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Dear J,

You’re right, my thinking is quite binary on this issue. Existence, as we know it, is either personal or impersonal.

Think about it: all religious belief systems are one or the other. Some are impersonal, or non-personal, if your prefer. These have taught that reality contains no personal deity or deities, but only the cosmos as it is, with energies, or “power”. Buddhism falls into this category, as does Confucianism. Many of the New Age religions focused on energies, crystals, reincarnation, are similarly impersonal. They do postulate some kind of super- or supra-natural powers, but these are not personal beings. All forms of pantheism (Including some forms of Hinduism and Taoism) or panentheism are likewise impersonal. If all things are God and God is all things, then you have an absolute, but an impersonal absolute.

Similarly, the philosophy (or religion) of materialism asserts that “the cosmos is all that is, all that was, and all that ever shall be”. The physical matter and energy of the universe is the sum total of existence. While it admits that consciousness exists in this cosmos – our own – it sees this consciousness as more of an anomaly. Impersonal matter accidentally created self-aware minds. Of course, all forms of atheism believe the universe is non-personal.

All impersonal belief systems tend towards nihilism. If reality is impersonal, then no universal meaning exists. Nothing in our experience has intrinsic beauty, value or significance. All is accidental, random, and chance. All meaning is individual, arbitrary and subjective. In the end, if nothing is true for more than one person, all that remains is that we please ourselves with whatever appeals to us. Pleasure is paramount, and the power to get the pleasure is vital. Reality is the survival of the strongest.

The other kind of religion is that form that sees the universe as personal. All believers in a personal cosmos become theists of a sort. They are either polytheists, like pagans ancient and modern, animists, Hindus, or practitioners of Shinto; or they are monotheists of the Abrahamic stock: Jews, Christians, and Moslems. (Deism is an attempt to have your cake and eat it: admit that a personal Creator exists, but then depersonalise him after the event of creation, and make him an absent original Architect.)

If you see the universe as non-personal, then it doesn’t really matter how you palliate your nihilism. You are shopping for whatever flavour of self-comfort your spiritual palate prefers. Do whatever works, for your own consciousness is no more meaningful than asteroids, sulphur molecules or the speed of light.

If you see the universe as personal, then meaning (including the meaning of your own existence) is bound up with the intention of whatever Person or persons created it. In a personal universe, the identity of the Person or persons is everything. One God or many? If many, then which ones? If one, then the solitary oneness of Hashem or Allah, or the plural oneness of Yehovah?

I suggest we should begin our investigation on this question: is reality personal in nature, or non-personal? That means we should examine reality for the signs of personhood. Fortunately, the tests for personality are quite intuitive and obvious to us. We know the effects that persons have upon nature. If we find them, we should acknowledge them the way we would acknowledge written notes left for us in the kitchen, with a personal response, however tentative.

If we decide that what appear to be handwritten notes are merely so in appearance, but lack personal intention, then we may go our way into some philosophy or religion that treats reality as impersonal. We may embrace the nihilism and the despair of meaninglessness with whatever mental or physical opioids will dull the pain.

If existence appears to be fundamentally personal in nature, then we will have to decide between polytheism and monotheism, and then choose the correct expression within either of those. Reality is complex, the world is sophisticated, existence is perplexing: why should we expect the answers to ultimate questions to be easy and transparently simple? Nevertheless, I do not think these choices between religions are as overwhelming or perplexing as they might sound. I repeat: God is a person, we must treat his existence and our obligations to him as the same pursuit.



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