I am occasionally asked if I believe in God. Making answers to that question can be a parlor game. The easiest move is to say: "you tell me what you mean by God, and I'll tell you if I believe in it." The people who are most likely to ask the question generally refer to a clotted tangle of nonsense by the word "God," and you can lead them into perplexities, if you like that sort of thing, by asking them a few questions about just what this "God" is. It's not a way to make friends.
In the past I have imagined saying, "if you mean a being who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely good, who is also someone you can have a nice chat with and ask for favors, then, decidedly, the answer is no." They usually do mean that -- among other things -- and I usually would mean no.
But the problem is that "no" is the wrong answer, in two ways, to two different questions, which are maybe what they're more urgently asking. The first question is: "do we have any common ground? Can we talk to each other about the important things?" And the answer to that is emphatically yes. Of course we can.
And the other question is: "is reality like a person?" The answer to that is yes, too. That is, it's more like a person than it's like a rock or a toaster. I often have much more in common with the person who asks if I believe in God, however naive their conception, than I have with someone who believes that reality is like a great big rock, or a great big toaster. It's not that I think reality is very like any of these things: but it seems to me that it is immensely complex, inexhaustible, structured, self-organized, and self-transcending. And also, surprisingly intelligible. Which makes it far more like a person than like a rock or a toaster.
It's still not very much like a person. It leads you easily into absurdities to think of it as a person. It's a natural mistake, because, as social mammals, the most complex things we're designed to understand are persons, so when we try to understand something even more complex, we play to our strengths. We're groping. We can only use the tools we have.
The most important question behind the question is: is reality something we can have a relationship with? Is it something that we can love? Is is something that can love us? And my answer to that, again emphatically -- passionately -- is yes. It's not only possible, it's necessary. We already do love it: it already loves us. To understand and unfold that is a work much larger than a lifetime, larger than all the lifetimes. But we did not step into reality from somewhere outside it. We are not strangers here, looking to strike up an acquaintance. To see the universe as alien and unintelligible -- that is a really extravagant philosophical position, a totally untenable one. That we, each of us, popped into existence ex nihilo, and must grope about looking for ways to make contact with an alien universe -- that is the default philosophical position of the modern world, and it makes even less sense than God as a patriarch of ancient Palestinian herdsmen. We are not foreigners here. We love, and are loved, from the very beginning to the very end. For better and for worse.
Such a sweeping statement prompts the question, "am I really saying anything? What is this love worth, if everyone has it all the time? This love isn't (necessarily) passion, or fondness, or esteem: it's only a philosophical assertion of connectedness. It's not what one hankers for on a lonely Saturday night by a silent phone.
In a way, no, it's not saying anything. But it flips figure and ground. It changes the question of loneliness from, "how do I connect in this alien, unintelligible universe?" to "what must I do to shake off this delusion of separation?" My loneliness is not something I have found: it is something that I make, moment by moment. The task is to not to start something, or build something; it's to stop something, dismantle something.