Monday, June 24, 2013

"The splendor burning at the heart of things...."

This comes from Edward Feser's blog:, and a post in which he's continuing his (now 10-part!) series on Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos.  Here he's again reviewing reviews (by "Plantinga and Moreland"); these are people who agree with at least some of Nagel's conclusions in the book - and are "coming at the book from a theistic direction."  Here are some introductory paragraphs:
Plantinga writes:

As for life, God himself is living, and in one way or another has created the biological life to be found on Earth… As for the diversity of life: God has brought that about, whether through a guided process of evolution or in some other way.  As for consciousness, again theism has no problem: according to theism the fundamental and basic reality is God, who is conscious...

And so forth.  Moreland’s approach is more detailed (since he is writing for an academic journal) but very similar.  He speaks of making a “cumulative case for God” on the basis of the same “evidence” that Nagel tries to explain in non-theistic terms, and says that “the theistic argument can be understood as an inference to the best explanation.”  Continuing in this vein he writes:

[T]he alleged limits of appealing to theistic intentions are, in fact, what characterize an appeal to any unobservable, theoretical entity (for example, a quark) -- we attribute to that entity what and only what is needed to explain the data.  This alleged limitation is also characteristic of personal explanation.  We attribute to a person those and only those intentions needed to explain his behavior.  Moreover, in the case of God, we have other factors -- for example, religious experience, revelation, other arguments in natural theology -- that allow us to fill out God’s intentions for bringing our cosmos and us into existence.  (p. 432)
Then Feser goes on to say (my bolding here):
Now the way all this strikes me, and I think the way it would strike any atheist reader, is as follows.  There are, Plantinga and Moreland seem to be arguing, several phenomena which might at least in principle be given a non-theistic explanation but for which theism is in fact a better explanation.  And “theism” is understood as a hypothesis postulating an unobservable theoretical entity which instantiates such properties as the property of being a person, the property of being alive, the property of being conscious, etc.  But it instantiates them in a way that is different from the way that natural things do, making it a member of the class of “supernatural beings.”  But it is not just any old member of this class, but the “premier” member.  The way this is supposed to explain the evidence in question is as follows.  Since God, like us, instantiates properties like being alive and being conscious, he could plausibly be what imparted those properties to us if he had the intention of doing so.  That he did have such intentions is something Christian revelation and the like tells us.  And so on.
Now I am not certain that Plantinga and Moreland would accept this summary without qualification.  Perhaps there are aspects of it that they would rephrase.  And obviously they would add a great deal in the way of argumentation for theism so construed.  But as I say, this is what strikes me as a natural reading, and how I think it would strike the typical atheist reader.  And with all due respect to Plantinga and Moreland, I have to say that if this is what I thought theism and the “case” for theism really amounted to, I wouldn’t find theism any more philosophically interesting or challenging than Nagel and his critics do.  (Indeed, it pretty much is what I thought theism amounted to in my atheist days.)
The main reason is not so much that I think Plantinga and Moreland fail to show that the existence of God, so understood, is sufficiently probable, though their remarks do smack of a “god of the gaps” approach.  The main reason is that God so understood is in my view not terribly philosophically interesting, and in particular not terribly God-like.  Certainly the approach just sketched has nothing to do with the way Augustine, Anselm, Maimonides, Avicenna, Aquinas, and classical theists more generally have historically approached these issues.   For the classical theist, God is not “a person” or “a being” -- not because he is impersonal or lacking in being, but because he is not “an” anything.  He is not an instance of any kind.  He is not in any genus.  He does not merely participate in or “have” mind, life, existence, or anything else, the way we do.  In that sense he doesn’t “have properties.”  Indeed, he has no parts of any sort, but is absolutely simple.  If he were not, then he would be just one more piece of furniture in the universe among all the others, requiring an explanation of his own -- an explanation of why he instantiates the properties he does.  Even if he instantiated them in every possible world, if he were a substance distinct from his properties, or had an essence or nature distinct from his existence, he would not have the absolute metaphysical ultimacythat, for classical theism, is definitive of God and that only what is absolutely simple can have.  For the classical theist, God is unparticipated being or subsistent being itself, unparticipatedgoodness or goodness itself, and whatever else we can attribute to him can be attributed only in an unparticipated sense rather than as the instantiation of a property.
Furthermore, the main arguments for God’s existence in the classical theist tradition are not mere “arguments to the best explanation” or “cumulative case” arguments, and the reasons have to do precisely with what God is for classical theism.  The Aristotelian approach to arguing for God’s existence holds that whatever is a mixture of potentiality and actuality -- and thus less than fully actual, and needing actualization -- can in principle be explained only by reference to that which is, already as it were, pure actuality and thus need not and could not have been actualized by anything else.  The Neoplatonic approach holds that whatever is in any way composite -- and thus in need of some principle to account for the combination of its parts -- can in principle be explained only by reference to what is absolutely simple and thus need not and could not have any parts needing combination.  The Thomistic approach holds that anything whose essence is distinct from its existence -- and which thus could have failed to exist and requires something to impart existence to it -- can in principle be explained only by reference to that which just is existence itself, and thus need not and could not have had existence imparted to it.
God is, in short, precisely that in which everything else participates for its actuality or being.  To say that what is pure actuality or being itself is not the only possible explanation for the existence of other things but is still “the best explanation,” for which we might make a “cumulative case,” is a bit like saying of a certain triangle that its instantiating triangularity-as-such is not the only possible explanation for why it is a triangle, but is still the “best explanation,” for which we can make a “cumulative case.”  This gets the nature of both the explanans and the explanandum just fundamentally wrong.  The relationship between a particular triangle and triangularity-as-such is not a contingent one, and not something we know of via empirical hypothesis formation and the weighing of probabilities.  And neither is the relationship between the world and God -- between that which has participated existence and that which just is subsistent or unparticipated being -- of that sort.

James Alison says the same sort of thing:
And this, of course, is part of the genius of monotheistic Judaism: the realisation that “one God” is much more like “no god at all” than like “one of the gods”. In other words that atheism, which is untrue, offers a much less inadequate picture of God than theism, which is true. For monotheistic Judaism, as for monotheistic Catholicism, which I take to be universal Judaism, the principal temptation is not atheism, but idolatry.

The reason I'm writing about this is that current God-language has for a long time seemed inadequate to me.  It's very easy, for instance, for me to say that "I often don't believe in God - but I always believe that Christ is the Son of God";  this seems absolutely sensible to me, and not at all contradictory.  But of course it is contradictory!  And I think the ideas above are where that contradiction comes from and ultimately gets resolved.

The hard thing, of course, is that people don't (and can't) really think about God this way - as "much more like no god at all than like one of the gods"; this idea simply doesn't come naturally to mind.   Who would, on their own, decide that God is "absolutely simple" and "much more like nothing at all" - and, further:  who can easily make any sense of these ideas once they're expressed?

So:  there's a gap between ideas about God that make philosophical sense and how ordinary people need to think about God.   This problem, it seems to me, explains current attitudes towards religion better than anything else.   And I think this is going to continue to be a problem going forward - especially for Christianity - a universal monotheistic faith.   Christianity means to appeal to all people; in this way it's not like Judaism - basically an inherited religion, and so one that doesn't depend on converts.  It's not like Hinduism, which is a regional faith.  It's not like Buddhism, which doesn't speak of "God" natively at all.  (Christianity is, in fact, most like Islam.)

This kind of faith seems irrational to people who don't have any fluency in the "more like no god at all than like one of the gods" idea; that's perfectly normal, since this isn't a natural way to think.  It has to be talked about and worked through - or else, discovered through contemplation, as so many mystics have discovered via apophatic theology(Remember, too:  A.A. doesn't ask anybody to believe in God - but in "a power greater than ourselves."   This is an excellent example of an entree into the spiritual life by avoiding the problem of "how to think of God" entirely.  My "power greater than ourselves" was simply "the life force" at first; one day I looked out the window and saw a tree and realized that whatever created it was certainly "a power greater than myself.")

Here's a great quote from Heinrich Heine - one that explains, I think, why many people find Christianity emotionally and psychologically accessible.  It's why I can believe in Christ as the Son of God, even when I have problems believing in God; again note that the Crucifixion is at the heart of it:
"So all day long until the sun went down
they spent in feasting, and the measured feast
matched well their hearts' desire.
So did the flawless harp held by Apollo
and heavenly songs in choiring antiphon
that all the Muses sang. [Heine is quoting the The Iliad here.]

"Then suddenly a pale, bloodstained Jew came panting in, with a crown of thorns on his head and a great wooden cross over his shoulder; and he threw the cross on to the gods' high table, so that the golden goblets trembled, and the gods fell silent and turned pale, and became paler and paler, till at last they entirely dissolved into mist.

"... Anyone who sees his god suffering finds it easier to endure his own pain. The merry gods of the past, who felt no pain, did not know either how poor tortured human beings feel, and a poor person in desperation could have no real confidence in them. They were holiday gods; people danced around them merrily, and could only thank them. For this reason they never received whole-hearted love. To receive whole-hearted love one must suffer. Compassion is the last sacrament of love; it may be love itself. Therefore of all the gods who ever lived, Christ is the god who has been loved the most."

John Orens supplies some other answers in his wonderful article “The Anglo Catholic Vision” [PDF] (my bold):
The question we ought to be asking is “What does the world need?” And the startling answer is that the world needs us in that commonness which bespeaks divinity. This is why God has preserved our little Anglo-Catholic family through tempest and storm. In the secret places of their hearts, modern men and women are seeking themselves. They sense, although they cannot believe it, that they have enduring value, that there is more to themselves than their employers, their accountants, their government, or even their families can possibly know. What the world craves is the assurance that there is “a splendor burning in the heart of things.” 32 Naked dogma cannot supply this need, nor can empty ritual. Only the Catholic vision will suffice. But if the world is to find that vision it must be found in us, clothed in living thought and embodied in holy lives.

How then do we nurture this dream of flesh and spirit? How do we share it with the Church and with the world? Here I find myself almost at a loss for words. The answer to these questions can come only from profound meditation, common prayer, and from fearlessly and carefully listening to one another and to the world outside our doors. What I can offer are suggestions—signposts if you will—for our journey into the future. The first is that we must be willing to entertain troubling questions even about our most sacred beliefs. History, philosophy, psychology, above all the daily business of being human, call into doubt the goodness of God, the immortality of the soul, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. If, like some of our conservative brethren, we try to exorcise these doubts, we will exorcise every honest man and woman out of the Church. And, as we have already seen, if we do not win back the mind of the age, we will never gain its heart. We must make it clear that orthodox Christianity is not a closed system which must be swallowed whole or rejected altogether. Rather, it is a matrix within which doubt and uncertainty can be expressed and even sanctified. Indeed, to question God can be a holy vocation. It is sometimes frightening to confront the unbelief of others, if only because it forces us to face our own. But there is reassurance in the knowledge that there would be no orthodoxy, perhaps not even the Church, if the Christians of the patristic age had not wrestled with the doubts of pagans and heretics.33

("The splendor burning at the heart of things" is from Evelyn Underhill's poem Corpus Christi, says the footnote.)

There are some of the same ideas I noticed on that website for the local Catholic organization (see "The art of living, as taught by Christ"):  that the point is to invite people to a discussion of faith in God, and to accept and talk about doubts.  ("Listening to others and acceptance of doubt" has also been a meme in the Episcopal Church over the past decade, I should note.  The problem has been a serious lack of effort at discussion of what "orthodox Christianity" itself actually consists of.  Instead, "doubts and questions" were thought of as the point of the exercise - and in some places, they even became a watered-down theology in themselves.  Episcopalians continue to fall back on "liturgy" as if it were an idea in itself; it's not.  Liturgy is a means, not an end.)

I think it's very to-the-point that "If we do not win back the mind of the age, we will never gain its heart."    Christianity is dealing with some of the most crucially important aspects of the human predicament:  the meaning and purpose of existence, the fact of suffering, how people can best live.  To me it's of central importance to understand these things ourselves - and then to be able to communicate these things to the mind, heart, and soul of the world.

I have to say that I think Pope Francis by himself is going to have a tremendously positive effect on the way the world views the Christian faith.  I have a very strong hope for this, anyway....

No comments: