.
Nevertheless, this belief presents a radical alternative to the atheist existentialist view. It fills bleak darkness with blazing light, hopeless meaninglessness with hope-filled meaning in everything. It isn’t wishful thinking, an attempt to avoid existential nihilism. It’s a profound revelation of truth and reality, a relationship that calls me beyond myself into amazing possibility.
OK, I feel happy, excited, sad or stressed. Is it just me? Is what I’m feeling simply a personal emotion, the product of a purely internal process? Can it be attributed solely to my personal nature, my psychological disposition or temperament? Much therapy and coaching in Western culture views emotion in this way, as an essentially individual phenomenon.
According to this view, if a person experiences emotional stress or distress, a therapist or coach will help the person explore its roots, e.g. in early childhood experiences, a psychodynamic outlook, or in faulty thinking, a cognitive outlook. In such cases, the emotion and its roots, its underlying causes, are located intra-personally, that is, within the person experiencing it.
A very different way of thinking about emotion is as a social, cultural and contextual phenomenon. This view proposes that I learn how to respond to experiences emotionally, I learn to attribute meaning to what I feel, culturally, and I subconsciously pick up things from my wider environment (e.g. organisational or team mood or climate) and experience them as if my own.
This latter perspective views the boundary between a person’s internal and external experience as permeable and fluid, not solid, not fixed. It’s influenced by history, culture and context, as well as the person’s own life story and experience. So, according to this view, I could say, ‘What I’m experiencing emotionally, how I’m experiencing it, is about me, but it’s not only about me.’
A therapist or coach who views emotion in this latter sense is likely to work with the client to explore his or her experiential environment. What is it about the client’s situation that is evoking the emotion? What is it about that context that means the client is unable to deal with the emotion? What needs to change in the environment to enable a healthy emotional shift?
So, what are you feeling? What do you attribute your feelings to? What are your feelings pointing to in your environment that could serve as sources of insight and transformation? Is it just you..?
‘Will you come down to London to see my art exhibition next week, uncle Nick?’ She looked at me expectantly. ‘I’m so sorry Dani, but I can’t. I’m helping lead a global leadership event all week.’ ‘But, uncle Nick, I’ve been working on this for ages, it’s the culmination of all I’ve been working on for my degree.’ ‘I would love to be there, Dani, but it’s really not possible. People are coming to this event from all over the world and I’m part of the team that’s leading it.’
Dani turned away with a look of disappointment in her eyes. I felt bad but what else could I do? Later that evening as I was leading, Dani tried one last time, ‘Please uncle Nick, come to my exhibition!’ I was about to repeat by previous reply when she spoke for me in an exaggerated posh voice and hurt, sarcastic tone, ‘Oh I forgot, you can’t come, you’re at a global leadership event.’ Ouch, slap. I felt confronted, chastised, embarrassed, humbled.
The following week, here was I surrounded by colleagues from 25 countries. We sat around the table and introduced ourselves. As people spoke in turn, I noticed what noble and impressive-sounding job titles we create for ourselves in organisations, the big words that convey importance and status as much as describing our roles. And I remembered Dani’s challenge and Paul’s words (from the Bible) rang out in my head, ‘don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought’.
I’ve reflected on my identity and attitude since, how easy it is to inadvertently assume a sense of self-importance, an implicit arrogance, a self-inflated pride. I’m challenged by Jesus’ example, the one who demonstrated extraordinary humility, the divine leader who gave others dignity and revealed a servant heart. I need to guard against the seduction of status, the pull of power, the temptation to grasp for myself the honour that belongs to God.
Who am I? From a social constructionist perspective, it's a difficult question to answer.
In fact, it’s problematic to say anything meaningful about an essential ‘me’ without thinking about myself, how I am, within a particular context. After all, we never exist in an existential or experiential vacuum. Perhaps it’s a bit like 'figure' and 'ground' in Gestalt: I am who I am against a backdrop of culture, experience etc. and, of course, God. So, if the context changes, who I am
So again, who am I? Lots of things, partly depending on my ego state at the time. The notion of ego state has been developed in transactional analysis (TA) as a way of understanding how we are in relation to ourselves and others. It suggests we are in constantly shifting psychological states which influence how we are, feel, perceive and behave towards others and, therefore, what we correspondingly evoke in and experience of them.
You may have heard of TA’s parent/adult/child model. Sometimes I relate to another person a bit like a nurturing or, alternatively, punitive parent, at another time I may relate to the same person as an equal (‘adult’), at another time I might relate to them as a playful or mischievous child etc. How I relate to the other evokes a response in them, potentially shifting their ego state too and
creating all sorts of interesting dynamics between us.
I was asked recently which ego state I like most, which feels most like the ‘real’ me. It’s a great question and it begs all sorts of other interesting questions, e.g. what does a real me actually mean? How can I know which is the real me? I can prefer to be in certain ego states at certain times but what influences that preference, i.e. why do I prefer to be in it rather than in another state?
It’s quite possible that in any given moment, one 'me' would like to hold a sensible adult-adult conversation, another 'me' might simultaneously reject that and prefer to be more playful, like a free & cheeky child, another 'me' may frown on my own behaviour like a critical parent...all at the same time. This is one reason why social constuctionists challenge the notion of a single, unified
Perhaps we are more fragmented, inconsistent, potentially self-contradictory and conflicted then we normally feel aware of or comfortable with. It’s challenging to think of ourselves in this way, to imagine the boundaries between our selves and our contexts being less firm, less fixed, more permeable, than we normally assume. It’s challenging to think of ourselves, the person we are, as fluid, shifting, evolving...what do you think?
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.